Silent before stones

They had to be strongly built, these clifftop castles, sending their guarding shadow across an estuary, or thrusting up a huge hulk along the coastline. Growing from rock, the massive squares of stone press down upon each other, their weight and strength softened by golden lichen and the occasional green of a plant that has found roothold. The great slab over the main door speaks of the centuries, centuries of embattlement, invader, conqueror, rebellion, neglect and above all the onslaught of gales. Rising from the highest point, to see and be seen, the old stones take the full force of the winds. Even if your sympathies are with the Saxons or Celts, you have to admit those Normans knew how to build and where to build.

It certainly adds something to a seaside holiday to watch the two little girls concocting their sand villages, castles and towns beneath the towering ramparts of a Norman castle. They were more than ruins to these children who a few moments before had been clambering over walls, discovering stairs and chambers, peering into dungeons and a well, sunk deep into rock, where they caught a glint of water. They were the princesses who played and lived there, rolling across smooth grass where once flagged floors must have lain, watching from the battlements for sight of sail. One castle stood back from the bay, above the steep bank that sheltered a river which ran serpentine through the valley, across the sand and into the sea. We could see it only after our rocky clamber down to the beach, and then we were stunned by the shape and balance of cliff, valley and castle, by the curve of river meeting the incoming curve of sea. Above hung an uncertain sky heavy with clouds, ready to drench us all at the slightest prod. We were so entranced we ventured there again when the sky was bluer and filled with great puffs of white changing and reforming, a vast backdrop to the stillness of ruin and rock.

These earth castles contrast in their solidity with the cloud castles, but they share the same intangible feeling. There is a link between the unknown of the past reaching up to those tantalizing glimpses in the sky: Beyond reach, woolly mutations wrung white to the last drop. Wandering in slowest motion these air shapes float. We stop to play their game, offering the whole of childhood to this fluff of air in air, now gathering to itself, beyond definition.

As for these grey stones hewn from the ground, they were almost beyond reach in understanding. Trapped in the pages of history are certain dates, certain events, but these facts do not touch or explain an urge that impels us to enter their circle. Better to be like the children. Shut the guidebook and let the walls and towers speak for themselves.

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