Corbridge: Aydon Castle

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Amid the scars of ancient roads and fortifications, the slopes of hills in Northumberland conceal the austere and strong architecture of the “land of great castles” (Allsopp & Clark, 1969). The steep gradient to the Cor Burn forms a defence on three sides of Aydon Castle and its bailey with strong walls and gateway protecting the north side of the house. A wonderful survival from the Middle Ages, Aydon Castle is often recorded as Aydon Hall. Although planned as a manor house, its proximity to the England-Scotland border meant that it had to have some of the attributes of a fortress. Prehistoric and Roman remains have been discovered near Aydon yet there is no certain evidence that the site of the castle was occupied before the 13th century. First recorded in 1225, the village formed part of the barony of Bolam and combining two Old English words, meaning ‘hay pasture’, Aydon was acquired shortly after 1290 by a Suffolk landowner – Robert de Raymes. Most of what survives at Aydon was built between 1295 and 1315 and it is an exceptionally well preserved fortified manor. As one of the first areas to be raided from Scotland, Edward I granted a royal licence to crenellate in 1305. Most of the buildings were already completed by this time with a licence to crenellate more often granted when works were finished. Licences were very rarely refused as those who wanted the status of a castellated house were charged a fee by the king who could also control the spread of castles within his realm. Exercising control over the building of non-royal castles, 12th century government officials introduced the legal obligation to obtain a licence before a residence could be fortified (Friar, 2003). The earliest stone buildings at Aydon are the hall, chamber block and the garderobe/latrine wing (Summerson, 2004). The battlemented walls were built to the north between 1300 and 1305 enclosing the buildings within an inner courtyard.

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Inner courtyard stairs to the hall

Before entering Aydon Castle it is evident that it was a fortified manor house and not a fortress. There was never a gatehouse or any other form of defensive outworks and the small ditch that extended in front of the north wall would not have kept any serious attacker at bay for long. The smaller outer courtyard was characteristic of medieval architecture – providing some defence and by creating a series of entrances, it was also intended to impress. A further stage to pass before entering the castle buildings is through the inner courtyard (above). Replacing an earlier one, the present stairway dates from the 16th century and originally there was a porch at the top. The porch was later replaced by a lean-to that covered the whole length of the stair of which the roof outline is still visible on the wall. Although staircases were usual and probably of wood construction, the ladder and trapdoor were frequently used in the early part of the medieval period and most external staircases of the 13th century have since been replaced (Wood, 1994).

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Fine stone vault of the stores

The ground floor of an early medieval house was often vaulted in stone which raised the living rooms to the first floor level and thus became more defensible. The vaulted ground floor became extremely popular during the first half of the 13th century and the stores underneath the second kitchen at Aydon are particularly fine (above). Providing fireproof storage accommodation, there are three interconnected rooms that were built to hold the stores for the kitchens immediately above. The doorway into the stores has a shouldered lintel, also known as Caernarvon arch, which became common from the latter part of the 13th century onwards and there are many good examples throughout Aydon. This block was converted to stables in 1657 by William Collinson who briefly owned the estate from 1654 until his son, Henry Collinson, sold up in 1702.

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Downstairs solar

In the early Middle Ages the solar was a private bed-sittingroom of the owner and his family. With servants sleeping in the hall or in work rooms between the storage, individual bedrooms were rare. The downstairs solar at Aydon has three doorways in the west wall of the room, one of which opens onto the inner courtyard. The room was originally only accessible from above which suggests that it was a retreat for the lord’s family, likely during the winter months. The only two 13th century windows that survive are small lancets with others thought to be have been installed during the 16th century when the room was converted into a kitchen. The room features an original 13th century fireplace in the east wall which is beautifully decorated with a row of carved stone bosses (below). Aydon Castle contains several excellent and unusual examples of elaborate 13th century fireplaces.

