Me and my moat: living inside a ring of water
“The moat sealed the deal,” says Brigitte Webster about her new, old house. She was not planning to move, but the 16th-century home for sale west of Norwich caught her eye. Its arched and mullioned windows would have beguiled any buyer, but it was the moat that captured her imagination. Webster had wanted one for years. She and her husband move in January.
The ditches that wind around old buildings are easy to imagine but hard to define. They epitomise both a terrible fortress and languid country life. Even the word “moat” is a paradox: it comes from the medieval French for, not a channel in the earth, but the opposite: a mound — or motte.
But moats are also logical defences. Water is harder to cross than land, and attacking a castle from a hollow is less promising than defending it from a hill.
Dig further and you find evidence of primitive earthworks from well before medieval castles came to depend on moats. More than 2,000 years ago, Iron Age hill forts of north-west Europe were surrounded by ditches for defence, concentric rectangles built by astonishing feats of labour, like those framing the 47-acre site of Maiden Castle in Dorset. Roman forts, stamped like cookie-cutters across the landscape of Europe, had more simple ditches around their palisades and walls. After the Romans left Britannia, some Anglo-Saxon settlements were moated, then Norman “motte-and-bailey” castles left their indelible prints of mounds and water.
Inland wet moats need a spring or stream; a river to drain off the excess water. There are few moats in Alpine Austria, where Webster grew up. Houses and castles with broad wet moats are concentrated in lowland areas across Europe, such as the castles of Mantua in Italy and Malmö in Sweden, or at coastal fortresses such as Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Morocco.
Edward Impey is an archaeologist, historian of medieval castles and director-general of the Royal Armouries in Leeds. Around 20 years ago he was the curator responsible for the excavation of the Tower of London’s moat, watching as medieval relics such as wicker fish traps and the remains of the 13th-century Tower’s barbican emerged from the anaerobic sludge. In 2014, the Tower’s moat was flooded with ceramic poppies in an art installation entitled “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war.
The purpose of moats extended beyond defence, he says. “Moats were often accompanied by a mill, contributing to food supply — and they held stocks of fish. The latrine chutes drained into them, too, which might sound an unholy combination.”
Moats were also refuse pits, he says. “The archaeological finds in moats tend to be of higher quality beneath the windows of the smarter apartments.”
(Impey has a theory about why a hollow and a hill might have been conflated by Norman motte-and-bailey builders: “Moats and mounds were probably thought of as the same entity: you have to dig a ditch to throw up the earth for a mound.”)
Around 600 years ago, the word moat came to represent what we understand it to be today: the floodable half of a hill-and-ditch ensemble. And we enjoy the benefits of living by water, whether or not our home is a castle.
It is tempting to imagine moated medieval castles with something like the cast of Aida armed and arrayed on the ramparts, but the reality could be very different. Bodiam Castle in Sussex in the south-east of England, now in the care of the National Trust, has historians guessing whether its romantically reflected symmetry was moated for defence or as a vanity project. It was built in the 14th century for Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a local soldier of fortune in the Hundred Years War against France. Bodiam was paid for by his spoils of war. It had a moat, a mill and outer gardens for produce and pleasure.
The gatehouse presented assailants with a challenge: a blast of sprayed shot would send them diving into the 7ft- deep moat and leave them swimming for dear life while clad in armour.
Bodiam’s survival is down to Lord Curzon who drained the moat in 1917 and 1918 and lined part of it in concrete, leaving it to the Trust on his death in 1925. Today, the moat is maintained by William Past, who was born in the building that is now the teashop.
He remembers that “it was last drained in the 1970s, when lilies were choking it” then scoured in the mid- 1990s, “by which time a couple of feet of silt had built up”. Silt from rotting vegetation is one constant problem with moats. Another is the undercutting of the banks by wind-whipped water. In 2010, Past fixed lengths of coconut matting along the water’s edge as a mesh for roots to reinforce the soil.
“There are 25,000 cubic metres of water”, he says. “And there’s over a foot of silt now. I reckon we’ll need to drain it in about 10 years.”
