I get an urge - quite regularly - to do something historical with my children. I love history, and frankly, it makes me feel like a good mother to take my children on an outing where they might learn something. Sadly, my own memories of visiting such houses as a child are of being dragged around a dank and rather whiffy collection of old-fashioned rooms, followed by a fruitless hunt for a playground, then back to the car park for a cheese and chutney sandwich and a packet of scampi fries.
These days however, our lucky, lucky children get to visit a new version: Castles 2.0. This is a whole new world of visiting a historic building. The Castle owners don't mess with it, the magic of the Castle is still intact and it is still about Queens and Knights and myths and medieval history and bloody battles....but it is interesting! There are trails to follow in the gardens. There are scavenger hunts to be done around the state rooms. There's a man dressed up as a Knight, lurking about with a bird of prey and somethings gizzards. Mazes, full-scale adventure playgrounds, broomstick flying lessons, treetop restaurants, jousting, role play, dressing up....it is all there, packaged up in one glorious, ancient building.
Some castles get it so bang on, your kids will beg you to go back - and they will have learnt lots in the process. Goodness, if only all history lessons were like this......
If a spooky feeling of "I've been here before" grabs you when you enter the grounds of Alnwick Castle, chances are it's because you probably have (sort of). This extraordinary Castle was used in filming locations for big hitters like Harry Potter, Downton Abbey and Countrywise (yes, Countrywise is a big hitter in my book) and when you see the grounds and gardens it is easy to see why.
The tour of the Castle - occupied still by the Percy family - is excellent and very well laid out; there are also loads of activites set up for children which are both fun and teach them a bit about medieval history. They can dress up as Knights, make medieval arts and crafts and enjoy the many costumed performers roaming around the Castle bringing history to life. Explore the Dragons lair if you dare; a dark labyrinth of tunnels in which you answer puzzles and challenges to make it through.
The gardens are spread of 12 beautiful acres, water features, orchards and the worlds largest (and very fairytale looking) treehouse restaurant. This one is more than a day trip, you might need two!
Bolton Castle is one of Englands best preserved medieval castles and is a wonderful looking place; a fortress straight out of the imagination of many a young would-be Knight with its imposing steep brick walls and small rectangular windows. Situated in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire and just outside the village of Castle Bolton (don't know how they dreamt that name up), it is perched right on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales and the views over the county are stunning.
The whole place is exceeding well set up, with an actual timeline of events that all strung-out parents will love (birds of prey display at 11 / archery at 2 / wild boar feeding at 3 - that kind of thing) and clear maps tell you where to go and when. Throughout the day the Castle puts on medieval games and dressing-up activities as well as hosting special events during the year which feature historical reconstructions (Woo Hoo - LARPing!) If you need some time away from all the action, there are also lovely gardens and a maze to wander around and get lost in.
I've just learned a new word: crenellated. It means a wall (or a tower) with battlements, and Hever Castle has these in abundance. In fact, Hever Castle ticks a lot of boxes in the Child's Castle Checklist: moat - tick, crenellated towers - tick, haunted - tick. Ooooooo, 'tis true! Anne Boleyn lived here as a child and after her marriage to Henry VIII ended in her beheading at the Tower of London (she was only Wife 2 so wasn't to know), her ghost apparently returned and is said to roam the grounds. Where's Yvette Fielding when you need her?
Hever Castle - although not huge in size compared to other Kent Castles - has a lot going on, so instead of the usual "boring" when you mention a castle visit, the nippers will probably be in their child seat and buckled up ready to go before you are. The interior of the house is lavish to say the least and the tours through the different rooms are fascinating. Outside, there are large formal gardens, a maze, a huge crenellated (yes!) fortress playground, cafes, boat rides on the lake, a miniature model house collection and in school holidays, lots of extra things like shield painting and archery.
Lowther Castle is one of the Lake Districts most stunning attractions. It is no longer occupied, so you won't be able to get a gander at Queen Victorias bedchamber or anything like that, but calling it "ruins" really doesn't do it justice. The success of Lowther Castle is that it has not been restored but conserved, and the attraction of it is based on its virtues as a ruin. There is an excellent exhibition in the stables - The Story of Lowther - and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore in the castle grounds.
Kids will absolutely love The Lost Castle, a huge adventure playground with fire-poles, steps, ramps, walkways, turrets, zipwires and sandpits. It is massive. In fact, it's the biggest in the UK. The Lost Castle is an attraction on its own merit, with spectator seats, an outdoor cafe and tables if you decide to bring your own picnic.
You can hire bikes (electric if you overdid it in The Lost City) and follow the cycle trails around the estate or take a map and follow The Lowther Castle walking loop on foot. Keep your eyes peeled for Glen the beaver, who has been furiously dam making on the Lowther Estate with his lady-friend Dragonfly. If you know anything about the conservation of beavers in England, you will know how phenomenal this is! Go Glen.
You are not just visiting a castle when you enter Warwick Castle but more of a resort, sold by the owners in 1978 to the Tussauds group when the upkeep costs of such a place became impossible. They've not spoilt it and you're in very good, very experienced hands. The company spent millions restoring Warwick Castle back to its former glory through research and careful conservation projects, and the result is a magnificent looking historical fortress steeped in history, with a large side order of British, medieval-themed Disneyland. You'll love it, the kids will love it, you'll learn about William the Conqueror and can even stay the night if you want to go the whole medieval hog.