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Carved bosses above the fireplace (downstairs solar)

The polite version of latrine, a garderobe or privie, was used in the privy sense from the 14th century. The privy chambers (camerae privatae) were attached to other rooms and were usually situated at the end of a passage. Privies were always provided with a small window or some form of ventilation – shafts could be ventilated or ventilators in the roof also occur. Unless a corbel was provided, as at Aydon, the window sill would serve as a place on which to put a light. Adjoining the upstairs solar, the location and amenities of the latrine tower at Aydon (below) suggest that this was the lord’s bedchamber. The room is lit on three sides by windows and was effectively a medieval en suite. The latrine itself is a double-decker and the small cupboard cut into the wall at the far end has the chute next to it. The shaft is concealed in the buttress at the south east corner of the room and although the latrine is directly above one on the ground floor, the upper one is set further back to prevent accidents. Later refurbishments of this chamber resulted in the addition of a fireplace and in the 1920’s, the chamber became a bathroom. By this time the latrine had been superseded by an earth closet in the kitchen garden.

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The latrine tower

The chief room in a medieval house was the hall. With a central hearth, the medieval hall developed from a barn like structure of prehistoric and Saxon times and during the earlier Middle Ages, the room could be raised to the first floor. Raised on a stone basement these first floor halls were more defensible and were in use from the late 11th century onwards. The first floor hall is found common in both town and manor houses and the high table, where the owner and his family would dine, was at the upper end of the room. The private quarters, or solar, was often at the end of the hall and eventually a separate room developed. Divided off with curtains initially, a wooden partition would be used and by the 12th century, there might be a more permanent division built in stone. Retaining the outer staircase, the hall at Aydon has no sign of a wall fireplace suggesting that it was heated from the one in the room below or from a fire in the centre of the room either in a brazier or on a stone hearth.

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East end of the hall

The social centre of the whole complex, the hall was where the lord appeared in public especially when entertaining guests. The open roof at Aydon gives space for smoke to rise and escape through a louvre at the top. The roof is not original but was replaced with one very much like it during the 16th or 17th century when repairs were made to the hall. The walls, which would have been plastered and decorated with paintings or wall hangings, would have needed constant cleaning due to the effects of smoke. There was originally a gallery at the west end of the room where musicians would play and from which a steward or servant could observe the meal. The hall was the communal living room and was also the main living and sleeping space for all but the lord’s immediate family. The room was screened off at one end from the kitchen and other service areas and the stone screen (below) was inserted during the 16th century. The wall of the hall is narrowed at the west end to give access to the doorway suggesting that the chamber block was built before the stone hall and possibly, it may have been built up against an original hall with thinner wooden walls.

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The 16th century stone screen in the hall

During the 16th century the eighth Robert de Raymes consolidated his estates and gave Aydon to Sir Reynold Carnaby in exchange for lands at Hawkwell. In the process of building up a substantial estate at Hexham, Sir Reynold placed Aydon in the hands of his brother Cuthbert. The Carnaby family made significant changes to the estate especially to the kitchen and to the roofs. Dendrochronology indicates that the timber in the roofs of the latrine block and the west wing kitchen date to the 1540’s. Following the civil wars of the 1640’s, Ralph Carnaby was heavily penalised by parliament for supporting Charles I and as a result, Aydon Castle was sold in 1654 with an estate of 300 acres of arable land to William Collinson of Tynemouth and together with his son Henry, they farmed their estate until 1702.

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Around 1830 Sir Edward Blackett, the sixth baronet, put the castle into a complete state of repair as it had long been ‘neglected and ruinous’ (Summerson, 2004). The land was once again used as a working farm and the interior was altered to provide the necessary accommodation. Members of the local Rowell family came into occupation and they stayed at Aydon for just over a century. A schoolroom was installed on the first floor of the old latrine block and as there was no electricity until 1950, oil lamps and candles were used to provide lighting. Aydon was completely self-sufficient and the Rowell family appear to have lived well. In a county guide published in 1889, the writer William Tomlinson described Aydon as “a better class farm house, though still retaining many of its ancient features.” As farming became less profitable in the early 20th century and with the roofs needing constant attention, Sir Charles Blackett, the ninth baronet, placed the castle in the guardianship of the Ministry of Works in 1966. A thorough restoration got underway which included the removal of practically all the 19th century fittings (Summerson, 2004). Surviving little changed from its original state, Aydon Castle is an outstanding example of a 13th century manor house.

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“The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions.” G.M. Trevelyan: Autobiography of an Historian (1949).

Aydon Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed.

