English & Welsh Castles: Guide to England and Wales’ Castles
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 12th October 2018
Defined as a type of fortified structure, castles were initially built for military and defence purposes but they were soon equally used as private fortified residences to feudal lords. Following the medieval period, the role of the castle as a fortress started to decline and instead the role as a residence became considerably more prominent. This meant that a significant amount of castles were renovated to fit the needs of everyday living, with some including lusxurious decorations and impressive gardens.
In 1083, the Castellarium Anglicanum, an authoritative index of castles located in England and Wales, reveals over 1,500 castle sites in England and approximately 600 castles in Wales. A significant amount of these castles have vanished and a lot of them are now in ruins. We have compiled a list of some of the most extraordinary castles that are open to the public and we highly recommend you pay them a visit – it truly is like a visit to the past.
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Based in Cornwall, Tintagel Castle is one of the most dauntingly impressive fortresses in the whole of the UK. It is surrounded by stunning scenery and has strong ties to the legend of King Arthur. The castle itself was built in the 13th century, and research on the site has revealed artefacts dating back from the Romano-British period.
The castle itself may be fairly ruinous, but the surrounding area is busy with family activities almost all year round, and it makes for a great place to visit if you’re looking for a fun day out. Dogs are also welcome to the castle but must be kept on a lead. It’s also worth mentioning that because the castle is so close to the sea, it can get extremely cold.
Corfe Castle stands above Corfe, a small town based in Dorset. It was built by William The Conqueror during the 11th century, and was one of the 1st stone built castles in England. For a castle which is over 1,000 years old, and which was partially destroyed during the 17th century by the Parliamentarians, it still retains a lot of the original building and is still very much worth a visit.
The castle is a Grade 1 listed building, and is generally considered to be one of the most important castles in the UK. It is hugely popular with locals and tourists, and frequently appears within the National Trust’s 10 most popular locations in the UK.
For a 14th century castle, Bodiam Castle is in remarkably good condition. Much of this is due to the fact that the castle was built extremely well, and is also surrounded by a moat, so although there were sieges on the castle, they rarely made resulted in any significant damage. The castle is in such good condition that even the original wooden portcullis is still in place. The great thing about castles which have maintained such good condition is that you can perfectly imagine what life must have been like for the people living there hundreds of years ago.
Bodiam Castle was privately requested to be built by Richard II, with the hope that the castle would act as a valuable defence against the French during the Hundred Years’ War. The location of the castle in East Sussex was the perfect place to prevent the French from easily taking over that vulnerable part of England. The construction of the castle indicates that it was built very quickly in anticipation of the French arriving, and there was potentially more time spent on landscaping the area surrounding the castle to emphasize the size of the building and make it more visible from a distance.
Based in Kent, Sissinghurst Castle is well within travelling distance for anyone living in Scotland. And as the site of what is considered by many to be one of the world’s finest gardens, the trip is well worth taking. The castle itself is also very impressive, but the addition of the surrounding plant life makes it especially breathtaking. The garden is designed as a series of rooms, with each room defined by a unique theme and layout.
The castle itself has not always just been known for its gardens – for a time during the 1700s it was a prison, and then later it became a base for the Women’s Land Army. It wasn’t until the poet Vita Sackville-Vest moved into the property during the 1930s that it started to transform into the beautiful building that it is known as today.
Photo by Funguy06 / Public Domain
Standing alongside St James’ Palace, this 19th century house is now the official residence of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. For nearly 50 years, it was home to the Queen Mother, and Prince William and Prince Harry have also lived there. The house is open to the public usually for at least one month per year, and usually around August. It’s a very popular attraction during this period, partly due to it’s proximity to other royal buildings nearby, but also due to the attractive design and history of the Grade I listed building.
All visits to Clarence House are led by a tour warden, and the tour lasts roughly 45 minutes. If the weather is nice and you have a chance to visit the surrounding castles, then it is a highly recommended visit. There is a very pleasant rose garden which is colourful all year round, and you’ll even have a chance to visit the Prince of Wales’ very own vegetable patch.
Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, and the size of it is truly amazing. It is open to visitors all year round and is regarded as one of the best tourist attractions in the UK. The original castle was built in the 11th century after the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. Since the time of Henry I, it has been used by the reigning monarch and is the longest-occupied palace in Europe. If you visit Windsor Castle, you might even time your visit when the Queen is in residence! Look at the flag flying from the Castle’s Round Tower; if it’s the Royal Standard it means the Queen is there.