There are free (free as in, included in the entry price) tours around the castle and grounds; daily events showcasing birds of prey, falconry acrobatics and an excellent bowman showing us all how to get a bullseye. There is a creepy dungeon tour, which gives visitors the most gory details of a very dark period in Warwick Castles history. And if you come at Christmas, they also have a delightful ice rink. New for 2021 is the Zog Trail for younger visitors, based on Julia Donaldsons little orange dragon. There'll be an 'It's a Small world after all' boat ride before too long......
Leeds Castle is one of the most visited historic buildings in England, with a history that dates back over 900 years. A majestic fortress, set in the middle of the beautiful Kent countryside, it has everything you are looking for in a British castle: large grounds, a moat, beautiful gardens, a rampart, several towers and glamping pods (yes, you heard right, more about that later). A tour around the castle and beautifully restored rooms can be brought to life with either an audio tour or by tuning into one of the talks given by guides.
There are the usual excellent birds of prey displays (what is it with medieval castles and falcons), adventure playgrounds, a really, really brilliant maze that is genuinely tricky to exit, a punting lake and a little train (her name is Elsie btw) which will take tired little legs and their adults around around the grounds. But back to the glamping - yes, you can stay the night here too - in a stripy jousting-style tent. What's not to love?
There is not a huge amount left of Tintagel Castle, but the ruins that remain are part of one of the most magical, mythical and dramatic Castle sites in England, famous for being the birthplace of the legendary Kind Arthur, a heroic leader of the Knights who pulled Excalibur from the stone and built Camelot. Whether you believe this myth or not, you can completely immerse yourself here in the stunning scenery of Cornwalls rugged coastline and admire the natural beauty of this extraordinary headland.
Start your adventure by climbing the steep path up to the courtyard, the gateway to the 13th century castle. From here, you can cross over the footbridge to the island (thanks to the recently completed Tintagel Castle Bridge) and explore the remains of the Castle and the ruins of the Great Hall. There are outdoor displays to explain some of the history and legend, and if you visit at low tide, you can climb down to the beach and scramble over rocks to visit Merlin's Cave - a large sea cavern. A magical Castle, a marvellous story and quite breathtaking views.
Powderham Castle, the family house of a British Earl and his Baywatch actress wife (do not cue music and start slow-mo running, it's not that kind of place) is a beautiful castle situated in the middle of the glorious Devon countryside. The castle tours here really are excellent and will be enjoyed by all ages; the guides are well-informed and entertaining as they lead you through secret doors, winding staircases, haunted landings, staterooms, libraries and ballrooms. Unusually for a private house, the family allow visitors into never-before-seen bedrooms and share personal insights and stories (ghost and otherwise) to make the tour really come alive.
Outside, children can win a Powderham medal for completing the nature trail, get involved in some arts and crafts, run wild in the Courtenay Fort Adventure Playground or check out the pigs, donkeys and other cuties in the Pets Corner of the Walled Garden.
There is so much to do here and the lovely family who own the place know it, so after you visit you can use your ticket to come back again for free within 7 days. Now that is worth a slow-mo run.
Owned by English Heritage, 900 year old Dover Castle, glowering down from the top of the White Cliffs, is one of Englands greatest fortresses and was used as the military headquarters in the First World War. This place is absolutely steeped in military history, and Dover Castle takes its visitors into the very heart of the Castle, to imagine what it was like to be living and working here - from medieval times up to World War II.
You will be treated to the realistic sights, sounds and smells of an underground hospital, find out about the living conditions in the wartime tunnels and follow the journey of what it was like for a World War 2 pilot being treated while enemy bombs were falling outside. Tour the secret tunnels and discover the origins to the Great Escape Plan to evacuate people from Dunkirk beach, and the dramatic rescue that followed.
Explore the oldest surviving lighthouse in the country - the Roman Pharos - used by the Romans to help navigate the waters of the English Channel, or creep down the eerie medieval tunnels under the castle, used as secret defence bunkers. Kids and adults alike will absolutely love this place and learn so much from visiting. A great day out.
I've snuck this one in here because, although not an original, real life castle, it is an absolutely excellent "unique, open air museum experience". Originally an Iron Age Fort, Mounfitchet was attacked by William the Conqueror in 1066 and in its place he build a Motte & Bailey castle on the site (ask your kids if you don't know what this is, chances are they've done it at school). From the 1600's onwards, the Castle lay in ruins, until the owner decided to rebuild it entirely, including a replica of the original Norman village.
The result is great fun. Visitors can "travel back" 900 years, explore the castle and immerse themselves in what life was like in the village back then - wander in and out of the houses and smell the log fires - as animals roam freely around the 10 acre site. It is completely unique in that it is the only wooden Motte and Bailey Castle to be reconstructed on its original historic site anywhere in the world.
And while we are on world records, their House on the Hill Museum is the largest collection of toys in the world, with over 80,000 various toys, games and books from Victorian times up to modern day. A fantastic family day out and well worth a visit if you are staying in Essex.
Due to Covid-19, please check with all the Castles individually as these are strange times and opening times and tour availability may vary.
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