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Published: October 30th 2017
One of the things I find endlessly fascinating about history is learning how things were done in the past, without the benefits of modern civilisation. No long distant communications, no electricity, no computers, relatively simple (or even flat-out wrong) science. It’s hard to visit a medieval castle and not wonder how you would go about building such an impressive construction without any of these things. On Monday, I set out to find out how.
Well, not really. I’ve read books and seen documentaries about this kind of thing. But quite a few documentaries I have enjoyed watching feature the castle of Guedelon in France, and it was somewhere I had been keen to visit for quite a while.
Guedelon castle is a long-running project to build a medieval castle using only medieval techniques. This means no electricity, no internal combustion engine, no modern tools; In fact, it means no technology at all that didn’t exist in the middle ages. It is an impressive idea, and a unique experience.
On my first trip to France, I did not travel anywhere near it so could not visit. I can’t say I was near it in Beaune, but I was determined
to make the effort this time. Despite staying up late on Sunday night, I got up and going relatively early on Monday morning. I was on the road before 10am (I said relatively!) and because of the distance to travel, I decided to take the motorway. This reduced the 3 hour drive down to 2 hours and 15 minutes or so, and I wasn’t sure how long I would need so I wanted to get there as soon as possible.
After leaving the motorway, the drive was very quiet so I was hopeful of finding few other visitors when I arrived. I was to be disappointed though because as I arrived at midday, the car park was nearly full. I guess most people travelled from the direction of Paris, which I think is closer to Guedelon than Beaune is. I also remembered Alexis mentioning the other day that it is currently school holidays in France.
I bought my entrance ticket and headed into the grounds. The first thing I noticed as I read my English guide was that there is much more to see than just the castle. As they are completely using medieval technology, this means that
everything must be made onsite. Around the grounds of the castle are many elements of a medieval town, including lots of mud from Sunday’s rain. It felt a lot like a renaissance fair!
I headed to the nearest workshop first, which was the rope-makers. While most of the signs had English translations, the workers themselves only speak in French so this limited me from understanding what they had to say. However, with the ropemakers it was easy to pick it up as they enrolled two kids to make some rope. It’s ingeniously simple, really and I enjoyed seeing it done.
From there I headed to the blacksmiths and watched for a bit as the only blacksmith there explained to some French people what he was doing. I soon realised it was going to be a quicker visit than I had originally hoped because I would miss out on this part of the interactiveness of the site. Still, it was interesting to see the workers in action. These are not mocked up demonstrations; the workers are literally building the castle as we watch.
I had a look at some stonemasons in action, and some men working in the
nearby quarry. As I moved onto the basket-weavers though, a bell sounded which meant it was lunchtime for the workers. This meant there was nothing to see in the workshops. The guide suggests you use the lunchbreak to either get some lunch yourself, or to investigate the interior of the castle. I could see a long line-up at the small taverna, so it was easy to choose the castle.
Being an active construction site, and modern safety requirements being enforced, you can’t go everywhere. But much of the castle is complete, particularly the main keep, so there was plenty to see. There are signs indicating which way you should travel through the keep, necessary because some places are dangerous and shouldn’t be entered, and some sections are only wide enough for one person. What I thought was a simple method of red and green signs was apparently too complicated for some so there was the occasional traffic jam.
The inside of the castle really did look just like many of the castles I have visited on my travels. There were narrow windows for archers to shoot from, and medieval decorations on much of the stonework. What wasn’t decorated
was clearly hewn by hand and you could be forgiven for thinking it really was a medieval castle. I was also impressed by the cranes they have, which are powered by someone walking inside a large drum. Apparently one person can lift a weight of 500kg using these. I guess this means the main crane being used currently in the construction of the gatehouse can lift 1,000kg because it has two drums. I only saw one person operating it while I was there though.
After seeing everything I could in the castle, the workers were arriving back from lunch so I continued looking at the workshops. The tilers were quite interesting – apparently the different coloured tiles are made by the positioning in the kiln.
I then decided to walk down to the water-mill. Located about 500m from the main site, the walk itself was quite nice through the surrounding forest (called the Guedelon forest, from which the castle gets its name). The water mill was quite interesting to see in action and is one of the great inventions of the middle ages, a period often thought of as backwards compared to the glories of Greek and Roman
civilisations that preceded it.
I headed back to the main site and had a look around the carpenters’ workshop and the animal pens. They use horses to draw carts to move material around the site. They really keep to the ethos of not using anything that wasn’t used during the middle ages.
By this time, I had seen pretty much everything. The taverna was nearly empty so I grabbed a sandwich before visiting the gift shop and heading back to the car. It was just after 3 and I was no longer in a rush, so I decided to skip the motorway for the drive back to Beaune.
The visit to Guedelon was enjoyable, but I can’t help feeling I missed out on quite a bit of the experience by not being able to speak French. Still, it was great to visit a site I have wanted to visit for quite some time. All in all, it was still worthwhile even though I spent more time driving than anything else. The castle will take at least another 5 years to finish (it’s been going for nearly 20 years already!), so perhaps one day I will return and
see the finished product.
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