Travel Guides Crafted by Experienced Archaeologists & Historians

25 of the Best Castles in England

Visiting castles in England is a favourite pastime. Their attraction appeals to people visiting from all over the world as much as to families living in England looking for an enjoyable day out. And England has many castles to visit. Ranging from those that are still lived in (and not open to the public), to those that have barely left a trace. Here we introduce some of the best castles in England. Castles that are largely or fully intact, with lots of interest for visitors of all ages.

Visiting Castles in England

Many castles in England, certainly those worth visiting with children, are in the care of either English Heritage or the National Trust. If you are planning to visit many castles, or if you visit castles on a regular basis you may benefit form supporting the work of these two organisations by becoming a member. Read our articles on the advantages of becoming a member of English Heritage and/or the National Trust.

If you are not a resident in England, you may benefit from an English Heritage Pass for Overseas Visitors. This multisite ticket is valid at over 100 properties managed by English Heritage, and is available for 9 or 16 days.

For each castle listed below, we provide a link to a page with more information about visiting that castle. From basic, practical information such as opening hours and how to get there, how to buy tickets, and what there is to see and do. We also include links to two maps for each castle, one a Map of Archaeological and Historical Sites and Museums in England (to help you find more attractions nearby), the other a Map of Historic Forts, Castles and Palaces (to find more castles and palaces in England). Each link will take you to the map pin for that castle on the respective map. Although these maps do work on mobile devices, they are best viewed on a desktop computer or laptop. And depending on your connection they may take more than a few seconds to download.

Dover Castle, Kent

Aerial view of the Dover Castle. The most iconic of all English fortresses. English castle on top of the hill.
A good view of Henry II’s Great Tower surrounded by the inner and outer bailey walls, with their many towers.

Looming over the famous White Cliffs of Dover, the fortification at Dover Castle has played an important role in England’s defence for a thousand years. Although the castle itself is medieval in origin, it stands on ground with a much older history, something best reflected by a Romano-British stone lighthouse still standing within its precincts – one of only three surviving examples from across the entire Roman Empire.

As is typical for English castles, that at Dover began as a motte-and-bailey fort erected in the years following the Norman invasion. Little or nothing survives of this first structure, with today’s Dover Castle owing its origins to King Henry II, who oversaw its construction in the 1180s. At the time, it was one of the most advanced castles in Europe, probably designed to both deter French attack and to impress foreign pilgrims en route to the new tomb of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury. During the First Barons’ War against King John, rebels twice besieged the castle, in 1216 and again in 1217, but despite significant damage it remained steadfast. A third siege, once more unsuccessful, took place during the Second Barons’ War in 1265.

Royalty continued to use the castle intermittently throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, with several Tudor and Stuart monarchs spending time here. The 18th and early 19th centuries saw renewed fortification at Dover Castle, including the addition of gun emplacements, as Britain repeatedly warred with France. With Germany becoming the principle threat in the first half of the 20th century, Dover Castle retained importance as a military stronghold – as well as serving as a military garrison, it saw new tunnels built beneath it during World War II.

English Heritage now run the castle, with costumed reenactors helping to bring the past to life on weekends. An active port town, Dover also boasts an incredibly rare Bronze Age boat, displayed in the town museum.

Rochester Castle, Kent

Early morning picture with medieval structures, sunrise and reflection on river.
Looking across the Medway River to Rochester Castle and the cathedral.

Towering above the River Medway as it snakes toward the Thames Estuary, Rochester Castle is one of the finest medieval fortifications in Kent. Like many of England’s castles, it was first built as a timber and earth structure in the wake of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Its owner, Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, was the Norman half-brother of William the Conqueror, the newly victorious King of England. After Odo opposed the succession of William’s son, William Rufus, to the English crown, Rufus’ soldiers successfully besieged the castle.

In the 1080s, the castle was rebuilt in stone by Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester, and in 1127 ownership passed to the Archbishops of Canterbury. Further rebuilding projects followed – the central keep that survives to this day dates largely from this 12th century phase. Recognising its strategic importance, rebellious barons opposed to the infamous King John seized the castle during the First Barons’ War of 1215 to 1217. John’s forces laid siege and successfully recaptured the castle, as part of which they blew up the southeast turret of the keep, which now looks distinctly different from its counterparts. John’s victory at Rochester was nevertheless in vain, for the barons again wrestled control of the fort as the war proceeded. The bloodshed continued throughout the Middle Ages, as Rochester Castle was further besieged during the Second Barons’ War in 1264 and the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. On this latter occasion, the rebels were successful and ransacked the castle before their ultimate defeat.

Visitors have been welcome at Rochester Castle since the 1870s. English Heritage now manage the site, which is located a stone’s throw from the similarly impressive Rochester Cathedral, another important medieval structure boasting surviving Norman architecture. Rochester itself is a quaint Kentish town famed for its Dickensian connections and annual May Day festivities, making it an ideal day trip from London.

Rochester Castle, Kent

Perhaps the most famous castle in England, Windsor Castle is known internationally as one of the main residences of the reigning British monarch. Indeed, the kings and queens of England – and subsequently of the broader United Kingdom – have lived at the castle since the 12th century, making it the longest inhabited palace in Europe. Its origins lie in the years following the Norman Conquest of 1066, as the victorious invaders built a motte-and-bailey castle at Windsor. In the early 12th century, King Henry I became the first monarch to reside at the castle, which underwent remodelling and expansion over the course of the Middle Ages. Among the additions was the 14th-century St George’s Chapel, where many English monarchs have since been buried.

