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My best castles of Britain and Ireland

October 31, 2017

I’ve been visiting castles for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Wales, there were plenty on my doorstep or to visit on holidays. Wales must have one of the highest concentrations of castles in Europe. I’ve visited all of them and over the years I’ve also visited most of the major castles across the British Isles.

Visiting castles deepens your understanding of how a disparate series of kingdoms and lordships gradually merged together to form a nation state that would be a European and eventually world power. They are also a great way to view our coast and countryside and for a vantage point over towns and cities.

The child in me still loves skipping down a spiral staircase, walking along battlements, sitting on top of a tower and peering through arrowslits. What follows is a personal list of what I think are the best castles to visit across Britain and Ireland. What are yours?

1 Best overall experience

As much as it pains me to say so, my choice of best castle for the overall visitor experience goes to an England one, Dover. The castle does have everything, across the ages. It has a dramatic cliff top setting, giving views across the Channel. It has buildings from Roman times to the nuclear age. A visit gives an insight into our island’s history as it succumbed or saw off invasions from 2000 years ago to the 1940s. Anyone who has enjoyed this year’s cinematic depiction of Dunkirk should visit Dover to see the recreated rooms where Operation Dynamo was planned in 1940. You need to spend at least half a day taking in the Roman lighthouse, Saxon church, Norman keep and 19th and 20th century military buildings. English Heritage have done a superb job of recreating a medieval interior inside the keep. The rooms are furnished and decorated with wall paintings and tapestries as they may have looked during the reign of Henry II. I wish EH, Cadw and the other custodians of our built heritage would do this more often. There is a place for the picturesque ruin but some of the more complete sites could be brought to life, rather than being a series of empty rooms with just pigeons and weeds being the only life on show.

Runners up are Warwick and Mont Orgueil. Warwick is a complete example of a great medieval fortress, with plenty of towers and wall walks. The halls have suits of armour, swords and shields and the rooms are not only furnished from different periods but as the castle is now owned by Madame Tussauds, there are mannequins in costume to bring the castle to life. Mont Orgueil overlooks the town of Gorey, on the east coast of Jersey. The castle is pleasing enough, with plenty of dark passageways and stairwells. But the Jersey Heritage Trust have installed a series of modern sculptures and artworks across the site, giving plenty of photo opportunities. There’s a an amazing hologram of the Queen, called Equanimity, marking 800 years of links to the crown via the Duchy of Normandy.

2 Best castle and town combination

The easy winner here is Conwy in North Wales. The huge fortress is dramatic enough, one of Edward I’s castles built to overawe the Welsh. Edward also constructed new towns, colonial plantations with English residents. To protect them from the Welsh the new towns were walled. Conwy is far and away the best preserved medieval town in Britain. You can walk almost the entire circuit of the walls, with views over the town, coast, railway and of course the castle itself. Within the walls is Plas Mawr, one of Britain’s best preserved Tudor town houses. The castle itself stands to its original height but is largely roofless and could do with some Dover like reinterpretation. The whole ensemble is a World Heritage Site, up there with the Colosseum and the Pyramids!

Runners up are Lincoln and Rochester. At Lincoln the castle and cathedral square off against each other, on a plateau above the town. Inside the castle there are displays on Magna Carta (Lincoln has one of the original copies) and Victorian prisons, the function that preserved many county town castles. Rochester is another splendid castle and cathedral combination. The castle has one of the best Norman “square” keeps. Honourable mentions should go to Richmond (Yorkshire) and Totnes, where a visit to the castle tops off a wander round an interesting town.

3 Best coastal site

Many of my childhood holidays were to Butlins at Pwllheli. Day trips from there introduced me to the great castles of Gwynedd. The nearest is Cricieth. Originally a castle of the Welsh princes, it was strengthened by Edward I after the conquest. It’s a small site but sits on top of a tump overlooking the town and the coast. On a clear day you can see across to Harlech, one of the best concentric castles, with a double circuit of walls. You can catch a train between the two towns.

