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]

Roman Fort Attacked By Moles, Archaeologists Benefit

mole, Roman fortWhen you stroll through a museum, you generally assume that all those ancient artifacts you’re seeing were dug up by professional archaeologists or found by accident by some farmer plowing his field. Mostly you’d be correct, but researchers into England’s Roman past are getting some unexpected help. . .from moles.

Moles at the site of Epiacum, a Roman fort dating from the first to the fourth centuries AD, have been getting busy digging holes in the soil and turning up all sorts of archaeological goodies. The site is protected by English Heritage and nobody, not even the local farmers, is allowed to dig on it. The moles have apparently never heard of English Heritage and have been tossing out Roman pottery, jewelry, and even a bit of old plumbing.

Volunteers have been sifting through the moles’ backdirt, under the watchful eye of English Heritage, and the artifacts are being sent to a nearby museum.

Epiacum, known locally as Whitley Castle, lies twelve miles to the south of Hadrian’s Wall and protected some nearby lead and silver mines. Click here for more information about visiting the site.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Carlisle Castle Celebrates 1000th Birthday

Carlisle Castle
One of England’s most besieged castles has turned the ripe old age of 1000 this year.

A new exhibition at Carlisle Castle in Carlisle, England, tells its thousand-year history. Well, approximately a thousand years, since nobody actually knows when the first castle was built here. Like with many great English castles, it got its start with a Roman fort. This fell to ruins and was replaced in the late 11th century by a Norman fort built by William II, son of the famous William the Conqueror, known to his detractors as “Billy the Bastard.”

Carlisle Castle is located on the English side of the Scottish border by an important river and town. This made it of vital strategic importance. The Scots took it several times, only to have it taken back by the English again and again in a series of bloody conflicts that only ended when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scottish uprising lost at Culloden in 1745 and the bodies of my ancestors were tumbled into a mass grave.

(It’s a bit freaky to know there’s a mass grave with my name on it, but I don’t hold a grudge. Why should I?)

I got to visit Carlisle Castle when I hiked the Hadrian’s Wall Path. What remains of the castle is very well preserved and shows a series of changes over the years, not the least of which was when Henry VIII adapted the place for use by artillery. While artillery meant the death of most castles, Carlisle hung on because of its thick walls, earthworks, and the large number of artillery emplacements it had to defend itself. After 1745, however, it lost its purpose. There was never another serious rebellion in Scotland. The castle became the headquarters of the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment, which has recently moved out and been replaced by the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment.

The oldest part of the castle, the Captain’s Tower, probably built around 1180, has opened for the first time in 25 years. There’s also a regimental museum on the grounds and some fascinating renaissance graffiti in the Keep, including a crude drawing of a mermaid.
Carlisle itself it worth a day or two of exploration, with its windy medieval streets, museums, old pubs and the most awesome indie bookshop in England.

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Modern Thieves Loot Medieval Castle In England

castleLast week we reported on how thieves and vandals are destroying Britain’s heritage. They’ve struck again. A group of thieves sneaked into the grounds of Helmsley Castle near Helmsley, Yorkshire, at night and stole the lead gutters from the visitor center.

Metal theft is a growing problem and police estimate the lead is worth about £1,000 ($1,595) as scrap.

While the castle itself wasn’t damaged, any money spent repairing the visitor center is money that doesn’t go towards preserving the castle or improving visitor experience.

Helmsley Castle was first built out of wood in 1120. This was replaced by a stone fortification later that century. The castle was gradually improved over the years and a mansion built next to it still stands today. It wasn’t besieged until 1644, during the English Civil War. A royalist garrison held it for three months against Parliamentarian forces until the castle finally surrendered. Much of it was destroyed so it couldn’t be used again. The mansion survives, as do parts of the walls and towers.

Top photo courtesy Michael Wilson. Bottom photo courtesy Colin Grice.

castle

Archaeologists to raise 17th century shipwreck

shipwreck, Mary Rose
The shipwreck of a 17th century merchant vessel off the coast of England is going to be raised from the sea, the BBC reports.

An armed merchant vessel that plied the high seas sank in the Swash Channel off the coast of Dorset more than 300 years ago. Underwater archaeology teams have been studying the wreck and have found cannon, pottery, and an intriguing face of a man carved into the rudder. Their work has had to speed up as sediment is eroding away, leaving the old wood exposed to decay and attack by shipworms, which cut holes into the wood.

Researchers have decided the only thing to do is to raise the ship out of the water and conserve the wood for future study. Sadly, some of the ship is so decayed that it will have to be left on the sea bottom. It will be reburied in sediment to prevent further decay.

The salvage operation planned for this summer is going to be a tricky one. A ship hasn’t been raised from UK waters since the Mary Rose was brought to the surface in 1982. This 16th century warship, shown here in a Wikimedia Commons image, is now the subject of its own museum in Portsmouth, England.

While historic shipwrecks are often taken to the surface to be studied and conserved, or their locations kept secret to avoid looting, the shipwreck of Captain Kidd’s pirate ship will become an underwater museum.