After Britain’s experiment with republican governance gave way to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the new King Charles II brought about the dramatic redecoration of the castle’s interiors in the Baroque style. Much of the opulent ornamentation now on display is down to Charles II and his desire to rival the French palace at Versailles. Later rulers continued to use the castle as a means of displaying their wealth, most notably King George IV, who spent vast sums on its decoration. Under Queen Victoria, it became the primary residence of the British monarch and in 1917 the royal family renamed themselves ‘the Windsors’ in reference to their palatial abode.

Located in the Berkshire town of Windsor, the castle lies just west of Greater London, making it easy to reach from the capital. As Queen Elizabeth II and other senior royals spend much of their time at Windsor Castle, there are parts which remain closed to the public. Many rooms are nevertheless open, including the State Apartments which the Queen still uses for various functions. Thursdays and Saturdays are prime times to visit as on these days you can watch the famous Changing of the Guard ceremony.

Windsor Castle, Berkshire

Towering above the River Medway as it snakes toward the Thames Estuary, Rochester Castle is one of the finest medieval fortifications in Kent. Like many of England’s castles, it was first built as a timber and earth structure in the wake of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Its owner, Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, was the Norman half-brother of William the Conqueror, the newly victorious King of England. After Odo opposed the succession of William’s son, William Rufus, to the English crown, Rufus’ soldiers successfully besieged the castle.

In the 1080s, the castle was rebuilt in stone by Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester, and in 1127 ownership passed to the Archbishops of Canterbury. Further rebuilding projects followed – the central keep that survives to this day dates largely from this 12th century phase. Recognising its strategic importance, rebellious barons opposed to the infamous King John seized the castle during the First Barons’ War of 1215 to 1217. John’s forces laid siege and successfully recaptured the castle, as part of which they blew up the southeast turret of the keep, which now looks distinctly different from its counterparts. John’s victory at Rochester was nevertheless in vain, for the barons again wrestled control of the fort as the war proceeded. The bloodshed continued throughout the Middle Ages, as Rochester Castle was further besieged during the Second Barons’ War in 1264 and the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. On this latter occasion, the rebels were successful and ransacked the castle before their ultimate defeat.

Visitors have been welcome at Rochester Castle since the 1870s. English Heritage now manage the site, which is located a stone’s throw from the similarly impressive Rochester Cathedral, another important medieval structure boasting surviving Norman architecture. Rochester itself is a quaint Kentish town famed for its Dickensian connections and annual May Day festivities, making it an ideal day trip from London.

Leeds Castle, Kent

Despite its name, Leeds Castle is nowhere near the Yorkshire city of Leeds but can be found in the heart of rural Kent. Standing on two islands in the middle of a lake formed by the River Len, it strikes a picturesque image that make it a particularly great site for photographers.

A stone castle first arose here in 1119 – and was soon besieged amid the so-called ‘Anarchy’ of the 1130s. In 1278, Queen Eleanor of Castile bought the castle and it remained a royal residence for the next three centuries. Many 13th-century architectural features added by these medieval monarchs remain visible today. The infamous King Henry VIII made major alterations to Leeds to create a palatial home for himself, but Henry’s son, Edward VI, subsequently gifted it to a loyal follower.

The castle passed through various private owners in following years, who adapted it to shifting fashions – a Jacobean mansion was built here in the 17th century and then replaced by a Tudor-style structure in the 1820s. A wealthy Anglo-American heiress took over in the 1920s and oversaw further changes, resulting in the interesting mish-mash of styles that today’s visitors can explore, from art deco to neo-gothic.

As well as the impressive building itself, Leeds Castle has several attractive gardens and grounds shaped by an 18th-century landscaping project. Managed by the Leeds Castle Foundation, visitors have been welcome at the site since 1976. Family visits are encouraged, with the grounds now boasting a yew maze, an underground grotto, a children’s play area, and falconry displays. An additional fee is charged for the use of the mini-golf course. Food is available, although visitors can also picnic in the grounds. Those interested in staying within the castle grounds can take advantage of several bed-and-breakfast rooms or holiday cottages. Parking is free; visits by public transport are possible but not straightforward, with no train stations near the castle itself.

Hever Castle, Kent

Those fascinated by the Tudors will not want to miss Hever Castle in Kent, the childhood home of King Henry VIII’s famous second wife, Anne Boleyn. Parts of the castle, especially its impressive gatehouse, date from 1270. Many other features, including its Great Hall, towers, and the surrounding moat, were added in the 14th century.

In 1462, Hever Castle entered the ownership of the Boleyn family, coming under Henry VIII’s ownership after his marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533. Following Boleyn’s execution three years later, Henry gave the castle to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, as part of their divorce settlement. The American millionaire William Waldorf Astor bought the castle in 1903 and oversaw its restoration. With the help of an audio tour, visitors can now explore the multi-period interiors with their mix of medieval, Tudor, and modern elements.

