The earliest castles were built during the Middle Ages as impenetrable fortresses and today they offer a fascinating glimpse into history. There are some particularly fine examples of castles in the UK, from those that house royalty, those that star in big-budget movies and those that inspire individuals to make them their present day homes.
Windsor Castle, Windsor, Berkshire
Possibly the most famous castle in Europe, Windsor Castle has been a royal residence since the rule of Henry I, over 900 years ago. In fact it has the honour of being the oldest and biggest inhabited structure of its type anywhere in the world; there are more than 1,000 rooms spread over the 484,000 square feet. Visitors can join a tour of the opulent state apartments which are furnished with royal treasures.
You can also explore St George’s Chapel, which is regarded as one of the most stunning religious buildings in the UK and the final resting place of ten monarchs, including Henry VIII and Charles I. The Drawings Gallery within the castle is home to artwork from masters such as Gainsborough, Rubens and Rembrandt. Don’t miss Queen Mary’s Dolls House, which is a miniature masterpiece!
Leeds Castle, Maidstone, Kent
Handsome Leeds Castle has stood on this site since 1119 and was once the residence of Edward I and Henry the VIII. Originally built on islands within a pretty lake, Edward used the magnificent structure as a palace from 1278 adding a barbican (fortified gateway) and drawbridge. Henry and his first wife Catherine of Aragon made many additions to Leeds Castle but rarely stayed here, despite the fact that it’s located just 30 miles from London.
The castle also has strong American ties and was in private ownership until it opened to the public in 1976. Don’t miss the vast grounds where falconry displays entertain and the large maze, well, amazes!
Warwick Castle, Warwick
The medieval spectacle that is Warwick Castle is based upon William the Conquerors’ original motte and bailey fort from 1068. Its stunning interior lures historians as much as the faithful medieval battle re-enactments that take place here. Traditionally the castle served as the home of the Earls of Warwick from 1088 with the first Earl of Warwick. It then became a private home of the Greville family and in 1978 Warwick Castle opened to the public.
During the last decade more than 6 million GBP has been spent on a thorough restoration programme. Don’t miss the opulent grounds too which were landscaped by legendary Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1750, the gorgeous Victorian Rose Garden and the entertaining Warwick Ghosts Alive which is a great day out for the whole family.
Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
Surely the most handsome castle on our list has to be the magnificent Edinburgh Castle? Sitting confidently astride an extinct volcano, the beautiful city of Edinburgh has grown up around the castle, which dominates the skyline. It remains a key part of British history and has been subject to siege and the site of many battles over its long history. In fact this site has been continually occupied since the Bronze Age, with the castle itself dating back ti the 12th century.
Scotland’s most popular tourist attraction regularly pulls in over one million curious visitors every year. Visitors are keen to learn about the royalty that lived and died here, including Queen Margaret who died here in 1093 and Mary Queen of Scots who in 1566, gave birth to James VI here. Sieges have been led by Edward I of England, Robert the Bruce (who later became the King of Scots) and Oliver Cromwell.
Highlights include the Don’t miss the hall containing the Scottish Crown Jewels, including the Crown, Sceptre and Sword, which are oldest crown jewels within Britain. Don’t miss the historic St Margaret’s Chapel which at nearly 900 years old is the oldest building in Edinburgh and wander the magnificent Great Hall which dates back to the 16th century.
Caernarfon Castle, Gwynedd, Wales
The medieval Caernarfon Castle together with historic Conwy Castle are a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site. The first incarnation was constructed in wood, although Edward I’s arrival in 1283 saw the transformation to a much more solid and indestructible stone castle. In fact the mighty walls have been likened to the defensive Walls of Constantinople. King Edward was an English ruler who has just conquered North Wales, and Caernarfon Castle was designed to cement his position.
The location was carefully chosen, on the banks of the River overlooking the island of Anglesey. Caernarfon is pretty unique in the UK in that its towers are polygonal, rather than round. Wander the grounds, admire the specially colour coded stone architecture and glimpse the mighty castle from the river at sunset.
Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
Impressive Alnwick Castle is enjoying something of a resurgence, thanks to its inclusion in the hugely popular Harry Potter movies, namely as the fictitious Hogwarts school. First built in 1096, after the Norman Conquest, Alnwick castle and stately home is the seat of the Duke of Northumberland. For the last 700 years however it has been the home of the Percy family and is one of the biggest inhabited castles within the UK.
Don’t miss the absolutely magnificent State Rooms which boast furniture and art collected over many years by the Percy family. And the Knight’s Quest will entertain kids young and old as you get to dress up in medieval garb. As well as appearing in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets (2002), Alnwick has also made an appearance in other movies such as Elizabeth (1998) and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991).
Hellifield Peel Castle, Yorkshire
For anybody that’s ever dreamt of owning a real life castle, I give you Hellifield Peel Castle, which has been lovingly restored. The painstaking restoration was featured on the UK TV Series Grand Designs in 2007 and followed the Shaw’s as they spent two years transforming their 750 year old ruins back into a stunning castle. Nestled within a valley in deepest Yorkshire, the main tower of the structure was constructed by one of the last Templar Knights. Today the romantic Hellifield Peel Castle serves as a boutique hotel where visitors can sleep within a traditional castle.
Image credit; 1; Petr.noha CC-A-3.0, 3; Wikipedia CC-ASA-3.0