To the Tower (or how I visited the Tower of London and got to leave again)

tower_of_london_ticketThis month, I finally got around to visiting London again. It being October and heading into the off-season, it was a fine time to visit the Tower of London. A place that I’ve been told is worth a visit but…the crowds.

The Tower of London (a.k.a. Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London) is a somewhat inaccurate description. It isn’t really one tower. In fact, there are 21 of them (some survive only as ruined foundations). Some of them don’t particularly look like towers but that was scant consolation to the poor sods who were imprisoned within their thick walls. It is also a place that has served as a fortress, a prison, a mint, a zoo, home to the crown jewels and the site of quite a few executions. Oh, and the moat where the guided tours start used to be an open sewer. Nice.

Turning up to the Tower early meant that there were no queues or crowds to battle. The first part of the visit was an excellent tour given by a Yeoman Warder (in this case, the wonderful Scott Kelly aka #beefy409). The introduction to the tower and its history was informative, macabre, funny and entertaining all at the same time. Definitely don’t skip this if you visit the Tower.

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The White Tower

After that, you’re free to roam around the grounds and visit quite a few of the buildings. They’re all interesting but my favourite was The White Tower. This is the original tower that gave the entire complex its name. It was was built by William the Conqueror in 1078-79 and is four floors of interestingness. It houses “The Line of Kings” which is a 400 year old tourist attraction. It displays armour belonging to English monarchs, sitting on wooden horses. How genuine some of the armour is is open to question but it’s pretty impressive stuff all the same. As is all the weaponry on display. If all those cannons in the basement were armed and went boom, there’d be no more tower! There’s also room in there for some ye olde toilets (garderobes) and even a working chapel.

Across the yard are the Royal Crown Jewels. Personally, I didn’t find these as interesting but that’s probably more down to my personality than anything else. Save to say, I’ve never seen as much gold in my life! Some other people in the queue loved it though – there were certainly some royal family enthusiasts there. The various exhibitions in the towers were also a reminder that bad and all as things seem to be these days, they were no bed of roses years ago. While it is true that some people lost their heads in the grounds of the Tower, many more met their end on nearby Tower Hill. It tended to be nobility who got the chop in the Tower.

There is so much to read and see about the Tower of London, I’m not going to go into it here. There are lots of websites online where you can find out all you want to know about its history.  It was a very enjoyable few hours and although the entrance fee is pretty steep, it’s worth it if you allow yourself the time to savour it all. Just try to go when there won’t be so many tourists around if you can.

 

 

 

 

Shee Almshouse

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The main entrance into the building – the one for the ladies

The current home for the tourist office in Kilkenny is an old building with an interesting history. It was built in 1581/2 by Sir Richard Shee, a wealthy local man. Depending on what source you read, he either made a profit from speculating on church property during the Reformation or he bought up a lot of it to keep it out of the hands of reformers. Regardless, he seems to have started to worry about burning in hell (as you do) and established this almshouse to help the poor.

It was built to house 12 people. “6 honest, poor, unmarried men” and “6 widows of 50 years of age or more”. Each resident had their own room (which must have been tiny, judging by the size of the building) but there were some strict regulations they had to abide by. For starters, everyone had to attend 2 hours of prayer every day and would face instant eviction if they got drunk, indulged in hanky panky or refused to attend weekly religious services.

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The entrance for the men which leads straight onto the first floor

To ensure the men and women in the almshouse didn’t get up to any funny business, the building had two floors which were not connected internally. The ground floor was for women only – this is the more prominent entrance to the building these days because it faces out onto Rose Inn Street. The men lived on the first floor and the entrance to there is on a laneway to the rear of the building. These days there is a staircase which connects the two floors.

The almshouse continued to house the poor until 1830 or so. By that stage it was no longer in the hands of the Shee family – it had been sold in 1752 by Edmund Shee. It then fell into ruin and was renovated in the 1870s by Sir Nicholas Power O’Shee who was a descendant of Richard Shee. As well as being an almshouse, it was used as a Catholic chapel, a hospital and even a shop. In 1978, it was obtained by Kilkenny Corporation who restored it and opened it as the tourist office.

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Duncannon Fort

I’ve been in or around the seaside town of Duncannon many times but until this year had never got around to visiting its star-shaped fort. I’ve seen it from a distance, I’ve looked up at it from the beach that lies underneath it and I’ve even walked past the entrance gates. The fort, which has long since ceased to be an active facility, is open to the public during the summer months. And as I discovered when I finally did get around to visiting and took the excellent guided tour, it’s a fascinating work in progress.

