Castles are such an integral part of UK culture and we have so many of them. A large number of them are more than 1000 years old, but have been lovingly and sympathetically restored complete with state rooms and hi-tech exhibitions which give visitors a taste of life back in ancient times. Castles in Britain have been through quite a journey and in their lengthy careers have been, invaded, besieged, have held prisoners and housed royalty. Armed with your camera and your Freedom2explore guide, all that’s left for you to do is to besiege the castle of your choice…
Tower of London, London
If the Tower of London had a passport, the name on her passport would be Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, which is the castle’s proper name. Although in layman’s terms it is more commonly referred to as the Tower of London. This historic castle was built on the north bank of the River Thames in central London, and founded towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest of England. The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror in 1078. But this tower was not the positive iconic image it is today, but was seen by Londoners as a symbol of oppression. Indeed the castle was used as a prison since at least 1100, although that was not its main role and it housed royals early in its history. The castle is comprised of several buildings set within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat. Highlights of the castle are the crown jewels which are on display, an exhibition entitled Wild Beasts which looks at why animals were imprisoned here at the castle in the Royal Menagerie and the armour collection in the Fit For A King exhibit is a sight to behold. There are seven ravens on guard in the castle complex, and legend has it that the kingdom and the Tower will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. Head to the Medieval Palace at the Tower of London for realistic interiors of state rooms used by medieval kings and queens during their visits to the fortress.
Bodiam Castle, East Sussex
This is a picture perfect fairy-tale castle. Perhaps Britain's most romantic and picturesque castle is set in the heart of 1066 country and has a moat that surrounds the imposing towers. With spiral staircases, battlements and a portcullis the 14th century castle is a real delight. You can look through windows where arrows were once fired, a tower that was once a look-out and ruins that were once walked upon by knights. Check out the murder holes in the gatehouse, and imagine the gruesome death of attackers past. In the impressive gatehouse is the castle's original wooden portcullis, an extremely rare example of its kind. Enough of the interior survives to give an impression of castle life. You can hear terrifying and realistic tales from characters who show you around, such as the baker and a miller.
Windsor Castle, Berkshire
Windsor Castle is The Official Residence of Her Majesty The Queen and as such commemorates its owner in exhibitions, such as The Queen: 60 photographs or 60 years especially for the jubilee year. Tours of the Great Kitchens are available and guided tours of the world famous Round Tower. This is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world and its history spans almost 1000 years. The Magnificent State Apartments are furnished with treasures from the Royal Collection. Other must things to tick of your list while you are here include the St George's Chapel (the burial place of 10 monarchs), Queen Mary's Dolls House, The Drawings Gallery, and the changing of the guard. Various areas of the gardens are open from time to time throughout the year too.
Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
Warwick Castle has over a thousand years of history; luckily you can see it all in a day! The medieval castle was built by William the Conqueror in 1068 as a wooden motte and bailey castle. It was used as a fortification, later re-built in stone, then in the early 17th century it was converted into a liveable house. Children and adults alike will love the guided tour of the scary Dungeons, which have housed prisoners over the centuries. Other tourist highlights include the newly added Dragon Tower ‘Merlin Experience’ as well as the Princess tower. There are regularly falconry displays in the castle grounds and you can even get hands-on and try archery for yourself. Make like a medieval guard and climb the ramparts, and look for potential invaders amongst the fabulous examples of the castle’s architectural defence features. Warwick Castle ticks all the boxes of what you’d expect to see at a medieval castle: murder holes, two drawbridges, machicolated stone-work and portcullises.
St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall
Rising from the isle of St Michaels, the medieval castle is quite a sight for sore eyes. Climb the fairy-tale turrets for dazzling views and discover the history of a fortress and a priory. Inside the castle highlights include The Library with its shelves stacked with beautifully-bound books and an Italian gaming table on which chess, draughts and cards have been played through the ages. There is an intricate plaster frieze depicting a series of hunting scenes, and stained-glass windows made from glass panels of Dutch, French and Flemish origin. In The Priory Church take a look behind the altar to see three alabaster panels over 500 years old, each depicting significant religious scenes. The unusual Map Room housing a collection of maps also features a mummified cat and a model of St Michael’s Mount made in 1932 by the butler from champagne corks. In The Long Passage you can meet the St Aubyn family in their portraits before you proceed down the Long Passage. The Garrison Room holds a magnificent Samurai Warrior. To get some fresh air and spectacular views head out onto the Terraces and the sub-tropical garden. Atop the castle walls, the terraces afford mesmerising views to the gardens, Mounts Bay, Marazion, and the Lizard Peninsula to the South and Lamorna to the West.
Even before the medieval castle was begun, this site was an important Roman fortress. Being so close to Hadrian's Wall you can easily combine the two sites. The Cumbria Military Museum inside the castle is also open to visitors every day. Held to siege ten times in its history, Carlisle Castle is the most besieged place in the British Isles. From the 18th century to the 1960s the castle was the headquarters of the Border Regiment, one of the oldest in the army. Guided tours run at key times throughout the year. Of particular note are the Warden's Apartments in the outer gate house which are furnished as they would have been around 1480. There is currently a new art installation along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, called Connecting Light which is a dazzling sight by night. With various interactive exhibitions telling the history of the castle, such as ‘Unlock the Stories,’ the tale of Mary Queen of Scot’s exile in the castle the history is certainly brought to life.
