I think that if I didn’t live in England, I’d assume that outside of the cities it was just a very green and pleasant land, with a picturesque fairytale castle on every hill. But I do live here, and there isn’t.
Even so, that illusion need not be shattered completely; I live on the outskirts of London, looking over a patchwork of rolling countryside. An Englishman’s home is said to be his castle, and some of my neighbours have taken this rather literally and added Romanesque porticos, medieval-style turrets and Tudor-inspired timberwork to their abodes. These are nothing worth crossing the road to look at though, so don’t bother making your way across the ocean for them.
But don’t dismay. If you know where to look, and I do, you can find some real-life historic castles from whose slit windows arrows have been shot and whose drawbridges have been raised against fiend and foe in the past. Here are my top four moats worth crossing.
First of all, don’t get confused — Leeds is a major city in the North of England; Leeds Castle is nowhere near it. It’s way down south, about an hour’s drive from London in Maidstone, Kent.
It bills itself as the “loveliest castle in the world,” and, built on two adjacent islands on the River Len, it is stunning. If you’ve visited its website, I would forgive you for thinking that the fortress is simply a beautiful backdrop for ballooning, golfing, getting married and zip wiring through the trees. You have to trawl deep to find out anything about its history.
Visit for real, however, and you’ll find that it gets a mention in the Domesday Book and has been home to Edward I and Henry VIII, as well as a prison to Elizabeth I. You could easily spend the whole day touring the castle and immersing yourself in its past, and it should keep even the littlest ones absorbed for an hour. Then let them loose in the beautiful grounds. Hidden amongst the manicured gardens are adventure playgrounds, including one for under-5s; a maze; an underground grotto; and an aviary. And if you want to feel like King and Queen for more than a day, you can even stay at the castle.
The name won’t throw you off the track this time. Dover Castle is actually perched above the white cliffs of the port of Dover, a bit deeper into Kent. This is a particularly fascinating place because it has been a major player in British history from as far back as 1066 up until World War II. The miraculous evacuation of British soldiers from the opposite French shore of Dunkirk was orchestrated from the network of tunnels that run under the castle.
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Because of the dramatic ways the history of the castle is brought back to life (check out the schedule of events), you’re best waiting until your kids are school-age to visit. Travel deep under the castle to visit the World War II underground army hospital, and then explore further the tunnels that have had a strategic military role since Napoleonic times.
Situated in Windsor, about an hour outside of London in the county of Berkshire, Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the whole wide world, and it’s been in the same family for generations. Well, that family is the British Royal Family, so that last bit is maybe not so impressive. It is, however, said to be the Queen’s favourite royal residence. It’s where she comes to relax after a long week at the office – Buckingham Palace.
Look to see if the Royal Standard flag is flying when you arrive; this indicates that the Queen is at home. She does occasionally take a walk about, so if you chance upon a smart old lady in a headscarf, do a double take: It may well be HRH Elizabeth II. Be ready with a story for the kids (I normally go with “Her crown is being polished”).
You can tour the state rooms, and the highlight for me and the kids is seeing Queen Mary’s dolls’ house. It took 1,500 craftsman three years to build and has electric lighting, hot and cold running water and flushing toilets. Visitors can also climb the iconic Round Tower and look down over Windsor Great Park and the River Thames. There are often specific family activities on too; check out the events page for more information.
Like Leeds Castle, Warwick Castle has gone a bit Disney, billing itself as a resort. But the re-enactments and characters do a good job of bringing its 1100-odd year history to life. It’s situated in Warwickshire in the Midlands, bang in the middle of the country, about a 40-minute drive from the City of Birmingham and not far from Shakespeare’s Stratford. This is a beautiful part of England, so if you have the time, combine your visit to the castle with a country house hotel break.
If you have any princesses in your party, the Princess Tower has to be your first stop. They can find out if they are a real princess by lying on a bed piled with mattresses to see if they can feel the pea. The towers and ramparts are perfect for the Robin Hoods in the group, who can imagine themselves firing their bows over the battlements. They will also enjoy the Kingmaker experience, where they can prepare for battle medieval-style. Slightly older kids may have the stomach for the castle dungeon. It is quite frightening, and not advised for under-10s.
Out in the beautiful grounds, you will find the Victorian Rose Garden and the fantastic Peacock Garden, where you might catch a peacock splaying his feathers. After the kids have let off steam in the Pageant Adventure Playground, end your trip with a stroll across the bridge over the river to discover a secret island.
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