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Stokesay Castle: Gatehouse

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At the time of the compilation of the Domesday Book in 1086, Stokesay formed part of a prosperous estate called Stoches. An Anglo-Saxon word which suggests the presence of a cattle farm, Stoches was held by the Lacy family who became lords of Weobley and Ludlow. The first recorded tenants appear to have built a small keep with an adjacent hall (Jenkins, 2003). Dendrochronological evidence shows that building at Stokesay did not begin until after 1285 when the local wool merchant, Laurence of Ludlow, owned the rights of the manor – purchased some four year earlier. Laurence erected the impressive manor house with crenellated tower and built walls round an inner bailey. His family occupied Stokesay until 1598.

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While Stokesay is a castle in name only, when the antiquary John Leyland passed through Shropshire in 1543 he described it as “buildid like a castel.” The title of Stokesay Castle only became common during the 16th and 17th centuries which no doubt reflected the social pretensions of its owners and as Alec Clifton-Taylor (1986) notes, “a castle was a good address.” Although a stone curtain wall was built to enclose Stokesay, the present gatehouse was not built until 1640. Nothing remains of the original gatehouse which was likely to have been of stone construction (Summerson, 2009). Unique to the Middle Ages, castles, or feudal residences, were more often than not lived in than fought over. Simple gate towers were in use throughout the medieval period, usually as secondary gates, and the ostentatious embellishment of gatehouses had their part to play from the 14th century onwards (Friar, 2003).

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The widow of a former Lord Mayor of London, Dame Elizabeth Craven, purchased Stokesay in 1620. Her son William was a soldier who spent much of his time abroad and he made permanent alterations to the appearance of Stokesay between 1640 and 1641. The gatehouse timbers are dated between 1639-1641 – when William was busy with building work. Given the ornately decorated character, the gatehouse was not concerned with defensibility. The two storey gatehouse is half-timbered and features a central passageway with a studded door. The ground level walls are close studded with the first floor jettied out above. Carved along the lintel above the entrance is the biblical story of the fall of man with the trees of life and the knowledge of good and evil at each end. Adam and Eve appear on the ornately carved brackets flanking the entrance with others exquisitely depicting angels, acanthus leaves and dragons. “A real touch of the Renaissance – what fun those craftsmen had!” (Clifton-Taylor, 1986)

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At some point the gatehouse became a refuge for a coiner and by 1877 there was a caretaker living in the building. When the architectural historian Thomas Hudson Turner visited Stokesay in 1845, he described it as “one of the most perfect and interesting buildings which we possess.” Following the death of Jewell Allcroft in 1992, Stokesay was placed in the guardianship of English Heritage and a four year campaign of restoration got underway.

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Referred to as domus defensabiles in the Domesday Book, fortified homesteads were both a residence and a personal stronghold. The inherent desire to provide a facade with a “satisfying architectural climax” (Friar, 2003) is more than evident at Stokesay. What survives at Stokesay Castle is a remarkable example of a fortified manor house and the “breezy Jacobean gatehouse is a gem” (Jenkins, 2003).

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“I do love these ancient ruins: We never tread upon them, but we set our foot upon some reverend history.” John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (1612)

The gatehouse is Grade I Listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

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Stokesay Castle: The Great Hall

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South wall

Early medieval houses tended to have halls of aisled construction but gradually the obstructive posts were omitted resulting in a magnificent building type. The 13th century carpenters were experimenting in methods which would obviate the need for aisle posts and the cruck form of roof construction, which transferred the weight of the roof to the walls, eventually made them unnecessary. There is no evidence that the hall at Stokesay ever had aisles but there was likely to have been a screen across it. Reducing the size of the hall when it was used for its principle function, a wooden screen would have provided shelter from the draughts from the screens passage which led to the service rooms – the buttery, pantry and kitchen (Friar, 2003). The hall in a medieval castle or manor house, such as Stokesay, was the nucleus of an estate and considered the most important room in a dwelling. The walls of the hall would have been plastered and whitened and some of the original plasterwork can be seen on the north and south walls at Stokesay (see above). The hall at Stokesay stands on the western side of the courtyard and was built in the early 1290’s.