Castle Howard, North Yorkshire
This is a sneaky one in the castle guide, seeing as it’s not strictly a castle, but it’s just too good not to include! With world-renowned collections, stunning architecture, fascinating tours and inspiring stories Castle Howard is a great place for an educational and thrilling day out. You can relax amid idyllic gardens with glorious seasonal colours, enjoy woodland and lakeside walks and the children will amuse themselves on the adventure playground. The dramatic interiors and extraordinary treasures make it a fine historical house. Inside there are world renowned frescos, furniture, statuary and paintings. Friendly guides will share stories of Castle Howard with you as you learn about the generations of families who have called the House home.
Lincoln Castle, Lincolnshire
The history of Lincoln Castle runs from 60 AD to the present day. The castle is home to the Lincoln Magna Carta from 1215, as well as the Charter of the Forest. Lincoln Castle is the only place where you can see the two documents together in the world! Experience the magnificent views of the cathedral, the City of Lincoln and the surrounding countryside from the extensive wall walks around the castle. In 1068, two years after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror began building Lincoln Castle on a site occupied since Roman times. One of the first structures on the site was the Lucy Tower motte and bailey, to which another motte and stone walls were added early in the 12th century. These would have dominated the skyline along with the nearby Cathedral. For 900 years the castle has been used as a court and prison. You will notice the coffin like pews in the chapel, and they acted as a reminder to prisoners of their fate. Many prisoners were deported to Australia and others executed on the ramparts. So this place has quite a grisly atmosphere in parts!
Leeds Castle, Kent
Leeds Castle is confusingly not in Leeds. Named as the Loveliest Castle in the World by its website (well, they would) it does take some beating. Set in 500 acres of beautiful parkland the historic castle, gardens, attractions and programme of events awaits visitors as you can journey through 900 years of history. There are two tours on currently at the castle: the Below the Stairs tour, which gives an insight into places not normally on display and the What the Butler Saw exhibition, which tells the story of life above and below stairs. Listed in Domesday Book as a Saxon manor, Leeds Castle has played many roles throughout the centuries. It has been a Norman stronghold, the property of six of England’s medieval queens, a palace used by Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, a Jacobean country house, a Georgian mansion and an elegant early 20th-century retreat for the influential and famous. And now, a top notch visitor attraction.
Arundel Castle, West Sussex
Arundel Castle is a rather impressive restored medieval castle. Now with the appearance of stately home, rather than a craggy old castle it is set in the Collector Earl’s Garden which has views of South Down and River Arun. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this castle, which started out in life as a simple motte and keep, later evolving into the home of the Earl of Arundel, the first of which was appointed by William the Conqueror in 1067. It underwent much reconstruction work in the 18th and 19th centuries after the English Civil War and was owned by the Duke of Norfolk and his family for 400 years. Don’t forget to visit the 14th century Fitzalen Chapel which is separate to the castle but in the grounds.
Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
At Alnwick Caste there are two new fantastic exhibitions, The 1st Duchess Collection and The Lost Cellars to get stuck into. In the Lost Cellars exhibition there are tales of horrible fates and grim folklore with hi-tech character holograms and the very latest in audio technology. In the Capability Brown designed gardens there are several museums including The Fusiliers Museum of Northumberland, and The Castle Museum which houses important archaeological finds belonging to the house. The luxurious state rooms are open including the Guard Chambers, the Ante-Library, the Library, the Saloon, the Drawing Room, the Dining Room, the Breakfast Room, the China Gallery and the Chapel. The library contains Floor to ceiling bookshelves house an impressive collection of just under 14,000 books. The dining room is dominated by an enormous table, which extends to over 33 feet. The family silver is on show and gives visitors an insight into the pomp and ceremony involved in dining at Alnwick Castle. The Knight Quest is perfect for children where they can dress up as a courageous knight or a beautiful lady of the realm, and learn ancient arts and craftsmanship with the resident knights and ladies of Alnwick Castle. But beware; they may come face-to-face with Northumberland's fiercest dragon.
Dover Castle, Kent
Perched on the White Cliffs of Dover this magnificent castle has guarded our shores from invasion for 20 centuries. After his victory at Hastings in 1066, this was converted by William the Conqueror into a Norman earthwork and timber castle. From then on Dover Castle was garrisoned repeatedly until 1958. Dover Castle is above all a great medieval fortress, created by King Henry II and his Plantagenet successors. The dramatic new visitor experience, Operation Dynamo: Rescue from Dunkirk features state of the art effects and real film footage, which combine to bring the events of May 1940 to life. The atmospheric Secret Wartime Tunnels help to recreate a vivid image of the Dunkirk evacuation. Here is a distinct change of scene when you step inside the richly-furnished Great Tower, where costumed actors take you back in time and introduce you to medieval life at King Henry II's court.
Rochester Castle, Kent
The Norman tower-keep of Rochester Castle was built about 1127 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It consisted of three floors above a basement and it still stands 113 feet high. This castle has some grisly history: in 1215, garrisoned by rebel barons, the castle endured an epic siege by King John. Having first undermined the outer wall, John used the fat of 40 pigs to create a fire under the keep, bringing its southern corner crashing down. The defenders held on, until they were eventually starved out after resisting for two months.
How will you go back to your suburban semi after playing at being lords and ladies of some of the most spectacular castles?