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]

Police Hunt For Lion In English Countryside (And Fail To Find One)

cat, lion
A mysterious beast stalks the fields of Essex, England.

Over the weekend local police received calls from a number of eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen a lion in the fields near the village of St. Osyth. One person even snapped a predictably blurry and inconclusive picture of the beast. I’m not a wildlife expert but it looks like a house cat to me.

Police took the sightings seriously enough to scramble two helicopters and a team of officers and wildlife experts. They also checked with a local zoo and circus but neither reported a missing feline. After a long search they found … nothing.

A police spokesman said the sightings were probably due to “a large domestic cat or a wildcat,” the BBC reports. Police have called off the search and told people to enjoy themselves outdoors while remaining cautious. They should also have told them to stop overfeeding their pets with chips and kebabs and wasting police time.

This odd incident is actually part of a much bigger trend in the UK. Alien Big Cats, as they’re called, are giant felines not native to the area where they are spotted. Of course they’re never actually found. That would ruin the fun. We reported on one jaguar-like creature in Scotland three years ago and that’s just a drop in the Alien Big Cat bucket. The Big Cats in Britain research group has collected 240 different reports so far this year.

So why do Brits see lions and pumas in their fields while Americans get buzzed by UFOs? I guess it’s just one of those cultural differences we should all celebrate and not analyze too much. So next time you’re hiking in the UK, be sure to keep your camera out of focus. You might just start the next wave of Alien Big Cat sightings.

Don’t scoff too much, though. One woman said she was attacked by an Alien Big Cat. I’ve hiked a lot in England and Scotland and while I’ve never been attacked by an ABC (yes, that’s what they call them), I did nearly get attacked by cows.

[Photo courtesy Jennifer Barnard. As far as I know, this particular cat has never been the cause of a lion sighting]

Colchester Castle celebrates 150 years as a museum

It’s not often that a museum becomes a museum piece.

The Colchester Castle Museum recently celebrated its 150th birthday. Located in Essex, England, and housed in one of the best preserved Norman castles in the world, the museum boasts a massive collection of Roman artifacts.

Colchester used to be the capital of Roman Britain until it was leveled by the warrior queen Boudica in 60 AD. As the leader of the Celtic Iceni tribe, she had defied the recent Roman conquest of England. As punishment she was whipped and her underaged daughters raped before her eyes. Boudica raised an army and wreaked a terrible revenge across Roman Britain, slaughtering an estimated 30,000 people at Colchester alone before she was defeated at the Battle of Watling Street.

The Normans built a castle here around the year 1076 on the foundations of the temple to the Emperor Claudius. The foundations were so large that the castle ended up being the biggest ever built in England. After a stint as an interrogation center for suspected witches, it eventually became a museum in 1860. Today it houses an excellent collection of Roman artifacts as well as collections from other periods. An interesting article in the Chelmsford Weekly News reports the collection is the product of generations of collectors and includes not only priceless archaeological treasures but oddities such as a crab with oysters growing on its shell.

[Photo courtesy Filip Walter via Wikimedia Commons]

Trains block signals to prevent cell calls

Being trapped in a confined space with a person who is talking loudly on his cellphone is most certainly one of the circles of Hell. Perhaps no place is worse for such a scenario than a train. Be it a on commuter line like New York’s Long Island Rail Road or a travel rail like Amtrak, the last thing you want while stuck in that metal tube is to be near anyone who is blabbing away on the phone. But now one British railway company is taking measures to completely block cell reception in their railway cars.

According to the Daily Mail, British rail company C2C has begun coating some windows on their trains in a film that blocks cell signals. They designate one car per train as a quiet zone where phones, music devices and other electronics are not permitted and conversations must be conducted “quietly and with consideration for others.”

The film prevents train personnel from having to struggle to enforce the quiet zone rules. And passengers have been very supportive of the initiative thus far. Having once snapped at a person on the train for being too loud on their phone (and receiving a round of applause from my fellow passengers after my tirade was completed), I am not surprised by the rave reviews from C2C customers. And since the general public has proven itself incapable of considering the greater good when choosing its behavior, I am thrilled to see that technology is filling in the gaps left by thoughtless ne’er-do-wells.

C2C runs train service between Essex and London, so if you find yourself in that neck of the woods, drop us a line and let us know if you enjoyed your time in the quiet zone. As for the rest of you, keep it down to a whisper, put your phones on vibrate and maybe try reading a book on the train. Just turn the pages quietly, will ya?