From magnificent ruins to imposing forts: 10 must-visit British castles
England, Wales and Scotland are filled with castles that are rich in history and mythology. Here, Michael Smith rounds up 10 must-visit castles in Britain, from imposing ruins with ancient links to Arthurian legend to clifftop medieval fortresses...
Castles have a special place in everyone’s heart. In being asked to choose 10 British castles for people to visit, I had to think carefully about the many hundreds of castles I have been to over the years and then arrive at a balanced selection. I have no doubt that many of you will disagree with my choices – but I hope you’ll find at least one to inspire you!
As a general rule, I like castles to have a distinctive place in their landscape. I prefer a ruin to a restoration; I have a predilection for the obscure (though not necessarily so); and I have a particular fondness for castles with ancient roots in villages, often sitting next to an old church housing the tombs of the once mighty owners of these places.
So, in no particular order, here is my selection of 10 British castles to visit…
Bodiam Castle, East Sussex
It would be unfair to compile a list of castles and not include Bodiam. For many, Bodiam is the epitome of the castle: square, with a tower at each corner, and surrounded by a moat. If any castle conjures up the ‘romance’ of the medieval world, this is it.
When the 14th-century knight Edward Dalyngrigge received his license to crenellate [build battlements and fortify] in 1385, he had it in mind to build not so much a castle as a romantic and stylised home, no doubt based on many smaller such castles he had seen in France.
Hence, as a castle, Bodiam is rather small. I will be brave and say that, from a purely ‘castle’ point of view, it is rather disappointing. But this is missing the point. Bodiam was built not to resist attack (even its wet moat could be drained simply if required) but to impress its builder’s well-connected friends. The symmetry of the castle is designed to be reflected perfectly in the moat. The approach to the castle was via a circuitous route around the moat, then crossing it via a bridge which turned at right angles towards the gatehouse for a dramatic final approach and entrance. A viewing platform for medieval visitors to enjoy the castle in its majesty was also built further up the valley side.
In the 14th-century poetic masterpiece, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we are introduced to Lord Bertilak’s castle of Hautdesert which is described as being built in the latest style and appearing to float on the water. The description of it is remarkably similar to that of Bodiam.
Castle Rising, Norfolk
Castle Rising rewards the visitor with an astonishing marriage of disproportionate earthworks and one of the most magnificent keeps in the entire British Isles. While the great Norman towers of Rochester and Hedingham impress with their height – and those of Colchester and London’s Tower do so with their bulk – it is the sheer quality of Castle Rising which catches the eye.
Built in the 12th century by William II of Albini, Rising is graced by splendid blind arcading [arches with no openings] to its outer walls and a magnificent decorated forebuilding which leads to a sumptuous entrance vestibule into the main keep. The size of the keep itself is impressive: this was no keep for a local lord, it was a palace, richly decorated in the latest style as befitting a major figure.
Its stunning architectural quality – which at one time was mirrored by a church building within the bailey – appears in marked contrast to the rest of the site that today comprises mainly earthworks. Yet it is these earthworks which conspire to create Rising’s unique atmosphere; they are imposing, and dwarf even the keep itself following work to heighten them in c1200.
Viewed from the air, Rising can be seen for what it is: a majestic lordly palace designed as a residence of the highest order. The village which adjoins it reflects a contemporary development; of particular interest is the church, which includes some spectacular Romanesque work.
Why should such an insignificant rock, capped by the dormant foundations of a 12th-century keep and an ancient hill fort, make it into any list of ten British castles? A casual inspection reveals the keep to be no different to any other crumbling remnant that can be found across the UK. It could be hidden away in Oxfordshire, or perhaps down some country lane in Shropshire. And yet…
This unprepossessing place, until fairly recently inaccessible and on private land, has a secret far greater than its stones. This is a place which touches the essence of Wales and the legends of Britain. Here lies an ancient story of Merlin, one of the central figures of the Arthurian canon.
According to the Historia Brittonum, a 9th-century history of Britain, it was at Dinas Emrys that a boy called Merddyn Emrys (Merlin) was brought to the British king Vortigern to explain why the royal fort he was building kept falling down. Merlin revealed the presence of two fighting dragons in a pool on the site, one white (representing the invading Saxons) and one red (the Britons or Welsh) which would eventually emerge victorious.
