Monday, 1 September 2014

Ashby Castle and Resilience

It has been the summer holidays and we have had our share of nice days out. Last week I visited Ashby Castle with my youngest daughter and her friends. You may be able to make them out at the top of the tower.

Ashby Castle is an English Heritage site. It is basically a ruin, but what remains is immensely fun for kids. There are the grassy slopes of a sunken garden and lake, which are great for rolling down or running around.

There are ruins with grand doorways and hidden stairways, brilliant for hide and seek or toy sword battles. The 6 storey tower with it's spiral staircase gives a grand view of the surrounding area too.

But absolutely the best feature is a secret underground passageway running from the base of the tower to the old kitchen cellars. It just gives an extra element of authenticity and fun to imaginative battle games to storm the castle.

Now some of the visitors will be wandering round with an audio guide, but we just spread out a picnic and let the kids imaginations run wild.

When my youngest daughter was about 2, we came with some friends - about 13 kids in total. The boys were all dressed up as knights and kings with swords and shields, and the younger girls as princesses. It was the most amazing day! It is such a shame that they have grown up.

This time was a much quieter affair and I sat looking at the walls of the tower. They are incredibly thick. The wall above is twice as thick as the doorway.

The tower was built in 1470 and designed to withstand attacks. The thick walls were a big investment of labour and resources, but the intention was to build something that was resilient and would last for generations. As it was, the tower was blown up in 1648, but it was so well built that the remaining half of the tower that you see above, has stood for another 360 years and could well last another 360 more.

I was sitting on a picnic blanket reading a section from Green Wizardry by John Michael Greer on 'Sustainability and Resilience'. His point was that efficiency is about getting the most from the least resources, whereas resilience is the opposite. Resilience is about having spare capacity or using extra resources to make things that are stronger, longer lasting, and can absorb shocks. In the case of Ashby Castle the time, energy and resources invested in those strong walls, was intended to protect the people inside and is the main reason that they are still standing for us to enjoy today.

Here is an example of some homes built in the last couple of years. To me they are so ugly. But they are very efficient. Look at the shape - they are almost square. This gives the biggest internal area for the smallest area of external walls. In other words it uses less bricks than a fancier shaped house. The ceilings inside are low to reduce unnecessary height and brickwork. And the roof has virtually no overhang to save on tiles, which would otherwise provide some shelter from rain to the brickwork and shade upper windows in hot weather. It is also a very shallow roof slope, again being efficient with materials, but not allowing for any deviation in the weather that could bring a heavy snowfall.

The buildings are 3 storeys high to minimise on the footprint, and in addition the garden is tiny, so being very efficient with land. Just in case you don't realise how short the garden is, I was walking along the path one day, when the occupant opened their back door and threw a burnt slice of toast over the back fence. Just a toast toss between backdoor and fence!

There was really no need to be so efficient with space in Loughborough. This is the edge of a small town, not a city centre, but then maybe it is better to squeeze all the ugly buildings in tightly so as not to spoil the view too much.

The council negotiated an 11 acre open park area as part of the development deal, which is great for me to walk my dog round, but it adjoins an existing park area of a similar size, and it is not widely known about. So these ugly houses have been built with virtually no space to grow their own food, dry their washing, or room for their kids play. Yet the open playing areas are too far from the houses and too empty of people to be safe from stranger danger, so it seems the kids stay at home instead.

There is no large lawn to mow for weekly exercise, or flowerbeds to attract bees and insects. No room for trees or ponds to encourage wildlife and back garden ecosystems. Yet the council, with their funds becoming tighter, now has the burden of an additional large open space with grass to cut, bins to empty and borders to maintain on a regular basis. There are no allotments in this ward either!

The really wasteful thing is that these houses probably won't be here at the turn of the next century, so it is a false sense of efficiency. It is not just because they seem flimsy compared to a large part of the UK's building stock which is built pre-1940. But because they are ugly, and who wants to maintain and care for an ugly house?

The homes below are cheap and cheerful houses from 100 years ago. Efficient terraced housing with small gardens. They were built to save space and be close to amenities, as people walked most places in those days. However the little attractive features, such as the decorative trim at the eaves, the curves around the windows and doors, and the symmetry all add to making them more appealing and helping them survive. The rooms have additional height to make them feel more spacious and the bay window makes them feel less 'square' and brings in more light. They may not have un underground tunnel, but were built with cellars.

It is funny because even the 1950's council houses were solid and built to last, and they provided a reasonable garden. During a time when the country had a large war debt to pay off we were building with some resilience. At some point since then resilience has gone out the window. There is clearly a lack of balance between 'lean manufacturing' efficiency (otherwise known as cheap and cheerful 'Noddy' homes) and a need to build in resilience so that homes are fit for the future.


  1. This is a really interesting post [I really must visit Ashby Castle sometime, it isn't far from me!] I heard Pru Leith ranting [in a nice way] on the radio about building regs changing over the years and rooms becoming smaller, so people no longer have space for a dining table to sit round, which has contributed to the demise of 'proper family meals' [her words] So much planning seems very shortsighted [eg children's access to play space] I do not often leave a comment, but I always enjoy your posts - they make me think, and challenge my own choices. Not always in 100% agreement - but so much of what you say chimes with my own feelings. Thanks for the blog

    1. Thanks for you comment Angela. I am glad you found it interesting. I hadn't thought about dining rooms getting smaller, but you are right that these things impact on how we live our lives.

  2. 'Family time' is getting less and less as time goes by and yet it is so important. I don't actually know any of my daughters friends that sit around the table everyday for dinner at night (we are the exception) and I think it is so sad as it is a really good way to all catch up for the day and in turn it helps to keep a family 'close'.....TV dinners just won't achieve the same thing

    1. I am with you on having dinners together. It really is the best time to talk as a family when the rest of the day is spent rushing around. You are right that it doesn't work with a TV on!