Monday, March 3, 2014

Visiting Trim Castle

Bit By the Travel Bug 

Spring is on its way here in Ireland.  In fact, March 1 marks the first day of calendar Spring here- but Ireland traditionally celebrates the first of February, St. Brigid's Day, as the first day of Spring.

Either way, the weekend weather was looking good, and we were itching to get out of Dublin, no disrespect to our fair city, of course.  We decided to take a day trip to nearby Trim, County Meath to see its famous castle and explore the rest of the historic village.

Trim is an easy one hour bus ride on Bus Eireann from Dublin's central bus station, Busaras.  We woke up early and walked the three miles up to City Centre on a Saturday morning.  Among all the weekend morning detritus, I found a beer glass with the Murphy's Stout label, a rare and unique gem for my glass collection.  It was going to be with us for the rest of the day, but that didn't bother us a bit.

We caught the 9:30 bus and enjoyed a pleasant ride through the suburbs and bedroom communities around Dublin until we reached Trim.  The bus stop (along with most everything in Trim) is within sight of its famous Norman castle on the bank of the (also famous) River Boyne.  After a quick and pleasant walk we arrived at the gate of this medieval masterpiece.

Trim Castle seen from the River Boyne, Trim, Ireland
The Castle from the Riverbank

Trim Castle seen from Dublin Road, Trim, Ireland
The Castle from the Road to Dublin

Trim Castle

In the offseason, the castle is only open on weekends.  With the exception of a large bus tour arriving just as we did, the castle and grounds weren't as busy and crowded as most tourist attractions.  I guess it's our good luck that we can visit on a beautiful early Spring day before the height of summer tourist season hits.

The castle complex itself consists of a large central structure (keep) and the surrounding walls, gates, and towers.  The keep itself is very well preserved and well presented for visitors.  Many of the buildings in the castle yard are no longer standing, but interpretive signs give visitors a visualization of the general layout.  The keep itself is only accessible with the excellent guided tour, and we were fortunate enough to arrive just in time for the next one.

Trim Castle Keep in Trim, Ireland
Trim Castle Keep

Trim Castle keep central structure, Trim, Ireland
Keep Central Structure

Trim Castle keep with safe walkways and platforms
Safe and Comfortable Access

The tour of the interior of the keep is incredible.  Most of the original wood flooring is missing, and the central structure of the keep is now one large room looking up to the rafters.  That said, the keep has been made accessible with an extensive series of platforms and walkways, giving visitors a safe way to move about the keep and its three floors.  A series of scale models depict the keep at various stages of its development, beginning in the 1170s.  Our tour guide described in detail the many design quirks of the keep, particularly its famous defensive flaws.

The main keep is a central square structure with four square towers on its sides.  After the towers were completed, the engineers realized that all these corners were severe flaws in defense.  The main keep had twenty sides, meaning twenty sides to guard and defend, and twenty corners that enemy invaders could exploit.  Those same (or maybe some replacement) engineers developed some clever defensive workarounds to solve this major problem.  At the base of each tower, they installed short, steep stone ramps, or batter walls.  These ramps extended the bottom angle of each tower, and made it difficult for invaders to lean a ladder against the tower.  They also provided another violent and hilarious new defense method.  Their angle was calculated so that a rock dropped from the towers above would hit the ramps and bounce off at a right angle (and at high velocity) at anyone unfortunate to be on the ground at the time.  Think like an ancient game of billiards or pool with larger balls and much higher stakes...

Angled Batter Walls at Trim Castle, Trim, Ireland
Angled Batter Walls

Wooden walkways were added outward from the high towers of the keep to aid the guards in surveillance and defense.  The walkways were topped with animal skins, which would be soaked with water to resist fire in the event of an attack.  As a backup plan, the support beams of these exterior walkways could be pulled out from inside the keep, dropping the entire wooden structure (possibly in flames) onto the attackers below.

We later laughed and wondered at the resources, engineering, and manpower that went into defense in those violent times.  Those in power must have lived in such paranoia, spending every waking moment looking over their shoulder, wondering which of their employees might betray them or when that invading army would come in the night.  We couldn't help but wonder what would happed if these lords had invested all those same defensive resources into improving the hard life of their subordinates.  Could they have lived in peace as benevolent and generous rulers, or would human nature ultimately bring about the same coups and assassinations?  I guess the world today would be a better place today if we knew the definitive answer to that question...

Back to the keep, where the tour goes all the way to the top ramparts and a beautiful all-around view of the castle grounds, the city of Trim, and beyond.  Our tour guide pointed out the location of several important buildings within sight of the castle, some still partially standing, some lost to development.  We could even see a memorial to a modern-day Irish hero.  A statue stands on a pillar of Wellington, the man who beat Napoleon at Waterloo, an Irish man from Trim.  Another monument to him stands in Phoenix Park in Dublin.

