In the south-eastern corner of England you can find several impressive castles – Hever, Leeds, Dover, Rochester, Deal and Bodiam amongst them. Historically the region has always been vulnerable to attack from foreign shores.
As we were staying in the Weald of Kent for a few days, which is on the East Sussex border, we decided to take the historic steam train from Tenterden to Bodiam and walk to the moated castle, often glimpsed from the road when passing by. We could have driven there in about 10 minutes, but sometimes it is nice to take things slowly and enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
In 1377 French ships raided the Sussex coast, causing widespread damage and panic among the local population which led to the building of nearby Scotney Castle. The French later raided nearby Winchelsea in 1380, so when a new French invasion threatened in 1385 Sir Edward Dalyngrigge (one of Edward III’s knights) applied to King Richard II for a license to fortify and strengthen the existing hall he lived in.
Having been granted permission he decided to build a new sandstone fortress near the River Rother, which at that time was navigable to the coast. Though its primary aim was defense, Dalyngrigge made sure that Bodiam was also a comfortable abode, as much a fortified residence as a military stronghold. And of course a visual symbol of his wealth.
Bodiam Castle is considered to be the finest example of medieval, moated, military architecture in Britain.
The French invasion never took place, and Bodiam’s impressive defenses were never tested until 1484 when the castle fell to a siege by Richard III.
Do you have a favourite castle?
Historic sites are scattered through the glorious region of Dumfries and Galloway. Being the border county with England there is a history of battles. Till the 12th century, when it came under the Normans, the eastern Solway had alternated between English and Scottish rule.
We passed several interesting looking properties on the way to somewhere else, though nearly always during the evening when the grounds were closed. Fortunately some were quite small and close to the road so we were able to take photographs.
Located in one of the more interesting locations, this castle is built on an island in the middle of the River Dee and you have to take a small boat across. A lovely circular walk from the entrance takes you through Kelton Mains farm to a small wood leading to the river. A number of bird hides can be found along the route, including one to view an osprey nest.
This massive tower house was built in the late 14th century by Archibald the Grim, Lord of Galloway. It became the stronghold of the Black Douglases and still today, round its base you can see the artillery fortification, an innovative defence years ahead of its time, built before 1455 when James II besieged the castle. (Threave Castle)
A fine example of a six storey Scottish tower-house castle, Cardoness Castle was built in the later 15th century as the fortified residence of the McCullochs. Its battlements command excellent views over Fleet Bay.
MacLellan’s Castle was named after Sir Thomas MacLellan of Bombie (d. 1597). Sir Thomas was provost of Kirkcudbright and a powerful man in local politics. Following the Protestant Reformation in 1560, he acquired the site and buildings of the convent of Greyfriars, established in the town by James II in 1449, and set about building himself a new residence in its place. By 1582, MacLellan’s Castle was sufficiently complete for him to move in. Five years later, he and his second wife, Grissel, entertained their sovereign, James VI, in this spacious house.
The remains of this late 16th century house shows how architecture changed from the heavily defended tower house to a new, more domestic scale.
Dundrennan Abbey was founded in 1142 by Fergus, Lord of Galloway, with the help of King David I of Scotland. The white-robed Cistercian monks came from Rievaulx Abbey, in North Yorkshire. After establishing the abbey at Dundrennan, monks went forth to found two more Cistercian abbeys in Galloway – Glenluce, near Stranraer, around 1190, and Sweetheart, in the village of New Abbey, south of Dumfries, in 1273.
The abbey‘s most famous visitor was Mary Queen of Scots. On 15 May 1568, she was welcomed at the gates following her escape from Lochleven Castle, near Kinross, and her defeat at Langside, beside Glasgow. Mary was making for England and the comparative safety, so she thought, of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. On the following morning she boarded a boat bound for the Cumberland coast. She never returned to her native land.
Sweetheart Abbey was founded in 1273 by Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway in memory of her husband John Balliol. In 1268, Lord John Balliol died. His grieving widow, Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway, had his heart embalmed and placed in an ivory casket. She carried it with her everywhere. When she too died in 1289, she was laid to rest in front of the abbey church’s high altar, clutching her husband’s heart to her bosom.
The graceful ruin nestles between the grey bulk of Criffel and the shimmering waters of the Solway Firth, whilst its blood-red sandstone walls contrast with the lush green grass at their feet.
Carsluith Castle is a lightly-defended tower house. It is typical of the many L-planned tower houses built by the landed gentry throughout Scotland after the Protestant Reformation of 1560. This eye-catching tower is on the road between Newton Stuart and Dumfries. And next to it is the Markbury Smokehouse.
The village of Castle Acre lies further south of the county, only 4 miles north of Swaffham and 15 miles east of King’s Lynn. It is well worth the drive to see such a lovely medieval planned settlement with the broad tree-lined Stocks Green where you can find a café and a pub. The town was entered in the 12th century by the Bailey Gate, now the only remaining gate of the town. Many of the houses in the town have been built from blocks of stone from the priory.
We stopped here on our way to Oxburgh Hall which is south of Swaffham mainly to see the Priory, but we were quite taken by the charming village and the castle too.
Castle Acre Priory, which is under the care of English Heritage, is a beautiful and peaceful place with some of the most intact Cluniac priory buildings in England. For 450 years it was the home and workplace of monks and their servants, a refuge for pilgrims and a stopping point for royalty, clergy and nobility. While rooted in the economy and society of Norfolk it was also part of a vast monastic network centred on the great abbey of Cluny in France. Walking around this site you get a feeling of the size and serenity of this place and if you use the audio tour provided then you can listen to the monks tales and walk in their footsteps.
Whilst in Castle Acre we also visited the Norman ‘motte and bailey’ castle which was abandoned in the middle ages, and although what little of the building left is in ruins, there are impressive earthworks.
A great day out except for the weather which was a little damp!
…and some like myself, just came one day, for a day, and never left; got off the bus, and forgot to get on again…”
~ Dylan Thomas
Laugharne (pronounced Larn) is probably most famous for being the last place where renowned Welsh poet Dylan Thomas lived, wrote, drank and is laid to rest; he died in New York.
His Boathouse and Writing Shed overlooking the wide Tâf estuary draw in the crowds and you can even get a cup of tea at the Boathouse, though not when we visited as it was closed for filming a new film about Dylan Thomas’s fourth and final reading tour of America which is being made to mark next year’s centenary of his birth. The play “Under Milkwood” and “Poem on his Birthday” were written here. There is even a ‘Birthday Walk’, which if done on your birthday entitles you to a complimentary birthday gift. Climb up Sir John’s Hill for mind-blowing views across three estuaries (River Tâf, Towey and the Gwendraeth) and over the bay to the Gower Peninsula.
It’s not all about Dylan though, there is also a ruined castle built in the thirteenth century with more spectacular views of the estuary and out to Carmarthen Bay, an interesting clock tower on the town hall, and a unique Tin Shed Experience – a quirky 1930s – 1940s museum. It is also one of the oldest self-governing townships in Britain, presided over by the Portreeve wearing his traditional chain of gold cockleshells.
Close to Laugharne is the seven mile beach known as Pendine Sands which was used to set world land speed records as it has a wide, flat and firm surface. Several generations of the Campbell family have raced there and there is a Museum of Speed. And if you travel a little further west you will discover the turquoise waters of Amroth, reminiscent of neighbouring Saundersfoot and Tenby in Pembrokeshire.
Carmarthenshire is often overlooked by people rushing through to the beautiful Pembrokeshire coastline, but it has much to offer itself with a new Coast Path which passes through a range of habitats including fresh water marshes, salt marshes, sand dunes and pine forests.