British and Irish castles are fascinating and romantic places to visit. Whether they’re ruins, restored heritage sites or still occupied, they evoke times past, the scenes of historic events that shaped our countries and our people – battles, sieges, executions, negotiations, kidnappings and betrayals. Grim and compelling history written in stone.
The vast majority of the castles were constructed as a result of the Norman invasion and are generally characterised by the motte and bailey. The motte is a mound on which a castle was built while the bailey is the courtyard within the castle walls, often circling the motte.
While these castles acted as places of defence and offence, they were also occupied by the local lord and his family. As time passed and society became more settled and secure, the need for castles diminished, save for defence against foreign invasion. The last to see active service was Dover Castle, which was used as the control centre for Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk. A garrison was maintained there until the 1950s.
Portchester is a fine example of a Norman castle built within the confines of a late third century Roman Saxon shore fort. Reputedly, it has the most complete Roman walls to exist in northern Europe. Portchester was well used by England’s royalty and still has the old twelfth century church. Basing House near Basingstoke is worth a look too, where Civil War re-enactments are staged each year.
Arundel is another castle which began life just a few years following 1066 and was added to in subsequent centuries, being rebuilt after serious damage during the Civil War. It was brought up to its present magnificent appearance in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
In East Sussex, Herstmonceux is more a great fortified mansion than a castle and became the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1946 but it’s now a study centre.
Lewes is one of the very few castles with two mottes associated with one bailey. When the castle was built, boats could navigate from the Channel up the Ouse so that Lewes was actually a useful port in East Sussex. Way back in 1846 the London and Brighton South Coast Railway constructed a tunnel, which is still in use, under the bailey of the castle.
As this book attests, there are literally hundreds of castles in Britain and Ireland. Virtually every one is covered, many descriptions accompanied by attractive and often haunting colour photographs.
Many of the castle names have impinged into our subconscious. Names such as Bodiam in Sussex, Colchester in Essex, Hever and Rochester, Kent. Chester in Cheshire, Windsor, Tintagel in Cornwall, Ludlow in Shropshire, Warwick in Warwickshire, Barnard in Durham, Bamburgh and Alnwick in Northumberland. St Andrews and Ravenscraig in Fife, Stirling in Aberdeenshire, Beaumaris on the Isle of Anglesey, Edinburgh, Caerphilly, Prembroke, Newport, Powys, Caerleon in Newport, Caernarfon and Conwy in Gwynedd and Hay-on-Wye in Powys, whose remains now house several of the famous second-hand bookshops. Ardrossan in North Ayrshire, Drogheda in Louth, Dublin, Donegal, Dunluce in Antrim, Enniskillen, Wicklow, Waterford and Trim which was used in the film Braveheart. Falkland Castle in Fife, where you can still find the original royal tennis court built in 1539.
There are at least five Newcastles – Bridgend, Emlyn in Carmarthanshire, Lyons in Dublin, Under-Lyme in Staffordshire and Upon-Tyne. The latter was built by the Conqueror’s son in 1080. Nearby is Tynemouth which was one of the largest fortified sites in England; it was integrated into the Priory and now all that’s left are the ruins of the priory and the castle gatehouse, which overlook the mouth of the Tyne and the bleak North Sea.
For the purpose of this review I’ve gleaned a few interesting snippets from the book concerning several notable castles. Every castle is identified by its national grid map reference and basic opening times and access details are provided (though subject to change, naturally).
Cornwall’s St Michael’s Mount’s original church was consecrated in 1144 but was destroyed in an earthquake in 1275. This is a magical place to visit.
Leeds Castle is nowhere near Yorkshire; this Kent castle’s name stems from the original Esledes and was bought by a wealthy Anglo-American lady in the 1920s and she spent the rest of her life transforming it.
Blair in Pitlochry doesn’t belong to the Prime Minister but to the Dukes of Atholl. Dumbarton in Scotland is recorded as a stronghold for longer than any other site in Britain; it was built on a volcanic neck of basalt rock jutting out into the Clyde.
Glamis in Angus was the childhood home of the Queen Mother and was featured in Macbeth. Linlithgow in West Lothian was the birth-place of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Cardiff castle was raised on the site of a Roman fort in 1080 and over the centuries has been remodelled and improved and is considered one of the best to visit in Wales; note especially the ornate ceiling in the Arab Room.
Ireland has more than 3,000 castles, most overgrown ruins and until recently they were resented and seen as symbols of hated foreign rule and domination. Castle Blarney is famous for its stone; anyone who kisses it is supposed to be blessed with eloquence. Besides being a twelfth century castle, Carrickfergus has served as a prison, armoury and air-raid shelter.
Corfe in Dorset was owned by Sir John Bankes; his widow led the garrison to fight off two Parliamentarian sieges, though she was defeated by an act of treachery and the castle was slighted – one of several useful terms to be found in the glossary – damage or destroy to make it unfit for further use.
Ashby de la Zouch (Leicestershire) features in Sir Walter Scott’s classic Ivanhoe. Scott was clearly besotted by castles, writing the two-novel tome Kenilworth after the castle of that name in Warwickshire.
I can’t resist mentioning the rarity Shropshire’s Moreton Corbet which was built by the head of an old Saxon family rather than a Norman, in about 1200. Another Morton can be found in Dumfries - a fourteenth century castle tower on a high promontory overlooking Morton Loch.
Brief but illuminating feature spreads with illustrations provide more facts and anecdotes on life in early castles, medieval weapons and the people’s food and drink. There are also articles on sieges, entertainment, sport and the English Civil War, among others.
You’ll spend many an hour with this book and if you live in the UK you’ll be inspired to go out and seek out the castles themselves, to celebrate your heritage and glory in the rich human tapestry of our islands’ history by visiting a castle.