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]

Travel safety: are swans dangerous?


Mr. Asbo is not a nice swan.

He’s attacked numerous boaters on the River Cam at Cambridge, England, hissing and pecking at anyone who comes close. Back in 2009, he even attacked the Cambridge Rowing Team during their historic May Bumps race. The race had to appoint a special marshal to keep an eye on the naughty bird.

Swans are very territorial, especially when they have a nest full of cygnets (babies). Mr. Asbo and his lady friend have several cygnets a year and their nest is right on the main boating area of the river. This has led to numerous confrontations where Mr. Asbo hisses, snaps at oars, and tries to bat people with his wings. It’s even reported that he’s strong enough to capsize small boats.

His name refers to the Anti-Social Behavior Order, a punishment usually meted out to lager-soaked louts to ban them from playing loud music, being drunk in public, aggressively panhandling, or even stealing eggs. Now local residents have had enough and there are plans to move Mr. Asbo and his family to a rural area 50 miles away, where hopefully he won’t bother anyone.

Swans are one of the many attractions of the English countryside, especially at the popular riverside destinations of Cambridge and Oxford. They are strong, fast, wild animals and should be treated with caution. The Swan Sanctuary says they’re generally not a danger, but their peck can be painful and they can even break your arm or leg if they hit you with their wing.

Attacks are rare, however. Swans only get aggressive if you get near their young, enter their territory, or deliberately antagonize them, like the idiot in this video. Don’t be the idiot in this video.

London day trip: Anglesey Abbey

London day trip, Anglesey Abbey
London is one of the great cities of the world and you can spend weeks, even years, exploring it. Sometimes, though, it’s good to get out. The towns and countryside near London make for fun day trips and one especially pleasant destination is Anglesey Abbey, six miles northeast of Cambridge.

The Abbey got its start in 1236 when Master Lawrence of St Nicholas sold 600 sheep to pay for the construction of an Augustinian priory. It survived until its 400th birthday, when Henry VIII shut it down as part of his dissolution of the monasteries following his break with Rome and setting up of an independent church.

It then became a stately home and changed hands several times. It was spruced up in the twentieth century by Lord Fairhaven, who installed his large collection of art, remodeled much of the interior while leaving many medieval elements intact, and added a sumptuous garden. He left it to the National Trust when he died in 1966.

The 114 acres of gardens, lawns, wildflower meadows, and wildlife habitats make for a relaxing stroll. In winter months there’s still some color thanks to a special winter garden with 150 perennial plant species. There’s even a working watermill. The interior is preserved from another age, when lordly manors were still common. There’s the drawing room, the banquet room, even his Lordship’s wardrobe. The whole thing looks like something out of Brideshead Revisited.

This week archaeologists announced they had discovered artifacts possibly dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages (1000-100 BC) while excavating at the site of a future parking lot at the Abbey. This pushes the history of the site back many centuries. Once researchers study the artifacts, they hope to set up a display at the Abbey.

The best way to get to Anglesey Abbey, assuming you don’t have a car, is to take a train from London to Cambridge and then the number 10 bus from the station to the Abbey. Click here for more London day trip ideas.

Photo courtesy Martin Pettitt.

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Roman “Swiss Army knife” goes on display

The Romans were an inventive bunch. They had running water, flush toilets, and mass media two thousand years ago. They also had their own version of the Swiss Army knife.

The curious artifact pictured here is part of the newly remodeled displays at The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. “Discovering Greece and Rome” reopened today after a £950,000 ($1.5 million) refurbishment that involved eighteen months of careful research, conservation, and construction.

The Roman Swiss Army knife has a knife, spoon, fork, spike, spatula, and small pick. Archaeologists think the spike might have helped in extracting meat from snails, a popular Roman food, and the spatula in poking sauce out of narrow-necked bottles. The pick could have served as a toothpick. This isn’t the only Roman folding knife that’s been found, but they’re usually bronze and this one is silver and has a lot more gadgets. It dates to the third or fourth century A.D.

The museum has thousands of rare and one-of-a-kind artifacts from the Classical world, including a 3,000 year-old cosmetics box, intricately carved sarcophagi, elegant Greek vases, and everyday items from the civilizations that gave us so much of our own culture. Maps and a time line put everything into context.

During the refurbishment, museum staff removed a series of ancient stone inscriptions from one of the gallery’s false walls and discovered a time capsule placed there by the team that did the last remodel back in the 1960s. Inside was a copy of the Cambridge News dated Friday 10 May 1963, a selection of contemporary coins, and the names of the 1960s team carved into the cement. The Fitzwilliam didn’t say if they repeated the time capsule trick. The next team will just have to find out for themselves sometime in the future.%Gallery-45674%

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