ITS MASSIVE ancient walls have withstood the ravages of mediaeval skirmishes and almost eight centuries of British weather. The iconic picture postcard image of two gatehouse towers reached by a bridge across the picturesque moat has made Whittington Castle one of Shropshire’s most popular tourist attractions.

Every year homage to this fortified gateway to the Marches is paid by thousands of visitors, including strangers passing by who break their journeys at the astonishing site of a moated castle towering over the roadside.

A full time curator and an active board of trustees arrange mediaeval re-enactments and other fund-raising vents, and the castle, with its popular modern cafe and book and gift shop, has become a focal point for weddings and other community activity.

But a row is brewing over what villagers say is a broken promise by English Heritage who ten years ago undertook to restore the weather-worn crucifix-shaped arrow slits behind which mediaeval archers once drew their bows when strangers approached.

At the time castle supporters welcomed the intervention by English Heritage, a government-funded body with strict rules about the maintenance and preservation of important historic buildings like the castle.

The news heralded the prospect of a skilled and sympathetic restoration, with matching stone used to replace the badly eroded edges of the original slits.

There was no shortage of material to hand, with thousands of stones from the original building on the site which mostly consists of sympathetically maintained ruins with public access along paths and bridges.

The tall turreted towers are all that remains intact of the original castle, but the whole site is one of great natural beauty with an abundance of wildlife on and in the moat.

But to the horror of villagers and others connected with the building, smooth slabs of a bluish material bearing no resemblance to the grey stonework were used.

Worse still, the masons had obviously used a modern industrial bandsaw to cut the openings, creating a very crisp machine-made effect quite incompatible with the work of mediaeval craftsmen using hand tools.

As our picture shows, the new slabs of material were not set flush with surrounding masonry, and the whole effect was to draw very unfavourable attention to the new work, instead of allowing it to blend in.

A row erupted, with letters in the press complaining that the so-called restoration was completely out of character. After initially declining to comment, English Heritage eventually defended the work, claiming that the slabs would weather in time to match the surrounding stone.

As David Owen, a former parish councillor who with others on the council regularly gave up hours of spare time to keep the castle in good shape commented at the time: “This is crazy. There was plenty of contemporary stone just lying around. Why on earth couldn’t they have used that?

A week ago retired journalist Sam Evans, one of many volunteers who give up time to help look after the castle and whose son Jonjo is chairman of the trustees, posted a picture on a local history Facebook page of the “restoration” as it looks today, and invited comments. Within 24 hours 81 villagers and others from as far afield as New Zealand and Canada had posted comments deploring the work, and further comments in the days that followed showed how strongly people felt about it.

Sam Evans commented: “This history page has never before been so inundated with hostile comments. A skilled worker carrying out a repair on a piece of antique furniture begins by finding wood that as closely as possible matches the surrounding timber in tree source, age and character. And if the rest of the piece shows signs of wear and tear from a long life, then it is perfectly in order deliberately to degrade the repair so as to make it as close a match as possible. It is known in the trade as ‘distressing’. Ironically this is the very word I would use to describe the so called repair carried out on our beloved castle on this occasion. It’s a botched job. People feel very strongly that English Heritage should come clean and rectify the mess they have made. But I doubt if anyone who supports the Castle will be too keen on letting the same English Heritage workmen loose on the building again.

“I have written to the trustees asking them to discuss this at their next meeting.”

David Owen, who now runs his on-line business from Scotland but keeps in regular touch with the village, commented: “Years ago the car park was dangerously potholed, and a local builder was kind enough to make it safe and usable again with a very cut price tarmacing job. English Heritage were furious, accusing us of doing a botched job.

“They have got a nerve, considering what they then did to the windows.”

Another villager who asked not to be named commented: “We didn’t believe their assurance at the time that the stone they had used would weather to match, and Sam’s photograph proves we were right.”