The importance of continuous use
When it comes to heritage buildings of great historic value, it cannot be underestimated how essential it is that the structure remains in continuous use. Without human habitation, a building ceases to ‘live’; it becomes a museum piece, frozen in time — or, worse, left to rack and ruin through simple neglect.
This is one of the greatest things about Europe in general: people there may seem blasé about their ancient built heritage, but this is perhaps because they live in it, occupy it, breathe life into it on a daily basis. Heritage is not taken for granted, far from it; it is more that it is as accepted a part of everyday life as breathing.
In Asia, the concept of heritage conservation is something quite new and alien, so we run the terrible risk of turning our beautiful old buildings into some sort of twisted capitalistic parody of themselves — rather like Heritage 1881 over in Tsimshatsui, sorry to say.
The English, on the other hand, have learned to adapt remarkably well (for the most part). A great example is Rockingham Castle, which has been continuously occupied for nearly 1,000 years. That number alone boggles the mind.
Built on the instruction of William the Conqueror, Rockingham Castle has been the home of the Watson family for 450 years. Prior to their ownership, the castle was held by the Crown. It is now home to James and Elizabeth Saunders-Watson and their children, and opened up for limited times each year for the public to visit. The architecture has examples from every period of its 950-year history. Surrounding the castle are some 18 acres of gardens largely following the footprint of the medieval castle.
Having been expanded and ‘improved’ over the centuries, it doesn’t conform to our romantic, fairy tale notions of what a castle should look like. Yes, there are great stone walls, turrets and towers, but for the most part, it just looks like a manor house. What makes it special are the grounds: beautiful farmlands, grassy lawns, a bizarre giant topiary known as the ‘Elephant Hedge’ — and my favourite eccentricity of all, a small tree (or is it a bush?) cultivated and persuaded over time to form a living canopy over a small side door.
Disappointingly, indoor photography is forbidden at Rockingham Castle, so the only place you can see the interiors will be via this link: http://www.rockinghamcastle.com