Beneath Conisbrough Castle: 850 years of graffiti

Mines rescue trainer Matrin Greaves and English Heritage senior curator Kevin Booth in the basement. Picture Scott Merrylees
Mines rescue trainer Matrin Greaves and English Heritage senior curator Kevin Booth in the basement. Picture Scott Merrylees
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IT’S not the ideal job for those with a fear of heights - but it is one that could uncover hidden mysteries.

Volunteers at Conisbrough Castle near Doncaster have delved deep underground beneath the historic keep for the first time in a bid to record graffiti etched into its walls over the last 850 years. But the task was not for the faint hearted.

English Heritage senior curator Kevin Booth checks for graffitti in the well. Picture Scott Merrylees

English Heritage senior curator Kevin Booth checks for graffitti in the well. Picture Scott Merrylees

Hidden beneath a modest metal grate, the basement of the keep houses a well the inhabitants of the castle could have used to draw water if they were ever required to retreat inside for safety.

Today specialist workers from MRS Training and Rescue carefully lowered a 30ft ladder down the hole to enable English Heritage staff and volunteers to explore the area, which is not normally accessible.

Built in the 1170s or 1180s, the keep escaped the ravages of the Civil War to become a picturesque ruin in the 18th or 19th centuries and inspired Sir Walter Scott’s most famous novel, Ivanhoe, published in 1819.

The basement is only accessible through the hole in the first floor entrance chamber, which itself has no natural light, so heavy duty lamps were eased down the hole to help guide the work.

Conisbrough Castle. Picture Scott Merrylees

Conisbrough Castle. Picture Scott Merrylees

Community projects manager at English Heritage Helen Keighley, said the usually silent basement became a “hive of activity” as people were carefully helped down the hole.

She said: “It has a lovely vaulted ceiling that you can’t usually appreciate, and there are also carvings, left by various stonemasons as early as the 1100s right up to the 19th century. Each mason had a style or marking they would leave behind, a bit like a graffiti tag.”

The process of carefully recording those marks, which has never been done before, began today.

The area was probably used to secure the castle inhabitant’s most valuable possessions.

“It will have been one of the most secure rooms in the caste,” Ms Keighley said. “Back in the medieval period it could have been used to store anything from arms and armour or even food stuffs.”

While none of those inhabitants’ valuables were discovered, many coins and even American dollar bills were found, thrown down the grate by visitors today for good luck.

The trip underground was also a chance to thanks some of the castle’s many volunteers, like Barrie Dalby.

“It was a once in a lifetime chance and a great opportunity to see something very few people have seen over the past few hundred years,” Mr Dalby, who is a member of Conisbrough and Denaby Main Local History Group, said.

“Once you got down it wasn’t claustrophobiac. And at the bottom there was an opening going even further down.

“There have always been tales and legends locally about secret tunnels to the castle so maybe there could be something in it.”

While English Heritage are quick to point out there is no evidence whatsoever of secret passageways, delving underground was a chance to learn more about the history of the site.

It Took months of planning to arrange the trip underground, which wouldn’t have been possible without expert help from a century-old South Yorkshire firm.

The team from MRS Training and Rescue, which was founded in Tankersley in 1902, ensured the volunteers were safely harnessed up for the experience.

Operations manager Billy Gundy said: “When we were approached to assist, we quickly understood the hazards and risks from our mining and confined space experience, and were happy to help.

“For us, it has been a relatively straightforward job but there has been months of work behind the scenes to get to this point.”

Ms Keighley said: “It has been a massive thing for us to do.

“All sorts of different departments at English Heritage have been involved to make this happen. We wanted to make sure it was safe but also that we were respectful to the building. MRS have been absolutely amazing.”