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Unique new ‘13th century’ castle site marks 20th year

One of France’s unique attractions – the castle of Guédelon – is marking the 20th anniversary of the laying of the first stone.

There are 10-15 years to go before it is complete but the dream of building a medieval castle from scratch using authentic techniques, is well under way, with 300,000 visitors a year, including 50,000 schoolchildren.

Spokeswoman Sarah Preston said it would have been finished 10 years ago if they were working under the same conditions as 13th century builders, “but we spend at least half our time explaining the work we’re doing”.

She said Guédelon is “completely unique – there’s nothing on this massive scale, using medieval technology”. They are not, however, completely purist. “We might use a modern tool where the shape hasn’t changed from medieval times. We have metal shovels, for example, whereas they would have had wooden ones with a metal rim. It’s a question of time as much as anything – our three blacksmiths are kept busy making the quarrymen and stonemason’s tools.

“We also make exceptions for safety – for example we have a ropemaker who uses flax and hemp, and while you can make strong rope with plants you can’t calculate breaking strains, so lifting machines use modern rope.

“We’re not here to test how many were killed or injured on a medieval building site.”

Even so, the experiment is interesting to archaeologists. “We have conferences at Lyon II uni­versity, feeding back the work, whether it’s quarry production rates, properties of lime mortar or data on the time taken to build X amount of stone wall. It’s all on a long-term scale - we’re not making one kiln of roof tiles, for example, we need 80,000.

“And they can see a working building site and learn about the cooperation needed between trades – such as how carpenters and masons get together to plan the scaffolding.”

The site employs 70 and has helped revive skills. “The wood turner had the time and space to set up his pole lathe and learn by making mistake after mistake and master the technique so as to then share it with visitors.“

It is also a designated ‘heritage skills’ training centre, whether for professional training, Bac students learning old building techniques or young people in the ‘second chance school’ for those who had dropped out. Some 600 members of the public a year also volunteer to help. “You need basic French, transport, and a willingness to get stuck in.”

New this year is a workshop making medieval-style coins which are on sale on site and in the online shop. This month “visitors can expect to see progress on the gatehouse, where we’ve just fixed the first of the slotted stones which will one day serve to bring down the portcullis”. “September is a great time to visit because the main rush is over and there’s a beautiful light,” Ms Preston said.

Ms Preston said they have tried to create a festival atmosphere for this anniversary year.

“We had a ‘feast of fools, actors put on a show and we revived the ancient tradition of la monnaie de singe – an actress stops the traffic and tells them the courtyard’s closed and if they want to get in they have to sing, dance, juggle or hula hoop. It goes back to a custom in Paris where people with trained monkeys, and jugglers, could avoid paying a toll.”

Ms Preston said once it is finished the castle will continue to be an attraction for visitors wishing to see what a new 13th century castle would have looked like. There are also plans  to build a stone village like those which would have sprung up around a castle to house to builders. “Guédelon is a never-ending story,” she said.

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