intoHistory, geschiedenis beleven in authentieke logies
What an astonishing discovery – this Kerckhem castle-farm, in the Belgian province of Limburg and the natural region of Haspengouw. On the crossroads of Roman routes, it is the perfect starting point to explore the history of the County of Loon and the Principality of Liège, the saga of the Teutonic Knights, the history of Sint-Truiden and a number of little medieval villages.The owners of this tastefully restored castle-farm, which has an air of the lord-of-the-manor about it, will give you a warm welcome and share with you their passion for gastronomy and floristry. The spacious reception rooms, with their savvy combination of wood and stone, all have views over the orchard and vast inner courtyard bordered with lime trees.
The Kerckhem castle-farm used to house about forty people up to the last century (with double this number at harvest time) © Kasteelhoeve de Kerckhem
Imagine yourself a thousand years ago in Wijer-Nieuwerkerken, in a countryside scattered with oak and beech forests, near a major thoroughfare, probably dating back to the time of the Romans. In front of you is one of the first medieval fortifications of the Count of Loon, protected by a wooden palisade.
The Lord of Wijer was then one of the vassals of the Count of Loon, whose territory extended roughly over the whole of Belgian Limburg. The Count himself owed allegiance to the German Holy Roman Empire, founded in the 10th century by Otto I.
12th century map – with the County of Loon in yellow ©
The palisaded mound of the first small fort of Wijer was then probably a wooden or possibly stone structure, elevated and built up to ten metres high with a twenty to thirty metre diameter. Cellars, barns, communal buildings and accommodation were organised on several levels and it was here that the castellan resided.
The castle-farm is a mound with a small fort on its summit and a scattering of thatched cottages at its base; the entire complex surrounded by a wooden palisade and ditch. Panel outside the castle-farm of Castelberg in Zoutleeuw © Marc Robben
Such castle-farms were easy to defend, particularly since artillery did not exist and siege techniques were still quite rudimentary. The humble farm workers who lived below relied on their lord for protection in exchange for a share in their production, profits and work. These early fortifications were often built near roads, sometimes on the outskirts of small hamlets or near new land ripe for clearing. Thanks to their military and economic role, these castle-farms made a considerable contribution to the development of the region.
At that time, as you can imagine, the protection of the castellan, one of the Count’s knights, was crucial. Peasant families took refuge with him to be safe from the violence caused by many minor skirmishes between local lords and marauding bands. This security was also indispensible when going to one of the numerous markets which were developing in the region, to sell their surplus produce.
In the 16th century, when the County of Loon was finally incorporated into the Principality of Liège, the lordship of Wijer belonged to the Kerckhem family, one of the most influential families in the region. Teynard van Kerckhem, owner of the site, had a vast square barn constructed, just in front of the drawbridge. A semi-defensive device typical of the way stately homes were designed in the former Low Countries. The Gothic keep was also re-built a few years later. These two features formed a cohesive whole.
Artist’s impression of the Kerckhem domain in the 17th century – painted by the sister of the current owner – visible in the entrance hall of the farm © Marc Robben
The following century, Arnold van Kerckhem, burgomaster of Liège, undertook some restoration work at the Kerckhem castle-farm. We know from the coat of arms engraved on a blue granite plaque above the main entrance, that he married his cousin Anne-Marie van Kerckhem.
Above the main entrance: the dual coat of arms recalls the marriage of Arnold van Kerckhem with his cousin Anne-Marie © Marc Robben
This marriage brought about the amalgamation of the lands which former beneficiaries had managed to split up far too easily. Unfortunately, the castellan also accumulated numerous debts. When the stately home and its farm were sacked by a marauding band in 1686, the family had no choice other than to turn the Kerckhem castle-farm over to the Teutonic Knights – whose Grand Commandery in Alden Biesen was just a few kilometres away. From then on, the castle and the farm linked by their common history, went through and still are, in the hands of different owners. The castle-farm continues to bear the name of its founders.
The owner Tessa Feldhaus van Ham, will share with you her passion for gastronomy © Kasteelhoeve Kerckhem
Erik and Tessa Feldhaus van Ham decided in the 1990s to abandon their frenetic daily lifestyle in favour of a life punctuated by what really mattered to them: communicating their passion for cooking and their floristry skills in an exceptional location. They fell in love with this large Kerckhem castle-farm, which had been left to rack and ruin for 28 years. Plucking up all their courage, they shared in the vast restoration work to bring the site back to life.
This gigantic undertaking means that you can now stay in this haven of peace, in comfortable, well-appointed rooms, with a view over the orchard to the horizon beyond. The fruit and vegetables from the orchard and organic kitchen garden of the Kerckhem castle-farm are served by Tessa, a talented chef, under the amused eye of the wild boar in the kitchen.
The castle-farm of Kerckhem was extensively restored © Kasteelhoeve Kerckhem
Only 10 kilometres from the town Hasselt, the region of Nieuwerkerken taps into a particularly rich vein of history. Medieval Mottes and old keeps are still plentiful here. A 3.5 kilometre walk will take you to Asberg, an old motte whose circular mound is still visible. If you book in advance, the Claeys family will provide access to the private garden in which it is now located.
Léau (Zoutleeuw) is a medieval pearl set in green fields. It still has its ancient mound, the Castelberg. In Zichem, The recently restored Maagdentoren (Maidens’ Tower), accessible at weekends, will give you some idea of how high the storeys were.
The vestiges of an imposing keep of the Counts of Loon await your visit in Brustem, just outside the town of Sint-Truiden; it is steeped in medieval history. © Marc Robben
The Grand Commandery of Alden Biesen (Bilzen) reflects the Teutonic Knights’ importance in the region. A visit to the castle and its museum are highly recommended.
Barely 25 kilometres away from the castle-farm of Kerckhem is the town of Tongeren which boasts an internationally famous Gallo-Roman Museum .
To the north-west of Hasselt lies the impressive Averbode Abbey which shares a few pages of history with Wijer castle and its vast farm.
Or why not simply spend a little time in the verdant Haspengouw Region, either on your bicycle or in your car, and discover its castles, orchards, religious monuments and inhabitants for yourselves?
François Ganshof, Feudalism.
The author is a leading authority on medieval history. He brings very lucid and authoritative account of feudal institutions which students and starters will appreciate for its concise style and interesting illustrations.
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Kasteelhoeve de Kerckhem
Erik and Tessa Feldhaus van Ham
+32 11 59 66 20
+32 499 71 29 02
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