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The layout of the fort as it is today

A Brief History

The fort is built at the tip of a peninsula, overlooking the entrance into Waterford Harbour. As strategic locations go, it’s one of the better ones.  The width of the bay and the layout/depth of the channel means that one fort is enough for keeping an eye on anything coming and going by sea. More bang for your buck when it comes to forts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fort which stands here now isn’t the first one to have been built on the site. The present fort dates from the 16th century but it was had previously been home to a Norman fort of some sort in the 12th century. There is also evidence that suggests there was a wooden fort here going further back into history. Old maps from the 16th/17th century show a ruined church, a castle and some defensive structures on the site. These are long gone but the stone from them has no doubt been reincorporated into what’s here now.

Some of the rebuilt buildings in the yard

Fearing an invasion by the Spanish Armada, the present fort was built by Queen Elizabeth I in 1587-88. They never arrived but that didn’t mean that it didn’t get to see some action. In 1645 it was captured by  Irish Catholic Confederation forces and remained under their control until 1650. Oliver Cromwell, arguably the least popular Englishman to ever tread on Irish soil, tried but failed to recapture it a year earlier. His son-in-law Henry Ireton got his hands on it a year later. It is believed that both monarchs who fought in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 stayed in Duncannon Fort before leaving the country.  King James II left for France on 3rd July 1690 whilst the victorious William of Orange stayed there in September of the same year.

During the 1798 Rebellion, the fort remained under British control. Indeed, it became a prison for captured Irish rebels and a place where some of them were executed. Depending on which version of the Irish rebel song “The Croppy Boy” you listen to, the title character meets his end in Duncannon. Or Dungannon which is at the other end of the country..

The entrance into the fort, as viewed from the dry moat
The entrance into the fort, as viewed from the dry moat

In Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) the fort is described as “..adapted for mounting 42 pieces of cannon, and, including ” the bombproof” erected in 1815, contains barracks for 10 officers and 160 men, residences for the chaplain, fort-major, storekeeper, and other officers, and a chapel for the garrison; the whole is surrounded by a dry moat crossed by a drawbridge, and the only entrance is defended by a portcullis.” 

The buildings in the fort were built at different times but look more uniform these days because of changes made to the site in the run-up to World War I. They were covered with roughcast and Tarmacadam was poured on the ground. This covered over the cobblestones which had been there. At least one archway was knocked so that tanks could be driven into the fort. Despite the alterations, there are still many older features remaining intact. The dry moat and sloping walls, circular lunette fortifications, tunnels and gun batteries being some of these.

The fort was handed over to the Irish Army in 1922 when British rule ended here. It was largely burnt down during the civil war the following year. With the onset of World War II (a.k.a. “The Emergency” because we didn’t do wars here) the fort was partially rebuilt and a military presence reinstated. The old Governor’s house now has 1943 (the year it was rebuilt) and the logo of the Irish army on the front of it.

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Burke’s House

A caretaker’s house (locally known as Burke’s house, after the family who lived in it) was built in 1939 as part of the refortification. Unlike the other buildings here, its front door isn’t level with the ground but has steps up to its front door. This is because when they began to excavate the foundations, they found some human remains. It’s thought this is where a graveyard had been. It’s known that at one stage there was a church close by.

The fort was used as a camp for the Reserve Defence Forces for many years, before finally being handed over to Wexford County Council in 1993. As of 2018, there are still parts of the fort which are too dangerous for members of the public to access. Happily, there are still many places which are safe and will give the visitor a good overall view of what life was like in a place like this.

The fort is also visible from the beach below. As the tour guide remarked, the window which overlooks the beach now has iron bars on it to ward off a newer type of invader.

fort from the beach

Visitor Information

Duncannon Fort is only open during the summer months. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day. The official website for opening dates/times is https://duncannonfort.ie/ Admission is by guided tour only but it’s well worth it.

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Offaly’s Two Pyramids

Did you know? 100 quirky facts about County Offaly

One of the more intriguing pieces of trivia in the book “Did you know…? 100 quirky facts about County Offaly”  is that there are two pyramids in the county. It’s not a county tourists flock to, so to have something a bit unusual like this piqued my interest. Having visited the Lough Boora Discovery Park many a time, I knew about its pyramid. It’s the one that nobody under the age of 20 can resist trying to climb once they catch sight of it. Anyway, I thought I’d go in search of the second one in the village of Kinnitty. They’re both interesting in their own way, I think.

The Bernard Mausoleum
The Bernard Mausoleum

The Kinnitty Pyramid (also known as the Bernard Mausoleum) is the older of the two. Located in the grounds of St. Finian’s Church of Ireland, it has been here since 1834. It’s hard to miss seeing as it’s 9m tall and sitting on top of a hill. It was commissioned by Lt. Col. Richard Wesley Bernard who lived in the nearby Kinnitty Castle. Not a man short of money, it is known that he did a tour of Egypt in the early 19th century. Whether seeing the great pyramids inspired him to build this mausoleum, nobody can say for sure. It’s described on the website of the Mausolea & Monuments Trust as “Freestanding pyramid standing some 30ft high, built on a square footprint of ashlar limestone construction having skewed coursing.  Pointed-arch opening to entrance front having sheet metal double-leaf doors.”  In total, 6 members of the Bernard family were interred here and the mausoleum was closed up in 1907.