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Built of sandstone rubble and retaining its extraordinary timber roof, the Great Hall at Stokesay is described as “one of the most evocative medieval halls” (Friar, 2003). Built to replace an earlier wooden hall, it comprises four bays with separate gables above each window and the doorway. The roof was originally supported by three pairs of crucks with each pair braced by two collar beams. Each cruck rested on a stone corbel above the hall floor but they were replaced by stone pilasters in the 19th century. The roof is a fantastic range of raised crucks, aisled end trusses and an unusual example of collar-purlins without crown posts (vertical king or crown posts provided extra stability). The fabulous cruck timbers cover the whole expanse of the hall and the three great wooden arches over the room are a rare survival for this period. Each supported by two horizontal collars, the topmost collars are supported below by pairs of struts. The arches are linked by purlins (the horizontal beams) which run along the side walls of the roof.

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It is unknown where Laurence of Ludlow obtained his timber however, following his death some years later, his eldest son William was recorded as buying 24 oaks from the royal woods at Bushmoor and Haycrust – five miles north of Stokesay. Under the supervision of the carpenter, trees were cut up where they fell and the same marks of arcs and circles are found in the north tower, hall and solar block. The timbers have been dated by dendrochronology to the late 1280’s and show that these buildings were erected at the same time and possibly overseen by the same carpenter. The two upper floors of the north tower are accessed from the hall via a wooden staircase (below). Similar to the roof, this staircase survives from the late 13th century and the same carpenter’s marks occur on both. Using high quality wood, the treads of the staircase are cut from whole tree trunks and the sturdy brackets supporting the landing also date to the 1290’s (Summerson, 2009).

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North wall with 13th century timber stair

Three large windows feature on the east and west walls and as was usual in the 13th century, only the upper parts of the windows were glazed. The lower levels were commonly open to the elements in fine weather and covered by wooden shutters in cold or rain. Shutters were almost invariably fitted to window openings with surfaces often painted with heraldic and other decoration. With glazing an expensive commodity, shutters were often braced like doors with pulleys and ropes used to close larger sets (Friar, 2003). The pointed trefoil head to the lights, which was much more common during the 13th century, feature at Stokesay and the hall windows have soffit cusps – more usual for the period are cusps built as part of the chamfer of the lights (Wood, 1994).

Enchanted by what he saw, the writer Henry James visited Stokesay in 1877 and remarked: “I have rarely had, for a couple of hours, the sensation of dropping back personally into the past so straight as while I lay on the grass beside the well in the little sunny court of this small castle and lazily appreciated the still definite details of medieval life.”

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North end with wooden window shutters

Corbridge: Aydon Castle Kitchens

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The fortified hall house of Aydon Castle has, as so many historic buildings do, undergone numerous changes during its history. The house was unaltered for 400 years until it was entrusted to the government in 1966. This remarkably intact building is spartan and unfurnished and is a beautiful example of a 13th century manor house. The original kitchen (above) was the first of three kitchens to be built and part of the first programme of works to be completed by Robert de Raymes.

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The 14th century fireplace above stands where the oven once stood with a cupboard to its left and a chute for getting rid of slops and rubbish next to the window. The Carnaby’s were the 16th century owners of the castle and their coat of arms can be seen carved above the fireplace.

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The second kitchen range (below) was likely to have been built soon after the first kitchen and hall’s construction around 1305.  As Robert de Raymes was heavily involved in the fighting in the Borders after 1296, the original kitchen proved to be too small to provide for him and the many men involved in defending the house. With easy access to the hall, the room was divided in two which can be seen by the change in floor level. This first room was where food was prepared and where dishes were washed afterwards.

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The second room was where the cooking took place using seasonings stored in the cupboards cut into the walls. At floor level on the west wall (left of picture above) is a chute for waste to keep the kitchen clean of scraps. When this kitchen was in use, food was brought directly into the kitchen through the wooden door to the side of the chute instead of through the inner courtyard. At the far end of the room is the large fireplace which was moved from the service end of the hall to that end of the range. There are two low stone benches on either side of the hearth which may have been used to keep food and dishes warm but also could have acted as seats for watchmen coming off cold duty.

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This kitchen went out of use in the 16th century and when the room was deserted due to the floors becoming unsafe, the only inhabitants were pigeons. The series of holes cut into the stones around the top of the room (above) were added in the 19th century to provide nesting boxes for pigeons – valued for their meat, not as racers. The roof of the west wing kitchen features timbers that were inserted by the Carnaby family in the early 1540’s.

