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]

Reassembling The Skeletons Of Medieval Royalty

medieval
A team of scientists from Bristol University are using DNA analysis to identify the remains of early medieval English royalty.

The bones are kept in several mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral and include the remains of King Cnut, a Norse ruler who conquered England and ruled it from 1016-1035. The other remains are of Emma, his queen, and later kings Harthacnut, Egbert, Ethelwulf and William Rufus.

During the English Civil War the cathedral was looted by the supporters of Parliament, who disliked the “Popish” trappings of the elegant house of worship. In addition to stealing everything of value, they opened the mortuary chests and scattered their contents. The bones were replaced but of course are now mixed up.

The Daily Mail reports that the team will use DNA matching to determine which bones belong to which person. One of the DNA matches they will use will be from a recently excavated 10th century queen from Saxony named Eadgyth, who was related to some of the royals kept at the cathedral. The team is working within the cathedral so as not to remove the bones from hallowed ground.

Winchester Cathedral is the longest Gothic cathedral in Europe and dates to 1079. Like most historic churches in England, there was an earlier church on this site and many later changes to the present structure. The nave has a beautiful vaulted ceiling and some very nice stained glass, as well as an interesting museum. The town of Winchester boasts not only the cathedral, but also some other fine medieval buildings. It’s an hour by rail from London and makes a good day trip.

[Cathedral photo courtesy Tony Hisgett. Photo of coin bearing the inscription “Cnut King of the English” courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
medieval

Best Places To Live In United Kingdom Named

United Kingdom
Thinking of relocating to the United Kingdom? Halifax Bank’s annual survey of the best places to live in the UK has just come out, with the district of Hart in Hampshire coming out number one.

Various factors were taken into account, including average wage, cost of living, crime, and average lifespan. While this survey is obviously geared towards residents and not visitors, a nice place to live is generally a nice place to visit.

UK media were quick to notice that all of the top fifty places were in southern England. Northern England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales didn’t win a single entry. As someone who has tromped all over the UK, I find this a bit surprising. The country grows steadily more beautiful the further north you go, and the people become nicer the further you go in any direction from London.

I suspect the Halifax survey is skewed towards economics. London is the UK’s economic powerhouse and the closer you live to it the better your economic opportunities are. Of course bringing cost of living and crime into the picture means London itself doesn’t score very well!

A favorite town of mine, St. Albans, ranked number 11 and may be typical of what Halifax was looking for. A prosperous town with a high average income thanks to its easy commuting distance from London, it’s generally safe and far cheaper than living in the city itself. It also has good shopping and leisure facilities. Click on the link to learn what there is to see in this easy day trip from London.

The Halifax survey also gets skewed to the south thanks to another criteria it takes into account: the weather. How the hell is Orkney supposed to compete with Hampshire when you take the weather into account?So what’s there to see in the Hart District of Hampshire? Its main town of Fleet is only 37 miles from London and there’s a train from Waterloo station. Besides the historic town itself, there’s the Fleet Pond Nature Reserve, shown below in this image courtesy Vicki Jull. Throughout Hart there are various historic sites and areas of natural beauty. The entire region is crisscrossed with historic canals, like the one shown above in this image courtesy David M. Moore.

So if you’re looking for a relaxing day trip from London, you might want to consider the Hart District.
United Kingdom

Bletchley Park: see where codebreakers listened in on the Third Reich

Bletchley Park, bombe
You’d never know by looking at the cluster of nondescript buildings that they were the scene of the single most important effort to defeat Nazi Germany. During World War Two, Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, England, was home to thousands of code breakers listening in on and analyzing German military transmissions. The site was so secret that its existence wasn’t revealed to the world until the 1970s.

It was here that the famous German Enigma and Lorenz code machines were broken, allowing the Allies to follow German troop, air, and naval movements. It’s impossible to say just how much this helped the war effort, but one intelligence historian, Sir Henry Hinsley, estimated it shortened the war by up to four years.

The work on Enigma was actually started by the Polish Cipher Bureau, which broke the Enigma code five weeks before the war started. They shared the information with their British and French counterparts. Although Poland was soon overrun, many Poles fled to the UK to continue the fight. The Poles also sent over a cloned version of the Enigma machine, which proved invaluable.

Of course the Third Reich continued to improve and change the Enigma code, but this early head start helped the Allies keep listening. The Polish machine was later used as the basis for the “Bombe”, a more sophisticated machine the British used to decipher Enigma transmissions. It’s shown above in this photo courtesy Tom Yates.

More than 12,000 people worked at Bletchley Park at some time during the war, the majority of them women. Cryptographers were recruited from universities as well as more unusual sources such as chess clubs. Basically anyone who had a knack for puzzles was considered desirable. In one famous incident, the Daily Telegraph hosted a contest to see who could solve their crossword in under 12 minutes. The fastest winners were offered a job.

Despite its obvious historic importance, the site has been struggling with funding for a long time. Now it’s had a change of fortune, with a £4.6 million injection courtesy the Heritage Lottery Fund and the listing of its Block C as a Grade II building, meaning it will be preserved for all time. Block C housed the massive library of punch cards used by Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. Colossus was used to analyze the sophisticated German Lorenz code.

Today most of the original buildings are open to the public and tell the story of the secret fight against the Axis powers. The original buildings house a wonderland of old tech, as you can see in the gallery to this article. The site also houses the National Museum of Computing and the Radio Society of Great Britain. Bletchley Park is within walking distance of Milton Keynes station, making it an easy day trip from London.

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