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Boora Pyramid by By Eileen MacDonagh (Ireland) assisted by Marc Wouters (Belgium)

The Lough Boora Pyramid doesn’t contain any dead people to the best of my knowledge. It was designed and built in 2002 by the sculptor Eileen MacDonagh. It’s made from unmortared stone which was unearthed as the surrounding bogland was cut away. At 50ft (15m) it’s taller than the Kinnitty pyramid and is considerably easier to climb…

Smeaton’s Tower

Former offshore lighthouse, now relocated on the mainland

Lighthouses by their very nature can be tricky things to get to. So when one which was originally out at sea – perched on a dangerous windswept reef for good measure – moves to the mainland, why not? The lighthouse in question is called Smeaton’s Tower these days and has been standing in a park in Plymouth for well over a century at this stage. Originally it was known as the (third) Eddystone Lighthouse and was built on rocks which bear the same name. The name Eddystone Rocks is a little misleading because they’re not just a few random rocks 19km off the English coast but a large, dangerous reef. Needless to say, many a seagoing craft met a watery end on the reef and there is still a lighthouse out there. Even though this lighthouse is no longer serving the purpose for which it was built, it is still more than just an oversized garden ornament in a public park.

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The ill-fated first and second Eddystone lighthouses

The first lighthouse to be built on the reef was a tower designed by a man named Henry Winstanley. It was completed in 1698 but lasted just 5 years. It was swept away during the great Storm of 1703, killing 6 people including Winstanley himself who had been making modifications to the tower at the time. The second one designed by John Rudyard was completed in 1709 and remained in situ until 1755 when it was destroyed by fire. Its unfortunate 94 year old lighthouse keeper died several days later after swallowing molten lead which was falling from the burning lantern room at the top of the tower. Somewhat bizarrely, the piece of lead which killed him survives to this day.

When it came to building a third lighthouse, engineer John Smeaton was entrusted with the task.  He based the shape of it on that of an oak tree, a structure from nature which had proved to be rather good at withstanding the elements. He went back to Roman times for the type of mortar he used – hydraulic lime is what was used in the Pantheon in Rome and we know how long that has lasted. Crucially, hydraulic lime sets underwater which made it ideal for the job in hand. The lighthouse itself was built from dovetailed blocks of granite, precision cut and interlocking once they were assembled. The blocks were worked on in Plymouth, not very far from where the tower now stands. They were shipped out to sea and the lighthouse built on the reef. After over 3 years of work, the lighthouse finally came into operation in 1759.

The stump of Smeaton's tower, with its replacement lighthouse in the background
The stump of Smeaton’s Tower at sea, just in front of the lighthouse that was built to replace it

The lighthouse operated successfully out at sea until the rocks on which it was built began to succumb to erosion. It was noted in 1877 that any time large waves hit, the lighthouse would shake. A replacement lighthouse was commissioned and built close by and it survives to this day. When that was completed in 1879, Smeaton’s lighthouse fell into darkness.

Thankfully the original plan to blow up the lighthouse didn’t come to fruition. It was dismantled and brought back to Plymouth, where it was reassembled on Plymouth Hoe. In 1884 the rebuilt tower was renamed as Smeaton’s Tower in honour its creator. It has remained open to the public since then. The remnants of the lighthouse’s foundations can still be seen at sea, close to the tower which replaced it. Interestingly, the design of the replacement lighthouse wasn’t a million miles away from Smeaton’s tower. While it was still in operation, a Scottish engineer called Robert Stevenson visited it. He tweaked Smeaton’s ideas when designing the Bell Rock lighthouse off the Scottish coast. When the time came to build the 4th Eddystone lighthouse, engineer James Douglass used Stevenson’s specifications. If the Stevenson name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. The Stevensons were something of a lighthouse building dynasty and there have been books and documentaries made about them.

What’s inside?

The bottom part of the tower isn’t original, of course, and has some spiral steps up to the first floor. After that though, it’s all ladders. Unlike the two other lighthouses I’ve been in which had spiral staircases along the walls, this one has floors with the same shape as Polo Mints. The different rooms in the tower are furnished with a mixture of genuine and replica furniture. There is a table which was in the actual lighthouse. Perhaps the most startling piece of furniture in the place was the bed. Living on an off-shore lighthouse was not the job for you if you were a tall person who didn’t like sleeping in cupboards.

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This, believe it or not, is a bed!

