You don’t have to leave the capital far behind to immerse yourself in history. Pay a visit to one of these medieval castles near London for an unforgettable day trip…
Windsor (above) is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. If you want to learn about over 900 years of royal history then Her Majesty’s riverside home is ideal. It was here that King Charles II set out to rival King Louis XIV’s Versailles, creating England’s grandest state apartments. Later, King George IV added the mighty Waterloo Chamber in celebration of the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.
Described as ‘the loveliest castle in England’, there’s no denying the sheer romanticism of this picture-perfect setting. A favoured retreat of King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine (Katherine) of Aragon – they even stopped here on their way to northern France for the ceremonial meeting with Francis I of France that became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold – it was under Henry’s orders that it was transformed from a Norman stronghold into the Tudor palace that we see today.
You can trace the castle’s history in The Gatehouse Exhibition or visit during one of the special ticketed events, such as its summer open-air theatre or for the dazzling annual fireworks event, for a truly memorable experience.
This 13th-century double-moated castle is a sight to behold, but why stop at a day trip when you can overnight? With 28 bedrooms across two Edwardian wings – many with four-poster beds and roll-top baths – it’s the perfect place to unwind after exploring the house and grounds of Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, which includes among its collections two private prayer books signed by Anne herself.
For a behind-the-scenes experience, book on to a private guided tour before the castle opens for the day. And don’t forget to lose yourself (literally) in the Yew Maze and to marvel at the Tudor Garden and Chess Garden, where golden yew trees are carved into the shape of chess pieces.
The exterior of this 14th-century moated castle is impeccable and you’d be forgiven for thinking the inside is similar. But, like many historic buildings, the English Civil War reduced the interiors to ruins – mercifully the exterior was saved. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as ivy grew around the building, Bodiam’s form of dilapidated beauty was celebrated. Today the castle is in the hands of the National Trust and it has been restored where possible. Among its most notable features are spiral staircases and a rare original wooden portcullis.
Its strategic location guarding the southeast coast has earned Dover the moniker, the ‘Key to England’. Due to its pivotal role in the Second World War, it’s hard to think of Dover Castle without hearing the dulcet tones of Vera Lynn uttering the immortal lines: “There’ll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover, tomorrow, just you wait and see.”
Secret tunnels that were carved out of the rock face to ward off Nazi invasion are now open to the public, as is the Underground Hospital. But its military prowess goes back much further than the Second World War. Evidence suggests there was an Iron Age hillfort on the site, and a Roman lighthouse still stands proud. But it was King Henry II who turned a military garrison into the medieval showpiece you see today.
In 2017, the family seat of the Duke of Norfolk celebrated its 950th anniversary – not bad for a castle almost obliterated during the English Civil War. The damage remained until the first of several restoration projects began in 1718 and when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited for three days in 1846, both the library and bedroom furniture were specially commissioned for the occasion. The castle as you see it today owes much of its grandeur to the 15th Duke of Norfolk. The Duke oversaw a major overhaul in 1900, which turned Arundel into one of the first English country houses to have electric lighting and central heating.