Also on display are a collection of miniature model houses and a military museum devoted to the history of the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry from the late 18th century to the present day. As well as an attractive garden and a woodland walk, the grounds boast an Edwardian yew maze and a water maze. Visitors can meander around the large lake created by Astor or, for an additional fee, take a rowing boat out onto it. A small playground also helps to keep young visitors entertained. Special events on select days throughout the summer months include displays of medieval jousting and the opportunity for visitors to try their hand at archery, again for an additional fee.

Restaurants and cafes are available on site, although the grounds provide areas to picnic. Dogs are allowed on leads in the grounds. Parking is free. The castle is a roughly 20-minute walk from Hever Railway Station, making this an ideal daytrip from London. For those interested in staying longer, bed-and-breakfast facilities are available.

Newcastle Castle, Tyne and Wear

As the city’s name suggests, Newcastle boasts its own medieval castle. This historic structure occupies an area that has been fortified since the era of the Roman Empire, when the fort of Pons Aelius stood here to defend a bridge over the River Tyne.

Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert Curthose, oversaw the erection of a motte-and-bailey structure at the site, part of broader efforts to subdue the rebellious English. Trouble continued to plague their family, with the castle later housing rebels opposed to the rule of the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus. In 1095, Rufus sent his army to besiege Newcastle Castle and put down the rebellion.

Under King Henry II, a new stone keep replaced the old castle in the 1170s. In the late 1240s, during Henry III’s reign, the castle expanded with the addition of the Black Gate. Although these structures were in increasingly poor condition by the 17th century, the English Civil War gave locals reason to repair them. Scottish Parliamentary forces besieged the castle in 1644, ultimately leading to the surrender of the Royalists locked within. After that, the keep was used as a prison for several centuries.

Today’s visitors can explore both the keep and the Black Gate (one ticket for both sites). As well as examining rooms furnished as they would have appeared in the Middle Ages, sightseers can also climb to the top to enjoy impressive views of the city and the River Tyne. A visit should last for at least 1 to 1 ½ hours. An audio-guide is available for an additional fee. The castle lies within a 10 minute walk of Newcastle Central Railway Station, while various car parks can be found around the city. Many eateries exist within walking distance of the two structures. A trip to the castle can easily be combined with a visit to the nearby Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, another building that stands as a remarkable testament to Newcastle’s medieval past.

Deal Castle, Kent

The Kent coast has always been key to England’s defence, a fact recognised by King Henry VIII when he ordered construction of new fortifications along it. Built over the course of 1539–40, Deal Castle was one of three artillery forts established in Kent to help deter an invasion from the Roman Catholic forces of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. Unlike many older medieval forts, Deal was constructed in an age when guns were part of European warfare, and its design reflects this, consisting of a central keep surrounded by six circular bastions on which over 140 gun emplacements could sit. It was nevertheless rarely equipped to full capacity.

During the Second English Civil War of 1648, royalist forces captured the fort as part of their doomed attempt to restore the deposed King Charles I – only to be overwhelmed by parliamentarian forces several months later. From its early days, the fort was run by an appointed captain and in the 1730s a pleasant captain’s house and garden (now gone) were erected atop it; during the 18th and 19th centuries, the fort’s usage was primarily residential. However, with threats from across the sea again rising during the Second World War, Deal Castle was once more used for military purposes, this time as a battery operating post.

Today, English Heritage manage Deal Castle. The site is well-preserved, giving a good impression of life for the troops stationed here in the 16th century. Although the castle will appeal to many children, there are comparatively few activities specifically aimed at them. A car park is located next to the castle; although parking is free for English Heritage members, they still require a ticket to display. An average visit will take between one and two hours and could be combined with a trip to the nearby Walmer Castle, part of the same series of Henry VIII’s defensive forts.

Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire

Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire stands above a hilltop with impressive views over the Vale of Scarsdale. It was William Peveril, one of William the Conqueror’s Norman knights, who established this castle late in the 11th century. Over the course of the Middle Ages, the fortification fell into ruin and by the 17th century had assumed the form of a romantic ruin.

At that point, Sir Charles Cavendish built his ‘Little Castle’ here, designed as a retreat for when he was away from his main home at Welbeck. Although built in the early 16th century, it was deliberately medievalist in aesthetic, inspired by the older Norman keep. Both Charles and then his son William focused on creating a luxurious home full of expensive artworks and furnishings. Many of the outstanding wall paintings created for them still survive. Among those who visited in this period was King Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria. Although the grand house gradually fell into a dilapidated state over subsequent centuries, since the 20th century much has been saved through renovation and conservation projects.

Today’s visitors can explore the attractive gardens or traverse the castle’s wall-walk to take in impressive views across the landscape. They should also be on the lookout for ghosts, with local folklore alleging that Bolsover is haunted! Various ghost tours take place each year for those interested in this spooky feature of the castle’s heritage. Other special events focus on horsemanship, with the castle having been home to a 17th century riding school.

Managed by English Heritage, Bolsover Castle has an on-site café as well as grassy areas where visitors can picnic. Accompanying various opportunities for children to dress-up in historic outfits, there is an outdoor playground to help keep young visitors entertained. The car park is comparatively small, resulting in many visitors parking in the free car park in Bolsover town itself, a short walk away.

Hampton Court Castle, Herefordshire

Not to be confused with the more famous Hampton Court Palace in southwest London, Hampton Court Castle lies in a rural part of Herefordshire. The castle began life in 1427, when it was established as the luxury home of Sir Rowland Lenthall. Several surviving parts of the structure, including the chapel, date from this first phase of its history. In the 1430s Lenthall added crenelations to his house, giving it the appearance of a castle.

