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The Judge's Lodging (Presteigne, Wales)

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Preserved house in Presteigne in Wales now open as a museum

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      07.02.2011 13:56
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      Judged and not found wanting

      == Introduction ==

      The Judge's Lodging in Presteigne is exactly what its name would suggest: the comfortable residence provided for judges presiding at court in the Shire Hall of Radnorshire, situated in the pleasant little mid-Wales town on the English border. The building also contains the courtroom itself, extensive servants' quarters (below stairs, of course!) and even holding cells for prisoners. It is a surprisingly little known attraction outside the area, but one which is well worth a visit.

      == Starting off ==

      The exterior of the Shire Hall is, as 19th century public buildings quite often are, a ltitle bit intimidating and overly grand for such a small town (although it must be remembered that Presteigne was in those days a more important local centre than it is today). However, once you're in through the front door all that changes, and after making your way down a short passage to the reception area you will be (at least, I was) greeted by friendly staff who do a lot to make the place an enjoyable destination.

      This area is where you pay - and refreshingly the staff seem more than happy to offer discounts for family groups etc - and it also contains a small shop. This is much the sort of thing you will find in most local tourist attractions, but it is worth giving it a few minutes' browse, as you may find a booklet or something that deals with an aspect of local life not to be found in the larger, more impersonal tourist offices in the area. I was also able to leave an umbrella here, though as usual this is at your own risk.

      The Lodging offers an audio tour, which is included in the admission price, and this is something I recommend accepting. This may have changed very recently, but when I visited the tour was provided on cassettes played by, of all things, Fisher-Price cassette players! This is a brilliant idea: being produced to stand up to rough kids, they're also strong enough to deal with museum visitors, they're easy to operate, they're in cheerful, bright colours... and on top of that they're not very likely to be stolen!

      == Upstairs, downstairs ==

      There are very few staff visible upstairs - you are mostly just left to get on with it, though as the audio tour is on cassette you do really have to travel in the suggested order. Some may find this lack of staff annoying, but I much prefer it this way; there is no pressure to look at the "right" things, and if you wish to spend your entire time in one room perusing the top of a saucepan, then there's nothing to stop you! Very little is roped off, and again you are trusted to exercise your judgement and common sense regarding what is likely to be fragile - in fact you are actually *encouraged* to touch in many places. This lack of barriers helps in making the building seem less of a dusty monument and more of a living museum.

      I began my self-guided tour "upstairs", with a look into the clerks' room, where visiting magistrates would stay. This is not a hugely grand room on the scale that you would find in a stately home, but it is quite spacious and comfortable all the same. There's a lot of furniture and plenty of fitments and fittings to peruse, as well as some interesting (and sometimes amusing!) information on the tape about some of the judges who used the room, what they thought of (what was then) the quite remote town... and what some of the servants thought about them!

      After a quick look at the bathroom, it was time to go "downstairs", and for me - as I suspect for most people - that's where the real interest lies. In this fairly extensive area can be found the servants' common room, bedrooms, etc. Unsurprisingly perhaps, one of the most popular rooms is the kitchen, which is packed with weird and wonderful culinary equipment - a spit for roasting larks, for example! Next to this is a blue pantry. Why blue, you may ask? The answer is simple: it was thought that flies would be repelled by the colour! Again, the place is not roped off and so you can wander freely around the kitchen and examine the utensils and furniture at your leisure.

      There is one important point to make here: while the upstairs is lit either by modern lighting or (for example on the main staircase) by reasonably steady oil lamps, the servants' floor is not. It is in fact lit by *open-flame* gas lamps - not the relatively modern gas mantles you still see in the streets of Malvern, but something more akin to a Bunsen burner in a glass dish. This early form of gas lighting was installed in 1860, but only in the servants' quarters as the gentry didn't want to risk it! The light produced by these lamps is very flickery, and can be quite hard on your eyes. It's not very bright, either!

