Everywhere we look there is an ancient ruin, remains of a rampart or even a towering turret. Around 4,000 castles have been built in the UK over the years so we’re taking a closer look at the strongholds that surround us…
As a nation we’ve been barricading ourselves in castles for as long as anyone can remember. Our obsession with building a fortress around our dwellings may have sprung from necessity – whether to keep out hungry bears or marauding armies – but has definitely been entrenched in our history now for many centuries.
It all started with the Normans who, once they’d arrived in our country and conquered the reigning royals at the battle of Hastings, realised they might need to swiftly erect something protective between them and the recently overthrown population. There followed several years of rapid castle construction, with wooden motte and bailey being the preferred method. It didn’t take long for a bright spark to realise that these flammable fortresses could be in grave danger with the merest hint of, well, a bright spark, so before long they were being replaced with more solid stone versions.
Centuries of structures
After a while surrounding walls were added to keep a whole community safely tucked inside the fortification and varies styles of turret, keep, tower, gatehouse, dungeon and elaborate entrance evolved over the centuries depending on the geography and needs of each castle. Windsor Castle is generally credited with being the oldest ‘proper’ castle in the country having been built 900 years ago, and is still part of the Royal family’s portfolio of residences. Elsewhere our castle collection has become gradually more accessible to members of the public, provding an insight into these impressive structures.
Back in medieval times castles were the preserve of landed gentry, royalty or anyone bold enough to raise an army and launch their flaming arrows and cannonballs on the current occupants of the desired castle. Meanwhile, in fairytale land it was generally required to either be, or marry, a princess in order to gain access through the esteemed drawbridge, and often tackling several dragons and crossing dangerous moats en route.
Ancient and accessible
Today we are lucky enough to have access to several hundred fabulous castles being determinedly preserved and protected by guardians and curators intent on keeping these slices of our heritage intact. Across the Shire patch we are surrounded – with Wales alone being home to around 300 castles. Some are ruins, others perfectly intact, but whether you want to scramble over ramparts playing knights or peer from turret waiting for your prince to appear – there’s a castle visit in the area for every wannabe lord or lady of the manor.
You can’t fault Stokesay Castle for keeping your keep in keeping with the times. Possibly the best preserved medieval castle in England, it sits in the beautiful southern Shropshire countryside near the Welsh Border, and has retained much of its old and unique timber structure. The great hall has not been touched since 1291 and some impressive carvings, tile work and wall paintings are on show to admire. True historians will revel in the attention to detail that can still be seen today.
Every castle needs a good watchtower and Beeston Castle in Cheshire has more of a stunning vista available than most. The structure is the remains of a 13th century fortress rising almost 500 feet vertically from the ground, which when surrounded by the flatness of the Cheshire Plain, makes it possible to see a total of eight counties on
a clear day. Its origins date back even further as the site was originally a Bronze Age hill fort some 4000 years ago, and it has been involved in numerous skirmishes ever since right up until the English Civil War. Now owned and managed by English Heritage it is a popular visitor attraction surrounded by parkland.
When it comes to providing a decent defence we can’t choose one castle, but four. As envisioned by King Edward, the four castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, and Harlech make up the combined fortification of castles and town walls that form a World Heritage Site. They are considered to be the ‘finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe’. Open to the public and packed with information they also all offer great views to all sides so you can keep an eye out for invading armies too.
FAVOURITE for FAIRYTALES
If it’s looks you’re after, then Castell Coch, the area’s ultimate fairytale castle wins. Conical towers and needle-sharp turrets peek out from the surrounding woodland giving it a romantic feel despite its relatively modern construction. Built in the 1870s as a folly, it’s based on a more ancient dwelling and established on the remains of a genuine 13th century castle. It has history at its heart, and let’s face it, the type of tower you could easily let your hair down from.
Obviously many of our castles have popped up on screens little and large over the year, but Eastnor Castle at foot of the Malvern Hills in Herefordshire has been behind the lens more than most. Surrounded by a beautiful deer park, arboretum and lake, the picturesque Eastnor Castle has long been a favourite with filmmakers and it’s easy to see why with its Hollywood looks! Sammy Davis Junior was once on location at Eastnor for the filming of MGM’s One More Time and in the decades since the castle has been used in numerous programmes including Sherlock Holmes, Rumpole of the Bailey, Blue Peter and numerous antiques and historical television documentaries.
With such a wealth of historic homes in our region, we’ve picked out our favourites for you to visit across the patch so you can get a taste of living like a king
Bodelwyddan Castle near Rhyl, was built around 1460 by the Humphreys family of Anglesey as a manor house. It is now a Grade II* listed building open to the public as a historic house museum.
Ewloe Castle near the town of Ewloe in Flintshire was one of the last fortifications to be built by the Princes of Wales, and was abandoned at the beginning of the invasion of Wales by Edward I in 1277 and is managed by CADW.
Chirk Castle is a Grade I listed castle located near Wrexham, that was built in 1295 by Roger Mortimer de Chirk. It guards the entrance to the Ceiriog Valley and is well preserved making it a popular choice for educational visits as well as adventurous days out.