After remaining in Lenthall’s family for several generations, between the 16th and 19th centuries Hampton Court Castle was in the hands of the Coningsby family. During this time, it underwent various alterations of its architecture. Although many of the original furnishings were sold off during the 20th century, an American millionaire bought the property in the 1990s and oversaw its restoration.

Particularly popular with today’s visitors are the castle’s attractive gardens, which include a kitchen garden, rose garden, and sunken garden. Several interesting sculptures add to the experience. The broader grounds also offer pleasant rural walks along the River Lugg as well as a maze, tunnel, and a gothic tower, helping to keep younger visitors entertained.

Hampton Court Castle remains in private ownership, and visits are typically by guided tour. Not all of the castle is open to visitors, however, with parts being used as guest bedrooms as the castle is often used for weddings. As a result, the castle may be closed on certain days, so check ahead if you are planning a visit. There is a café on the premises and visitors can also enjoy a picnic in the grounds. The castle is about 20 minutes from Hereford, and there is ample car parking as well as luxury cottages.

Shrewsbury Castle, Shropshire

Perched atop a hill in the historic Shropshire town, Shrewsbury Castle stands out with its distinctive red sandstone colouration. Located close to the Welsh border, it was one of various medieval castles to inhabit the borderlands and bear witness to the bloody clashes between Welsh and English over the course of the Middle Ages.

Originating as a motte-and-bailey castle built in the years following the Norman Conquest, much of the present structure was erected between the late 12th and early 14th centuries. In 1215, the castle and the rest of Shrewsbury was briefly seized by the Welsh leader Llywelyn the Great. The 16th century saw the castle increasingly transform into a comfortable residence, although during the English Civil War it was successfully besieged by Parliamentary forces. Subsequent centuries again saw it reverting to the role of luxury home.

Since the 1980s, Shrewsbury Castle has housed a museum dedicated to the Shropshire Regiment. These military links resulted in it being targeted by arsonists, believed to be from the Irish Republican Army, in 1992. Today, the museum’s displays focus very much on militaria, which is great for military history enthusiasts, although those whose main interest is in the castle itself may find less to suit their tastes. Even if uninterested in the displays, visitors can enjoy the building’s exterior as well as the impressive views of the town and the River Severn offered from its grounds.

Shropshire Museums now manage Shrewsbury Castle. The entry cost to the castle museum is low and entry to the grounds is free. Events are put on to entertain children during holiday periods. There is the opportunity to picnic in the grounds or utilise various eateries in the local area. The castle is a less than 5 minute walk from Shrewsbury Railway Station, although much of that is uphill. There are several car parks in Shrewsbury, although none directly adjacent to the castle.

Colchester Castle, Essex

Colchester Castle in Essex has the claim to fame of having the largest Norman keep in all of Europe. Since 1860 it has been home to the town’s museum, with a collection that includes an important display of Romano-British material – making this an ideal attraction for those equally fascinated by the Romans and the Middle Ages!

Colchester itself descended from the Roman settlement of Camulodunum and the castle is built atop the Romano-British Temple of Claudius, which is the reason for its particularly large size. Construction of the fort began in 1076 to help secure Norman control of the road from East Anglia to London, and its builders made much use of older Roman masonry. In 1216, during the midst of the First Barons’ War, French troops who had arrived in England to support the rebel forces took control of the castle, leading King John to lay siege to it. By the 13th century the castle was serving as a gaol, often for prisoners of war, and continued to be used in this manner right through to the 19th century.

Visitors to Colchester Castle Museum are provided with an interactive tablet as part of the entrance fee. The museum offers a good place for families to spend two or three hours, with many of the displays geared up towards entertaining and educating children. A small additional fee is levied for tours that allow you to visit the cellar and the roof, from which views over the town can be had. Colchester Castle stands amid a pleasant garden in the town centre, a roughly 20 minute walk from the Colchester Railway Station and 10 minute walk from the Colchester Town Railway Station. There are various parking locations in the town, most requiring purchase of a ticket. Although there is no café within the museum, various eateries exist within a short walk of the castle.

Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight

Carisbrooke Castle English Heritage
From the left is the Great Hal, the Chapel and the Constables’ Lodging. Together these buildings house the Carisbrooke Castle museum.

Carisbrooke Castle stands tall on a high point at the heart of the Isle of Wight. The islanders were using this as a defensive position from at least the year 1000, probably to counteract Viking raiders. Unsurprisingly, the Normans recognised its strategic location, building a motte-and-bailey structure on the same site after their conquest of England. By the 12th century a stone castle was emerging, many parts of which survive today.

The French attacked the island repeatedly in the 14th century, laying siege to Carisbrooke Castle in 1377. The 16th century saw another major phase of construction, both to create a luxurious residence and to improve defences amid the threat of Spanish attack. During the English Civil War, Parliamentarians controlled the castle and used it as a prison for captured Royalists – most notably King Charles I himself, who twice attempted to escape! The castle again served a largely residential purpose during the 18th century. In this period, the castle’s Chapel of St Nicholas was recreated in a Georgian style, only to be demolished by its Victorian owner and then rebuilt once more in 1904. The chapel now serves as the island’s war memorial.

