The kids and I recently spent the day at Berkeley Castle. Berkeley is a small town located between Bristol and Gloucester, in the county of Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Cotswolds and situated on the Severn Estuary. The Castle is one of the March Castles, built to keep out the Welsh, and is defensive in design. Its location so close to the River Severn may well be the secret of its success, as rather than just relying on a moat like many of its contemporaries, Berkeley castle had a system of ditches across the estate which allowed for all the land surrounding the castle to be flooded as a defense.
Berkeley Castle is the oldest continuously occupied castle in England after the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, and infact the oldest building to be continuously owned and occupied by the same family. It is truly unique in that for more than 860 years the town and Castle, its contents and records, and the family themselves have all remained intact, no small feat if you consider the politics and battles England has seen across those centuries. The first record of a Castle at Berkeley was a wooden fort on top of a mound in 1070 shortly after the Norman Conquest. Between then and 1340 stone towers and walls were added and the castle remodeled into what we can see now. You don’t need to use your imagination to picture how life must have been at Berkeley Castle, the minute you enter you are surrounded by the most beautiful medieval interiors, and are transported straight back in time.
The castle, as you would expect, has an amazing history. It is best known as the scene of the brutal murder of Edward II in 1327 and for being besieged by Parliamentary troops in 1645. It is also where the Barons of the West gathered before setting out to the momentous meeting with King John at Runnymede at which the Magna Carta was signed. Numerous Kings and Queens have stayed at Berkeley during its long history, It is said on one occasion Queen Elizabeth left in such a huff after being criticised by the lord of the castle that she left her bedspread behind. Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth’s most famous sea captain, was also a regular visitor to Berkeley. The castle’s treasures reflect its illustrious past. The tapestries and paintings are stunning, in fact it is all stunning; the first thing my son said when we entered was ‘I know, we’re not allowed to touch anything’.
When we visited, you could join an optional guided tour with a castle volunteer. We didn’t, as the kids are better moving at their own pace. We picked up explorer sheets, which kept the children busy looking for facts in each of the rooms. During the holidays, activities are put on for children, and the day we visited there was a Jester (who was lovely) teaching circus skills which the kids loved! There was also a staffed arts and crafts area, and a dressing up area to visit which looked fun.
Below is the room where Edward II was imprisoned before his alleged murder, now almost 700 years ago, and the covered walkway that leads to this room. At the time it was reported to parliament that Edward had met with an unfortunate accident, but the general consensus is that he was killed. Some historians put forward the theory that he escaped, with another man being murdered in his place. Whichever story is true there is no doubt that these walls have seen a lot of intrigue throughout their long lives!
We all loved the spectacular kitchens, and associated rooms. The kids looked at me as though I had two heads when I put forward the idea that a child would have sat turning the spit all day in front of the fire. They were fascinated to see the lead lined sinks, as they know that lead is poisonous.
The Castle is surrounded by terraced gardens, some of which, including the stunning lily pond, date back to Elizabethan times. The kids loved the fact that they might be walking in Queen Elizabeth’s I steps. I suspect that she may have walked rather more sedately than my two!
We had a wonderful day out at Berkeley Castle, and would highly recommend it to everyone. There are tea rooms in the grounds, where we had a yummy lunch, and a Butterfly house which is included in the entrance ticket. There are also plenty of other places to visit in and around Berkeley; Edward Jenner’s house (The man who developed the smallpox vaccine) is located next to the castle, Cattle Country Adventure Park and Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetland Trust are both just up the road, as is the River Severn and the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal.