Capturing the Castle

Castle Tioram 2Nicola here. There are a lot of old buildings in the UK and a lot of different names for historic types of buildings, whether it’s a castle, manor, hall, tower, mansion or cottage. A castle, though, conjures up very particular ideas of what a building looks like. The dictionary definition is “a fortified building as in medieval Europe” or “a large, magnificent house especially if the home of a prince or noble.” However, I think fortifications – crenelations, towers, turrets etc are essential for it to be a proper castle. Often a castle, which has been around for hundreds of years, is in ruins, either through age or because it was destroyed in a war or battle and has never been rebuilt. There is definitely a special aura about a castle.

Castles in novels tend to be creepy. Whether it’s the Castle of Otranto by Walpole or The Red Keep in Game of Thrones they are designed to be intimidating The castle of otranto and the gothic atmosphere just adds to the sense of menace.

How lovely it was, then, to visit a real castle last week that was both impressive but also had quite a homely atmosphere! Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire has been in the same family for over 800 years. It’s been mentioned in Shakespeare and it fulfils the “Gothic horror” element because King Edward II was murdered there in 1327. It looks like a fortress from the outside but inside it has a warmth and charm. Although the guide book insists it is “savage,” I didn’t get that vibe from it. Even the fact that the stone it is built from looks pink and purple in the sunshine makes it beautiful and the gardens are glorious.

Berkeley castleYou enter the oldest part of the castle, the keep, via a flight of stairs known as the Trip Stairs. These are deliberately uneven with overhangs and ledges to trip invaders. It’s a bit of a health and safety nightmare in this day and age! Meanwhile, overhead is the “murder hole” through which the defenders would drop hot ashes, sand or other unpleasant substances on anyone trying to break in.

Inside the Keep the King’s Gallery features some wonderful portraits and feels distinctly civilised – if you ignore the 30-foot-deep pit in the corner, which is Gallery with dungeon said to have been the dungeon where luckless King Edward died. The room off the gallery is known as Drake’s Bedroom – Sir Francis Drake stayed at Berkeley in the 16th century and there is a cedar chest on display that is thought to have belonged to him. Perhaps the clue is the fact it is covered in ships!

Continuing the theme of war and defence, there is a small room in the tower which was designed to be a secure stronghold for the women, children and valuables to be put in when the castle was under attack. There is only one small doorway at the top of the steps to the room, designed to be defensible by one soldier. However, this room now leads into the Picture Gallery which is another lovely, light room full of pictures that rather dispels the idea of a savage castle!

Down in the basement is the Billiards Room (obviously not used as such in the 11th century when the castle was originally built!) Here hangs the portrait of Sir William Berkeley who became Governor of Virgina in 1641 and again after the Restoration of Charles II. There is also a portrait of Bishop George Berkeley, the philosopher after whom the University of Berkeley in California was named.

Elizabeth I at BerkeleyIn 1574, Elizabeth I stayed at Berkeley Castle and the embroidered bedspread and cushions from her stay are still on show and still vivid in colour after so long, with their crimson and silver stitchwork. There is also the Godwin Cup, which was alleged to be a drinking cup used by Godwin Earl of Wessex who died in 1083. However not all historical legends are true, as we know. The cup bears the badges of the Tudor dynasty and the cover is engraved with the Stuart arms and dated 1610 so perhaps it isn’t as old as it is claimed!

Every castle needs a Great Hall and the one at Berkeley is suitably great. Re-built in the mid-fourteenth century, it replaced an earlier medieval free- Berkeley Stairstanding hall and an Anglo Saxon one before that. The painted screen dates from the time of the re-building. Other parts of the castle are newer. My favourite bit was the grand first-floor rooms that were built after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. The walls of the castle had been “breached” on the orders of Oliver Cromwell after the English Civil War in order to make sure it could never be used in warfare again and in the later 17th century the emphasis was very much on comfort and style. The rich red fabric wallpaper on the grand staircase is thought to have originated as Tudor wall hangings and looks very splendid. The upstairs Morning Room and Drawing Rooms are full of light and airiness despite the huge old beamed ceilings and massive fireplaces.

After the Civil War, the owners of the castle filled in the moat and started to develop the outer defences into the beautiful terraces and gardens that are on view today which soften the sight of the big medieval castle sitting atop its Inside the castle keephillside. The fusion of the ancient and the new at Berkeley makes it one of the most appealing castles I’ve ever visited. I could very easily imagine myself living there. (Ha! Chance would be a fine thing!)

Is there a castle you’ve visited or read about that is your favourite, one that you’d enjoy living in or staying in? Luckily there are a few around in Europe that are hotels or even self-catering castles!

20 thoughts on “Capturing the Castle”

  1. Wow, I’d love to visit this castle. I never knew about this Bishop Berkeley being the namesake of the university. We live pretty close to Berkeley now & our nephew graduated from there.

    Reply
  2. There are some castles here in North America. There are two near me, the Piatt Castles. I’ve never visited them. The most impressive castle I’ve been to is Casa Loma in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It is built is a half Norman and Half Italianate styles. What has been completed is impressive. I love the conservatory with the Tiffany glass domed ceiling. The Formal rooms are what one might expect in an intimidating Medieval-Renaissance way, while the private rooms are elegant in the style of the late Victorin/Edwardian period. Two towers, secret passages and a tunnel that leads to the stable are some features I remember. The tunne was to combat Ontario winters, one had to get out to check on the horses when it snows. One of the features I’ve written into one of my stories is the master bedroom has a balcony that overlooks the great hall. The owner would greet his guests from there. I suspect the real purpose was to collect some of the heat from the huge fireplace and help circulate it into the second floor.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the tour Nicola. Love these things. The only castle I was in – in person – was one in Germany many years ago. I wish I could remember the name of it but it was soooo long ago, and my memory is not what it used to be.
    The main thing I remember was that there was a section of floor in the main bedroom, with a dining table on it, that could be lowered to the kitchen so the king (or prince) could have his meals hoisted up. Apparently, he didn’t even want to see the servants who might bring him his meals.
    Thanks again. I love these tours.

    Reply
  4. Ah, I came back to say that I do recall visiting a castle (though some might dispute the name) ~ Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. It was built between 1919 and 1947 and was designed by architect, Julia Morgan.

    Reply
  5. The Castle of Otranto was on the reading list for one of my college English lit courses. Few of the books assigned to us would have interested me then on their own merits, though I kinda like 18th century thrillers now, when taken in small doses; I can understand how our heroines are drawn into these tales.
    Otranto was one outrageous thrill after another, and not all of them were explained. I never did figure out what the deal with the Giant Helmet was. I wondered how authors got away with such stuff then; can you imagine the internet furor over a new book with so many loose ends? I can’t decide if the author would become a cult hero or be booted off Kindle for generating too many refunds!

    Reply
  6. Berkeley Castle sounds terrific, I’d love to visit. The murder hole does sound a bit savage!
    I have visited a few castles in Europe, including Ludvig II’s fairytale castle in Bavaria, but that was relatively new and not a real medieval castle used for defense. The most authentic ones were I’ve been to were Crusader castles in Israel, one on the border of Israel and Syria, and the Hospitaller Fortress in the harbor of Acre. The one in Acre had been converted to a mental institution, so some patients were wandering the grounds as we toured the place, a bit odd!

    Reply
  7. There’s something about a castle… To live in one now, or even in the18th or 19th century, would require a lot of updating to make it comfortable. Drafty, weird staircases, impossible to keep warm (though probably nice and cool in the summer), but even so, incredibly romantic. A castle does, however, require a dramatic plot. Ivanhoe, with Rebecca threatening to throw herself from the battlements, Caterina Sforza standing on the walls to hurl defiance to Cesare Borgia.
    And then there are the ruins, an ideal place to muse upon history. I confess that my favorite castle is Corfe.

    Reply
  8. Lovely post, Nicola! My favorite castle is Brodie, near Forres in Scotland. Some parts are over 400 years old, and the Brodie family seem to have kept EVERYTHING, which makes it a wonderful family home/fortress/peek into history. I can definitely imagine living there, but while the Nat’l Trust for Scotland does now rent out an apartment in the castle, that wouldn’t let me into the drawing room I most covet nor the dining room which has such a beautiful ceiling. And I have yet to visit when the daffodils are in bloom, but hope to do so. The lairds are called the Brodie of Brodie, and the Brodie of Brodie in the early 20th century hybridized 100s of the daffodils we all plant and love today.

    Reply
  9. They did rather stretch the definition of “in one family” with some distant relatives inheriting, but I suppose it all counts! It is am amazing place.

    Reply
  10. I’ve just had a look at the Piatt Castles and they look very interesting but Casa Loma is stunning! I love that you can explore it online. I’ve just had a great tour but when I next visit Toronto it’s on my list.

    Reply
  11. Wow, Mary, that’s certainly a novel way of getting the food to its recipient! But how awful that he just wanted it delivered without seeing – or thanking – the servants!

    Reply
  12. Haha! Janice, I’ve often thought this about plays and books from earlier centuries. These days an editor would be all over the inconsistencies, and if they weren’t, the readers would. As you say, there’d be an internet outcry!

    Reply
  13. Oh, that’s so interesting about the crusader castles, Karin! How amazing to be able to tour those (although I can imagine it would be a bit odd with the patients wandering around. Ludvig’s fairytale castle is precisely that, isn’t it!

    Reply
  14. Corfe is an excellent choice, Lil! Such a magnificent and imposing place with a rich history. You are so right that the idea of living in a castle is very appealing but the reality is probably quite uncomfortable and incredibly expensive!

    Reply
  15. How wonderful, Constance! Brodie is enchanting and you describe it so beautifully. I remember visiting it many years ago and seeing a red squirrel there, which made me even happier!

    Reply

Leave a Comment