While Cricieth is in easy reach of road and rail, you have to walk over a mile from the car park to Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumbrian coast. The gatehouse and other towers stand to about half their original height but enough is left to give an impression of how it once looked. A visit to Dunstanburgh is more about the setting than the site. Orford in Suffolk has an unusually shaped keep, cylindrical at the core but with squared off projections. The view from the top is across Orford Ness, a nature reserve with some puzzling concrete screen structures. During the Second World War they picked up the sound of approaching German planes. My favourite seaside clifftop ruined castle is Scarborough and in Northern Ireland the castle at Dunluce backs right onto the cliff edge, looking as though it could fall in to the sea at any moment.

4 Royal connections

The obvious winner is Windsor. The whole site, including the spectacular St George’s Chapel, is the largest British castle and the one with the longest continued habitation. As a castle I don’t find it that pleasing. There is a keep on top of a motte but like everything else at Windsor it has been much embellished. The interior is utterly dull but the tiring walk to the top gives a good view over the whole site. The poor guide has a hard job telling everyone to avert their gaze (and their smart phone cameras) from the view over to the Queen’s private apartments. The real point of a visit to Windsor is to see the world class collection of art in the state apartments.

Medieval monarchs and their courts travelled all over their kingdom so their heirs were often conceived and born outside London. Edward I’s heir was born at his new spectacular fortress town of Caernarfon. In 1301 Edward junior was proclaimed as the first English Prince of Wales. Caernarfon, like nearby Conwy, is one of Europe’s best preserved castles and town walls. Unlike Conwy, for some reason that I’ve never understood, you aren’t allowed to walk the circuit of walls. But the castle is of a unique design, modelled it is though on the Roman walls at Constantinople.

To some extent we Welsh got our revenge in 1485 when Henry Tudor invaded from France and took the crown from Richard III at Bosworth. Henry’s paternal line was Welsh and he was born at Pembroke Castle. The castle is well preserved, with the country’s best example of a Norman round keep.  In 1991, after climbing through several storeys of the collapsed interior I felt slightly uneasy sitting on top of the stone dome that caps the tower. On my 2018 visit the health and safety people had put a stop to this, though you can still walk around the base of the dome and take in the view.

The best castles for the royal rulers of independent Wales is the remote and largely ruined Dolwyddelan in Snowdonia.  In Scotland king James IV built a new palace within the ramparts of Stirling. Like Edinburgh, the site later became a British military base.  But in the last two decades Historic Scotland have done an amazing job of restoring and decorating the principal rooms to look as they may have appeared during the sixteenth century. I wish Cadw would be as adventurous at Caernarfon.

5 Best mock, modern and folly

Medieval castles were built by the king and his magnates. From the 15th century the wealthy preferred to vacate their draughty castles for manor houses and no new castles (excluding artillery forts and barracks called castles) were built. Until that is the 19th and 20th centuries when the rich rediscovered an interest in castles and other medieval ruins. They sponsored artists and poets to paint and write about the castles on their estates. The really rich went one step further and commissioned architects to build them new baronial piles, complete with the amenities of the age such as bathrooms (in contrast to medieval garderobes, toilet shafts down the outside walls with your bodily functions plopping into the moat) and electricity.
My favourite has to be what I regard as my “home” castle, Castell Coch, on the north side of Cardiff. The outside is South Wales’s fairy tale image of a castle, complete with conical roofs. It has been a familiar site all my life, on trips from Abercynon to Cardiff, poking above the trees and seen from both the road and railway line. While the outside is a passable attempt at a medieval castle, the interiors are a riot of the imagination. The banqueting hall, drawing room and bedrooms are a mock gothic extravaganza, the creation of architect William Burgess and his patron, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. Bute was the wealthiest man in the country, based on his land holdings in the south Wales coalfield and the port of Cardiff. Fortunately for us, he was a keen medievalist and splurged a considerable proportion of his wealth on building or restoring castles. The walls and ceilings of Castell Coch (“Red Castle”) are decorated with pictures of animals and mythical creatures, including scenes from Aesop’s Fables. The structure was completed in 1879 so when I first visited as a child it was less than a century old. I never tire of visiting, both on my own and with successive friends (and quite a few poor parliamentary staff) from Bristol. I must have been at least 40 times and it’s a must for anyone touring South Wales or living just over the border.

