Passing by a robust little gate lodge and beneath an archway announcing my arrival at Hoddom Castle Caravan Park, I was led onto a woodland drive far removed from the crater ridden tracks I’d grown accustomed to on other quests. While the accessibility of a ruin whose environs are still peopled is undoubtedly more straightforward, I always enjoy visiting those with an approach altogether more thorny, often literally. The navigation of fences, streams and undergrowth creates a greater sense of something hidden and just a little bit secretive, making the eventual arrival at a dilapidated destination all the more rewarding. In contrast, my easy drive along the smooth tarmac towards Hoddom was at odds with my preferred experience of ruin-hunting, and it seemed peculiar to think a derelict castle would be found at the end of this well-kept road. I often discount the types of ruins encroached by leisure parks, of which there are quite a few, generally finding the constant human presence to diminish the magical quality which can only truly be found at an isolated location. But I had made an exception and decided to take a look at Hoddom while in the area, hoping that the winter season may make for a quieter visit.
Such hopes were proved accurate upon my arrival at the castle, the place seeming deserted as I walked across its immediate policies to the West. I passed through a handsome quartet of Neo-Jacobean gate piers marooned amidst the lawns, appearing somewhat displaced by the absence of a drive between them and a wall to unite the set. I knew Hoddom to have been the subject of much demolition in past decades, the result of which is a group of remnants now a little ramshackle. Beyond I could see the anticipated yet incongruous caravans sat side by side, and I turned in the direction from which I had walked to survey the castle in its entirety.
Hoddom Castle began life as a fortified tower house, constructed around the mid-1500s but believed to incorporate earlier work from the previous century. Described as one of the strongest castles in the Borders, it formed part of a line of defensive structures across the region built by Sir John Maxwell. In 1547 Maxwell had become Lord Herries upon his marriage to Agness, Lady Herries, who was the eldest daughter and co-heir of her father 3rd Lord Herries of Terregles. A few years later Maxwell bought two thirds of the Herries lands which hadn’t been inherited by his wife, and proceeded to build his castle, supposedly from the stones of a demolished chapel. It is said that the demolition of a sacred site played on his conscience, and in regret he also built the nearby Repentance Tower as a look-out to warn local people of English invaders. Hoddom took the form of an L-plan structure, its main block of four storeys topped with a garret and adjoined by a towering stair jamb. Among various schemes of alteration undertaken throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the stair tower was heightened c.1636-40 to rise 72ft above ground with conical roofed corner bartizans.
It is this stair tower which still dominates Hoddom’s site above the River Annan and I was impressed by its lofty form. It stood tall and spectral in the pale afternoon light, guarded by a great perimeter wall, making for an unlikely centrepiece to the surrounding holiday park with its shuttered and boarded windows. I moved back towards the castle, heading to the chained gateway crowned with a bellcote and ball finials in the wall straight ahead. The base of the tower sat a short distance beyond, its tiny door positioned in the re-entrant angle dwarfed by the mass of its walls. My eyes followed the ascension of the red ashlar, undecorated until the line of corbelling beneath the parapet above. Gun slots and machicolations alluded to the castle’s past as a stronghold and despite their many pock-marks Hoddom’s muscular walls still appeared impenetrable; as yet undefeated by the ravages of neglect.
I continued south, following the extensive screen wall interrupted by drum turrets. This wall is of 17th century origin and extended to enclose the castle in a courtyard. The whole was bordered by a moat altogether creating a veritable fortress, the breaching of which must have appeared a daunting task in more hostile times. On the southernmost aspect I came to another gateway reached by a Tudor arched bridge crossing a deep ravine, presumed to be part of the first of three major schemes of alteration which took place at Hoddom in the 19th century. By this time the building had passed through the hands of numerous owners since its inception, and in 1826 the castle sprouted wings to the designs of William Burn. Around fifty years later an east facing Tudor style range was added by the architectural practice Wardrop & Reid, and from 1886 Wardrop’s son together with his partner Anderson made further extensions in the form of a neo-Jacobean stable court and service wing to the North. Hoddom Castle had been transformed into a rambling asymmetrical mansion with the old tower as its nucleus. After doubling in size its new form was to be short lived, as was so often the case with subjects of rampant Victorian enlargement. After serving as a youth hostel from 1935 the house was requisitioned during WWII, being inhabited by allied servicemen. After their departure it remained unoccupied until 1947 when the contents were sold off. A programme of demolition commenced in 1953, in turn revealing many original features of the old castle, and continued until the 1970s when the Burn additions were completely removed.
I peered through the gate at the castle walls once again, now noticing the scars which bore witness to the vanished additions; coarse raggles showing where the roofs of the severed wings had once extended. Retracing my steps and making my way to the opposite side of the castle I passed those extensions which had survived, remaining only tenuously linked with the original tower house. The late Victorian wing now houses services for the caravan residents, creating an odd juxtaposition of the used and the abandoned. The proud stone lions atop their eaves were illuminated by a warm glow as I veered to the rear of the castle, this side unblocked by the screen wall which had terminated in a turret. I had not yet encountered anyone during my visit and there were no signs of life here either, but something held me back from advancing any further. The castle stood dark against the sun, seeming somehow withdrawn. While encircling its perimeter I had been kept at a distance by the wall which marked its boundary, and I now felt that distance should be maintained. The castle appeared out of reach, as though lost in time when all around had changed. Glad to have detoured, I made my way home, leaving Hoddom the strangely removed presence I had found it.