Chester Castle dates from the 11th century and was built by Hugh Lupus, 1st Earl of Chester. Little remains of the original structure as most of it was remodelled in the 18th century but what is left is managed by English Heritage and there are guided tours that include a visit to the Castle and Agricola Tower.
Cholmondeley Castle is an imposing, gothic fortress that still, after 800 years, belongs to one of the oldest families in the county. Designed by the 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley himself, it replaced an earlier hall built in 1571 and enjoys uninterrupted views over its 800 acres of exquisite parkland that are regularly used for events.
Peckforton Castle may appear medieval in style, but was actually constructed during the Victorian era between 1844 and 1851 by Member of Parliament John Tollemache. Using rock quarried from less than a mile away and painstakingly transported up temporary tramways to its hilltop location, Peckforton today is
a thriving hotel, spa and wedding venue.
Mow Cop Castle sits on the border with Staffordshire and although it gives the impression of a grand castle, it is a folly, constructed as a summerhouse in 1754 by the Baker-Wilbraham family of nearby Rode Hall. A very early example of a folly, the architect used the angle of the evening sunlight to best light the structure at sunset.
Powis Castle near Welshpool houses the treasures that were brought home by Robert Clive and his son, Edward Clive from India. The seat of the Earl of Powis, the castle is known for its extensive, attractive formal gardens, terraces, parkland, deerpark and landscaped estate.
Ludlow Castle offers visitors the chance to explore a fabulous medieval ruin right in the heart of the picturesque market town. With direct access from the old keep to the turrets, the castle enjoys a breathtaking view of the town and countryside below, while the interior has its original fireplaces and doorways too.
Shrewsbury Castle is a striking red sandstone building built in 1070 and now home to the Regimental Museum displaying a large collection of weapons, pictures, medals, uniforms and other military memorabilia, including a tuft of Napoleon’s hair! It’s worth the climb up to Laura’s Tower on the motte for the views.
Whittington Castle near Oswestry is another impressive ruin with a history dating back to 1222. Popular with visitors despite a large number of ghostly residents who walk the halls and peer from its windows, the surrounding moat with swans and ducks, makes it
a tranquil setting too.
Croft Castle sits deep in the heart of Herefordshire countryside surrounded by 1,500 acres of historic woodland, farm and parkland. This imposing house became the Croft family home long before the Domesday Book but has been lovingly cared for by the National Trust since 1957.
Hampton Court Castle is a true beauty. The 15th Century Grade I Listed Castle is set in over 1000 acres of estate and its State Rooms, including the magnificent Ballroom and exquisitely hand-painted Chapel, are open to the public along with four of the castle’s 24 bedrooms.
These days slices of our ancient heritage are easier to come by than ever and castles pop up on the open market every so often, so keep your eyes peeled if you fancy a fortress of your own!
Henbury Hall, Macclesfield
Okay, it’s not officially a castle – but this property describes itself as ‘the most important classical house built in England in the 20th Century’ and at a glance, it’s pretty impressive. Its stunning domed roof echoes that of Mereworth Castle in Kent and its Palladian frontage certainly gives it all the stature of a real castle. Not only that, the accommodation includes a tenants hall, a separate equally listed house, and a further five houses on the estate along with a swimming pool, tennis courts, stable bock and 530 acres to gallop around.
Plas Castell, Denbigh
If you want to combine your stronghold stature with the convenience of a town location, then Plas Castell offers the perfect blend of ancient and modern living, right on the edge of town. This castle house and grounds incorporates a significant slice of Denbigh’s ancient town walls as well as the remains of a cathedral in the gardens. Inside it boasts eight bedrooms and is popular as both a wedding venue and a B&B so new owners could expect some return on their significant investment.
Castell Gyrn, Vale of Clwyd
If you want all the grandeur but none of the responsibility of owning an ancient building, Castell Gryn is for you. It has all the looks of a fabulous fortress, but was actually built in 1977 with an eccentric nod to Welsh heritage, complete with a giant carved stone dragon at its entrance. In reality, it boasts a stunning, modern interior and six bedrooms, all set in a glorious surrounding estate of approximately 68 acres with panoramic views across Snowdonia. The castle is packed with quirky features, hidden rooms, opulent décor and even its own ramparts.
WESTBURY CASTLE, near Prestatyn
As Shire Magazine went to press, this amazing Grade II* Listed Castle went to auction, with an expected guide price of around £1.5 million. Maybe a little steep for most of us, but you get a 12 bedroom mansion, a west wing housing another nine self-contained apartments and a chapel with bell tower surrounded by 3.6 acres of grounds. It has
a potential of over £80,000 a year rental income, handy when you think of the upkeep!
Brereton Park, Holmes Chapel
This property might not have the official title of castle, but just look at that fortified entrance, picture the portcullis in action and think of the gazing you could do from the top of those towers. We think it deserves including. With 12 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms and planning permission to convert the stable block. It has a billiard room, galleried landings, stunning staircases and up to 23 acres of lawns to mow.