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The CPI is now above 5% – officially. (CPI 5.2% – up 0.7% in a month! and RPI is 5.6%)


Now I don’t know how accurate (by which I mean “meaningful” these figures are) so I am going to wilfully stray into what I suspect (with my limited knowledge of the “reflected-sound-of-underground-spirits”) is the mine field of deep historical economics.

Last weekend I was in North Wales. Amongst other things I went round Conwy Castle:

(I have better photos I took myself but I’m in my shed and my camera is “upstairs” and it is raining like Gaia needs TENA Lady.)

Now Conwy Castle (and according to most accounts) the still largely extant city walls cost Edward I the princely sum of GBP 15,000 to build (in a mere four years – Wikipedia says longer but I think that’s small piecemeal extensions and not the meat and two veg of it). And that in hostile territory which is of course why he was building a castle in the first place and not a stately pleasure dome or a WalMart or whatever. That castle is a hell of a thing (and I originate from near the great castles of Northumberland). I’d like to take any of the engineers or brickies or whatever from Barratt Homes round it and say, “Now that’s how you build something to last”.

Everyone agrees that in the late C13th- early C14th Conwy Castle was Edward’s most expensive castle in his Welsh castle building spree (it must keep the irascible old fuck awake in his grave that ultimately his constructions to keep the Welsh down are now a major source of tourist sponds for the self-same). At the castle the figure of GBP 15,000 is translated into GBP 45,000,000 in modern monies. Wikipedia puts it at GBP 9,000,000. Who knows? It is almost impossible to translate costs over such a period and I would suggest impossible to translate value.

Anyway. GBP 45 million (top end) is not really a lot of money for a lot of castle (and walls). About ten years ago I learned that the absolute minimum cost for an underground tube station (not including line) was GBP 25 million. This was based on the previous decade’s Jubilee line extension. So it’s probably fair to say Conwy Castle (and walls) cost in “real terms” (I appreciate the difficulties in terms of mathematics, history and economics here) much the same as a single station on that line.

Or to put it another way. The top-end estimate (adjusted for the 2011 quid) for Conwy Castle (and town walls) is somewhat less than one tenth the cost of the stadium they have built in East London for the Olympics next year. I believe that to be a fair comparison because construction methods and materials are of course very different. You have to take that into account because to build a C13th castle the C13th way would be a billionaire’s perversion these days.

I shall skim over the fact that whilst I reckon there is a damn good chance Conwy Castle will be with us (well not us exactly) in 2711 I very much doubt the new West Ham (or is it Spurs?) stadium will last that long.

I have just one question. Why? I mean over the years almost everything you can compare seems to have got cheaper. The average joe on an average wage works for much less time to buy a loaf of bread than his medieval ancestor. What makes building so special as to so spectacularly buck that trend? Now I appreciate Edward I was paying his workers a pittance (by modern standards – though I’m given to understand skilled stone-masons and carpenters and such earned top-dollar then as now) but surely technology, machinery and all the rest should have made a huge difference? They have in every other field of human endeavour.

So, why?


  1. Lynne says:

    With inflation heading skywards the only castles we’d expect to be constructed these days would be of the bouncy variety.

  2. Chuckles says:

    ‘Good British Workmanship’ costs you know….

    That, and the eye-wateringly spectacular accociated incompetence . Watch any episode of Grand Designs involving overseas and locals – e.g. ‘kit house’ from Germany, Scandinavia, or USA.

    That said Nick, they’ve been fiddling the inflation figures for years, so I’d gues the true number is anything up to 4 times that. Energy prices have doubled in the last 6 years or so, that that alone is 12-16% per year.

  3. View from the Solent says:

    I hope you didn’t use just pencil and paper to calculate those numbers, Nick. If so, you ain’t doing it right.

  4. MickC says:

    Probably because the old stuff wasn’t designed to be “just good enough for the job”.

    Old steam locomotives, like old buildings didn’t have much maths put into the structure-it was “make it thick enough and that’ll work”-thats why both have survived so long I think.

    The modern stuff is designed to last just “so long” being the estimate of the time they’ll be needed or fashionable.

  5. RAB says:

    Ah, but how did you like Portmeirion Nick? That, as you know by now, was built on the cheap out of Skips and reclaimation yards?

    Like a film set eh? And in places almost as wobbly as the old Crossroads one.

    I found it mad and magical myself. The berthed boat that isn’t a boat and the gayly painted statue of Lord Nelson, plonked by the seashore for no reason at all, or the one of John the baptist in the pulpit, but the setting is just spectacular.

