Britain's Castles - Lay Siege To A Castle Near You!

By Richard Moss
a photograph of a castle gatehouse

Have you got one of these near you? The Landgate, Portchester Castle. © Stuart Fry

Make a journey through the UK's landscape and you soon see evidence of a sometimes violent and martial past. The British countryside remains littered with castles and fortifications that date from the earliest Anglo Saxon hillforts and Roman outposts to later Tudor and Georgian coastal defences.

But as any student of the castles of England will probably be aware, the popular conception of the 'Englishman’s castle' is in fact a French invention - or a Norman one to be precise. Even that most royal of castles, Windsor Castle, began life as a Norman motte and bailey fortification, as the Norman Lords sought to consolidate their power across newly conquered Anglo Saxon Britain.

Predating these martial structures there are also much older castles everywhere in our historical landscape. If you live in the UK chances are you are no more than an hour’s drive from a castle, whether it be a ruin, a stately pile full of armour or a prehistoric hill fort. Virtually every town and village has a nearby castle, standing guard.

Follow our 24 Hour Museum trail for a taste of the range and scope of some of castles in the UK.

South

As most children know, the Norman invasion of Britain began when William the Conqueror landed at Pevensey in East Sussex, so what better place to start our tour of the castles of the UK than in the south east?

a photograph of a ruined castle wall with towers against a cloudy sky

The first thing William did, after drying out his chain mail, was to occupy the Roman fort at Pevensey and convert its Roman remains into an imposing motte and bailey fortification – the like of which were soon to spread right across the conquered lands of Britain.

Since then Pevensey Castle has seen many incarnations including a built defence against the Spanish Armada and a massive fortification complex during World War Two. Visitors to the castle today can learn about all these modifications and incarnations while also exploring the splendid battlements, towers and dungeons.

a castle gatehouse with towers and entranceway

A short drive west along the busy A27 from Pevensey, Lewes Castle in East Sussex was another early castle founded soon after the Norman invasion in 1066. Built by William de Warenne, a loyal lieutenant of William the Conquerer, its impressive keep still dominates the old Sussex county town.

Visit the Barbican House Museum to learn the story of the castle and the town of Lewes through a sound and light show based on a scale model of the town. Picture; © Castleuk.net

an aerial view of a castle showing original keep and outer walls

Further along the A27 at Arundel in West Sussex, the magnificent Arundel Castle looms majestically over the town and surrounding downland.

The family home of the Dukes of Norfolk for over 1,000 years, this remarkably intact castle boasts an excellent keep and a packed history told through treasures, family portraits, and piles of armour, pikes and other weaponry. Picture courtesy of Arundel Castle.

an aerial view of a castle showing inner semi ruined buildings and an outer wall beyond which can be seen a large stretch of water

Another Roman fort adapted by the Normans, Portchester Castle is a massive structure that was a strategically important fortification. The keep was built by Earl William Maudlit in the 11th century and it still towers impressively over the castle today. Picture © Stuart Fry

Visitors can climb it via a wooden staircase or its original stone spiral stairway while the Roman walls, incorporated into the original design, are some of the best-preserved in Europe.

a corner of a castle wall with a tower with a manicured garden in the foreground

Colchester Castle was built more than 1,000 years ago on the Roman temple of Claudius (traces of which can still be seen today). The castle boasts an award-winning museum and visitors can take in the Roman vaults, great stairs as well as dramatic rooftop views across the town. Picture © Stuart Fry

a view of a large complete complete castle with a union jack flag flying from one of the towers

Back down on the south coast, the 12th century edifice that is Dover Castle still sits majestically atop the white cliffs and manages to cover almost 2,000 years in its telling of the story of the defence of the town.

Such is the strategic importance of the 12th century citadel that a tour of the castle complex stretches from Anglo Saxon times to the Second World War when a massive complex of underground tunnels was constructed. Picture © Stuart Fry

a views of a wooden walkway leading to a castle gate

Walmer Castle near Deal in Kent is a remarkably well-preserved Tudor stronghold, built by Henry VIII to counter the threat of invasion – this time from France and Spain. Visitors can enjoy the well-kept and ordered Tudor gardens before moving on to explore the castle’s many turrets, bastions and gatehouses. Picture Dover District Council

Another Tudor defence against foreign incursion into the English Channel can be found on the Isle of Wight.

a rectangular block castle wall pictyre from a lawn in the foreground

Yarmouth Castle, with its main rectangular block, square battery of cannons to the front and an early arrow-head bastion on the exposed angle is worth a visit if only to check out the latest in Tudor military defensive technology. Picture: © www.wightindex.com/

a redstone castle picture dramatically from beneath the gatehouse

Just down the road at Carisbrooke Castle, visitors are treated to a compact and unusual arrangement of building evidence that spans some 1,200 years. Picture © www.wightindex.com/

