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Thursday 22 August 2013

Bowl turning on a pole lathe, jousting, birds of prey and an unlucky king at Carisbrooke Castle.

Carisbrooke Castle is a very interesting place. It lies just outside Newport, the Isle of Wight's biggest town. There are signs of settlement there going back to pre-Roman times, but most of the fortifications date to later than the Norman keep that sits on the motte (or mound) overlooking the site.

The castle has been remodelled several times, which can be seen even at the entrance gatehouse.

The lower part was built in 1335 and has cross-shaped firing points, for bows and crossbows. The gatehouse was extended above the horizontal lines around it in 1378, when the French threatened to attack it during the Hundred Years War. The extended part has circular holes with slits and would be used by defenders firing handguns.

There was extensive remodelling of the castle during the sixteenth century under the guidance of Sir George Carey, due to the threat from the Spanish Armada. However, some of the buildings from this time are now in ruins.

The chapel of St Nicholas in Castro was renovated in 1904, after falling into disrepair through lack of use because the church in the village was more accessible to most people. It is now a memorial to Charles I as well as being the war memorial chapel for the Isle of Wight. There are some nice Edwardian woodcarvings on the pews, showing the symbols for the writers of the gospels.

The castle houses a very interesting museum with many of the exhibits concerned with King Charles I, who was imprisoned at Carisbrooke for fourteen months before being taken to his execution. His daughters were also imprisoned there and one, Princess Elizabeth, died there.

Quite a few of the exhibits are of interest to a carver. One is an ivory gaming piece, dating to Norman times, from a game called 'tables', which was similar to backgammon.

This chamber organ was built in 1602 and is still in working order. It shows the arms of the Earl of Montrose and has Flemish inscriptions taken from the bible carved onto it. I don't think that the electrical flex is connected to the instrument!

There are also other carved pieces on show:

As well as this fragment of a medieval saw blade:

While we were visiting Carisbrooke, there was a 'medieval' joust and displays of medieval skills such as falconry and bowmaking. The joust took place on the bowling green, where Charles I played bowls whilst he was imprisoned. It was previously the drill ground for soldiers stationed at the castle and may well have seen jousting in medieval times.

One of the exhibitors was 'James the Bowl', who was making wooden bowls turned on a pole lathe. I had an interesting chat with him about what he was doing.

James told me that a lot of the designs for the equipment that he was using came from an image of a turner making equipment for the Mary Rose, although the image doesn't show a toolrest, which would have been vital. Many early images don't, perhaps because it would obscure the view and confuse the viewer.

Apparently, many kinds of timber were used to make the turned bowls found on the Mary Rose. Bowls have even been found made from oak, which tends to split and can taint food so is not normally used for this purpose. One timber that was not found is willow.

The shapes of the gouges used to cut the bowls have been worked out from the cut marks on found ones. Robin Wood, a well-known pole lathe bowl turner, has done a lot of work on this subject.

The mandrel, which holds the wooden blank to be turned into the bowl, is also not shown on old pictures. James' one has three flattened points, which he explained helps to keep the blank on. He said that other methods were known to have been adopted, Viking finds have had many points stuck into the blank and sometimes a simple round mortice and tenon was used, with a sliver of green wood in the mortice to wedge it in. The mandrel needs to be pretty tough and could be carried between places, so having iron bands on each end of it to prevent splitting would make sense.

It was very interesting to see what bowl turning in medieval and Tudor times was like and how people have filled in the gaps in historical knowledge by practical experience. The jousting was a lot of fun to watch too!

If you would like to see James' blog, it is at:

Robin Wood is a very well-known and respected pole lathe bowl turner and his website is at:

This is an interesting overview of historical pole lathe turning:

Carisbrooke Castle museum has a website here:

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