The wealth from coal and port dues built Castell Coch and it was slate that built North Wales’s mock Norman Penrhyn Castle, just outside Bangor. The immensely wealthy Pennant family (who also had slaves on West Indies plantations) commissioned Thomas Hopper to build a Norman keep with attached mansion in 1820. The keep looks much like Rochester would have appeared. But the interior is a Victorian mansion, complete with a bed made of slate. Wealth from the ‘Home and Colonial’ stores enabled Julius Drewe to commission Edwin Lutyens to build for him a modern castle on the edge of Dartmoor. Castle Drogo is an amazing place, with the facades part castle and part 1920s municipal building. The interior rooms are of the inter war years, connected by soaring stone passageways and stairwells. Building had started just before the First World War. The Drewe’s eldest son Adrian was killed at Ypres in 1917 and a room at the castle has a moving display dedicated to his memory.

I have not yet visited Eilean Donan Castle, on an island guarding sea lochs opposite the Isle of Skye. But it must be among the most familiar of castle images, on the cover of many of my books about castles. Like Castell Coch, it is a recreation on the site of an actual medieval castle. Completed in 1932 it has featured in the Bond film Goldeneye and its image adorns many a Scottish shortbread tin.

American money also took an interest in Britain’s built heritage. Panelling was stripped from walls, joining artworks to be shipped across the Atlantic. Fortunately newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst (Citizen Kane in the Orson Welles film) wanted an authentic site, instructing his agent to find him a castle in England. But it was St Donat’s on the Glamorgan coast that he bought by telegram for £130,000 in 1925. Over the next five years Hearst’s agents bought up parts of medieval buildings from all over the country and, to the outrage of conservationists at the time, knocked about both them and the fabric of St Donat’s to create a fortress (with 32 modern ensuite rooms) where Hearst could entertain the rich and famous of the 1930s when he was in Europe. Visitors included Lloyd George, Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Cardiff born song writer Ivor Novello and the future President Kennedy. It’s now home to the Atlantic College but can be visited.

6 Capital Castles

It’s hard not to give first place to the Tower of London. The Norman keep, the White Tower, was built by William the Conqueror, the first castle to overawe the defeated English. The exterior is little changed today. The surrounding buildings are of limited interest but it’s the famous associations that make the site a must visit. It’s the home of the Crown Jewels, guarded by the Yeoman of the Guard (or Beefeaters) in their red Tudor uniforms. Several kings and queens, rivals and traitors have been imprisoned within the walls, arriving by Thames barge at Traitor’s Gate.

Among the other castles in our island capitals, the next most interesting is Cardiff. Like Dover, Cardiff has something from every period. The square site in the city centre is founded on the walls of a Roman fort. Within the walls in one corner the Normans erected an earth motte and put on top the best shell keep in the country. William the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert, Duke of Normandy, was kept a prisoner at the castle by his younger brother Henry I. By Tudor times a mansion had been constructed alongside the curtain walls of the castle. In the 19th century the Marquess of Bute remodelled the interiors and built a clock tower. This was his first collaboration with Burgess, before he turned his attention to Castell Coch. No expense was spared, allowing Burgess’s imagination to run riot with wood carvings, wall murals and gilded details. In the twentieth century the Marquess’s son rebuilt to their full height the Roman walls, with a reconstructed gatehouse onto Bute Park.

Scotland’s capital castle is special mainly for its setting on top of a crag.  The famous silhouette from below is largely a Victorian barracks. But if you’re in Edinburgh, how could you not visit?  I’ve done so four times, most recently in the summer of 2018 when I enjoyed it more than on previous visits. The Scottish crown jewels, the restored palace building and the recreation of a Napoleonic wars era prison were the highlights, apart from the amazing views of the city below the ramparts.  Very little is left of medieval Dublin Castle, with most of the walls and towers being demolished in the early 18th century to make way for new buildings forming the core of the government of Ireland by the English Lord Lieutenant.  The castle became a hated symbol of English rule. The state apartments, with their Georgian interiors, are worth a visit.

Our smaller self-governing islands have some interesting castles. Castletown used to be the capital of the Isle of Man and Castle Rushen is one of my favourites anywhere in the British and Irish Isles. It was originally the seat of the Norse kings of Man until over lordship passed briefly to the Scots and then the English crown. The castle is almost perfectly preserved and is great fun to wander around. Jersey’s capital of St Helier is guarded by Elizabeth Castle, more of an offshore fort than a castle. It’s possible to walk across to the castle at low tide but it’s much more fun to arrive at high tide on a boat, on one of my visits by Second World War DUKW “duck” wheeled boat. I’ve not been to Guernsey but Castle Cornet is definitely high on my list of significant castles to visit.