From fragments of a Saxon wall running below the Norman keep, to the Elizabethan and Jacobean influences seen in the various additions and enlargements to the basic 13th century construction, this royal fortress and one time prison of King Charles I is a historical treat for even the most seasoned castle caller.

a tall castle keep photographed atop a large grassy mound

Moving further northeast, Orford Castle Keep in Woodbridge, Suffolk, is one of the best-preserved medieval keeps in England. Its three-metre thick walls and maze of rooms and passageways feature a dizzying spiral staircase that leads to a 30-metre-high rooftop.

Intrepid visitors with a head for heights are rewarded with extensive views of the beautiful flatlands of the Suffolk countryside. Picture © Suffolk County Council

a castle entranceway pictured from a long tarmaced driveway lined by hedges

Closely connected to Orford and only 12 miles away, Framlingham Castle is magnificently preserved with a continuous curtain wall that links 13 massive towers. Guided walks and audio tours tell the castle’s long and varied history – and it’s everything you would expect a medieval castle to be. © Stuart Fry

The Midlands

Moving into the heartlands of England, the Midlands boasts some of the biggest and boldest castles in the UK.

an interior shot of a room with a vaulted ceiling inside a castle. Light pours on from a doorway

At Kenilworth, there is a massive but ruined castle that was once the biggest in all of England.

With its atmospheric passageways and battlements Kenilworth Castle is a former stronghold of Henry II and John of Gaunt that towers over the surrounding gardens and lakes - retaining a power that captivates. Picture © Stuart Fry

a large red stone castle set within grounds

With just a little imagination, visitors are soon transported back to the days of sieges and jousts, Royal Progresses or the castle’s swansong years when Robert Dudley entertained Elizabeth I in the great hall. Picture © Stuart Fry

Moving further north Peveril Castle at Castleton in Derbyshire was immortalised by Walter Scott in his romantic novel, Peveril of the Peak, and it remains one of the most romantic ways of taking in the the stunning beauty of the Peak District National Park.

Situated high on a craggy outcrop, the stunning medieval tower dates back to the 12th century and still stands almost to its original height.

a photograph of a castle on a hill

From the peaks of Derbyshire to the rolling borderlands of Cheshire, Beeston Castle boasts an unusual Saracen style design - influenced by the Middle Eastern forts encountered on the Crusades.

Its deep rounded walls and lack of central keep make it an imposing but unusual sight in the English countryside. Visitors can explore these great fortifications while learning of the castle’s role in subduing the Welsh as well as its dramatic role during the English Civil War.

a photograph of a semi-ruined castle on a hillside

Moving further down along the Welsh borders into Herefordshire, there is an amazing sandstone fortress that rises dramatically out of a rocky outcrop above the Wye Valley. Picture © Castleuk.net

Goodrich Castle boasts imposing huge towers that can still be climbed today along with the battlements and warren of small passageways and the mysterious hidden room, which is just what you want on a castle visit.

Wales

Wales is often called the land of castles - and rightly so, for here you will find some of the best preserved and most dramatic fortifications anywhere in the world.

Castles are everywhere; from the famous and imposing to the small and hidden the beautiful country of Wales is one of the best places to explore everything from modest crumbling relics to massive medieval concentric constructions.

an aerial view of large concentric castle

Beaumaris Castle was one of the last castles built by Edward I in his ongoing fortification and garrisoning of Wales. It is one of the best examples of a concentric castle remaining today.

a photograph of a castle wall pictured from one of the towers which sits withing a large water filled moat

With its complex of defensive walls within walls, gate houses, defensive towers, drawbridges and murder holes, visitors can’t fail but be impressed by the sheer scale and grandeur of this impregnable fortress. Picture © Castleuk.net

a photograph of a walkway along a castle wall

Another fortress within the ‘iron ring’ of fortifications thrown up by Edward I in his ongoing battle to contain the Welsh is the dark and brooding construction that is Conwy Castle.

Perched on a rock above the Conwy Estuary and framed by the dramatic mountains of Snowdonia, the castle still retains a bludgeoning appearance of strength and authority.

Picture © Cadw

Conwy's impregnable curtain walls and imposing siting meant there was no need to build in a concentric pattern.

