Monday 17 November 2014

Château de Guédelon: Ils bâtissent un château fort…

Deep in the forests of northern France (and in the year of Our Lord one thousand two hundred and forty-six) a small group of people are making history. There is no electricity, no cars and no plastic; men shouting, hooves on stone and the hammer and anvil create the sounds of Guédelon – the site of one of the most incredible archaeological projects of the twenty-first century (sorry, Richard). It is not just a case of test pits or trenches; it’s almost archaeology in reverse. The Guédelon team comprises all members of the castle-building trade: quarrymen, woodturners, stonemasons, carpenters, blacksmiths, tile makers, rope makers… the list goes on. This wonderful bunch began building their medieval castle from scratch in 1997, using those techniques familiar to our thirteenth-century counterparts.

I was lucky enough to visit the site in September 2013 and have included a selection of photographs below. I must admit, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect before our trip. I’ve visited countless castles in various states of grandeur and ruin, but never one literally in the throws of construction. Whilst walking around the city of Leicester I often find it incredibly frustrating that I can’t properly imagine how medieval Leicester would have been – how it would have looked and in particular, how it would have sounded. We can look at drawings, archaeological finds and contemporary accounts, but nothing comes close to actually being able to walk amongst it. Guédelon gives us this opportunity. 

I will be visiting Guédelon at intervals over the next few years. The project is due for completion in 2022, so there’s still time to have a gander! Those who want to take a more ‘hands-on’ approach also have the chance - volunteers are able to actually participate in its construction - different lengths of castle-building courses are available for individuals with no previous experience or students working towards professional heritage skills. I’m already planning to apply. How often can we say we’ve casually nipped across the Channel to build a castle?

Falling marginally short of a time machine, it really is remarkably refreshing to be able to leave our world behind (health and safety regulations do come along for the ride) and to become completely immersed in the atmosphere present at the Guédelon site. There is the most incredible attention to detail here. Everything is sourced locally; cloth is made from wool spun and dyed on site (much to my delight.) The dye itself is created from the landscape: yellow and red ochre, hematite, burnt charcoal dust… it’s all completely natural. Tiles are sourced from clay pits in the forest and pressed with its leaves and stone is quarried from the foot of the castle. Visitors (and those interested in absentia) are welcome to purchase products made onsite to support the project: Wooden bowls, anyone?
The catalyst for my blog post is the discovery that our own BBC Two will be providing Guédelon with some well-deserved publicity – Secrets of the Castle will be broadcast tomorrow (Tuesday 18th November) at 9pm and is the first of a five-part series ( Don’t miss it! I for one am incredibly excited to see the progress made in the last year or so. Further information on l’aventure Guédelon can be found at