8 spectacular castles in England
England is home to many striking castles, built over the centuries to protect and to control. From acting as royal residences to being the stars of TV and the silver screen, as the leaves begin to fall and the countryside becomes a burnished carpet of reds, golds and yellows, these immense fortifications are sure to spark the imagination…
Just to the west of London lies the world’s oldest and largest inhabited castle, having been a royal residence for around 950 years. First developed by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, Windsor Castle is regularly used by the Queen as a weekend retreat, as well as hosting state occasions and royal weddings. The Round Tower dominates the skyline and sits atop the oldest part of the castle, while St George’s Chapel acts as the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter – an order of chivalry dating back to the reign of Edward III in 1348. Advanced booking for the castle is recommended.
An imposing fortress in the heart of the Midlands, Warwick Castle provides a taste of medieval life. Pass beneath the castle’s impressive portcullis, wander along its ramparts, take in archery exhibitions and explore 64 acres of landscaped gardens on the way to discovering 1,100 years of history. Children can venture back through time in the Horrible Histories Maze, or book in to the Castle Dungeon to unravel some of Warwick’s darkest secrets with the help of live actors and spine-tingling special effects.
Tower of London
Once a royal residence and notorious prison, the Tower of London is a World Heritage Site with 1,000 years of history at its core. The imposing fortress is now home to the Crown Jewels, a collection of more than 23,000 dazzling gemstones, and you can also meet the guardians of the tower – its legendary ravens! Learn more about this feast of Norman architecture from the Yeoman Warders, often known as Beefeaters, who have guarded the tower since Tudor times.
One of the stars of TV’s Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle in Hampshire provided the backdrop for four series of the show and the hit movie. Initially a medieval palace, Highclere was transformed in the mid-19th century by Sir Charles Barry, the architectural mind behind the Houses of Parliament in London. Alongside tours of its many rooms, including those used as the state rooms from the Downton Abbey movie, you can explore gardens dating back to the 13th century and 1,000 acres of stunning parkland, designed by the renowned landscape gardener, Capability Brown. The castle is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, whose family have lived there since 1679, and also houses a unique display of Egyptian antiquities celebrating the 5th Earl of Carnarvon’s role in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. This year, the castle will also hosts special autumn and winter tours, including Real Lives and Film Sets and Christmas at Highclere.
With a history spanning more than 700 years, Hever Castle was the childhood home of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Initially a moated defensive castle dating back to 1270, this romantic setting is packed full of Tudor portraits and tapestries, and features fine views out over Hever Lake. Set within the 125 acres of grounds is a 100-year-old Yew Maze, as well as award-winning gardens, with startlingly beautiful dahlia displays and the warming sugary scent of the Katsura tree perfuming the frosty air. Pre-booking to explore Hever Castle and its grounds is essential.
As the UK’s second-largest inhabited castle behind Windsor, the impressive walls of Alnwick Castle have acted as a military outpost, a teaching college and a family home over the centuries. Another castle with its origins in the Norman period, the fortress in Northumberland will be recognisable to fans of Harry Potter, as the wizarding hero was filmed learning to fly a broomstick within its walls for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The castle is no stranger to the world of film, having also featured in Downton Abbey, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Elizabeth. Pre-booking is required.
Perched on an outcrop overlooking the Northumberland Coast, Bamburgh Castle started life as an Anglo-Saxon citadel and has a rich and varied history. The mighty keep dates back to just after the Norman invasion, while it acted as a royal palace for numerous kings in the centuries that followed. Bamburgh holds the distinguished title of being the first castle in the world to fall to gunpowder, having been attacked during the War of the Roses, while a delightful array of artefacts and heirlooms reveal more about its past. Today it stands as the family home of the Armstrong family, descendants of Victorian engineer William Armstrong, who purchased the castle to return it to its former glory. Purchasing pre-booked advance tickets online is recommended.
Occupying 500 acres in the heart of the Kent countryside, Leeds Castle celebrated its 900th anniversary in 2019. You can trace its journey from its Norman roots, through royal ownership and its time as a magnificent Tudor place for Henry VIII, to the country retreat that stands today. The Gatehouse Exhibition explores this history, while the castle’s Bird of Prey Centre features displays from hawks, owls and eagles, among other majestic birds. All visits must be reserved online.