National Trust’s £100,000 plea to save Corfe Castle

Local residents and visitors are being asked to raise £100,000 to help repair the walls of Corfe Castle in Dorset, which have been damaged by extreme weather.

Pin badges at £3 apiece are going on sale at the castle and a tap to donate point will also be set up to take donations to help prevent stones from the walls, tumbling down the valley.

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National Trust/ Neil Davidson

A careful climb up the Outer Bailey walls at Corfe Castle as a £2 million conservation project begins

Summer droughts and winter storms

The fundraising is part of a £2 million project, to be carried out over three years, which will see specially trained conservators suspended by ropes working to remove vegetation and prevent further damage to the 11th century castle.

Most of the £2 million has already been covered by the National Trust’s own funds and grants, including one of £150,000 from the Wolfson Foundation, but it is hoped that the final £100,000 will come from the public.

Although the ruins of Corfe Castle have stood remarkably unchanged since 1646 when Oliver Cromwell demanded it be demolished during the civil war, the National Trust says that climate change is now causing an increasing amount of new damage.

More frequent summer droughts and winter storms have loosened the medieval stones, and although it is still structurally stable, there are concerns about the 21st century threat to its walls.

National Trust / Neil Davidson

A specialist conservator removes ivy which is damaging the walls of Corfe Castle, forcing its way in between the stones.

“Stones were regularly falling”

Project manager Christina Newnham said:

“The real impact we saw was during the drought in 2022 when the walls dried out and stones were regularly falling. The hot weather and heat dries out the mortar but it also kills off vegetation.

“Where plants have roots deep in the walls, the stones loosen as plants die and shrink, putting them at risk of falling.

“Lime mortar needs moisture to be stable, as do the plants, and it was obvious after the first rain following the drought that the stones immediately stopped falling from the walls.

“The other impact of climate change is from warmer and wetter winters which encourage more plant growth, in turn damaging more areas of the walls.”

National Trust / Neil Davidson

Safety first – a lot of the work is carried out on walls 26 feet tall, perched atop a hill of a further 150 feet high

Using traditional techniques

Christina Newnham added:

“The advantage of a major project such as this is that we can make the castle more resilient by bringing it into a stable state of repair.

“We spend money every year on resetting fallen stones, but with vegetation removed and the walls in better condition, we can then focus that annual budget on managing vegetation growth and keeping the castle in good order, protecting it for the future.

“We are using traditional techniques, raking out loose mortar and digging out deep roots from the invasive plants, repinning loose stones and repointing with fresh lime mortar as it would have been done hundreds of years ago.

“By sourcing aggregates from across Purbeck as the original castle builders did, we can create different colour mixes which allows the new mortar to blend in.”

National Trust / Neil Davidson

It’s dangerous work, with only ropes for safety as conservationists remove plants causing damage and reset loose stones at Corfe Castle

Precarious repair work

The cost of £2 million is down to the length of time that the painstaking work will take the team of specialist conservationists, along with the tools and materials needed for the work.

Over the next three years specialist rope teams working for the National Trust will carry out the task of removing the vegetation to prevent future damage to the walls, often while hanging high above the ground.

Work to repair the nine towers, the keep and the curtain wall, which is 26 feet tall, is made even more precarious as the castle is perched on a steep-sided hill rising more than 150 feet above the valley.

As well as replacing mortar, the exposed wall tops will be protected by covering them with grass – a natural process known as soft topping which is an effective way to protect walls against extreme weather.

National Trust / Jon Bish

Early morning mist in the valley below iconic Corfe Castle

Revealing walls not seen for 100 years

Grass prevents too much water from getting into the rubble core of the wall where it washes out material and attracts unwanted plants to grow into the walls.

By clearing the castle of damaging vegetation the work will, in some places, reveal parts of the walls not seen for over 100 years.

One area of particular interest is the ivy-covered base of the east turret, where part of an arch was last seen 30 years ago, potentially the site of the gateway through which Parliamentary soldiers were given access to capture Corfe Castle in 1645.

Corfe Castle was built under the order of William the Conqueror as part of a chain of defences to consolidate his power over the defeated English, but 500 years later the royal castle passed into private hands in the 16th century and became the family home of the Bankes family in 1635.

NATIONAL TRUST

Lady Mary Bankes, who led the defence of Corfe Castle against Oliver Cromwell’s troops

Officer turned traitor

During the English Civil War, which started in August 1642, the Bankes family supported King Charles I, with Lady Mary Bankes leading the defence of Corfe Castle during the first siege by Parliamentary forces in May 1643.

Corfe’s tiny garrison was outnumbered but Mary, along with her daughters and women servants, kept the Parliamentarian soldiers out of the castle until a Royalist army arrived in August.

In 1645 Parliamentarians besieged the castle again, only this time its defenders were not locals but regular troops with less loyalty to the Bankes family.

One of the officers, Lieutenant Colonel Pitman, turned traitor and let enemy soldiers through a side gate, known as a sallyport, and Corfe Castle was captured.

National Trust / John Bish

Corfe Castle’s ruins are little changed in nearly 400 years, but climate change is starting to have an effect on them

“Significant part of castle’s history”

Christina Newnham said:

“We are looking forward to uncovering that area and seeing if the sallyport is there. It is a really significant part of the castle’s history and we would like to find it if we can.

“While we are removing problematic vegetation, we will work with ecologists to ensure other nature living on the castle isn’t disturbed.

“We will not clean the stones to protect important lichens, and we will also make sure that nesting birds including ravens and the peregrine falcons which build homes high in the ruins of the castle are left alone.

“Our conservation teams also have to be careful of adders and lizards found living among the vegetation and stonework of the ancient walls.”

National Trust / Neil Davidson

Conservation work will continue at Corfe Castle until 2026 as part of the latest £2 million project

An important landmark in Dorset

James Gould, operations manager at Corfe Castle, added:

“Corfe Castle has stood proud as an important landmark in Dorset for nearly one thousand years.

“As the current custodians, we are appealing for support to ensure it continues to stand so future generations can both learn from and enjoy the ruins.

“Fundraising is through conservation pin badges for sale at the castle at £3 each and a tap to donate point, but the main way people can give is on our website.

“All donations given will go directly towards the conservation project and will be gratefully received.”

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