Today’s visitors can explore many phases of the castle’s history as well as climbing up the ramparts to take in stunning views across the island. Part of Carisbrooke Castle now houses the Isle of Wight Museum, showcasing the broader heritage of this county, while the Carisbrooke Castle Museum focuses attention on Charles I. Other highlights include the attractive gardens and the Carisbrooke donkeys, whose predecessors have long been used to draw water from the well house.

English Heritage now manage the castle. The adjacent car park is free for English Heritage members but not non-members. Alternatively, there are bus and taxi options from Newport, the island’s capital. There is a tearoom on-site although visitors can also picnic in the grounds.

Tower of London, City of London

tower of london at night in UK
A view over the Thames River to the Tower of London, bathed in light in the early evening.

One of the most famous heritage sites in England, the Tower of London stands immediately to the southeast of the City of London. Such a central location has helped the Tower retain its key role in English history for a thousand years – as a fortress, a palace, and a prison.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the victorious invaders built the White Tower which still stands at the heart of the Tower of London. The castle expanded heavily in the 12th and 13th centuries, coming to form the general plan recognisable today. Various English monarchs lived here in the Middle Ages, and by the early 13th century had even established a menagerie of exotic animals within its walls.

Throughout its history, the Tower has often been used to house important prisoners, from the ‘Princes in the Tower’ to Sir Walter Raleigh, although comparatively few individuals were executed here despite its grisly reputation. The British Crown Jewels, which are still worn by the reigning monarch on certain state occasions, are housed at the Tower and can be visited. Visitors can also see the famous ravens that live at the Tower as well as the Yeoman Warders or ‘Beefeaters’ who help care for them.

Managed by Historic Royal Palaces, the Tower of London is one of the UK’s most popular tourist attractions and is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Several cafes are on-site, although there are benches where individuals can sit to eat a picnic – securing these can sometimes be an issue as the Tower is often very busy. There is much to see at the Tower, with a visit easily lasting three hours. Public transport to the site is good; bus and underground stops are located nearby and several railway stations are also found within a 30 minute walk. Finding parking close to the Tower is much more difficult.

Warwick Castle, Warwickshire

Only two years after the Norman Conquest of 1066, a motte-and-bailey fort was established at Warwick, helping to quell potential unrest in the West Midlands as the invaders pushed their way northward. The castle was upgraded to a stone structure in the 12th century, which then saw bloodshed in 1264 when rebels seized it during the Second Barons’ War. Expansion occurred during the 14th century and many surviving features date from this period, although by the late 16th century Warwick Castle was in a clear state of disrepair.

In 1604, ownership passed to Sir Fulke Greville, who set about transforming the medieval castle into an opulent country house. Conflict soon resumed, however, and it was again fortified during the English Civil War, when royalist forces unsuccessfully laid siege to it. Later in the 17th century, its owners refocused on creating a luxury home here, and in the 18th century they employed the famed designer ‘Capability’ Brown to landscape some of the grounds. By the 19th century it was increasingly seeing use as a tourist attraction.

Unlike many English castles, Warwick is not run by a heritage agency but by Merlin Entertainments, better known for managing theme parks. This focus on family entertainment is evident at Warwick Castle, which is now home to a Knight’s Village, a Horrible Histories maze, and a Dungeon Experience. Live entertainment shows include displays of both archery and falconry, as well as ‘War of the Roses Live,’ which during the summer months sees reenactors engage in displays of jousting.

Food outlets are available, although there is also space on which to picnic. The castle is approximately 1 mile from Warwick Railway Station, although parking is also available for an additional fee. Various options exist for those wishing to stay in the castle grounds overnight, including the opportunity to sleep inside the 14th-century Caesar’s Tower.

Rye Castle, East Sussex

Rye Castle, which is also known as the Ypres Tower, stands in the picturesque East Sussex town of Rye. Historical documents reveal that by the 13th century there was some discussion about whether a castle should be established in the town, in large part as a response to French attacks. The tower was built either during the 13th or, more probably, in the 14th century, and it began to be used as the town’s court hall after the latter building was destroyed in a 1377 French raid.

Later centuries saw the tower become a gaol. In 1837 the Women’s Tower, used to imprison female criminals, was added. The opening of the Rye Police Station in 1891 left it redundant as a gaol, and from then until 1959 the Ypres Tower served as the town mortuary. Rye Castle is now a museum. Set over three floors, its displays cover a range of topics pertinent to the town’s history, such as the role of smuggling. Among the displays are a broad selection of weapons, some medieval tiles made locally, and a replica skeleton of John Breads, a man executed for committing murder in 1743. Today’s visitors can explore the building and enjoy the impressive views of the River Rother that are offered from the top.

A visit will probably only take around an hour, but this is reflected in the very reasonable entry price. Rye Castle is a less than 10 minute walk from Rye Railway Station, while various car parks also exist around the town. A visit to Rye Castle can readily be combined with an exploration of Rye’s other historic features, including the medieval Church of Saint Mary and the National Trust-run Lamb House. The East Street Museum, which is managed by the same organisation as the Ypres Tower, is also open on weekends between April and October.

Arundel Castle, West Sussex

Overlooking the River Arun in the beautiful Sussex landscape, Arundel Castle has been the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk for over 800 years. Like many English castles, Arundel started life as a motte-and-bailey structure built by the Normans. The original motte still survives, although most of the castle derives from later phases of construction. The interiors boast a fine selection of artworks and furnishings, much of it dating from the 16th century, including paintings by Canaletto, Gainsborough, and Reynolds.

