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]

American arrested for stealing 299 stuffed birds

Here’s a new low in the annals of crime. An American man has been arrested in England for stealing 299 stuffed birds from the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, England.

The unnamed 22 year-old has been arrested in connection with a break in at the museum back in June. The birds that were stolen were all rare and would have fetched a fair amount on the black market, showing that the unnamed suspect knew what he was doing. Most of the stuffed birds have now been recovered.

The Natural History Museum at Tring is famous for its collection of more than 750,000 preserved birds, 95% of all the world’s species. If you’re not in the neighborhood, you can still check out their species of the day, a feature running throughout 2010 in celebration of the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. Today’s species is the Welwitschia mirabilis, a plant that can live for up to 1,500 years despite living in the harsh Namib Desert.

This seems to be a mixed year for museums. Hundreds of historic treasures have gone missing in Pennsylvania and the Met had to fork over some stolen Egyptian artifacts.

On the bright side, museum attendance is up as people try to save money by visiting sights close to home. Hopefully none of these folks are stuffing dead critters into their coats.

[Photo courtesy Sarah Hartwell]

London mayor rails against Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Florida location

London’s mayor wants a piece of the Harry Potter pie.

With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter set to open at Universal Orlando next week, Boris Johnson is appealing to British children and their “Potter-fiend parents” to writ to Potter movie studio Warner Bros, Universal and Potter author J.K. Rowling to “bring Harry home to Britain.”

In a column in the London Telegraph, Johnson points out that the teen wizard is British. His Wizarding World is inextricably linked to London. And Johnson knows “somewhere that’s even better than Orlando at looking like London – and that is London.”

He makes a valid point. But the way he makes it is so… British.

Why, oh why, would anyone come to Florida to scamper through “the Styrofoam turrets of Hogwarts” and see “vast latex-covered Hagrids rolling bonhomiously down the street?”

Perhaps because they can walk the streets of Hogsmeade in November without an overcoat and galoshes?

“I want you to know that I have nothing against Orlando, though you are, of course, far more likely to get shot or robbed there than in London,” Johnson writes.

Ouch.

The mayor rails against the idea that the British would allow Americans to make money off a British invention. Of course, there’s no mention that they already left it to the American film industry to make the movies the Wizarding World is based on.

For what it’s worth, a Harry Potter attraction is coming to London in 2012. Warner Bros announced last month that it has bought Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire — the filming location for all of the Harry Potter movies — and will open a Potter-themed tour attraction there that can accommodate up to 5,000 visitors a day.

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Lon-done? Try St. Albans

London is one of the most popular destinations for American travelers. It’s big, exciting, and there’s always something going on. Sadly, many visitors never get beyond the city limits. There are plenty of smaller towns just a short journey away that are worth visiting on a day trip or longer stay. St. Albans in Hertfordshire north of London is my favorite.

Located just a twenty-minute train ride from King’s Cross, St. Albans feels a world away from the big city. There are woods, quiet lanes, and friendly pubs. The air is even breathable!

St. Albans has been a pilgrimage center since Celtic times. When the Romans conquered Britain, they built the city of Verulamium here. Part of the city wall still pokes out of the grass in the town park, and nearby you can see the excavated remains of the old Roman theatre and other buildings. An excellent museum explains the history of the Roman settlement and occasionally hosts reenactments by “Roman” soldiers. Check out the museum website for the next event.

Since medieval times the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban has been a major pilgrimage center. St. Alban was a Christian resident of Roman Verulamium in the 3rd century AD. One day he saw a fellow Christian fleeing from the soldiers and he helped him escape by exchanging clothes with him. St. Alban was caught and marched up the hill overlooking town and beheaded. It’s said that when the sword cleaved through his neck, the executioner’s eyes popped out! There’s a wonderfully graphic painting of this inside the cathedral. A monastery was founded on the site of St. Alban’s martyrdom in the year 793, and the oldest bits of the current cathedral date to the 11th. You’ll notice that many of the bricks in the church are actually reused from crumbling Roman buildings, poetic justice indeed!

%Gallery-83298%The town itself makes for a relaxed and very English experience. There are numerous timber-frame, thatched-roof houses dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, especially along Fishpool St., and a 600 year-old clock tower that you can climb up to get a good view of the town and surrounding countryside.

If you’re feeling thirsty try Ye Olde Fighting Cocks next to the duck pond in the park. It’s one of the many pubs that claims to be “the oldest in Britain”. While it’s impossible to tell which pub is truly the oldest, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks certainly is a strong contender. The central octagonal section dates to about 1400, and there may have been monks brewing here as early as 793. The pub gets its name from the cockfights that used to take place here. One of the stuffed champions is on display.

There’s enough to do and see in St. Albans that you might consider staying overnight. I’d suggest The Lower Red Lion. This 17th century coaching inn is still much as it was. I love these old buildings with their narrow stairs, small-paned windows, undulating floors, and resident ghosts. The pub downstairs is one of the best places I’ve seen to get real ales. The last time I was there they had seven guest ales on tap. The kitchen will cook you up a hearty meal to go with your pint. There are only seven rooms and it’s best to book well in advance.

So if London is beginning to grate on your nerves, get out of town! St. Albans is a good place to start.