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Corbridge: Aydon Castle Upstairs Solar

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The Chamber (Solar) above at Aydon Castle was used as the Lord’s private apartments and is laid out as a single room. Access to the room was from the hall but the private stair to the ground floor no longer exists. The present stairs are as a result of alterations from when the building was used as a farmhouse from the 17th century and continued until 1968 (Allsopp & Clar, 1969). To provide privacy, the room was divided by a partition – probably where the staircase now stands. The smaller part of the solar would have been used as a lobby or waiting room for visitors.

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The main room was the northern one with a fireplace and three windows with seats. The most significant alteration to the room has been the removal of the main 13th century fireplace from the opposite wall to its present location. The medieval chimney flue remains on the outer wall and despite its move, the fireplace is still impressive and gives an indication of the quality of the interior furnishings and fittings within the chamber block. The previous position of the fireplace was immediately above the fireplace in the room below so it is possible that the chimney flue may have leaked from it into the solar’s fireplace. The rather awkward looking fireplace now stands lower than it should which encapsulates Jenkin’s (2003) view that Aydon “seems gloriously lost in an antique world of its own.”

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Sizergh Castle: Banqueting Hall

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On the second floor of the tower at Sizergh Castle is the Banqueting Hall. In medieval times, this was the solar chamber and is entered from a spiral staircase. The staircase provided the only access until alterations in the 19th century when a doorway was cut through from the Top Passage. The room is lit by a deep set 14th century three light window which overlooks the courtyard.

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The Hall features a 16th century fireplace and adze-hewn oak floorboards. The removal of the floor above was part of the 19th century alterations which were inspired by the fashion for romantic medievalism, creating a highly theatrical interior. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, the ashlar stonework walls were painted with trompe-l’oeil and hung with armour and trophies of weapons in a true baronial style.

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In 1948 Henry Hornyold-Strickland made a gallery (below) around all four sides of the upper storey using timber salvaged from a 16th century barn which had collapsed in 1945.

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Against the early 17th century long-table are two sets of Elizabethan forms, or benches, the sides of which are carved to imitate loosely the hanging edge of a hide covering. One set (below) has the initials of Walter Strickland and the date 1562 while the other may be slightly later and made to match. Chairs with arms were comparatively rare during the mid 16th century and an inventory dated 1569 records only nine in the whole house. Four panel-back armchairs (as seen next to the fireplace in top photos) with flat topped arms are dated 1570 and 1571 and have lozenge panels which match those in the Old Dining Room.

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The late 17th century Brussels tapestry (top) portrays the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reproving his wife Faustina for her profligate living. This wonderful room is furnished with beautiful Elizabethan and Georgian pieces that highlight superb craftsmanship.

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Stokesay Castle: Solar

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At the south end of the hall range at Stokesay Castle is a cross wing which houses the solar block. Reached by an external stair, the solar was originally private apartments for Laurence of Ludlow who built the castle in the late 1280’s. As with many of the rooms in the castle, the solar was refashioned in the 17th century. The ceiling dates to that time as do the carved overmantel, the cornices and panelling round the walls.

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A principle feature of the Renaissance period was the tradition of elaborately carved fire mantels dominating a room with surrounding walls covered in plain panelling. This is finely demonstrated at Stokesay where undecorated panelling frames the stunning centrepiece of the room – the overmantel.

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The overmantel is divided by pilasters shaped as human figures (above)into four squares, two of which have a grotesque head at their centre (below). Originally brightly coloured, the design may have been Flemish and the cornices used to cover exposed portions of the wall after the overmantel had been put up, suggest that it was not made specifically for its present position.

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Respecting the room’s medieval outline, the 17th century designer hid the openwork roofing from sight with a new ceiling. The panelling carefully framed the peepholes on either side of the fireplace and although covering some 16th century paintwork, the windows and window-seat were left untouched. The only significant change inside the room was in the east wall where the original window was blocked up however, the medieval window has since been opened up.

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The solar was intended for use as a bedroom and afforded some privacy for the noble family of the castle. Typically situated on an upper floor, it was a secluded room used as private living and sleeping quarters. A room of comfort and status, the solar at Stokesay is a wonderfully preserved example of such historic indulgence.

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