Elspeth’s Quest for Britain’s Best Castle

There’s a little season coming of Elspeth Quests – I’ve not got out much in a while, not to anywhere new 😦

However, the mind, the net and books are ever here to do the walking for us…

LIKE WINTER, PICTURES ARE COMING! (and are now here! Keep scrolling)

I’d first like to state my issues with castles – symbols of domination, feudalism, torture and military.

Why are so many castles lumps of stone and decay that in no way convey what they used to be like? I prefer something that a ghost would recognise.

I don’t like Georgian and Victorian remodelling or the chintzy sofas of some lived in castles.

Defining castles against fortified houses and palaces is difficult and there may be overlap when I have a quest for those.

Castles1 - HeverI suppose I have a list of favourite castle qualities: setting, silhouette, tall walls and gates,  alive – recent reconstructions are my favourite; being part of national history and featuring people I care about – so Hever, pleasant as it is, means more to me for being Anne Boleyn’s family home. I like palatial splendour and pre 1700 architecture; lack of horror and military; a large great hall, chapel and kitchens, and square Norman keeps.

I haven’t been to all Britain’s castles yet so I may miss off some obvious ones, but they may also be precluded for other reasons, so there will be elephants not in the room.

Here’s a few castles I recommend:



The Great Hall and chapel from my scrapbook

The craggy rock with its backcloth of hills is surmounted by a dour and frankly, not very fetching fortress; but I don’t see that. I see David Simon’s illustration from the Historic Scotland guide – a 15-16th Century gold renaissance palace, entered through a gate over twice the height of the existing one and flanked by satisfyingly round drum towers. I see the King’s Building as James (Johnny Depp lookalike) IV’s bachelor pad, not the military museum hotchpotch it is today. I focus on the building that cheers across the city from the train, peeping slightly awkwardly from afar, but now comfortable and proud and rather large. The Great Hall has been returned to its fetching yellow, “King’s Gold”, with crow step gables and turrets and lions and two big bay windows. It is Scotland’s largest secular medieval room and must be among the largest anywhere. Inside (sadly a little plainer than I’d like to see), the hammerbeam roof is back, so’s the minstrel’s gallery and Queen and King seats – can you resist?! And lots of green sort of voile curtain. You feel as if they’re between banquets and the tables will come out later (you can hire this castle for just that). The large chapel doesn’t please me outside, but it’s more gold within, and some early 17th C friezes round an annoying modern ceiling, but it feels like a place you’d actually want to attend a service.

The Palace, though small by other countries’ standards, is bigger in life than in pictures and the Auld Alliance with France is very obvious in its flamboyant external decoration. Inside are 6 rooms, recently refurnished – the only 16th C set of state rooms in Britain. I love to walk where Mary Queen of Scots did. I’d like it even more if her Dad’s rooms weren’t so sparse (did they run out of money and pretend it’s because it’s the year he died?) and yet a little over the top – I was looking forward to more David Simon pictures made real, with panelling and not too many colours in one room.

Me in my newly refurbed apartments, and during the revamp

This is my favourite Scottish castle and a contender for the whole of Britain

Other Scots castles I like or want to see:

Crathes and Craigievar for their names and for the painted and plastered decoration inside – and for looking nice and Scottish and turreted;

and fortified Linlithgow palace for being much like Stirling but contained all in one square. I amuse myself trying to put the things of one palace into the other. Shame about the lack of roofs. Again – I see this as it was, not as it is, though the great hall has power even as a ruin. Anyone else worked out that Linlithgow fits with the theme tune of The Simpsons?! I’m also intrigued by Dirleton and Crichton, whose eggbox patterned courtyard I’m sure is a sign of the Illuminati…

Moving down into England…


or Dur–ham as an American friend pronounced it. Do I like this better for being a snob university instead of the seat of Prince Bishops?

Castles2 - Durham

As a castle, it ticks many of my boxes, save its Gothickisation: it is on a peninsula and ridge by its cathedral, it has a gatehouse, a large (but annoyingly restored and Oxbridge-ised) great hall, a medieval kitchen arch where students stand to get their food; a C17 tall black wooden carved staircase; a Norman chapel and two corridors of that era which are especially superb, including a ceremonial doorway. There are unseen rooms for university dignitaries.

Other good castles around: large and high walled Bamburgh has a square keep, great hall and a sparse beach location, but it was home of a Victorian magnate who got rich on making armaments with sticky and overzealous architectural fingers, and is filled with armoury.

Newcastle’s little keep is one of the few Norman castles with rooms in it; the best two are in the basement, with stone vaulting. It has excellent city views from the top.

While we’re on complete keeps, Castle Hedingham in Essex also has four storeys all with roofs and the biggest Norman arch in Europe. A ghost would be happy here – so so am I.

The Marches and Wales have many potentially special castles but too many ruins; I’d single Ludlow out as a better one though I’m sad only Caerphilly in Wales has a major room with a roof. Stokesay has a large open roofed great hall and carved panelled solar. I like the contrast of stone and timber framing – more of that gold at Stirling. But I think the best castle on the west side is


(pronounced as in Sesame Street’s dog). I can’t get away from the horror with Edward II, but otherwise this is a welcoming looking red/pink stone family home. Well done to the Berkeleys for keeping chintz out and making it look like a real castle (and not doing an Alnwick) and yet still comfortable. There’s a large enough great hall which still feels usable and homely, and other rooms – one with medieval paint traces. Shame I’ve not yet been.

Tower of London

Tower of London1 - Copy - Copy   Tower of London (2)

medieval palace in St Thomas’ Tower and a bit of Byward Tower

It surprises and delights how this rather shiny remnant of medievalness sits amidst Europe’s biggest and most impatient city. It has two sets of full height walls which can be walked on with big towers. It’s interesting to know who was held in there, such as seeing Walter Raleigh’s rather comfy room; and for me, the high poignancy of knowing that Anne Boleyn both was crowned and executed here, and her daughter held possibly in the same room. There’s Tudor timbering, gate houses, a redecorated medieval palace (though alas no great hall), and one of the best Norman keeps – outside. However, there’s no rooms in it that look anything like what William evil eye of Normandy would have built himself – and much of this early stone tower is filled with armoury. There is also the horror factor, which can be avoided, though the official guide claims there was less torture and execution here than in public imagination. The ravens and beefeaters add to the mix, though my military views and dislike of ridiculous ceremonies (the nightly keys) – and having to be bag checked do cast a shadow of a raven’s wing over this. And I’m not sure how much standing on a Generation Game conveyor belt trying to recall which sceptre and orbs you’ve just seen appeals either.

There’s two great halls in the South East that I wish still had castles to go with them – Winchester (with its Arthurian link) and Eltham (with a rare monogram of Henry and Anne – Boleyn, did you need to ask?)

Of Kent’s many castles, I think


is the most special. It sits on cliffs as a symbol of entering the country; and its edifices go from Iron Age bumps, Roman lighthouse, Saxon church, late Norman keep to World War II control station hidden in the cliffs. Best of all, the Keep had a makeover, Henry II style, and you can see just how bright 13th C furniture was. Wish T of L had one, because empty rooms – however many drawings and virtual computer animations are displayed – don’t feel very exciting. It’s when I visited Stirling after the refurbishment that I realised that no amount of imagination and illustration was a substitute for standing in the recreated rooms of the period.

I realise that despite Britain’s many and various castles, most are dismissed (by me) as being too ruined (majority) or chintz fests. I would love it if more got the Stirling treatment.

If you want to know why the elephants aren’t here, or to recommend me somewhere, please drop a comment


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