12:20 Monday 6th June 2011
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
LIZ RHODES: Longthorpe Tower is receiving, and you might have seen this from national newspaper coverage at the moment, it’s been named as one of the 100 places that made Britain, in a new book, which is quite something, isn’t it? It’s in there alongside Canterbury Cathedral, Runnymede, Blenheim Palace, all sorts of places. So why is Longthorpe Tower so important? Well, our very own Glenn Jones popped along yesterday to find out exactly why. (TAPE)
GLENN JONES: Well I’ve come along to Longthorpe in Peterborough. We’re just set back from Thorpe Road, and in front of us is a rather large old-looking tower. I’m joined by Alison Tootal. She’s from English Heritage. So Alison, when was this tower built?
ALISON TOOTLE: This was built in the 14th century. It was built and added on to the 13th century manor house that was here.
GLENN JONES: Can I go inside and have a look?
ALISON TOOTLE: Of course you may. On you go.
GLENN JONES: We’re going up some wooden stairs, up to an entrance to a building, which is a good ten feet off the ground. And here we are in this rather high-ceilinged room, with the walls decorated with red and yellow paint. How old are these paintings? Are these as old as the tower?
ALISON TOOTLE: These would have been painted when the tower was built, maybe a couple of years afterwards, but they are original 14th century. The first one you see is the wheel of the five senses. And behind it we’ve got a king. I think it’s King Edward II, but I’m not quite sure about that one. Nobody really is. We’ve got the wheel at the front, with the five senses depicted by animals and birds.
GLENN JONES: I was going to say, there’s a monkey here, there’s a bird, there’s a spider’s web. Do they represent senses in some way?
ALISON TOOTLE: Yes they do. The monkey you see is eating something, so that’s taste. The vulture is smelling something. He’s got his nose in the air, his beak in the air. The spider’s web is for touch, because touch is a very sensual part of the world. The wild boar by the side is for hearing, with his big ears. And the cockerel at the bottom is for sight.
GLENN JONES: And looking at the other walls as well, there’s a woman basket weaving. There’s a bit of a tiled-type pattern on this wall.
ALISON TOOTLE: On the South wall, which was quite badly damaged, we’ve got some patterns which look like they’re Thorpe and heraldry, which would be their crests, because this was all a part of Thorpe Manor.
GLENN JONES: Can you describe that to me?
ALISON TOOTLE: Well that’s a bonnacon, a mythical beast, who would repel its enemies. And you can see on this particular painting you’ve got the back end of the bonnacon, and there’s an archer with an arrow and a bow, and he’s expelling his bowels into the bowman’s face. So basically he’s pooing on his enemies.
GLENN JONES: So is this particularly special here?
ALISON TOOTLE: Well there’s no comparable domestic mural of this century anywhere else in England, and very few in the Continent.
GLENN JONES: How is it still here?
ALISON TOOTLE: Well it was rediscovered at the end of the Second World War, when a tenant came in, and decided he was going to paint it. And as he bagn to take the whitewash that was all over it off, he discovered this painting underneath. Now how long the whitewash had been there, we don’t know. But it certainly has preserved it. And luckily that tenant went for help, and got advice before he started damaging any of the painting.
GLENN JONES: And if we look on this wall here, although the paint’s faded, there are still the shadows of the original figures.
ALISON TOOTLE: Yes. Luckily you can still see quite a lot. There are some outlines here, but most of it as you say are shadows. Higher up on the wall, you’ve got far more detail. That may be because of wear and tear which happens below. The higher up you get, the more chance you’ve got of it surviving,not being brushed past by people’s clothing.
GLENN JONES: Ah yes.
ALISON TOOTLE: So it’s quite possible people were .. you know, if this was being populated and being used, people would touch the stuff at the bottom, or would brush past it, whereas the stuff at the top has survived because the colours are much stronger up there.
GLENN JONES: What would this building actually have been used for? Who would have .. would someone have lived here?
ALISON TOOTLE: Well it was attached to the manor, so I presume it was used for a retiring room, or maybe even for dining in. We .. I don’t know particularly. It looks like it was some kind of place to enjoy.
GLENN JONES: I see a staircase over here. Can we go up?
ALISON TOOTLE: Yes of course we can.
GLENN JONES: I’ll tell you what. The ceiling on that floor you walk in to is quite high. You don’t realise quite how high until you walk up stairs. We can have a look out of a window here. What would Peterborough have been like when this tower was built?
ALISON TOOTLE: Well we’re talking about the medieval times. The Cathedral was probably there, but there wouldn’t have been much else. Peterborough was a much newer town.
GLENN JONES: So a lot of greenery?
ALISON TOOTLE: Yes, mostly fields and farms around here. We would have had the manor house and a few cottages about. The village of Longthorpe has been here for a very long time, but it wasn’t very big.
GLENN JONES: So as we make our way back down the stairs. How often is this tower open to the public as it were?
ALISON TOOTLE: We open the first Sunday of every month. If you phone Kirkby Hall (01536 203230) you’ll get the information about when you can come.
GLENN JONES: Presumably the fact that this building isn’t open very often helps to preserve it.
ALISON TOOTLE: Well I think so. I think if you had lots and lots of people coming in the whole time, you’d have the worry of people brushing past the paintings and doing damage to the walls. I suppose if we were to open it full-time you’d want to put some kind of protection up.It did used to have a custodian full-time, but times are tighter these days, so I’m afraid it’s only open one day a month.
GLENN JONES: What do you think it means for this building to be included in this book of 100 places that made Britain?
ALISON TOOTLE: Well I hope it will raise our awareness of this property, and will heighten its profile.
GLENN JONES: So that’s what Alison had to say. But what about the public?
PUBLIC ONE: It really is fantastic. Always wanted to come here, and live really close out in Crowland, close to Peterborough. Never had the time to come in. First reaction, look at the paintings, really amazing.
PUBLIC TWO: I think it’s absolutely fabulous. They’re in such good condition, and so clear. I expected perhaps they’re so ancient that they’d be quite difficult to see and rather faint, but they’re really quite bright and stunning.
PUBLIC THREE: Just looking round the tower at more of the paintings, that there’s one painting of a lady sitting doing some basket weaving. And the detail in the basket she’s making and the tools she’s using really is brilliant.
PUBLIC FOUR: Well it’s absolutely incredible. It’s small, but very very interesting, and especially the interior, with all the remarkable frescos here. There’s so many in such a small area that I think that is one of the major points of interest. They’re early 14th century, and I think what makes them so special is there are very few non-ecclesiastical, that is secular, frescos in the whole of England. One of the great respositories here is in Longthorpe. so we’re very very privileged to have them. Wonderful.
Note: an added bonus is that reportedly, from the top of the Tower, it is possible to see directly into the garden, complete with swimming pool. of the Leader of Peterborough City Council, which may go some way towards explaining why the Tower is no longer readily accessible to the public