Windsor Castle is a great place for families to visit, as there are loads of free activities to get involved in. There is a multimedia tour which is completely free and can give greater detail about the castle and its history, and there is also a family activity trail which can be fun to follow. Finally, there are also ‘Family Saturdays’ which are dedicated days at the weekend full of family events.
Highgrove House & Gardens
Highgrove House near Tetbury in Gloucestershire is The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall’s family home. The Duchy of Cornwall owns Highgrove, and bought the house, garden and nearby farmland now known as Duchy Home Farm in 1980. The house had been the home of Maurice Macmillan, Conservative MP for Farnham and son of the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, for 14 years. The Prince chose to live in Gloucestershire because of its easy access to London, Wales and other parts of Britain including the Western counties where the Duchy has most of its properties.
Today, the gardens at Highgrove and the Duchy Home Farm are flagship examples of the organic movement, both in terms of their environmental sustainability and their natural beauty. People travel across the country to visit the gardens, which is testament to how well kept they are. When The Prince first moved to the gardens, he had no idea about gardening. With the help of friends and gardening expert Miriam Rothschild, he managed to create an ‘experimental wildflower meadow’.
Photo by Robin Webster / Public Domain
This Welsh castle is well within travelling distance for most of the UK, and is definitely worth the trip if you’ve got an interest in castles. It is well known for its distinctively red colouring, and was once known as ‘Red Castle’. Equally famous are the gardens surrounding the castle, all of which are walled and based on French and Italian styles. Powis Castle itself was built in the 13th century, and was originally a daunting fortress. It sits upon a rock overlooking the rest of Welshpool.
The castle is home to a medieval deer park which is still home to a variety of deers, so dogs are unfortunately not permitted at the castle. The castle is home to a variety of Indian treasures, mostly art, which was brought to the house by previous occupant Robert Clive.
Photo by Barry Marsh / Public Domain
Based in Wales, this is a 13th century castle built as part of King Edward 1’s chain of fortresses across the North of Wales. The castle boasts stunning views across Ceiriog valley, and would have made for a very well strategically placed fortress. The castle is far from ruinous and despite it’s age has stood the test of time, and continues to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in the North of Wales.
Chirk Castle was initially built to keep the Welsh under English rule. The internal design of the towers was carefully planned: entrance ways have hidden ‘murder holes’ and barricade points. Murder holes (many sneakily hidden) enabled the men inside to drop stones or fire arrows down on surprised invaders. These holes were on every floor so the fight to the top of each tower would have been difficult and deadly. Murder holes are still visible in the Adam Tower, watch out for them when you visit!
Caernarfon Castle’s pumped-up appearance is unashamedly muscle-bound and intimidating. Picking a fight with this massive structure would have been a daunting prospect. By throwing his weight around in stone, King Edward I created what is surely one of the most impressive of Wales’s castles. Worthy of World Heritage status no less. Most castles are happy with round towers, not Caernarfon! Polygonal towers were the order of the day, with the Eagle Tower being the most impressive of these. You will also note the colour-coded stones carefully arranged in bands.
The site of this great castle wasn’t chosen by accident. It had previously been the location of a Norman motte and bailey castle and before that a Roman fort stood nearby. The lure of water and easy access to the sea made the banks of the River Seiont an ideal spot for Edward’s monster in masonry. Whilst you’re visiting this formidable fortress, don’t miss the opportunity to see the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum, which is housed in two of the castle’s towers.
Built for Edward I, by Master James of St George, Conwy Castle is amongst the finest surviving medieval fortifications in the whole of Britain. An estimated £15,000 was spent building the castle, the largest sum Edward spent in such a short time on any of his Welsh castles between 1277 and 1307. And when you look at the castle, you can immediately see that huge amounts was spent on the construction.
With an outer ward containing a great hall, chambers and kitchen, and a more secluded inner ward with private chambers and a royal chapel, it is very easy to imagine how Conwy functioned when the royal entourage were in town. Two barbicans (fortified gateways), eight massive towers and a great bow-shaped hall all sit within its distinctive elongated shape, due in part to the narrow rocky outcrop on which the castle stand. The rock that the castle sits on added an extra layer of security, not that the castle really needed it.
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