Barbican Gate at Trim Castle, Trim, Ireland
Barbican Gate

Main Castle Town Gate, Trim Castle, Trim, Ireland
Main Castle Town Gate

River Boyne and Yellow Steeple at Trim Castle, Trim, Ireland
River Boyne and Yellow Steeple

River Boyne seen from the ramparts of Trim Castle, Trim, Ireland
River Boyne from the Ramparts

Wellington Monument in Trim, Ireland
Wellington Monument

We climbed down the long, winding staircase to the ground floor.  The going is a bit tough, as the staircases were built with uneven step height and step width to slow down unfamiliar attackers.  They also wind clockwise going up to give the advantage to right handed defenders with the high position.  We finished the keep tour and headed out to poke around the castle grounds.

Most of the remaining structures are either part of the exterior wall or below ground level.  We crawled around and snapped photos of the various ins and outs of the remaining stonework, getting occasional glances at the old moat surrounding the wall and the River Boyne just beyond.

Below the Great Hall of Trim Castle in Trim, Ireland
Below the Great Hall

An underground passage at Trim Castle in Trim, Ireland
Underground Passage

Part of a tower of the exterior wall stands along the moat of Trim Castle in Trim, Ireland
Moat and Fallen Tower

Defense tower at Trim Castle in Trim, Ireland
Defense Tower

The famous Barbican Gate at Trim Castle in Trim, Ireland
Famous Barbican Gate

I love the European plan for visiting these old structure.  Visitors are allowed to look around most areas unsupervised and without velvet ropes blocking off possibly interesting areas.  The keep itself requires a guided tour for obvious safety and preservation reasons, but everything on the grounds is fair game.  We got to closely inspect the stonework of each tower and wall face.

Until very recently, the castle was even more accessible- but not for the best of reasons.  Until the 1990s, the castle was privately owned but not well maintained, preserved, or managed.  According to our tour guide, it was a popular hiding place for young hooligans skipping school.  Adventurous kids used to climb around the narrow, crumbling ledges of the interior keep on dares.  I am certainly glad I wasn't a kid in Trim when it was a free-for-all, as I might not have survived childhood. I most likely would have crushed myself on the stone floor of the keep after saying something like, "Hey!  Look how far up I...!"

Because it sat fallow and unmanaged for so long, a great deal of unfortunate graffiti is carved into many faces of ancient stonework.  Sad, but a reality in the world.  It's amazing as an American to think of an eight hundred year old castle sitting in the middle of a city and no one knowing what to do with it.  In The States, people cried foul during urban renewal in the 1970s, when many cities tore down unused buildings from the late nineteenth century.  Here, they've got s'many gorsh-darn castles they're trippin' over 'em!

Among all this gushing, I haven't yet mentioned one of the favorite claims to fame of the castle.  In 1994, Mel Gibson paid a visit to Trim to film several important scenes for his movie, Braveheart.  The movie crew built wooden railings and platforms onto the existing stone of some of more well preserved structures.  They filmed different scenes at the castle, including the sacking of York (the part with the battering ram), the Prince's lover being thrown out the tower window, and the famous torture and execution scene at the end of the movie.

After an enjoyable morning spent in and around the castle grounds, it was time to move on.  We took one last look at the walls and the fabulous keep, and headed for more ancient ruins along the River Boyne.

The keep of Trim Castle in Trim, Ireland
One Last Look

Totally Unsolicited Travel Tips (Updated March 2014)

  1. To get to Trim from Dublin Busaras, take Bus Eireann route 111.  The fare is reasonable and the bus runs regularly on weekdays.  The schedule is slightly reduced on Saturday and Sunday.  The bus drops off and picks up just east of the castle and town.  Take the walking trail along the river towards the huge stone castle-shaped object.
  2. It might not be feasible in your travel plans, but our off-season weekend visit spared us the busy summer crowds.  Check tour availability in advance of your visit date.  Entrance to the castle grounds only is 3 Euro.  Entrance to the castle grounds and a guided tour of the keep costs 4 Euro.  If this sounds like a no-brainer, it is.  The tour of the keep is fantastic, and the only way to get into the keep itself.  If you are spending the time and money to get to Trim and the castle, there is no reason to cheap out on the admission.  Pop the extra coin for the keep tour, you'll be glad you did. 
  3. We got lucky with the early Spring weather and stayed warm and dry.  You might not.  Check the weather forecast and come prepared.  The keep itself is covered, but the grounds are open to the sky and the good graces of the weather.  Some of the lower ground near the moat and the River Boyne is soft and muddy in the rain- watch your step.

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