To a visitor unaware of this story (and others which embellish it), a visit to Dinas Emrys may be disappointing. However, once aware of the significance of this mysterious place in the legends of Britain, no one could visit here and not fail to be drawn back into the magic and romance of a literary canon that resonates throughout early British history.
Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland
Who can walk the coastal path from Craster up to Dunstanburgh and fail to be impressed by one of the most magnificent castles in the entire British Isles? Viewed from afar, Dunstanburgh lures us ever onwards to its mighty gatehouse and capacious clifftop bailey with walls and soaring towers. This is the stuff of romance!
This is not unexpected. Like many great castles, Dunstanburgh was built to impress in its landscape. As with Framlingham in Suffolk and Kenilworth in Warwickshire, the site was designed around a series of planned water features to emphasise its presence and make a deliberate visual statement, both from land and from sea.
Built by Earl Thomas of Lancaster in the early 14th century, Dunstanburgh incorporates a magnificent twin-towered gatehouse that leads to a small inner bailey. The outer bailey (covering an area of nearly ten acres) is protected by a strong curtain wall – except where it faces the sea when, like Tantallon in east Scotland, the natural cliff face provides more than adequate protection against attack. A natural harbour, formed in the cliff face, enabled this impressive stronghold to be reinforced by the sea should ever it face attack. As castles go, it was practically impregnable.
It’s unlikely the original builders of Dunstanburgh thought that this magnificently planned landscape would still impress visitors 700 years later. This is, indeed, art in the landscape.
Harlech Castle, Gwynedd
No serious list of castles would be complete without at least one of Edward I’s great castles; which better than Harlech? After all, even UNESCO describes it as “one of the finest examples of late 13th-century and early 14th-century military architecture in Europe”.
Harlech is beautifully proportioned and majestic. It sits on Harlech Dome, a 200 ft structure overlooking Tremadog Bay. Quadrangular [four-sided], with a massive gatehouse that perhaps served as central accommodation, the walls form a complete circuit which can still be walked by the visitor. Outside, a much lower concentric outer wall with a rock-cut ditch completes the defences.
The castle was originally designed to be replenished by the sea that used to come close to the foot of the cliff. The architect, master James of St George, designed a water gate at the bottom of the cliff, connected to the rest of the castle by a fortified walkway called the ‘way to the sea’.
However one approaches Harlech, whether from below or from the town itself, the castle possesses an astonishing elegance with great presence. Fortunate not to suffer the ravages of ‘slighting’ (to render a castle ‘slight’ by gunpowder) in the Civil War, it remains today a magnificent emblem for Wales – beautiful to see and wonderful to explore.
Pleshey Castle, Essex
The motte and bailey castle at Pleshey is not the largest of such types in Britain, nor is it particularly exceptional. What makes the castle and its neighbouring village truly special, though, is that the confines of both castle and village have not changed since Norman days.
Viewed from the air, it can be seen that the motte (or mound), bailey and surrounding town banks form a contiguous whole. The village does not expand beyond the banks as originally planned; we are looking at a fossilised urban arrangement of unique richness.
Established by Geoffrey de Mandeville in the 12th century, the castle had a chequered history before being passed to the Duchy of Lancaster in 1419. By the 16th century, Pleshey stood empty, its walls and banks gradually falling into disrepair.
Although the castle itself can only be visited by permission, a visit to the village itself is well worth the effort, with the village banks easily accessible by public footpath. Even if you cannot gain access to the 50ft-high motte, you can enjoy a view of that and the large bailey, and see the magnificent 15th-century brick-built bridge that still connects one to the other.
Sheriff Hutton Castle, North Yorkshire
I first visited Sheriff Hutton in the 1980s while at university in York. Covered in ivy and with the soaring fragments of its once mighty corner turrets rising 80ft in the air, the castle was visible for miles across the vale. It was – and remains – a striking monument.
Sheriff Hutton is one of a group of quadrangular castles built towards the end of the 14th century that includes Bolton in Wensleydale and Bodiam in Sussex. Unlike these two, Sheriff Hutton has not survived the ravages of time so well. But what it lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in visual appeal.
At each corner, four towers survive in various states of disrepair. The courtyard contains arched cellars to former buildings and there is also a wonderful archway featuring beautifully crafted shields of its once mighty owners.
The whole edifice stands on rising ground with residual earthworks, all of which were carefully chosen to place the building in a magnificent geographic context – a real statement in the landscape. Nearby, an earlier motte and bailey castle survives next to the ancient church.
