Of Mermen and Castles / by Katherine Cecil

 "Are you alright Miss? You look like you've seen the wild-man!"

I jumped at suddenly being brought back to my senses. The heritage worker looked at me with a mixture of amusement and concern. 

"Its just you've been up here for a long while, and the rest of your party is waiting in the gift shop". 

I felt my face redden, I had been daydreaming -- its a habit of mine -- I have a tendency to lose myself for considerable periods of time, just standing and staring, sometimes in surprisingly noisy places -- and I can understand why to an outsider it might appear worrisome. However for the most part, when I disappear into myself, I'm either scheming, or I'm adventuring. On this particular occasion, it was the latter.  

"No, no wild-man sightings today", I replied, slightly confused by her statement, but smiling none the less.  

Trying not to fall into a well...

Trying not to fall into a well...

I was standing (and apparently had been for quite sometime) on the second floor of Orford Castle, in a reasonably spacious room, reachable only by a tight, low ceilinged passage. The room itself, so my audio guide informed me (which coincidently was narrated by a Knight who had been stationed in the Castle during the 12th century), would have been one of the most desirable sleeping quarters in the building. Possibly one even used by Henry II. I had been imagining myself, a British equivalent to Joan of Arch -- sword and all -- watching a feast or festival taking place in the central, circular chamber below. I could hear the clinks of armour, the roar of laughter, the smell of meat and the sound of music (possibly a lute, or some other antiquated instrument, I don't know, I'm not a medievalist!), my senses were alive to it, I was in early medieval England. I was right there.

Orford Castle does harbour an atmosphere perfect for the daydreaming explorer. Clinging precariously to the Suffolk cliffs, this incredibly well maintained Keep (thank you English Heritage) over looks the rough, murky North Sea to its front, and the ruler-straight flatlands to its rear. In fact, so flat are these flatlands, that from the parapet the horizon appears endless, an expanse in all directions. It's nauseatingly spectacular.   

Furthermore the castle is remarkably constructed (one of the only of its kind in the country -- so the Knight told me), it possesses rectangular turrets -- protruding high into the sky -- an apparently experimental and expensive feature. It's also akin to a maze inside, full of warren like tunnels opening up into larger self-contained apartments which would have been architecturally radical in its time. Orford Castle was the 'Grand Design' of 1167.

Also, it has a roof. This may seem like a ridiculous statement, but its rare to visit a castle from this period in Britain that isn't just defensive walls or dilapidated sections. The fact that you enter into Orford Castle, escaping the bitter north wind and the howl of the sea, to the musky stone silence of hard grey brick, provokes an extraordinary feeling of 'safeness', that no doubt the inhabitants of the castle felt in the 11th century. Plus it houses a well (bucket and all), and wells in my experience are wonderful atmospheric prompts, as they generally incite either fear or romance, both of which are appropriate when looking around a medieval castle. 

In the gift shop, I sadly returned my narrating Knight, but cheered myself up by buying a pewter miniature version of what I assumed he probably looked like. I'm a sucker for a gift shop. Hell, I'm a sucker for a castle -- and this one was a particular treat... 

Oh, and I later found out -- in the pub -- that the wild-man to which the kindly heritage worker was referring was not in fact an eccentric bearded local, rather the protagonist of a pretty fantastic legend, entitled 'The Merman of Orford'. The story, documented by one Ralph of Coggeshall in 1207 goes as follows:

Is this the wild-man I wonder? 

Is this the wild-man I wonder? 

'Men fishing in the sea caught in their nets a wild-man. He was naked, and like a man in all his members, covered with hair and with a long shaggy beard. He eagerly ate whatever was brought to him, but if it was raw he pressed it between his hands until all the juice was expelled. He would not talk, even when tortured and hung up by his feet. Brought into church, he showed no signs of reverence or belief. He sought his bed at sunset and always remained there until sunrise. 

He was allowed to go into the sea, strongly guarded with three lines of nets, but he dived under the nets and came up again and again. Eventually he came back of his own free will. But later, he escaped and was never seen again.' 

I can't help but think that the merman was more than likely a poor Dutch sailor that fell overboard, was washed ashore and then attacked by the local Orford community, but the story is nice, and the legend fun!