British capital cities are all home to very different, very special British castles. The Tower of London would be merely a world-class castle were it not for the presence of the Crown Jewels, ravens and its thousand-year-old history. Edinburgh Castle rewards the wander up the Royal Mile. Cardiff Castle’s Victorian renovation turned a medieval pile into something altogether more spectacular. But what makes these castles special is that they’re part of a bigger heritage you can explore all over Britain. Don’t miss them, but make sure they’re not the only castles you collect on your way round the country.
The Best British Castle You’ve Never Heard Of
As one of the less famous British castles hotspots, Northumberland is a castle-buffs heaven, with over a dozen imposing fortresses paying testimony to the centuries of border tension with Scottish neighbours. Dunstanburgh Castle’s remoteness ensures it’s less heralded than most British castles, and yet this stunning ruin, only accessible on foot, is surely one of the nation’s most atmospheric. Pack a warm jacket and boots and make a day of hiking along the coast from the fishing village of Alnwick, itself home to a fine British castle.
As Seen on TV
Eilean Donan Castle can come as a shock. Having driven, walked or cycled for hours, you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve been here before. The remote fortress has featured in many films and TV shows, most notably Highlander and James Bond’s The World Is Not Enough . As dramatically situated and visually stunning in real life as on film, Eilean Donan is an essential pause on the way to Skye or the northwest Highlands.
Volunteer at a Castle
The heyday of castle building went out with the era of swords and armour, but you can still get involved in the modern life of castles in Britain. The National Trust and National Trust for Scotland offer working holidays on a variety of properties, including castles. Other castles all over Britain recruit summer workers, both paid and unpaid so if your heart’s set on one place, contact them directly.
Most Haunted British Castles
British castles wouldn’t be the same without tales of rattling chains, blood-curling screams and headless horsemen. Glamis Castle in central Scotland claims to be the most haunted, though Northumberland’s Chillinghamhas an equal claim to the title. Both are home to ghost stories by the dozen and regular spooky sightings. But visit any castle during winter or on a stormy night and you’ll think each keep, tower and dungeon is home to an unhappy spirit.
Sleep in a British Castle
Fancy a night in a haunted castle? No problem – historic houses all over Britain throw open their doors to paying guests. Try Gloucestershire’s Thornbury Castle or to truly sleep like a king, Warwickshire’s Studley Castle . For something special though, try the Landmark Trust . They offer weekends and longer stays in historic buildings – not just castles but towers, pavilions and cottages of architectural and historic importance. They even have a 250-year-old pineapple-shaped house in Scotland.
Wales has more castles per head than anywhere else in the world. British Castle junkies should aim for north Wales, where the coast and hills are packed with dramatic fortifications. Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris are the best known, but castle connoisseurs will direct you to Denbigh, Ewloe and Criccieth. And if you need a change of scenery, there’s the small matter of Snowdonia National Park or a day on the beach in Llandudno or Rhyl. For a full rundown of Wales’ castles, check out the Visit Wales castles pages .
Castles for Kids
The clash of swords, rumble of jousting knights and shrill cry of falcons still rings out from castles across Britain – and the kids will love it. Two of the best places where kids can pick up some tips on the art of chivalry are Warwick Castle and Leed’s Royal Armouries , but you’ll never find a castle without dingy dungeons and a ghost story or two to delight junior visitors.
Not Quite Castles – But Don’t Miss Them
Not every graceful heap of stones you stumble on qualifies as a castle. Many of Britain’s most dramatic historic sites were abbeys, swept away by Henry VIII’s soldiers during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Fountains and Riveaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire and Wales’ Tintern Abbey are unmissable sights on a historic tour of Britain. And Britain’s stately homes – the later incarnations of castles – can help fill in the historical gaps between the Middle Ages and the present day. Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and Chatsworth in Derbyshire are two of the finest.