A visit here is highly recommended; unlike in my day (when the castle was dangerous and not accessible to the general public), Sheriff Hutton has recently undergone extensive consolidation works and visits can be made by appointment.
Skenfrith Castle, Monmouthshire
Skenfrith is a castle that appears to offer nothing and yet immediately delights the visitor – especially on one of those warm summer evenings when life becomes a bucolic haze. Its green-hued stone and lazy location by the slow-drifting River Monnow are enchanting features in themselves, but it is the castle’s evocation of a medieval lordly homestead that first gripped me.
Skenfrith sits in the bottom of a valley and comprises four corner towers and a large cylindrical keep on a vestigial motte, possibly a design feature to reflect status, as the ‘motte’ appears to be built around the tower. At one point, there was a gatehouse –although nothing remains of this. A large moat, which once surrounded the castle and was fed by the river, has also long since been filled in.
Though not particularly strong, the castle was a key administrative centre. It was part of the lordship of the ‘Three Castles’ established by King Stephen that includes White (Llantilio) Castle and Grosmont Castle. Skenfrith’s current appearance owes much to Hubert de Burgh who rebuilt the entire castle in the 13th century.
Next to the castle, by the river, a quay enabled supplies to be brought up river or goods transferred downstream to Monmouth and beyond. The village church of St Bridget is listed Grade 1 and is particularly worth seeing for its Jacobean pews and the famous 15th-century bishop’s cope.
Tantallon Castle, East Lothian
Surely Tantallon Castle is one of the most dramatically sited in Britain, with its clifftop position, striking curtain wall and magnificent views towards Bass Rock. The last curtain-walled castle to be built in Scotland (in the 14th century), it shares a similarity with Cheshire’s Beeston Castle in requiring minimal protection on several sides due to the precipitous cliffs.
At around 50ft high and 300ft long, the magnificent curtain wall still stands to much of its original height and is pierced by a monumental gatehouse, nearly 80ft tall. At one end of the wall is a large cylindrical tower, the Douglas tower, which originally took the form of a residential keep. At the other end of the wall is a smaller drum tower. In its prime, the composition of the castle, protected also by a deep ditch, was wilfully intended for impression as well as defence. It still impresses today.
Built by the Douglas family, and closely associated with them in its prime, the castle endured many sieges, one of which reputedly involved soldiers chanting “Ding Doon Tantalloun” to the rhythmic beating drums of the besieging army. The phrase is now associated with achieving almost miraculous deeds.
Anyone looking at Tantallon today would surely wonder how it was ever taken. Following its final siege under Oliver Cromwell, the once mighty walls fell silent, with some parts of the castle being robbed for stone.
Wigmore Castle, Herefordshire
Wigmore is one of those great castles that once held much renown and now lies wrapped in brambles and bees. I first visited this stronghold of the Mortimer family in 1980, when a trip to see it was no guarantee of seeing anything! One particularly special memory was cutting through brambles and branches to find a semi-submerged gatehouse arch hidden in the gloom.
Today, the monument has been opened up (subject to some archaeology) and partially consolidated. Although it is possible now to visit much of the castle via guided pathways, the ruins themselves are very much as untidy, as I recall. They have not been sanitised and nor have they lost their magic as an ancient monument by succumbing to the current vogue for treating everything as ‘heritage’ or an ‘experience’.
That semi-sunken arch is still there – but now you are invited to walk through it. You can climb to the top of the shell keep, without running the risk of being shredded by brambles. You can absorb the sense of castles as they were when Charles WC Oman wrote his book for the Great Western Railway back in 1926. In many ways, Wigmore is as close you can get to dilapidation without running the risk of near death to see it; its consolidation is commendable.
Wigmore is somewhat out of the way but this, in turn, brings its own benefits. This part of the world is festooned with obscure castles, Norman mottes and ancient churches. Wigmore is a Koh-i-Noor diamond set in a crown of lesser, but no less precious, castle jewels like Brampton Bryan, Lingen and Richard’s Castle.
And there’s plenty more…
My journey through the castles of Britain is a lifetime’s journey. There are so many more I have not yet seen, but those among my to-do list are: Dunluce in Northern Ireland; Caerlaverock in Scotland; and Dunnottar in Scotland. That’s the pleasure of castle hunting!
Michael Smith is an author, translator and printmaker. Find out more about his work at mythicalbritain.co.uk
Michael’s new translation of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', featuring many of his own linocut illustrations, was published by Unbound in July 2018.