7 Continuously occupied

Many castles have been continuously occupied either by successive noble families or by the state. But lots of them have been adapted and rebuilt so much that they no longer resemble much of a classic castle appearance. But there are several exceptions. The first castle I visited outside Wales was Berkeley. It was a coach trip combined with Slimbridge Wildfowl Centre. I’ve never returned to see the birds but have been back to the castle many times. Berkeley, through various genealogical twists and turns is still in the hands of the eponymous family who built it in Norman times. The shell keep was “slighted” after the civil war and fortunately the gap in the defences was enough for Cromwell to allow the rest of the castle to remain. If only the same had been true of Raglan, the greatest of losses to Cromwell’s desire to deny any future rebels a secure base. The interiors are modest compared to most occupied castles and many of the features, like St Donat’s, are a hotch potch of architectural salvage from all over England, Wales and France in the early 20th century refurbishment. Berkeley has given its name to a multi-cusped arch (best seen at St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol) and a US university, spelt correctly but pronounced burke as opposed to clerk. The family provided generations of Gloucestershire MPs, including Freddie Berkeley, Bristol’s longest serving MP from 1835 to 1870. The castle is probably most famous for being the scene of the murder of Edward II in 1327, though the red hot poker story is unproven.

Alnwick in Northumberland has been the home of the Percy family for 700 years. They were the leading noble family of the north of England and Alnwick is a sort of Windsor for the north. It looks much more like a castle than Windsor from the outside but like Windsor has interiors housing a spectacular art collection. The present Duchess of Northumberland has overseen the creation of some spectacular gardens. Horticulture is one of the main reasons to visit Powis Castle, in Montgomeryshire. Four grand terraces hang from the castle, leading you down to the Severn valley. The castle has been the home of the Herbert and Clive families since 1587 and is still occupied by them today though the castle is in the care of the National Trust. The building exterior is very clearly a castle, slighted in the best possible way by the walls being punctured by large windows.

8 Remoteness

Most castles dominate major towns and centres of governance, guard the coast or strategic river crossings. But some are far away from any major settlement, sitting in lonely isolation on top of hill or at the head of a valley. I have visited several castles like this and had them all to myself, or to me and my travelling companions. This is occasionally an eerie experience. A long drive along a deserted road leads you to Hermitage, in the Scottish Borders. An ugly, high walled single structure fort, I was visiting in the early evening as the light faded on a dull day. It felt like the perfect place for a murder and the castle indeed has a grisly history. Brough castle in Cumbria is built on a Roman site, on the road to Carlisle. The site is quite ruined but is a pleasing way to end a day in the Lake District. Carreg Cennen sits on top of a crag in Carmarthenshire and can be seen from miles around. It’s a huge site and one has to wonder at the labours involved in carting the stone to the top of the hill. You approach the castle from the farm below, passing sheep giving you a disapproving look. The views across many other hillside sheep farms are spectacular. At the far side of the stone courtyard the curtain wall hugs the edge of a cliff, with a hair raising drop as you peer through a window to admire the view, buffeted by the wind.

9 Spectacular

Second only to Windsor in size, Caerphilly Castle in Glamorgan is Britain’s most spectacular medieval secular monument. It is Britain’s first concentric castle, set in a huge man-made lake rather than surrounded by a moat. It’s all the more extraordinary as it was built not by a king but by a Marcher Lord, Gilbert de Clare. Constructed from 1267 onwards, it predates the great castles of Edward I and was built for defensive purposes, rather than subjugation. It was designed to safeguard the lowlands of Glamorgan (and the route to Ireland) from the independent Welsh kingdoms further north and west. This purpose was soon redundant but the castle had an eventful history under the Wales conqueror’s hapless son. The castle had passed to the Despenser family and in the 1320s Hugh le Despenser the younger was the latest of Edward II’s male favourites. It was to Caerphilly that Edward fled with much of the royal treasury in 1326, chased by his vengeful wife queen Isabella. Despenser was eventually captured and was hung, drawn and quartered at Hereford. Edward was captured near Llantrisant castle and in the following year met his grisly death at Berkeley. Caerphilly became a forgotten ruin, its walls plundered for stone and its lake drained and silted. As with Castell Coch nearby, the marquesses of Bute saw an opportunity for restoration. It was the 4th marquess in the 1920s who actually funded the rebuilding, employing many local men during some hard years for the local coal industry. The great hall was re-roofed, with the beams resting on the walls above the original corbels with carved heads thought to represent Edward and Hugh. The lakes were restored by the state in the 1950s. Cadw continues to enhance the site, with replica medieval siege engines occasionally firing projectiles, safely into the lake. Taking a leaf out of Mont Orgueil they’ve also recently installed sculptures of medieval figures into several of the rooms. I’m not so keen on the dragon that greets you as you leave the ticket office to enter the outer ward but I’m sure children love it.

