Elmley Castle and its Lost Cider House
Elmley Castle nestles below the shadow of Bredon Hill, on it's northern side and is one of my favourite villages in Worcestershire. It is named for the Norman castle that used to tower over the village, now completely gone save for it's mound. This was built by Robert Despencer, the “Dispenser” or personal butler of William of Normandy relatively soon after the Norman invasion – he must have been a well paid butler! It passed to his brother Urse D'Abitot, a larger than life bear-like Norman noble who held huge swathes of land around Mercia. He also built the castle at Worcester that, like Elmley, no longer exists save for traces, and which earned him a curse from Bishop Ealdred, the Saxon cleric famously shouting - “Thou art Urse- may you be cursed!”
His son Roger inherited Elmley Castle and through marriage it passed to the Beauchamps, the powerful Norman dynasty whose name still looms large in Worcestershire today. Successive Earls of Warwick held it as their second home until interest wained and the fortress fell to disrepair. As is common in Britain, the ruin was looted for building materials with a lot of it being used to build the old bridge at Upton on Severn. Now there's an idea for a scary tale...
The cider house was a feature of rural life in the west of England for centuries. Little more than a basic farmhouse that sold home made cider, or more accurately – scrumpy, and nothing else, very few of these places still exist today. The “Monkey House” is incredibly still going a few miles down the road but unfortunately The Plough in Elmley Castle closed it's doors for good in 1991. As the last remaining cider houses somehow survived into the modern world they began to attain legendary status as places of crazy antics where people from the fringes of society could party in semi-privacy. Outlaw bikers and heavy metal heads would drink super strong scrumpy alongside old locals who by now were unfazed by anything, and The Plough was no exception.
Bruce Dickinson, frontman of British metal legends Iron Maiden, recalled fondly in his memoirs how he was a regular at The Plough when he first joined the band, and was amazed at this hidden house of scrumpy fuelled strangeness. “Regular drinkers sat catatonic in the bar, while all the furniture faced outwards, and there was a pentagram marked on the floor.”. I did visit The Plough once myself back in the late 80s and I do vaguely remember the floor having that symbol, but little recollection of much else! Dickinson went on “People still believed in witchcraft, and the whole area seemed to run on a tape loop from 1973!”
The only pub open now in Elmley Castle is The Queen's Head, so named as Elizabeth I stayed the night there in 1575 and was stopped on her way to the village by a crowd who presented a hat to her they had made, and the slope where this allegedly happened is still known as “Bess Cap”.
Opposite the Queens head is a building known as “The Old College”, this was set up in the 1400s by William Beauchamp, one of the inhabitants of the castle, and he actually paid for a choir to sing and pray for his soul there after he died for as long as the money he left them lasted. Boys would enter this college and learn Latin just for this purpose alone. In more modern times Christine Keeler, the infamous escort at the heart of the Profumo scandal in the 60s, lived there for some time to hide out from the press and “recover”.
Around the corner from Main Street is an old medieval wayside cross. This one is unique in that it features some curious engraving on it. To this day nobody is sure exactly what it means, but there seems to be a date in it that refers to the Civil War. This cross is also special in that it is not wedged into a separate base – the whole thing is carved in one piece and archaeologists believe it may have been carved from a neolithic megalith. Partly for convenience but also to “hallow” a monument once revered as sacred to heathens.
Elmley Castle is just one of a dozen pretty and atmospheric villages that form a ring around Bredon Hill and I'll be talking about some of the others in my next post, but for now, and as always, I highly recommend you swing by if you're ever in south Worcestershire and take a look at this treasure of Mercia.
The Plough cider house today
The old sign still in situ
The Queens Head
The medieval wayside cross at Elmley Castle
Curious carving on the cross, but what does it say?
The foundations of the old Elmley Castle are all that remains of today