Chris Upton uncovers the past at a medieval treasure trove in Coventry.
A stranger said to me at one of the recent Heritage Open Days “it’s everywhere, isn’t it?’.
What is?” I asked, looking warily for some kind of infestation.
“History!” he exclaimed, with evident pride and excitement.
We were standing in a field in Baginton on the green hinterland of Coventry. At first sight there was a complete absence of history, and a complete presence of sheep.
It was necessary to pick up a leaflet, go through the gate, past the sheep and over the hill to see what all the fuss was about. They call it Bagot’s Castle, the stone walls of what was once a substantial fortified manor or medieval tower house.
History is, indeed, everywhere in this field. There are the indentations and earthworks, the tell-tale signs of some lost medieval village, of which only the church remains, a couple of hundred yards to the east. The track one takes today past the church, across a field and down to the castle ruins marks what was once the main street through the village. It must be the quietest high street in the West Midlands.
Down the hill there are three medieval fishponds, two of which have been recently restored. They must have supplied the essential fresh fish to the castle and the villagers.
But the history didn’t stop in the Middle Ages. On one side of the site, close to where the River Sowe wanders through the trees, there are the remains of tracks from the time when military vehicles were tested here during the Second World War, perhaps by Hawker Siddeley.
Then there are the humps and hollows from centuries of quarrying and gravel extraction, both modern and ancient. Remains of the track of a light railway that once took the gravel away are also visible.
And finally – if there can be a “finally” on this extraordinary site – there are the remains of an 18th-century gazebo or summer-house, sadly vandalised and reduced to a single storey, with acted as a quiet retreat from nearby Baginton Hall.
The hall was rebuilt by Francis Smith of Warwick soon after 1706, and the grounds laid out as a park. The medieval castle must have been forgotten by then, or reduced a piece of hard landscaping.
Behold, all the clutter of a thousand years in one West Midlands field. History is, indeed, all over the place.
So, what do we know about this castle at Baginton? We know that the first castle was probably erected as a motte and bailey in the 11th century. The motte and its surrounding ditch have left their impression on the ground.
At the end of the 14th century, however, the castle was entirely rebuilt by Sir William Bagot, the then lord of the manor of Baginton. Archaeology undertaken before and after the war revealed what was originally a rectangular keep, with walls more than four feet thick, standing on a basement divided into five chambers.
Bagot himself died in 1407. The castle did not exactly die with him, but by the Tudor period was a largely irrelevant pile of masonry. They had no call for such fortifications by then. A document of 1545 refers to a mill “below the place where the castle once stood”, and by the 17th century the new lord of the manor had built a more genteel and civilised house nearby.
Having visited many hundreds of castles I might have moved on after a few minutes’ desultory viewing. What made me pause longer was the genuine enthusiasm of the visitors. These were not just the ruins of a medieval castle; they were the ruins of their medieval castle. A tangible piece of old Baginton.
More specifically, it is David Hewer’s medieval castle. He first came across the ruins back in 2002, when they were owned by the local scout troop. As the MD of a company (Hewer Builders Ltd), which specialises in restoration work, Mr Hewer was immediately interested.
The land was subsequently purchased by Finham Golf Club, as much to protect the green vistas from the golf course as anything else. Mr Hewer rashly made them an offer to buy it, which they refused, but in 2002 they granted him a seven-year lease instead.
Much of the time since has been spent surveying the site, uncovering the stonework and clearing away the rubbish. The lease has now been extended to 28 years.
Thus far around £26,000 has been spent making the site presentable, work supported by grants from English Heritage, Warwickshire District Council and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, but also partly out of Mr Hewer’s own pocket. Local volunteers have also played a great part.
English Heritage have also provisionally made a further grant for “soft-capping” the ruins, provided that 20 per cent of the £130,000 can be raised locally. Soft-capping would help to protect the stone from further damage and erosion, though it might arguably take away some of the impact of the ruins.
But the sorry remains of what was once the 18th-century summer-house shows clearly how unprotected buildings can be vandalised and ruined still further.
So, we’re not talking Kenilworth or Warwick Castle here, but the parlous remains of the a much smaller and more modest piece of medieval masonry.
Bagot’s Castle’s importance is as much for the role it continues to play in the lives of the people of Baginton, and their evident affection for it. It’s small success story, but a success that is (as yet) far from guaranteed.
But I’ve not told the full story yet. There is one significant reason why Sir William Bagot and his erstwhile house claims an important place in our history. For that you’ll have to wait until next week.