During the English Civil War, a Royalist garrison seized control of the castle, only to be besieged by a Parliamentarian force who ultimately secured the Royalists’ surrender. Much damaged by these events, the castle remained in a poor state until renovations took place in the 18th century. This ensured that it was fit for a queen, with Victoria visiting for three days in 1846. Subsequently, Henry, 15th Duke of Norfolk, oversaw substantial alterations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting in the castle’s present appearance.

As well as exploring the building itself, visitors can enjoy the castle’s widely acclaimed gardens and an area of woodland. Also worth seeing is the Fitzalan Chapel, first built in the 14th century but much renovated in the 19th, which serves as the private mausoleum of the Dukes of Norfolk.

A visit to Arundel Castle can take at least 3 hours, with the moat tour proving popular with many visitors. There is a café onsite as well as areas to picnic. The castle is about a 10 minute walk from Arundel Railway Station, with direct routes to and from London, making it suitable for a day trip from the capital. There is also a pay-and-display car park. While in Arundel, visitors might also consider visiting Arundel Museum, or alternatively Arundel Cathedral, a Victorian Gothic Revival structure that is one of the most prominent places of Roman Catholic worship in England.

Walmer Castle, Kent

As the part of England closest to continental Europe, Kent has always been on the frontline of the nation’s defence. After King Henry VIII separated the Church of England from that in Rome, the threat of invasion by Roman Catholic powers led him to order the construction of new fortifications along the Kent coast. Erected as part of this project, Walmer Castle was built between 1539 and 1540, one of three Tudor artillery forts along this stretch of coast.

Designed in an age where guns had become part of European warfare, Walmer Castle consists of a central keep surrounded by four circular bastions on which cannons could be mounted. A moat surrounds the structure. During the later Second English Civil War, royalist forces seeking to restore King Charles I to power seized the castle, only to be besieged by parliamentarians. In the 18th century, Walmer Castle became the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, resulting in the structure being increasingly adapted for domestic comforts. Lord Warden was a role often occupied by the Prime Minister, including the famed Duke of Wellington, who died here in 1852. Today, various displays commemorate the Duke and his important role in securing British victory in the Napoleonic Wars.

English Heritage now manage the castle, which is surrounded by a selection of attractive gardens and a woodland walk, all spread over eight acres. Several activities are available to keep children entertained. There are two on-site cafés, as well as space to picnic in the grounds. Limited parking is available inside the site; there is also a pay-and-display car park adjacent to it. A trip to Walmer Castle could be combined with a visit to the nearby Deal Castle, another of Henry VIII’s coastal artillery forts and which is also managed by English Heritage. A typical visit to Walmer might take 2 hours, although those looking for a longer break can book to stay overnight at the Gardener’s Cottage in the castle grounds.

Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland

Holy Island Lindisfarne
The dramatic setting of Lindisfarne Castle on a rocky outcrop on the Holy Island (a tidal island) on the Northumberland coast.

Stunningly located atop a rocky outcrop on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Lindisfarne Castle can be found just off the coast of Northumberland. Lindisfarne itself has a lengthy history connecting it with early medieval Christianity, but its isolated location has long made it vulnerable to attack – most famously by Viking raiders in 793.

By the mid-16th century, King Henry VIII’s break from Rome had angered England’s Roman Catholic neighbours and, fearing possible attack, the decision was taken to fortify Lindisfarne. The new Lindisfarne Castle was then garrisoned with troops tasked with defending the coastline. In 1715, it was briefly captured by Jacobite rebels who rejected the toppling of King James II.

In 1901, the publishing magnate Edward Hudson bought Lindisfarne Castle. He hired the famous designer Edward Lutyens to redesign and renovate it in the then-fashionable Arts and Crafts style. The design of the walled garden was provided by acclaimed garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Today’s castle owes a great deal to this phase of its history, making it a strange blend of Tudor fortification and Edwardian luxury. Unsurprisingly, in recent decades various filmmakers have chosen it as a location in their movies.

The National Trust run Lindisfarne Castle. A visit can be combined with an exploration of other facets of the island’s heritage, namely the ruined Lindisfarne Priory and the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. Access to Lindisfarne requires crossing a causeway that it regularly submerged beneath the sea. It is important to check the tidal conditions ahead of your visit, lest you be prevented from visiting or find yourself trapped there when you want to leave! Parking is available in the pay-and-display car park outside the Lindisfarne village. Visitors must then walk for about 30 minutes to reach the castle, which includes a steep ascent not suitable for those with mobility issues. Space is available for picnickers, although there is no onsite tearoom.

Carlisle Castle, Cumbria

Standing in what has long been a border zone, Carlisle Castle in Cumbria has seen military uses for almost two millennia. After absorbing much of Britain into their empire, the Roman armies built a timber fortress here to help facilitate control of their northern border. A reminder of this Roman presence can be seen at the famous Hadrian’s Wall, which passes nearby.

In the late 11th century, King William II erected a new fortification here, with a stone castle following in the 12th century. For England’s Norman and then Plantagenet monarchs, Carlisle Castle not only helped to secure dominance over their own populace but also served as the kingdom’s main fortress on the northwest border with Scotland. Wars raged on and off between the two kingdoms during the Later Middle Ages, with Carlisle Castle being besieged more often than any other in Britain.

