We don’t usually frequent castles, though I do keep hoping to find a deal on the back of a Fruit ‘N’ Fibre packet that will make a family visit to the Tower of London affordable…This Christmas, however, we got lucky.
The first castle we visited belongs to a man who got to know my sister through her blog (she writes a proper one, as in every day). He lives near my parents in the Scottish borders, which is where we three sisters were all staying at Christmas with our families, so my sister called him up and invited herself over, with the rest of us in tow.
We are talking proper castle, six hundred years old in places. Our host moved there with his parents two decades ago and they carried out a lot of painstaking restoration work. He now lives alone, maintaining the building and indulging his other passion: restoring ancient and fascinating clocks. We counted 12 in one room alone.
Having shuffled into the sitting room – nine of us – the adults stood around admiring the massive fireplace, restored using most of a mature yew tree, and the medieval sword on display above, while the children fought over where to sit down and on top of who. I was suddenly conscious that our polite and gracious host had no children of his own and our rowdy rabble was perhaps not making the best impression on him. (None of our kids are particularly badly behaved, but there is a toxic love triangle between the three girls that sometimes explodes and the boy has recently got into a bad punning habit.) So we sent them all outside again to play in the grounds, forgetting that their shoes were not exactly waterproof and the grass was saturated with near-freezing rainwater.
When the rabble came back indoors, even rowdier because their feet were cold, we tried to distract them with a tour of the castle. They slapped along the flagstones in their wet socks, whinging, and before we’d reached the very top tower via a spiral stone staircase they needed to get back to the fireplace and warm up their toes. So there was lots of fascinating history that we didn’t get to hear and plenty of solid oak doors we didn’t get to open, although we did see a room with a suit of armour we were allowed to try on (can’t do that in a National Trust property).
Back in front of the fireplace the three girls were fighting over the footstool and the Cutester was not winning. Eventually it came to blows and I dragged my two out into the hallway and told them to make peace or be taken home Right Now. I re-entered the sitting room to tell the whole room that I was thoroughly embarrassed by their behavior, and judging by the noisy tears on the other side of the door, we were likely to leave at any moment. In the ensuing silence we suddenly heard, ‘Okay, Cutester, I’m sorry I said you had a bony bottom…’
That cheered us all up. They were let back into the room and our host wheeled in a trolley laden with bread, crumpets, jam and a toaster from a kitchen at the end of some distant corridor. There was further fighting over crumpets and tea got knocked all over what our host assured us was not a priceless antique rug. He was even patient when the clock puns started – ‘We should go in a tick’ ‘you’ll drive me cuckoo if you don’t stop’ – but I personally can’t see him inviting us back in the near future.
Which is why our second castle visit began with me saying sternly to my children, ‘Do NOT embarrass me this time.’
This was a bonus castle guided tour thrown in with the rental of our self-catering cottage (there wasn’t enough room for us all at my parents’ place) that happened to be in the grounds of Duns Castle. Some of Duns Castle dates from 1320 and it has belonged to the same family since 1620. We were wowed by enormous ornate fireplaces and oil paintings and chandeliers and stone carvings and stuffed animal heads. The children said nothing throughout – possibly not even breathing – and as we stepped out onto the drive the Redster said, ‘Well? Did we embarrass you?’
I did feel a little bad. Especially given that, I suppose, it’ll soon be our turn to embarrass them.