      == "Norman Stanley Fletcher..." ==

      Well, okay, the courtroom from which the judge gave his sentence at the start of every episode of Porridge was a *little* bit more modern than this one! But the imposing room, which you visit right at the end of your tour, is quite an eye-opener. For a start, there's the lighting. It's an open-flame gasolier, which is like a super-version of those lights I mentioned in the last section, and when fully operational (it was off while I was there, but apparently there are demonstrations occasionally) it consists of 18 six-inch flames!

      The courtroom is still in almost the same condition that it was in the middle of the 19th century, and (perhaps inevitably) you are entertained on the audio track by an account of the trial of a duck thief! You can wander around the room and pretend to be judge, accused, press reporter or a member of the jury. It's very interesting to compare the view accorded to each one of these, and how the room looks much more intimidating from the dock than it does from the judge's chair.

      Just before reaching the courtroom, and on the way out of the servants' area, is a dim and dingy place... that's right; this is where the cells are. A couple of them have been preserved, and you can go in, though thankfully the doors do not clang shut behind you! (At least, they didn't for me... but you may want to watch your back!) This is a pretty depressing area of the building, and intentionally so. Still, the actual gaol in Presteigne had a grim reputation, so perhaps these small cells, which at least possessed a privy and straw bedding, might have been preferable.

      == Verdict ==

      I must admit that, before visiting the Judge's Lodging, it had been one of those museums which I'd seen advertised many a time but had never really felt enthused about visiting for myself. Having now been there, I have changed my mind completely and would strongly recommend a trip. The lack of stuffiness in the presentation is a major part of this, and those open gas lights are something I have never seen anywhere else. Hard on the eyes, but extremely atmospheric!

      Admission prices (see below) seem reasonable to me; it's not one of the cheapest museums you will find, but it's an awful lot less expensive than many other places of its type. The staff are clearly dedicated to the Lodging and try hard to help with any queries; it's remarkable how much difference this little thing can make to any tourist attraction. Presteigne itself is a nice little town, with several good places to eat (there's no café at the Lodging) and a trip here would make a good day out. All in all, highly recommended.

      == Getting there ==

      Presteigne is just off the B4362, which itself can be reached quite easily from the A44 trunk road between Leominster and Rhayader. Follow the signs into the town -- as Presteigne is not a large place, it is hard to get too badly lost! The Lodging does *not* have its own car parking, but there are several car parks in the town itself, and the compactness of Presteigne means that it's not too much of a walk from any of them.

      By public transport getting to the Lodging is a little more difficult. The nearest railway station is Knighton, six miles away, and even that station only sees a few trains per day. Presteigne is on several bus routes, although most of these will also need quite careful planning. If you ring the Lodging (see the "Contact" section below) they will be willing to help you plan your day, and even help with directions; this is another aspect of their pleasant attitude.

      == Practicalities ==

      The Judge's Lodging is open from the start of March until just before Christmas. In the main season (March to October) you can visit between 10.00 am and 5.00 pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Note that the museum is closed on Mondays.

      In the low season the Lodging closes at 4.00 pm. In November the museum is additionally closed on Tuesdays, and in December it is open at weekends only.

      Admission prices are as follows for the 2011 season:

      Adults: £6.50
      Children: £3.50 (under-fives free)
      Concessions: £5.50
      Family: £17.00

      Visitors who are registered disabled are admitted free of charge, to compensate for only the ground floor being accessible to those unable to negotiate stairs. (The listed nature of the building means that installing lifts is not an option.)

      There are slightly discounted group rates for parties of ten or more.

      There is no catering on site, though there are several places to eat in the town. There are toilets, however, which I found to be a little bit cramped but clean and well maintained.

      == Contact ==

      Web: www.judgeslodging.org.uk
      Tel: (01544) 260560
      Post: The Judge's Lodging, Broad Street, Presteigne, Powys, LD8 2AD

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