Visitors today are still amazed by the breathtaking views from the battlements; a panorama that takes in mountains, the sea and the ring of walls encasing the town of Conwy nestled beneath the shadow of the castle to this day.

a photograph of a large castle perched on top of hill

In Harlech in Gwynedd you find another of the great Edwardian castles. Harlech Castle perches atop another rocky outcrop - this time right at the foot of the Snowdonia National Park. Picture © Cadw

The fortress's massive inner walls and towers still stand almost to their full height. The views from its lofty battlements are truly panoramic, extending from the dunes at its feet to the snow capped peaks of Snowdonia in the distance.

It's a bit older than the rest, but Caldicot Castle is as grand and intimidating as any.

Founded by the Normans, developed in royal hands as a stronghold in the Middle Ages and restored as a Victorian family home, the castle has a romantic and colourful history. Not to mention plenty of things to do for all the family, medieval towers to explore and breath-taking views to take in.

West Country

The west country boasts many a dramatic castle location, but most famous of all is the fortification at Tintagel. Known worldwide as the seat and birthplace of the mythical English King Arthur, the Arthurian connection is merely one reason to visit Tintagel Castle.

Joined to the mainland by a narrow stretch of land – it makes for a stunningly dramatic location - visitors can explore coves and caves and let the mystery surrounding the castle’s origins stir the imagination.

a black and white photograph of a large castle set within grounds

Another Cornish castle worth a visit is the Norman castle at Restormel. Surrounded by a large moat Restormel Castle boasts a huge circular Norman Keep with walls over 2.4 metres thick and over 7 metres high.

Once home to Edward, the Black Prince, Restormel offers stunning views of the Cornish countryside making it an essential stop off point when in Cornwall.

a colour photograph of a large castle gateway

Berry Pomeroy Castle, near Totnes, is another splendid castle location and reputedly the most haunted castle in Devon. Picture © Castleuk.net

Its massive gatehouse with its original 15th century paintings gives way to a grand and crumbling Elizabethan country house, nestled behind the old great walls.

an aerial view of a ruined castle with many walls intact

Okehampton Castle lays claim to being the largest castle in Devon. Set on a thin outcrop, its amazing location and high walls afford visitors spectacular views. In the castle gorunds, picturesque woodland walks offer ample opportunity for picnics and other frolics.

Northern Ireland

a photograph of a castle perched on a rocky outcrop next to a blue sea

Dunluce Castle is one of the most dramatic castle locations in the British Isles. Perched on a rocky ledge, and surrounded on all sides by sheer rock faces, today it is still only reachable via a vertiginous and narrow bridge.

Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, first built it in the early 16th century but it often came under siege. In 1584 the infamous Sorley Boy MacDonnell of the local MacDonnell clan captured it from the English when one of his men, employed in the castle, hauled his comrades up the cliff in a basket.

It is just one of many tales that mingle with local legends and ghost stories making this an essential stopping off point for all those who revel in the romantic notion of the castle siege and the impregnable and inhospitable fortification.

a photograph of a castle built on the edge of a beach

The mighty stronghold of Carrickfergus Castle, once the centre of Anglo-Norman power in Ulster, is another remarkably complete and well-preserved early medieval castle – intact despite 750 years of continuous military occupation.

From its strategic position on a rocky promontory, originally surrounded by sea, the castle commanded Belfast Lough, and the land approaches into the walled town that developed beneath its shadow. Today visitors can enjoy the castle battlements, visit the beautifully preserved medieval great hall and learn about the varied military strategic roles the castle has fulfilled in a long and turbulent history.

North

a photograph of a castle on a hill above a town

Few buildings in England can boast a longer history of continuous occupation than Durham Castle. Founded soon after the Norman Conquest, the Castle has been rebuilt, extended and adapted over 900 years.

Once a key fortress in the defence of the border it was transformed into a palace for the Bishops of Durham. Since 1837, soon after the foundation of the University of Durham, it has served as a residential college for many generations of students and dons.

Helmsley Castle in North Yorkshire is now cared for by English Heritage - it's a massive, atmospheric ruin. Large and impressive earthworks surround the well preserved 12th century keep. The inner bailey is enclosed by a crumbling curtain curtain wall and guarded by an arrangement of circular and semi-circular towers.

Like many castles in the 17th century Helmsley suffered a three month siege during the Civil War leaving many of its walls in a state of ruin. However, the Tudor mansion, built adjacent to the West Tower of the castle, has survived substantially as first constructed.

a photograph of a semi ruined castle gateway with a portcullis

Etal Castle in Northumberland is today another atmospheric ruin, but its audio tour and award winning exhibition brings back to life the blood soaked story of the nearby Battle of Flodden in 1513.

a photograph of a large round castle tower at the edge of a castle wall

Barnard Castle is another set of imposing remains and one of England’s largest medieval castles. Today the Castle is a ruin, but a very imposing ruin situated on a high bank overlooking the Tees.

