5 Overlooked Castles Close To London

castles, England
England is famous for its castles. Giant fortresses such as Bamburgh Castle and Lincoln Castle attract thousands of visitors a year, but people tend to overlook the many smaller, lesser-known castles close to London. These are often as interesting as their more famous cousins and make for enjoyable day trips from London. Here are five of the best.

Hadleigh Castle
Near the town of Hadleigh in Essex stands the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, once a magnificent royal residence. It was started in 1215 and massively expanded by King Edward III (ruled 1327-1377) to be a fortified residence away from the stink and political infighting of London. Sitting atop a high ridge overlooking the Essex marshes, the Thames estuary and the sea, it held an important strategic position. Edward was obviously thinking of it as more than just a relaxing getaway.

The castle has suffered over the years, as you can see in this photo courtesy Ian Dalgliesh. Erosion crumbled the walls, and in 1551 it was purchased by Lord Richard Rich (real name!) who promptly sold off much of the stone. One tower stands to its full height and portions of the walls also remain, so you can get a good idea of what it looked like when it defended southeast England from French invasion during the Hundred Years War.

Hadleigh Castle is in open parkland and is free to the public during daylight hours.

%Gallery-185653%Hedingham Castle
Another Essex castle is Hedingham Castle, one of the best-preserved early Norman fortifications in the country. It’s a motte-and-bailey type, consisting of an artificial mound (motte) with a keep and wall on top, and a lower area enclosed by a wall (bailey). Both parts are surrounded by a ditch. Usually they were built of wood first and later replaced with stone when the local ruler got the time and money. These castles could be built quickly and cheaply and the Normans put them all over England after they conquered the kingdom in 1066.

At Hedingham you can still see the 12th-century keep, which rises 95 feet to give a commanding view of the countryside. It played a key part in the Barons’ War of 1215-1217, when several barons rebelled against the despotic King John. They eventually lost but remarkably this castle survived its siege. The four spacious interior floors are filled with medieval bric-a-brac and the banqueting hall is available for weddings.

Since the castle is still a private residence, it’s open only on selected days.

Longthorpe Tower
In the outskirts of the city of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire stands Longthorpe Tower, an imposing 14th-century tower that is all that remains of a fortified manor house. The outside is impressive enough, but the real treasure is inside, where the walls are covered with magnificent medieval wall paintings from about 1330. They are in such good condition because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation and weren’t discovered again until the 1940s. The paintings show a variety of religious and secular subjects such as the Wheel of Life and scenes from the Nativity and acts of King David.

Longthorpe Tower is only open on weekends. While in Peterborough, also check out the medieval Peterborough Cathedral.

Farnham Castle
An hour’s drive the southwest of London is Farnham, Surrey, where stands one of the most interesting medieval buildings in the region. It started out as a Norman castle built in 1138 by the grandson of William the Conqueror. Destroyed during a civil war in 1155, it was soon rebuilt and eventually became the traditional home of the Bishops of Winchester, including Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who presided over the trial of Joan of Arc and ordered her burned at the stake. In memory of that event, a local church in Farnham is dedicated to Joan.

During the English Civil War, the castle was “slighted” (partially destroyed to render it useless for defense) and it was no longer used for military purposes. The large circular keep still survives in a reduced state. The ornately decorated Bishop’s Palace is in better condition and is now a conference center.

Farnham Castle is privately owned but the keep and Bishop’s Palace are open to the public.

Berkhamsted Castle
An easy walk from Berkhamsted train station in Hertfordshire stands Berkhamsted Castle, a Norman motte-and-bailey castle now fallen into picturesque ruin. While not as impressive as the well-preserved keep of Hedingham Castle, this place has the advantage of being free and open all day for seven months of the year.

Built by William the Conqueror’s half-brother in 1066, it became an important fortification and, like Hedingham Castle, was besieged during the Barons’ War. It was taken by rebel forces with the help of Prince Louis of France after they stormed it with a variety of siege engines, including what’s believed to be the first use of the trebuchet. After the war it was claimed by the Crown and used as a royal fortress until it was allowed to fall into ruin in the late 15th century. By this time castles were becoming outmoded thanks to the development of artillery.