The 16th century saw renewed construction at Carlisle Castle, as a new, Roman Catholic, alliance between Scotland and France threatened Reformation England. Several decades later, Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned here after fleeing south of the border. In 1644–45, the castle was again besieged, this time by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War. In the 18th century, Carlisle Castle became the headquarters of the Border Regiment, something that continued through to the 1960s.

Today’s visitors can enjoy the wall walk and views over Carlisle as well as a military museum that makes this a particularly appealing attraction for enthusiasts of militaria. There is both a tearoom and open space for picnickers. Dogs are welcome in outdoor parts of the site. The castle car park is only available for disabled visitors; other car parks can be found in Carlisle. The castle is a 13-minute walk from Carlisle Railway Station. A visit should take roughly 1 ½ to 2 hours. As well as the English Heritage-run castle, visitors might also like to explore the nearby Carlisle Cathedral, which similarly survives from the Middle Ages.

Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

Built onto a rocky outcrop along the Northumberland coastline, Bamburgh Castle has a heritage stretching back into the Early Middle Ages. Fortifications were established here when it was the territory of the Kingdom of Bernicia, long before this area became part of England at all. These largely timber fortifications were left heavily damaged following Viking raids in the 10th century.

After the Norman Conquest, the invaders eventually erected a stone keep at Bamburgh to help secure their dominance over northern England. Several medieval kings later spent time here, with King Henry III creating a great hall to ensure greater comfort. During the Wars of the Roses at the end of the Late Middle Ages, Bamburgh Castle was controlled by the House of Lancaster – resulting in it being largely destroyed by Yorkist cannon fire!

In its ruined state, the castle went through various uses in subsequent centuries, including as a school, a hospital, and a coastguard station. In 1894, the wealthy inventor and industrialist William George Armstrong bought Bamburgh Castle and set about refurbishing it, helping to give it its current appearance. The Armstrong family have owned Bamburgh Castle ever since.

Displays inside the house largely focus on its modern history, although the exterior now boasts a re-created early medieval village, while medieval re-enactment groups appear at the castle on select days throughout the year. Visitors can enjoy the fantastic views out to sea and can also walk down from the fort onto the adjacent beach. Also of note is the outdoor cinema, making Bamburgh perhaps the only castle in England to boast this unique feature. A visit to this independently managed castle is likely to last around 2 hours and can be combined with a trip to the medieval Church of St Aidan in Bamburgh. There is a café onsite. An additional fee is charged for use of the onsite car park. There are no nearby railway services although bus routes link Bamburgh with larger towns in the area.

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland

Located beside the River Aln, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland is the second largest inhabited castle in England, having remained the home of the Percy family for over seven centuries. The castle started life as a motte-and-bailey structure, part of the Normans’ broader system for securing dominance over the English. On taking ownership, the Percy family rebuilt the castle in the 14th century, establishing a fort suited to the often-violent borderlands between England and Scotland. Following Scottish raids in the area, further fortifications were made in the 15th century. The castle also saw bloodshed amid the Wars of the Roses between Lancastrian and Yorkist forces.

It was in the 18th century that Hugh Percy was appointed the Duke of Northumberland, a position that his descendants have held ever since. That century also saw many Neo-Gothic additions made to the castle, only for much of them to be removed in the 19th. As well as having a medieval folk story about a member of the walking undead linked to the castle, there are also tales of a ghost of a Grey Lady associated with this historic attraction. In recent decades, the castle has been used as a location for several film and television productions, including episodes of Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter films. Today’s visitors can explore various parts of the castle and a museum devoted to the Northumberland Fusiliers. Activities aimed at children include the Harry Potter-style broomstick-riding lessons and the DragonQuest experience. Falconry displays are also on offer at select imes.

Photography is not permitted inside the castle. Eateries are available onsite, as are tables suitable for picnickers. There is a pay-and-display car park, which accepts only contactless card payments. Taxi and bus options are also available from Alnmouth railway station. The adjacent Alnwick Garden is separate and thus covered by an additional entry fee.

St Michael’s Mount Castle, Cornwall

The castle on St Michael’s Mount, a picturesque tidal island just off the Cornish coast, is one of the most iconic images of this southwest county. Although the fortification dominates views of the island, the latter is actually better known for its religious associations. Following the Norman Conquest, Benedictine monks from Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy established a colony on the island, with a monastic presence remaining here until the 16th-century Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The castle began its life here in the 12th century. Later in the Middle Ages, St Michael’s Mount was caught up in the Wars of the Roses when a supporter of the Lancastrians seized the castle in 1473, only for Yorkist forces to then successfully besiege it. Violence again came to the island in 1549, when Cornish rebels seized it amid the Prayer Book Rebellion, and then once more in the 1640s, when Parliamentary forces besieged a Royalist garrison here. The 18th and 19th centuries saw the castle increasingly converted for domestic uses. As well as exploring the castle itself, today’s visitors can also enjoy the attractive gardens and take in the breath-taking views of the surrounding land and seascapes.