One of the notices on the wall reminds visitors that this is an 18th-century building that was designed for 3 people. Looking around the building, it’s hard not to wonder how tough life must have been for the 3 people living and working there at any time. Cramped is one word to describe the conditions. On the other hand, these guys were probably the nimblest ladder climbers around.

Looking downstairs into the bedroom
Looking downstairs into the bedroom

At the top of the lighthouse is the lantern room, complete with a replica of the candle holder which would’ve been there at the start. These days it offers a nice view over Plymouth and out to sea. On a good day it is possible to see out as far as the Eddystone rocks and where the story began. Plymouth itself was bombed extensively during World War II, destroying a lot of the city. It’s a miracle this wonderful building didn’t bite the dust too.

The lantern room at the top of the lighthouse
The lantern room at the top of the lighthouse

Date of visit: 5th October 2013

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The other Kilkenny castle

Kilkenny Castle at night
Kilkenny Castle at night (obviously)

Kilkenny City’s most famous tourist attraction is Kilkenny Castle. It’s large, it has been lovingly restored both inside and out, it overlooks the River Nore on one side (every tourist who has visited Kilkenny has taken a photo like the one above) and has a wide-open street leading up to it on the other. It has a long and interesting history, some nice grounds and gardens which are can be accessed by anyone for free. In short, it’s worth visiting, even if some people on TripAdvisor have complained that you can’t park right outside the door and walk in. Perhaps at some stage, I’ll write something about the castle. For now, though, I thought I’d write something about the castle nobody travels to Kilkenny to see 🙂

Maudlin Castle
Maudlin Castle

A 10 minute walk from the famous castle will take you back across the river and on to Maudlin Street. Today it’s a narrow, one-way residential area with houses of all shapes and sizes scattered around the place. Halfway up the street, mostly ignored and locked up, stands a 25m tall 15th-century tower house. The castle formed part of a medieval hospital in the area and it is believed it stands on the site of an older building. The hospital was originally established sometime in the 13th/14th century to treat leprosy. At the time, it was believed that leprosy was connected with sexually transmitted diseases. And so, the hospital was named after Mary Magdalene, a woman whose name has been attached to a lot of undesirable things. Despite the spelling of the modern day street/castle as maudlin, it’s pronounced locally as “Mad-Lin”. Not so different to Magdalene when you say it out loud.

The old cemetery
The old cemetery

The rest of the hospital complex has long since vanished but it’s believed there were gardens and orchards in the area. There are still a few remnants from the hospital on the street. There’s what appears to be a partial tower which might have formed part of the city walls at some stage. Off the street is an old cemetery which surely must have been used to bury the dead when the hospital was still open. There once was a church here too but it’s largely gone. The castle itself became a retirement home of sorts for members of wealthy local families. Archaeological digs carried out in the area suggest that beef, lamb, bacon and wildfowl were on the menu.

The castle still retains its garderobe (a.k.a. the toilet!)
The castle still retains its garderobe (a.k.a. the toilet!)

Today the castle is locked up and mostly ignored. As an article in the local newspaper pointed out a few years ago, nobody knows what’s in the castle because it’s always locked up. It may or may not have a roof at this stage. There appear to be stone steps inside but as to how far they go…again it’s a mystery. So it just stands there unheralded at the side of a little street, mostly unnoticed by passing motorists and pedestrians. Perhaps the newly launched Medieval Mile  will give this castle a little more attention than it has had to date.

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Take me to church

The former St Mary’s Church of Ireland, reborn as a pub

No, it’s not the song by Hozier but an interesting former church in the centre of Dublin. St. Mary’s Church of Ireland was built in the early 18th century to serve the local Anglican community.  During its lifetime as a working church, it certainly clocked up some history. Arthur Guinness (founder of a certain well-known brewery) married here. Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) attended services in the church. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church preached in it. In the run-up to the première of The Messiah, Handel practised on the church organ in there. Other people connected with the church, perhaps less known outside of Ireland were playwright Sean O’Casey, revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone and the judge who condemned Robert Emmett to death.

Despite its history and its urban location, the same fate befell St. Mary’s as it that of many rural Anglican churches. Falling attendances at service. The church finally closed in the 1960s and lay derelict for three decades. I think I may have been in it in the early 1990s when it was a shop selling bags. Eventually, it was renovated, at great expense, and converted into a bar and restaurant.

The first time I stood in the building was for a birthday party and I remember there being a small nightclub in the vaults! Anyway, while you wait for your food and drink to arrive there’s plenty to look at. It is worth a visit, just to see what a disused old church can be re-purposed as. The 19th century Ordnance Survey 25″ map notes that the graveyard outside is disused. The graveyard has since vanished and the leftover headstones left against a nearby wall.

The toilets are located in the basement of the building and a trip to them is a convenient way to see a bit more of this interesting place. Hopefully, my hastily taken mobile phone snaps will give some idea of what the place is like.

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