Lydford Saxon Town and Castle A Brief Guide

Cross-section of the medieval castle and courtyard, from south-west to north-east


The tour begins at the medieval castle, which stands directly in front of you as you leave the car park. The castle is the latest of the buildings featured in the tour, whcih will take the visitor back in time through Lydford's history.

Lydford is recorded as having been a fortified town or burh in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, the westernmost of a series of sites which were fortified by King Alfred (871-901) against the invading Danes. The original settlement was probably even earlier, since the dedication of the church is to St Petrock, the most popular pre-Saxon saint of the region. This is borne out by finds of imported pottery from the Mediterranean which suggest occupation during the 'Dark Ages'.

The site was ideal for fortification, being a roughly triangular promontory protected by gorges on two sides. On these two sides King Alfred built timber walls. On the third side the wall was backed by a rampart, which survives today as the Town Bank. In the space enclosed by these defences an important town had grown up by the later tenth century. As well as being an administrative and defensive centre, the town housed a local mint for the provision of currency.

The medieval castle

In the Middle Ages Lydford was the centre of administration for the Royal Forest of Dartmoor. It also had jurisdiction over the stannaries, or tin-mining districts, of Devon, which were established early in the thirteenth century. The castle acted as courtroom and prison for both these functions right down to the eighteenth century. The stannary prison acquired a grim reputation and the 'law of Lydford' was notorious. During the Civil War the castle was used as a military prison by the Royalists.

In the early nineteenth century a new prison was built at Princetown, to the south-east of Lydford, to house French prisoners of war (this was the forerunner of Dartmoor Prison). As a result the castle at Lydford was abandoned. In 1932 the Duchy of Cornwall gave it into the guardianship of the Office of Works and it is now looked after by English Heritage. A coin of Aethelred II (979-1016) from Lydford
Mint (British Museum)

Keep exterior

The castle is made up of two components, a stone keep on an earthen mound, and - on the side away from the road - an attached courtyard, once walled, but now marked only by the outlines of earthen banks. The courtyard dates from the thirteenth century, when it would have contained buildings for stabling and storehouses.

Keep interior

The entrance is on the side away from the road. Inside it becomes clear at once that the keep is not the simple two-storey structure it first appeared, for it seems to be 'built-drawn' through the mound to ground level. In fact the mound was added later (see below), perhaps in a deliberate attempt to follow the style of earlier castles.

The structure as originally built around 1200 consisted of a small keep standing at ground level. The walls were more than 3m (10ft) thick, with no doorway at ground level (the entrance was on the first floor), and narrow slits for windows. We do not know what the upper floor (or perhaps floors) looked like, since they were demolished not long after they were built.

On the remains of this early keep two new storeys were built in the thirteenth century, with much thinner walls, as the interior clearly shows. At about the same time, the whole structure was buried in the earth mound which the visitor sees today. To relieve the resultant pressures on the walls, the interior of the ground floor was also filled up (the filling has now been removed), except for a small area in the left-hand corner as the visitor enters. The doorway at this point was locked from the outside, making it certain that this was the prison. The room beneath it was reached by a trap door in the floor, which created in effect a two-storey prison, with one cell at the new ground level and another below.

Moving further into the keep, you reach a second door on the left, which could be secured from within. This was probably a private chamber.

Above this level the rebuilt castle had another floor divided into two rooms, and reached by stairs rising in the thickness of the wall to the right of the main doorway. The better accommodation was at this level, as is seen by the stone benches within the window recesses, and by the provision of fireplaces. Here the lord or constable of the castle would have lived, above the service levels. The two rooms on this floor each possessed a latrine, built in the thickness of the wall.

The Norman castle

On leaving the medieval castle, come out into the road and immediately turn right through the field gate which leads between the castle and the churchyard. Keep left around the churchyard perimeter, and you arrive at the end of the natural spur on which Lydford is set. On your right, a hedge marks the line of the original Saxon town defences, below which the land plunges steeply away. In the corner of the town defences, where the natural slope is steepest, you will find the remains of a Norman castle, dating from soon after the Norman Conquest, in the second half of the eleventh century.

On two sides this castle uses the existing Saxon defences (which themselves took advantage of the steep sides of the gorge); facing the town new defences were built. In their original form these were vertical wooden walls with battlemented tops; they were backed up by earth from their own ditch to reinforce them against attack by battering ram. Today the remains of the earth reinforcements appear as grassy banks. The castle entrance would have been guarded by small wooden gatehouse, of which no trace survives.

Excavation of the interior of the castle has revealed the remains of five timber and cob (mud-wall) buildings, backed against the rampart and apparently serving as store buildings. All the buildings would have been rendered and limewashed.

Occupation of the Norman castle was short lived; by the middle of the twelfth century it had been adandoned in favour of the new stone castle visited earlier.

The Saxon town defences

Leaving the Norman castle and returning to the street, turn left to visit the town defences at the other end of the village. In doing so, you are once more walking back in time, for the Town Bank (see plan) was already 200 years old when the Normans arrived and built their early castle. The Bank can still be traced on either side of the promontory, though originally it followed the line of the scarp round the whole promontory.

Plan of Lydford showing the Medieval and Norman castles and the Town Bank

The defences belong to two phases. Excavation has shown that the initial structure was of alternate layers of turves and saplings fronted by a wooden wall. In the second stage this timber wall was replaced by granite blocks with a backing of rubble and mortar.

The layout of the village still largely follows that of King Alfred's planned burh, with a main street crossed at right angles by three pairs of parallel side streets. Lydford was probably at the height of its importance in the tenth century. It appears to have declined relatively soon after the Norman Conquest so that by 1300 it had only 48 burgesses, compared with 380 in Totnes; in 1660 it was described as a 'mean miserable village consisting of about 20 houses'. This early decline is responsible for the remarkable preservation of the town's original layout and defences.

Complete the tour by following a path inside the ramparts north-west from the main street (on our left as you walk up the main street). The path curves around to return to the car park.

English Heritage 1992

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