[Photo by Ian Dalgliesh]

Lon-Done? Try Hertford

Hertford
London is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, offering loads of nightlife, dining and cultural options. It offers plenty of day trips too, the favorites being to Stonehenge and Oxford.

If you want to see England without the tourists, there are plenty of smaller towns an easy day trip from London. One of them is Hertford, where I used to live. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it gave its name to Hartford, Connecticut. The Puritan Reverend Samuel Stone from Hertford helped found the settlement in Connecticut in 1636.

The English town dates back to the seventh century or perhaps earlier. Its earliest remains are the crumbled walls of an 11th-century Norman castle that enclose a small park downtown. Next to it stands Hertford Castle, which was originally the gatehouse and later a stately home to kings and local nobility. Just north of town in Bengeo is the interesting little Norman church of Saint Leonard, dating to 1120. Some faint medieval wall paintings can still be seen inside.

Wandering around the town you’ll see plenty of old wood-frame houses from the 17th and 18th centuries, including the world’s oldest Quaker Meeting House, in use since 1670 on Railway Street. A small local museum tells visitors more about the Hertford’s long history.

The rapid development of many towns near London has passed Hertford by. It still retains many local businesses and is small (fewer than 30,000 people) compared with many other bedroom districts of London.

The best pub in town is The Old Barge, a friendly local bar serving real ale at a prime location right alongside the River Lea. This is a perfect place to sit in summertime. For good Thai food try Old Siam. For something a bit more English visit the restaurant at the Salisbury Arms Hotel, which also offers comfortable rooms in a historic building.

%Gallery-185088%Hikers might want to try the Hertfordshire Way, a 194-mile circular route around Hertfordshire that passes through Hertford. This part of England has some pretty woods and little villages and tends to be rather flat. Hikers looking for something more rugged will want to head to the Peak District or Scotland.

Hertford is just 20 miles from central London and easily accessible by train, bus or car. It can easily be seen in a day and makes for a relaxing getaway where you’ll probably be the only foreign visitor. For more day trip and overnight options from London, check out my posts on Canterbury, St. Albans, Bath, and Windsor/Eton.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Photo Of The Day: A 121-Year-Old Dutch Beauty

Despite the Netherlands not quite being world renowned for their castles, Castle De Haar is a classic example of one, even complete with a moat. This shot by Dutch native Bert Kaufmann is exactly the kind that you would hope to capture yourself, where it’s easy to imagine strolls along the pond and enjoying a nice coffee from inside.

Take your own great travel photos and upload them to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr and it might just be chosen to be a Photo of the Day. You can also submit photos through Instagram; just mention @GadlingTravel and use the hashtag #gadling when posting your images.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Bert Kaufmann]

Castle Drogo, England, Opens To Public

Castle Drogo
The last castle to be built in England is opening to the pubic, BBC reports.

Castle Drogo is more of a stately home than a castle, since it was built long after artillery made castles obsolete. It was started in 1910 by Julius Drewe, founder of the Home and Colonial Stores, near Exeter in Devon. World War I and the Depression slowed down construction and it wasn’t completed until 1930. The architecture shows a variety of styles, with a faux medieval granite facade on the exterior. Inside there’s a library in the Norman style, a drawing room in the Georgian style, and many Victorian touches.

Now owned by the National Trust, the castle is undergoing an £11 million ($16.4 million) refurbishment to repair structural faults. The original design was flawed and allowed water to seep in, a problem that started even before the castle was finished. Now the building is seriously threatened by leakage and specialists are busy preserving the castle for future generations.

Visitors will be able to see the work in progress and also visit many of the historic rooms still in their original condition to get an insight into life in an English stately home. Tour guides point out odd little details such as marks on the floor that showed the butlers where to stand while waiting table in the dining room.