Caerphilly may have been part inspired by the lake setting of Kenilworth Castle, one of the great fortresses of the Midlands. But Kenilworth has had no Bute like benefactor and you have to combine your imagination with English Heritage reconstruction drawings to see the castle as it may have looked in its heyday. Kenilworth had a longer active life than Caerphilly, with its lake staging a water pageant to entertain Elizabeth. The 19 day pageant laid on by Robert Dudley did not impress the queen sufficiently to succumb to Dudley’s charms. She remained a virgin and he was bankrupted.

Another of England’s great fortresses was fortunate enough to be saved and restored by a wealthy family. Bamburgh stands on a rocky promontory on the Northumberland coast and can be seen for miles around. The exterior looks like a perfectly preserved Norman castle, with curtain walls surrounding a square keep. In the 1890s the Armstrong family used their wealth appropriately sourced from armaments to restore the walls and construct interiors, stuffed with suits of armour as well as family furniture. The family continue their occupation today. The walk along the beach gives one of the best views of any British castle.

10 Finally – castles pleasing for a variety of reasons

There is nothing trim about Trim Castle in county Meath. It is the largest and most impressive in Ireland and has a full height square keep at its centre. Another Irish favourite is Cahir, a sensitively restored small castle in co Tipperary.  Restormel in Cornwall has one of the best shell keeps atop a motte. Conisbrough in south Yorkshire has a full height round keep buttressed by six three-sided towers. Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire is roofless but otherwise intact and wandering around this unusual D shaped castle is a delight. Caerlaverock in Dumfrieshire is a moated triangle. Chepstow must be mentioned as Britain’s longest surviving castle built from the outset in stone. Perched on a cliff above the Welsh side of the river Wye, the castle could be supplied by boat when under siege. When the Severn Bridge tolls are scrapped in 2018 it will surely see a surge in visitors from Bristol and the rest of England. As former politician it’s possible that my kissing of the stone at Blarney Castle improved my speeches! Finally, though it pains me to exclude so many castles, there is Bodium, a square castle looking like every child’s toy fort, rising straight from a moat.

I hope the above inspires you to visit a nearby castle or to seek one out on your next holiday.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. roger.opie@ablazebristol.org permalink
    November 1, 2017 9:36 am

    fURTHER REQUEST !

    PLEASESEND FUTURE MAILS TO rogeropie@googlemail.com

    • November 1, 2017 10:49 am

      Hi Roger, I don’t actively email out new blog links. They are auto mailed to subscribers via WordPress. There must be a way for you to amend your address. I will check too.

  2. November 11, 2017 12:35 pm

    Lots of comments to this blog, as usual on Facebook rather than here. Some people wanted me to say more about castles I had included, in particular Harlech and Carreg Cennen. There were many suggestions for sites I had excluded, including Stokesay in Shropshire and Leeds in Kent. I omitted the former as it is a fortified manor house. It is certainly one of my favourites and I will be writing a sepatrate blog on manor houses. I omitted Leeds castle mainly for the simple reason that I have not visited it. When I did a comprehensive 3 day tour of historic sites in Kent in July this year I decided not to go there as there were plenty of authentic sites and it was also very expensive. Even if I had been, while acknowledging that the exertoir is pretty, I think Castell Coch, Penrhyn Castle, Castle Drogo, Eilean Donan and St Donat’s are more interesting both architecturally and in terms of the owners who restored them.

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