The Landmark Trust has long provided a portal for those who, like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, have a passion for ancient edifices. Romantic follies, gatehouses and lodges, pavilions and parsonages are all avail able for rent from the buildings-preservation charity. But in taking on Astley Castle, near Nuneaton in Warwickshire, the Trust moved into new territory. After a decade of negotia- tions over the plight of this Grade II* building, in 2005 it advanced a radical solution, holding an architectural competition to create mod ern accommodation within the footprint of what had become a ruinous shell.
The castle has enjoyed its moments of glory. Dating back to the eleventh century, by 1420 it had passed to the Grey family and was thereby associated with the lives of three queens. Elizabeth Woodville lived here in the mid fifteenth century as Sir John Grey's wife until he was killed fighting for the Lancastrian cause in the Wars of the Roses. Then she married the Yorkist claimant, Edward IV, and bore him the ill-fated princes who died in the Tower of London. Her daughter, Elizabeth of York, married Henry VII and their great granddaughter Lady Jane Grey became Queen of England for nine days in 1553, on the death of Edward VI.
Falling subsequently into disrepair, in 1674 Astley was bought by the Newdigate family who owned the neighbouring Arbury estate. After being requisitioned in the Second World War, it was turned into a hotel but was gutted by fire in 1978, just after the lease had expired. Vandalism, theft and collapse took their toll and what remained teetered for years on the brink of total loss.
The winning scheme, designed by architects Witherford Watson Mann, has preserved the sense of living in a ruined castle, while providing all the comforts of modern life. It is not a costly antiquarian exercise recreating its supposed original state – the budget was £2.5 million - nor a boring glass box that ignores the extant masonry. With the help of grants from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the remains were carefully recorded and researched, rubble cleared and those parts beyond rescue demolished. The newbuild in concrete, brick and timber consolidates and binds together what could be saved as unobtrusively as possible, so that the castle's presence in the landscape is largely unchanged.
Surrounded by medieval field systems, woods and fishponds, the once-fortified manor house is approached by a small bridge over the remains of the moat. Soft pink sand stone walls glow on even the dullest days. The two front halls screened by the east elevation, dating from the seventeenth century, are now courts open to the sky. But there is a long table where you can sit outside in the evening, with logs flaming in the fireplace and long shadows falling on the brickwork floor between the stone mullions and through tracery.
The three oldest walls of the central core - in some parts nearly two metres thick – have been tied with massive concrete beams, which span the voids left by the catastrophic fire. New brickwork is knitted into medieval masonry, stabilising the walls and creating a recessed enclosure. After lengthy consideration, Danish brick was used on account of its subtle colours, blending into the sandstone yet allowing the new work to be clearly identified. Though wholly irregular, junctions between past and present are precisely defined. Stepped brickwork detailing emphasises the verticals in Tudor style, as do the frames of the large new windows. We have taken our cues from the dignified elegance and rich rhythms of the Gothic mullions,' says William Mann.
The main contractor was William Anelay, who applied traditional masonry and carpentry skills to materials selected to provide the most environmentally friendly solutions. A new feature is the central staircase, which went through three or four designs before being constructed of kiln-dried oak, with a twisting bronzed-steel baluster forged by the Devon blacksmith James Kendrew. It leads to the first-floor kitchen, dining and sitting area - a glorious space floored in bleached oak, animated by light falling on the variegated stone and by views of the historic landscape that puncture the modern, seventeenth-, fifteenth-, and twelfth-century walls.
The kitchen, built in the Landmark Trust's workshop to Witherford Watson Mann's design, again combines old and new, with fumed-oak units and Brazilian slate surfaces. Rich purple-brown Spanish terracotta tiles lining the back-wall niche are also used for the kitchen, bathroom and hall floors. Red Puginesque chairs add a theatrical note to the dining space, sourced by John Evetts of the Landmark Trust, who was responsible for furnishing Astley. The large walnut and gilt ottoman, cut down from an Italian lit bateau, is perfectly positioned for contemplating the fourteenth-century collegiate church of St Mary. A pair of late-nineteenth-century Dutch bronze chandeliers provide additional downlighting. A local resident offered the Trust three Victorian paintings of Astley, which now hang in the ground-floor passage way. On this level, four bedrooms and two bathrooms have been created, with stained birch panelling and french windows opening out on to brick and stone terraces and the gar den beyond. No detail has been overlooked, from the bronze door furniture by Izé to the lift for disabled access, cleverly inserted in what was left of a collapsed light shaft.
In its earthy materiality and volumetric clarity, the resurrected Astley recalls interventions by Lutyens at Lindisfarne Castle. There is a constructive dialogue across the centuries, with successive accretions providing multiple points of contact between past and present. And if, like Catherine Morland, you find the lack of dirt and cobwebs in an ancient edifice distressing, why not use the opportunity of a visit to stage an alfresco haunting, safe in the knowledge you can run back through the grounds afterwards to warm dew-chilled toes on the underfloor heating?