Best of British castles


1st Jan 2015 Travel

Best of British castles

This handy guide to Britain's most interesting castles includes the story of how The Queen Mother used to pour "boiling oil" on guests at Glamis Castle when she was a child.

Dunluce Castle

The ruined Dunluce Castle sits high on an imposing basalt rock on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route, isolated from the mainland by a huge natural chasm. Access is possible via a small bridge, but the castle would have been a formidable fortress.

There’s evidence that an earlier castle was erected in the 13th century, and two towers remain from a 14th-century rebuild. The Clan MacDonnell later seized it and added their own Scottish spin, copied from castles back home. Life is said to have been lavish, with continual renovation works. But tragedy hit in 1639 when the domestic buildings fell into the sea and most of the servants were killed.

Dunlace now hosts summer concerts, with local Van Morrison headlining last year, and on a clear day visitors can see across to the Isle of Islay in Scotland.


Caerphilly Castle

Standing on a site that was snared by the Roman army as far back as AD75, work on this medieval castle didn’t actually start until 1268, when Gilbert de Clare, Lord of Gloucester (“Red Gilbert”, thanks to his hair), needed a base for his campaign to control the land. The move to build such an imposing castle was seen as a statement of aggression, leading to tiffs and arson attacks from rivals.

Caerphilly survived and today is unique—not only because of its enormous size (around 30 acres), but also because it introduced a concentric wall design, positioned on three man-made islands with lakes and a sophisticated dam system, which was a defence marvel of its time. The lakes eventually became neglected until the state took over the restoration of the castle in the 1950s, when they were re-flooded.

Today, the slightly crumbly Caerphilly (which has featured in the BBC series Merlin) pulls in flocks of tourists. Many come to see the Welsh answer to Pisa, the picturesque Leaning Tower—which out-leans its Italian rival—while children are drawn by moats full of ducks.


Glamis Castle

Looking like a traditional fairy-tale castle, this is said to be one of the most haunted in Britain, thanks to the ghosts of a card-playing earl and a widow of Lord Glamis (the “Grey Lady”) who was burned at the stake for being a witch.

First built as a hunting lodge for Celtic kings, the design is Scottish baronial with decorative add-ons (the pointed turrets give the feel of a French chateau). Home of the Lyon family since the 14th century, it’s now the private residence of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore. The Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, spent her childhood here—there are stories of Elizabeth and her younger brother David pouring “boiling oil” (icy water) from the ramparts onto guests as they arrived, an antic no modern-day royal could get away with.

When Glamis was used as convalescent home for soldiers during the First World War, Elizabeth built a reputation as a caring and stoic nurse. The castle was also the honeymoon location for Elizabeth and Prince Albert, and in August 1930 Princess Margaret was born here. As with many of today’s functioning castles, it survives by being used for weddings, grand dinners and craft fairs.

Visit glamis-castle.co.uk for details


Carisbrooke Castle

Although crowds now flock to see the donkeys that work the water wheel in The Well-House, Carisbrooke Castle is significant as the site for one of the oldest and best-preserved fortresses in Britain.

An original motte-and-bailey castle established by the wealthy de Redvers family (who laid the first stone in 1136), it was renovated periodically because of frequent attack from the French in the Middle Ages, then fortified when the Spanish Armada passed by. A ruined wall dating from pre-Roman times indicates ancient life, and records reveal that Anglo-Saxons occupied the area in the eighth century.

But the castle’s main claim to fame came much later: the imprisonment of Charles I in the Constable’s Chamber, his bedroom, for 14 months in 1647. The king attempted to escape through the bars of his window, but apparently got stuck.


Tower of London

Set in a glass-and-steel jungle and now overlooked by the largest structure in London (the Shard), the Tower is one of our most famous castles. There have been complaints—even by Unesco—that the city planning around it has paid little respect to a magnificent structure, with the entire complex described by the journalist Simon Jenkins as “a remarkable medieval town within a town”.

The White Tower was the original Norman fortress built by William the Conqueror (dating from 1078), but every stone on this site reeks of dramatic history: blood, gore, beheadings, intrigue, the Beefeaters, the Crown Jewels and, of course, the ravens—legend says there must be six at the tower for the monarchy to survive (last year, two were eaten by foxes, but luckily the Tower kept a couple in reserve).

The site has also served as a prison, a zoo, a mint, a royal residence and a place of execution. The chilling Traitors’ Gate is the river entrance where the doomed would arrive by boat, knowing there was scant chance of escaping their fate. In among all the hoopla and the crowds of tourists on a summer’s day, the Tower can still spin the visitor back over the centuries.

Visit hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon for details


Hever Castle

Best known for being the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Hever castle is an example of an indulgent moated construction. In fact it’s double moated, which looks lovely but would never have survived the rigours of an attack.

The gatehouse and a walled bailey date back to 1270; later, it was converted into a fortified manor. In 1505, Thomas Boleyn (Anne’s father) inherited the property. The passionate courtship of Henry VIII and his doomed bride was played out here, away from the prying eyes of the court. When Thomas died in 1539, Henry— spitefully, some might say—passed the castle onto his fourth wife Anne of Cleves as part of their annulment settlement.

Centuries later, the castle was acquired by the American Astor family (owners of the Waldorf Hotel in London) and in 1903, William Astor spent a good slice of his fortune renovating the property, creating extensive gardens and an artificial lake. The gardens are still much admired today, particularly the roses in June.

Visit hevercastle.co.uk for details


Dunstanburgh Castle

Northumberland has an abundance of castles (Lindisfarne, Bamburgh, Alnwick), but although a ruin for 500 years, the power of Dunstanburgh’s cliff top position is so potent that when J M W Turner visited the area, he rose daily at dawn to paint it.

The castle was an excellent deterrent against Scottish marauders because of its isolated position, teetering on the land’s edge. It covers 11 acres and building was started in 1313 by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. With its intimidating gatehouse, opulent apartments and enough land for the locals and their livestock, the castle was a daunting beast, but the earl was only nine years into his fantasy when he was executed.

John of Gaunt took it over, and Dunstanburgh enjoyed a century of uneventful glory until the 1460s and the Wars of the Roses. The damage it suffered shielding Lancastrians was never repaired, and it’s been romantically crumbling ever since.


Lincoln Castle

William the Conqueror built this crucially positioned Norman building as a means of controlling the country internally. A prison was installed in 1787, and men and women passed through the walls to be tried and incarcerated in the bowels of the castle. Others were shipped off to Australia or hanged on the gallows. The Lincoln crown court is still held here today, although the cells are no longer used.

Last autumn, restoration works discovered a 1,000-year-old church and the skeleton of either a king or baron. The castle is also home to one of the four originals of the Magna Carta, and the building is currently undergoing a major refurbishment in time for the 800th anniversary of the document next year.