On the grounds there’s a formal garden and a path leading down to the still-wild Teign Valley, a good place for birdwatching. Several other trails in the area offer hikes through Dartmoor, a large area of protected moorland.

There’s also a cafe where you can get tea and scones. How very English!

The castle is open every day until November 3.

[Photo courtesy Philip Halling]

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Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town

Tallinn
Tallinn is a medieval wonderland. The capital of Estonia isn’t on a lot of people’s bucket list but anyone at all interested in history, architecture or art will love this place.

The central attraction is Old Town, a medieval walled city filled with old buildings and fortifications. The sheltered bay and the easily defended Toompea Hill made it a natural place to settle. Sometime about 1050 A.D. a fortress was built atop the hill, the first of many. In 1219 the Danes showed up as part of the Northern Crusade to subjugate the Baltics and convert the local pagans to Christianity whether they wanted to or not.

The Danes improved the fortifications and expanded the town, which became part of the Hanseatic League, a trading organization of a hundred northern cities. The Danes sold Tallinn to the Livonan Order, a branch of the Teutonic Knights, in 1346. The Swedes came next in 1561. Tallinn weathered plague and the Great Northern War and became part of Russia in 1710. In 1918, Estonia declared independence from Russia and fought a bitter war against Bolshevik Russia. Independence didn’t last long, however, and the fledgling nation fell first to the Nazis and then the Soviets during World War II.

Despite all this conquering, Tallinn’s historic core has survived remarkably intact. It’s so well preserved that the whole Old Town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the 14th century city wall still stands, including a couple of stretches where you can climb the narrow spiral staircases of the towers and end up on the medieval catwalk. The Viru Gates, flanked by thin pointed towers from the 14th century, makes a nice entrance into Old Town.

Dominating the town atop Toompea Hill is Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower. It was used as the center of government since 1229 and is now the site of Estonia’s parliament. Nearby stands the inappropriately named Maiden’s Tower that used to house a prison for prostitutes.

%Gallery-178685%There are several interesting old houses of worship. The oldest is the atmospheric and very chilly Dominican Monastery from 1246. My favorite was the Holy Spirit Church with its colorful Renaissance clock, elaborate altar, and painted pews. The 13th century St. Nicholas got bombed in World War II but was meticulously reconstructed and now houses a display of religious art, including the freaky “Dance Macabre” of cavorting skeletons.

The photo below was taken from the spire of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, one of the many towers that offer fine views of the city. Also try the Town Hall for a great view. The most visible church that seems to get on all the postcards is the Russian Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its onion domes.

Several of the medieval buildings house museums: Epping Tower has a collection of medieval arms and armor, the 15th-century Great Guild Hall houses the Estonian History Museum, a 14th century merchant’s mansion is home to the Tallinn City Museum, and Fat Margaret’s cannon tower from 1530 is now the Maritime Museum.

One of the most popular attractions is Kiek en de Kök, an imposing tower on the slopes of Toompea Hill. Its basement connects with a network of tunnels beneath the bastions. There’s enough of interest here that I’ll be dedicating a whole post to this place later in the series.

As you can see from the photos, I visited Tallinn this February. While I only saw about five minutes of blue sky in the six days I was there, and it snowed every day, there are advantages to visiting in the dead of winter. First, prices of hotels and flights plummet and you can pick your dates without having to worry about getting a place. This makes it a good budget travel option for those who don’t mind a bit of cold.

If you’re coming from England, you’re in luck. Ryaniar flies to Tallinn from Luton, and easyJet flies from Gatwick. There are also regular connections from Munich, Helsinki, and other important cities.

Tallinn makes a good budget option whatever the season. Old Town is compact enough that you don’t need to pay for transport, and a Tallinn Card gets you free tours and free entry into all the sites. Being so compact you can see a lot of the city in one day, making the card well worth the money. The cost of the card is 24 euros for 24 hours, 32 euros for 48 hours, and 40 euros for 72 hours. Children up to 14 years get the card for half price. The card comes with a good city map and guidebook.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Snowy Traditional Village in Estonia!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn