When journeying up the Great North Road and passing into Lincolnshire, it is easy to miss the signpost which points to Castle Bytham. After all, why would one want to visit it: it's only a small village set in rolling fields? But the traveller who makes this turning is richly rewarded by on of the most magnificent castle earthwork systems in England; a fabulous motte and bailey castle with an accompanying man-made mediaeval landscape.
A wonderful discovery
As you arrive in the village, it is not immediately evident where the castle is. A search by the church is unrewarding (although this building does contain an historic maypole of great antiquity). Indeed, counter-intuitively, the visitor must turn down away from the village high street to find the motte.
The reason for this is curious at first but soon, as you get your head around what lies in front of you, it is evident that the motte is set among a series of cleverly designed water features and forms its own man-made environment.
These features, though now dry, were once of great economic and symbolic functionality. Bytham is blessed with a range of fishponds in addition to a skilful management of nearby streams to supplement these and to provide both defence and grandeur.
Water features in mediaeval landscapes
It is now recognised that many castles employed water to exaggerate their status in the surrounding landscape and also involved an intricate approach to impress visitors. Examples include Dunstanburgh in Northumberland, Kenilworth in Warwickshire and, of course, Bodiam in Sussex. The use of water in this way is also emphasised in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
As you walk around the earthworks (access to the motte is prohibited), you begin to grasp the sheer scale of what was undertaken here in the 12th Century. An aerial photograph is the only way truly to comprehend its complexity (I strongly recommend R Allen Brown's Castles From the Air in this regard) but you can still grasp signficant features as you descend into some of them from higher ground.
Traces of old walls
Today, most of what can be seen comprises earthworks but once this great castle was also rich in architectural grandeur also, including an unusual "internal barbican" by the motte itself. In Leland's time (c.1540), the castle, though ruinous, was still described as having "great waulles of buildinge".
If you are travelling this way, particuarly on a long summer's day, take the opportunity to visit the castle as the shadows grow long in the evening. Not only will you fully comprehend the majesty of what lies before you, you will also be able to enjoy a pint of beer and some good food in one of the excellent local hostelries.
For full details of Castle Bytham and its associated landscape, I refer the reader to the Historic England listing.
About the author.
Michael Smith is a British author, translator and printmaker.
His new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has just been published by Unbound. He is also currently crowdfunding his new translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure of c.1400 - if you would like to pledge support (and have your name in the back as a patron,), please pledge here.