August 2013

"The news that 13th-century Astley Castle has been shortlisted..."

"The news that 13th-century Astley Castle has been shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, the prestigious national award for contemporary architecture, reads like an extra-daft spoof. Like Gregorian plainsong getting to number one or a man winning the Orange Prize for Women’s fiction, the notion that an 800-year-old castle might be the best new building of the year is too silly even to make a half-decent joke. But it’s true. I was all the most incredulous because - in one of those weird coincidences that you’d never accept in a novel - I heard exactly a year after the opening of Astley Castle on my first day as Director. Ha ha, hilarious office joke, I thought.

It is, however, quite true and completely fabulous. As readers of this will probably know well, Astley Castle was the subject of a wonderfully ambitious rescue by Landmark. Into the ragged edges of the ruined medieval manor house, once a family property of both Elizabeth Woodville (the ‘White Queen’) and Lady Jane Grey, our brilliant architects have carefully spliced their spare and beautiful new work. The results are, I have to say, astonishing. Not simply has a nationally significant castle been saved from utter destruction, but something genuinely new has been created. In place of a burnt out, vandalised shell is now an exotic architectural phoenix, old-but-new. And it’s really captured imaginations, both of the lucky few hundred who have stayed (bookings have been chock-a-block since it opened), but also of the thousands from near and far who have visited on our many open days.

I went up to Astley this morning to film a piece with the BBC for the Stirling Prize coverage, and met the departing Landmarkers who had agreed to do a short interview about their stay. It was their first Landmark. George Butler, a tall 30-something in shorts and a checked shirt, lives just 3 miles away. He saw it on our open weekend last July and on the spot decided to book it as a surprise for his fiancée and her family for their wedding week. When the secret location was revealed, the bride sobbed (in a happy way) all the way up the drive. Mid-week, George’s elderly grandmother was brought to the secret location for tea, and in another absurd co-incidence, revealed that it was in what is now the open outer courtyard that George’s grandfather had proposed to her sixty years before.

Astley Castle is both old and new. Then and now. Part of national history, for sure, but also part of scores of intensely personal histories. I don’t know whether it will win the Stirling Prize, but I feel so proud for all those at Landmark who made it happen and exhilarated at the reminder it represents that with courage and imagination what was lost can be reborn."

Anna Keay

Anna with Landmark Trustees at Astley CastleAnna on her first day as Landmark's Director at Astley Castle's opening in July 2012