Some 27 miles north-west, Hever Castle in Kent is owned by the Guthrie family from Scarborough. This square-set, 14th-century pile was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, and six centuries later an Arts and Crafts extension the size of a small village was added by William Waldorf Astor for entertaining. He also pumped American money into repairing the moat, and built a second, fed by a vast new lake.
This aquatic landscaping included feats of engineering, such as underground drainage pipes and pumps in case of heavy rain. But in October 1968 they failed and flooded the castle, ruining archives and panelling, while the furniture was lifted to safety. It took two years to clear and repair.
The Guthries recently installed electric pumps. Today, groundsman Dan Webb patrols the moat. This year he spotted a problem: “For the first time in 17 years we saw the beginnings of a blue-green algae bloom. It looks like someone’s thrown a tin of green paint in the water.” If left to stand, the algae, fed by an excess of phosphorus and nitrogen, will smother the surface and may create cyanotoxins, which are dangerous to animals and humans. The only treatment is to flush it into a running river while diluting its nutrients. Webb’s other priority is to keep plant life in check, before sapling roots burst the masonry lining.
Should moats be protected with fences and barriers? Hever’s chief executive, Duncan Leslie, says not, especially as the inner moat is an ornamental 4ft deep. “We’ve only had one problem, when a boy fell in. He was being chased by his mother and she jumped in after to rescue him. And she was rather more difficult to get out than the boy.”
He adds: “If anything, fences and barriers can encourage children to sit on them and then they might topple over backwards.”
Such hardware would wreck the effect of elegiac decay, a romantic idea that requires serious investment. In France a crowdfunded campaign to rescue the moated Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers in Les Trois-Moutiers has dived in at the deep end. The heritage start-up responsible, Dartagnans, calls the place “the most romantic ruin in the world” — a house rebuilt in 1870 to the pseudo-medieval formula of asymmetrical conical turrets that, in the 20th century, Walt Disney made his own.
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The engineering task is immense: recovery of a residence abandoned in 1932 after a fire. Dartagnans is led by Romain Delaume, who says 25,000 people from 115 countries raised €1.6m through the campaign. More than 1,200 volunteers have joined the effort since the castle was bought in April 2018.
Webster, meanwhile, has big plans for her house at Barnham Broom, which was restored over 41 years by its previous owners who also built the moat. She will host and run historical experiences for small groups, cooking and serving food grown from produce in her garden. Mature trees lend an ancient air. Fed by a stream and draining into the River Yare, it has never flooded. Webster is excited by what this modern intervention can regain of its deeper past.
“Historical cookery needs fish for Lent. I will stock carp and bream. Because they feed in mud [which helps to clean the silt], people did not think of bream as a favourite fish, but it is good to be accurate.”
Another selling point is that the house has no central heating. “People forget what a winter should feel like,” she says.
Hot property: homes with moats
East Flanders I Castle, Olsene, Belgium, €19m
Where The village of Olsene, 80km from Brussels. Flanders airport is 25 minutes by car.
What A five-bedroom, 19th-century castle on 15ha of land.
Why The castle is accessed through a bridge over the moat. An outdoor swimming pool is recessed into the water.
Who Antwerp Sotheby’s International Realty, tel +32 2 218 06 20
La Ducrie, Normandy, France, €849,000
Where Between the villages of Le Hommet-d’Arthenay and Pont-Hébert, 90km from Caen. Caen airport is an hour away by car.
What A nine-bedroom Norman château on 27 acres. The stone and oak timber buildings have recently been renovated.
Why The building’s moat was built in the 15th century for Louis XI, at the time Dauphin of France.
Who Hamptons International, tel +44 20 3151 7275
Walenburg Castle, Langbroek, Netherlands, €1.69m
Where The town of Langbroek, 20km from Utrecht. Amsterdam Schiphol airport is under an hour’s drive.
What A five-bedroom castle with origins dating back to the 12th century, expanded over the centuries and fully renovated in 1964.
Why In the 1960s, a renovation of the grounds inspired by Sissinghurst Castle Gardens in Kent was undertaken, which restored the moat surrounding the castle to its former glory.
Who Christie’s International Real Estate, tel +31 30 69 20 714
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