St Michael’s Mount is managed by the National Trust in conjunction with the St Aubyn family. As a tidal island, access is provided via a causeway that is regularly submerged by the sea. A pay-and-display car park can be found on the island; those parking should be aware that overstaying the time spent in the car park often results in exorbitant fines. When the causeway is submerged, a boat ferries visitors across to the island; at these times, visitors can use a pay-and-display car park on the mainland. Queuing can be an issue at peak times during the year. Sensible shoes are recommended due to the steep ascent for access and the uneven pathing in parts of the castle. Those with mobility issues may find it too difficult. There is a café onsite as well as areas in which to picnic.

Highclere Castle, Hampshire

Highclere Castle Hampshire
The Parliamentary Act that led to the founding of Canada was drafted in Highclere Castle, more popularly known as the main location of Downton Abbey.

The country seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, Highclere Castle in Hampshire is a grandiose country house that in the 19th century was redesigned to take on the appearance of a castle. Its origins are in fact much older – a bishop’s residence emerged here in the late 14th century before being confiscated by King Edward VI in the 1550s.

A manor house followed in the early 17th century and subsequently entered private ownership. The politician Sir Robert Sawyer bought Highclere in 1679 and it has remained in the hands of his descendants ever since. In the late 18th century, Henry Herbert, who became the 1st Earl of Carnarvon, hired the landscape designer Capability Brown to reshape the grounds around the house. Further changes came in the 1830s, when the architect Charles Barry, best known for his work on the Palace of Westminster, renovated the house in an elaborate Elizabethan style. During the First World War the castle served as a hospital for wounded soldiers, while later that century various television and film-makers began using Highclere Castle as the location for their productions – most notably the creators of Downton Abbey, which has greatly boosted international interest in the house.

The impressive grounds around the castle include a sunken garden and wildflower meadow. The castle also boasts a permanent display of ancient Egyptian artefacts. These were largely collected by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, who was a keen Egyptologist who both helped finance and assisted Howard Carter’s famous discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Visitors to this privately-owned attraction can make use of onsite eateries or picnic in the car park, but not in the main grounds of the house. Photography is not permitted inside the castle itself. As well as parking in the (free) car park, visitors can hire a taxi from Newbury railway station. Those interested in spending several days on the Highclere estate can rent one of two lodges in the castle grounds.

Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire

Pronounced ‘Beever Castle’, this grandiose attraction in Leicestershire is the home of the Dukes of Rutland. Like many of England’s castles, it started life as a Norman motte-and-bailey before seeing further development in subsequent centuries. Following the Wars of the Roses, the original castle was left in a dilapidated state. A 16th-century structure here was held by Royalists amid the English Civil War before being demolished by Parliamentarians in 1649.

After the war, the castle was rebuilt as a luxury home in the 1650s. In the 18th century, the grounds were landscaped by the famed designer Capability Brown. The opening decades of the 19th century again saw major alterations, overseen by the architect James Wyatt, resulting in the castle’s present Neo-Gothic appearance. It was allegedly here at Belvoir Castle in the 1840s that Anna, Duchess of Bedford, came up with the idea of afternoon tea as a light meal between lunch and dinner. In more recent years, a number of films and television episodes have been shot here.

Today’s visitors can explore several parts of the castle. Paintings on display include works by Stubbs, Gainsborough, and a famous portrait of King Henry VIII by Holbein. The grounds include several formal gardens, areas of woodland, and Europe’s tallest yew tree. The Engine Yard area of estate buildings now provides home to various shops.

Belvoir Castle remains privately owned by the Duke of Rutland. Visitors can expect a fairly steep walk up to the castle which may not be suitable for those with mobility issues. There is a car park for which an additional fee is charged; many visitors have had issues with the payment system employed, so caution is advised. There is a café onsite as well as spaces for picnickers. There are also facilities enabling longer stays in the Belvoir Castle grounds, including glamping, camping, and chalet options.

Raby Castle, Durham

Raby Castle in County Durham stands on land inhabited since at least the 11th century, when King Cnut granted it to the Prior of Durham. The castle itself grew up in the late 14th century, built by the powerful Nevill family. In 1569, Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmorland, took part in the Rising of the North, a failed attempt to overthrow the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with the Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Amid the rising’s defeat, Neville fled into exile and the Crown seized control of Raby Castle.

Henry Vane the Elder bought the castle in 1626. Although Vane had previously been treasurer for King Charles I, he sided with the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, resulting in a brief and unsuccessful siege of Raby Castle by Royalist forces. The 18th century saw significant alterations to the castle itself, helping to make it a suitably luxurious residence for its wealthy owners. It was also at this time that much of the park surrounding the castle was landscaped.

Today’s visitors can explore much of the castle, including surviving medieval features like the keep and kitchen, as well as enjoying the impressive views of the surrounding landscape. They can also walk through the castle grounds, which incorporate a series of attractive gardens and a deer park. Dogs on leads are welcome in the grounds. A visit to the castle and gardens will typically require at least three hours.

Raby Castle remains in private ownership although entry is free for members of the Historic Houses Association. There are eateries onsite as well as spaces for picnickers. There is an onsite car park, as well as bus connections to the towns of Darlington and Barnard Castle. A selection of special events, often seasonally themed, take place throughout the year.

Archaeology Travel Writer

Ethan Doyle White

When not exploring archaeology and history sites at home and abroad, and then writing about these for Archaeology Travel, I research religion in early medieval England and contemporary uses of heritage. In 2019 I completed a PhD in medieval history and archaeology from University College, London. Read More

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