  6. Paddy says:


    your figures are true, but don’t forget how they actually calculate the numbers: they look at what’s gone up in the previous 12 months according to their index. This can clearly cause some rather large distortions as the index composed of local prices evolves, the currency fluctuates, the employment rate changes etc…

    I think they’re making a bad mistake with QE. Basic supply and demand applies to money too: print more while demand is stagnant and the value will fall. That said, there were astoundingly bad choices made before.

    The historical purchasing power of currency is a very interesting question. In essence, looking at the evidence of the “middle ages”, it is obvious that the technology of the time was continually evolving. Essentially, things are difficult to compare, but my perspective is that nothing was ever built without a purpose.

    Where the leaders of the mediaevals focussed their efforts was in physical security and in religion. Castles were a good investment and so were Cathedrals given the society of the time.

    Putting things into perspective today, you are entirely right that we should be able to more with less, but I guess that it is about incentives here. First of all, the old leaders building their castles were planning for the long term, not for a short fixed term. Second of all they had to offer leadership, making the right choices or the kingdom would be displaced. This was about permanent survival and improvement.

    In contrast, let us take the famous Edinburgh trams. The project will produce a light rail system running parallel to an existing rail system but with destinations 100 yards away from existing facilities (the railway line at Edinburgh passes along the East end of the Airport runway). It would be as cheap to buy a rail of gold of the same length at 1 oz per inch than to build the trams (back of envelope warning). This is not a long term project and it serves no useful purpose. There are so many decisions that are made to build things that are not required. In the example of the Scottish context, the same money if spent on infrastructure could have been used to connected Inverness to dual carriageways. The older might have done that.

    Really, this is a question about how we can mobilise our people and our resources to build the things we really need to develop our country. Such comparisons are difficult to make over such time-scales. Looking at the massive waste in our systems, the Edinburgh trams or the Nimrod, we are woefully bad at this!

    All the best,


  7. Andrew Duffin says:

    “Regulations” is the answer, as so often.

    The main cost of building these days is the unbelievable hassle you have to go through to get planning permission. Compare the price of a legal building plot with the same area of farmland with no pp, and you’ll get the idea.

    How many inspectors do you think had to satisfied or bought off to get the Tube Station built? More than the number of people who actually built it, I’ll bet.

  8. Paul Marks says:

    The Middle Ages get a bad press.

    However, if one compares the period to that of the Roman Empire, it looks good.

    Looks good in both technological and economic improvement.

    The Roman Empire inherited the technolgical base of the Roman Republic and of the civilizations Rome has overwhelmed (the Etrusticans, Carthage, Classical Greece, the Celts….) and did BUGGER ALL with this base.

    Indeed the world of 400 A.D. was a more primitive place (certainly economically) than the world of 1 A.D.

    Under the Empire things went backwards.

    Towns and so on were in massive decline long before the barbarian invasions.

    This can not be said of the Middle Ages – in Britain or anywhere else in Western Europe.

    If taxes and regulations were too high under a bad King – merchants (and other such) fled to a less bad King in another land.

    And if taxes on landowners were penal, or the law became a corrupt joke – they (the feudal lords) could rise up against a ruler and bring him to his knees (as King John found).

    Indeed under the system of “bastard fedualism” (the England of the “Wars of the Roses”) the system did not evolve such things as serfdom at all. It was about men swareing loyality to a lord (in return for money or other support).

    And it was a world where everyone (even the most ordinary “peasant”) was expected to be armed – and to be ready to kill.

    The world of the Roman Empire was very different.

    A professional army with everyone else disarmed by law.

    A world that was united – with only the barbarian tribes beyond it.

    No possibility of successfull resistance against government – and no place to flee to.

    And no counterweight to the government – no independent powerful Church, no well armed landowners (with their armed tenants [slaves would have been useless to a 15th century English or Welsh noble HOW ARE SLAVES GOING TO FIGHT FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY? - even serfs would be no real use to such nobles, free men paying money rent and providing fighting power, this is what was needed] – and hired soldiers).

    Not even any powerful (and armed) merchant houses – of which Western Europe has so many examples in the Middle Ages.

    The results for the Roman Empire were – stagnation and then decline.

    For all its faults (from endless savage violence [although no slaves being forced to fight each other for the amusement of people who led peaceful lives], to the belief that washing was a weird thing that only aliens did) – no one can, honestly, claim that about the Middle Ages.

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