HM King Charles (then as Prince of Wales ) with John Best (for JN & Co)
At the Official Opening of the Restored Castle in July 2022
Last year’s official opening of the newly refurbished Hay Castle marks the start of what should hopefully be a much less turbulent chapter in its long history.
Overlooking the town within its beautiful Wye valley setting, the Dutch gabled Jacobean manor house which survives as is the castle’s most prominent structure today has now become a new welcoming destination for visitors, weddings, art exhibitions, learning and literature.
After the castle’s ruination following centuries of sieges and two 20th Century fires, it is surprising that anything remains at all, but fortunately the shell of the Jacobean manor house the Norman keep with its adjacent gatehouse and curtain wall have survived.
Remarkably an original oak medieval gate leaf has survived in situ with its replacement 17th Century partner and wicket door.
Their condition was very poor, but we were very fortunate to be commissioned by the Hay Castle Trust to restore and to make them fully functional again.
The Bailey Side in 2018
Fortunately, these gates were not destroyed, badly restored or replaced in the 19th Century but instead were held closed by two horizontal wrought iron bars built into the ashlar stonework on either side.
Being fixed in their closed position within the ashlar embrasure the gates had survived by being largely protected from direct rainfall .
The gates seem to have been neglected since then although access into the bailey continued through the wicket door which, judging by the altered and cranked strap hinge had been a later alteration to the west leaf.
Despite being protected from above the gates surrendered to the accumulation of damp grit and vegetation that had built up below which covered the original cobblestone threshold. The gates had rotted away at the bottom along with the ironwork causing these very heavy, 14ft 6” high oak gates to be in the state of collapse that we found them in 2017.
Taking Down the Medieval Gate Leaf
We realised when taking the magnificent medieval east gate down that this was the very first time that it had ever been removed although the bent eye end of the top hinge indicated a previous attempt.
The team worked for hours to free the leaf without damaging it and this became a very dull spectacle for the many interested people who were watching from the ward.
Obviously the earliest defensive castle gates were not intended to be levered off by anyone! Sockets had originally been carved out of the gate’s 5 inch thick hanging edge to house the two large iron pintles built into the masonry and the receiving eyes of the heavy strap hinges. This very effectively prevented any upward lift that would free the gates.
This indicated that our medieval gates were originally hung by first dropping the loose 4ft 6” strap hinges onto the pintles and then offering up the oak leaves into position before nailing them to the oak. This would have taken precise marking out and pilot drilling beforehand and must have been a specialised trade like all others connected to defensive medieval castle building.
The replacement heavier but less refined west leaf of 1610- 1640 has the usual protruding hinge rings that make it much easier to take down and rehang and less defensive.
Unfortunately the medieval east gate leaf has not yet provided us with a conclusive dendrochronological or isotope date due to the oak tree’s lack of dateable annual rings. At present carbon-14 dating shows it to belong to a long phase dating from 1328 – 96.
East Gate – Bailey Side showing the Retaining Bar, Pull Beam and Draw Bar Socket
At shoulder height the medieval east gate leaf retains the fixed half of the original horizontal pull beam which is fixed with both by iron nails and by roves near the outer end which is the place of maximum leverage.
Also prominent within the east side of the stone gate embrasure is the rectangular opening of the deep oak draw bar socket. Remarkably the oak lining of this socket has given a radio carbon felling date of AD 917- 957.
This oak is presumed to have been reused in what is now the third rebuilding of the gatehouse and coeval with the east gate leaf. Could the linings have come from the last palisade before Hay Castle’s first incarnation in stone of circa 1100?
Both east and west gates are notable for an absence of any serious major previous repairs – unless one counts the replacement of one complete half of an original 14th century gateway with a new one between 1610 and 1640.
Unless it is documented one can only guess why, but I suspect that it was due to this leafs eventual structural failure following the insertion of a wicket gate during relatively more tranquil times.
One might presume that the lost medieval side was a near mirror image of the surviving one and by cutting through the diagonal bracing and rails of this construction its structural integrity was compromised.
The missing inner and outer faces are likely to have been sawn and cleft from the same boles.
Guy Palliser and John Best At the Workshop
Rather than being put on display and then replaced by new ones the intention was to conserve these huge gates and make them strong enough to be rehung and used again on a daily basis. We were to achieve this by preserving every possible vestige of the original fabric.
There were endless careful and pragmatic decisions to be made over a two month or so period and the work was expertly carried out primarily by master craftsmen John Best, who took on the East Gate and Guy Palliser the West.
To rebuild the gate bottoms with new seasoned oak from the Whitney Sawmills we were governed by the varying extent of the remaining rotten and soft original timber that needed to be removed to enable solid meeting surfaces with the new additions. The position of the ironwork was critical too to avoid drilling new nail holes into the original oak. Some interesting scarf joints emerged on both the inner and outer faces of the gates.
An Scarf Extension for the East Gate
To discreetly strengthen the joinery between new and old throughout the work we have taken full advantage of modern technology in the form of stainless steel threaded rods and plate and and silicone. The rod was fed into deep and precisely drilled holes in the ancient oak and secured within it by injected resin. At the other end the securing nut and bar end are neatly plugged with lozenge shaped oak.
Numerous areas required careful patching with oak including the meeting edges which had plainly clashed for years due to failed hinges and long term rainwater damage from the a period when it was unprotected and stuck in the open position.
Extending the Outer Board of the East Gate
The West Gate
Between the opposing inner and outer boards of the West Gate we thought it essential to house a U shaped plate of 10mm stainless steel plate that would give much needed support to the wicket door area that will see a great deal of use in years to come. The steel is painted black so as not to be visible between the gaps.
The inset stainless steel plate around the Wicket Door
The small but heavy wicket door leaf itself was also in need of a great deal of careful patching with new oak and for extra support it now contains two horizontal stainless rods within its outer vertical planks.
Before plugging and the final toning- in of the new work
With all our conservation work we attempt where possible to blend in our new additions in with the old so as to distract as little as possible. These gates have a characteristically deeply furrowed surface that we have tried to emulate by carefully selecting the new timber and then following through the main features by hand carving and steel brushing. Colouration was with ammonia, soda and water pigment.
The equally important ironwork for the Hay Castle gates has been carried out by our long standing and highly experienced blacksmith Peter Crownshaw.
The wrought iron nails were highly corroded and their heads diminished but standing strangely proud of the oak, especially those in the medieval gate. It was hard to find one that would provide an adequate head pattern for the 150 or so that would eventually be needed following the careful stress testing of each one. Many original ones were loose within the oak but became viable again with silicone injections. The 7” hand forged nails would originally have all varied a little as did ours which we based on an original found beneath a strap hinge that needed to be temporarily removed.
Interestingly, the hinge nails were shorter at 5”and not clinched.
Apart from the necessary new lower hinge on the medieval gate the rest were restored and their rings built up to improve their fit on the worn pintles. The primitive 17th Century hinges on the wicket door have been restored and a new one made, there is a newly made 17 inch long wicket door bolt and staples based on those at Chepstow and two heavy drop bolts for the gates.
Most of the re- forged wrought iron used for the gates originated from Tewkesbury Abbey and it was also satisfying that the Victorian retaining bars that had previously saved the gates were also recycled.
Peter Crownshaw hard at work making the 7inch wrought iron nails