Once the home of Richard Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), the keep remains intact - and is one the finest examples of a round tower in the UK . Today it still dominates the town to which it gave its name - Barnard Castle!

Up on Hadrian's frontier, Aydon Castle at Corbridge, Northumberland, is a fine 13th century manor house with a stunning situation. Despite being sacked repeatedly by the Scots it survives almost intact. Rebuilt, restored over the years the castle has been lived in constantly, making it an authentic and atmospheric location - as evidenced by its use in recent films such as Elizabeth and Ivanhoe.

Still up in the Borders, Carlisle Castle, cared for by English Heritage, is amazingly situated with incredible views. This is the biggest and best preserved castle in Cumbria, with a large 12th century keep. It boasts a long and colourful history and was just one of the many fortifications where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned.

Brougham Castle in Penrith, Cumbria, is famous for its mention in Wordsworth’s The Prelude and the 13th century ruin is well worth a visit. Much of the walls remain and you can follow in the Lakeland bard's footsteps by climbing the impressive keep and exploring its walls. It has in fact been a defensive stronghold since Roman times and an excellent exhibition tells the story of its various uses.

Nestled snugly between Ireland, Scotland and England, the small but not insignificant Isle of Man has been fought over by various nations and factions for most of its colourful history. So, unsurprisingly, the Manx knew a thing or two about building castles.

a photograph of a castle gateway with a walkway leading to it

Sat cleverly atop St Patrick's Isle just off the west coast, Peel Castle was the 11th century seat of the Norse Kingdom of Man and the Isles, first united by Godred Crovan.

And you can see why. The castle commands views out to sea and for miles around and with many surviving features including the curtain wall, the graceful St German's Cathedral and the impressive Round Tower, is well worth a visit.

Down in the south of the island, one of Europe's most complete medieval castles still stands guard over the former capital and aptly named Castletown.

Like every castle should be, Castle Rushen is foreboding, intimidating and impressive. A home to kings and lords of Man since the 13th century, the stronghold is largely intact, complete with banquet halls, a medieval kitchen and scary-looking port cullis.

a photograph of a rolling hillside with various walls and castle remains littered across it

Scotland

North of the border, Scotland's turbulent history is evidenced by the large number of impressive fortifications that can still be seen and visited.

The spectacularly located Urquhart Castle commands the banks of Loch Ness and has a top rated visitor centre, should you get tired of the outstanding view.

a photograph of a large castle and wall set high on a hillside which is wooded

James IV, V and VI lived there in their days, so why would you not want to check out Stirling Castle One of the grandest of all Scottish castles, it sits atop a rocky outcrop and is perhaps the country's best gateway to the Stuart monarchy.

a photograph of a large castle complex with a round tower in the foreground

In the Dumfries area, there stands what most people might think of when they ponder the term castle. Caerlaverock Castle, rising out of a moat, is like something from a storybook and is not only great to look at, but has an adventure park, replica siege engines and a nature trail to boot.

an aerial view of a fort complex which occupies a headland

Some might think that castles are strictly a medieval invention - take a look at Fort George up near Inverness and think again. Built as a base for King George II's army in 1769 and jutting out into the North Sea, it looks like a cross between a row of Georgian terraces and a deadly artillery fort. In other words, it's a sight to see!

For more information on Castles in Scotland maintained by Historic Scotland visit the Historic Scotland website

There are of course literally thousands of castles littered across the landscape of the UK and we have just given you a taste of some of them. We will be adding to this trail over the coming months and you may have your own ideas of which ones to recommend to our readers. So if we've missed out your favourite castle loclation, please email us with your suggestions for Britain’s top castles!

Thanks to Stuart Fry for permission to use his castle images. See more at: members.lycos.co.uk/stusweb/castles.html

Also thanks to Chris and Dawn at www.castleuk.net> and Gwynn White at www.wightindex.com

Links
There are many excellent castle-related websites where you can delve deeper and find out more about the thousands of castles dotted across the UK. Here are just a few:

The top Castles Unlimited site dedicated to the study and promotion of castles in the UK:
www.castles-of-britain.com

Welsh fortifications are celebrated at:
www.castlewales.com/database.html

Castles from all over the world reviewed and viewed at:
www.castlesontheweb.com/

Marc Morris' top medieval castles, part of a Channel 4 series, first aired in 2003, about the rise and fall of Castles in Britain.

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