Five top British castles and palaces

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 14.06.2021

Step back in time and enjoy some spectacular British castles and palaces in our pick of the bunch from Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain...

Warwick Castle, Warwick

On the surface, Warwick Castle looks like an ideal place to spend a genteel, quintessentially English day out. The wonderfully restored medieval castle, built in 1068 by William the Conquerer on the site of an older earthen rampart near the River Avon, houses an opulent hall lined with suits of armour, state rooms packed with period furniture, lavish royal chambers and a tower that could have been plucked straight out of a fairy tale. Surrounding the castle, meanwhile, are 690 acres of immaculate gardens, landscaped in the eighteenth century by Lancelot "Capability" Brown.

However, the castle is also home to what one British newspaper has dubbed the scariest tourist attraction in the country. The castle dungeon, where senior Royalists were detained during the English Civil War, now has a Black Death theme, complete with strikingly realistic decaying bodies, torture chamber and medieval medical equipment, not to mention crowds of leeches, creepy chanting monks and gallons of (fake) blood. It is all brought to life by a devilish cast of actors, who take obvious delight in creating a gloomy and ghoulish atmosphere.

Warwick Castle, Warwick

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex

Bodiam Castle, UK

@ Shutterstock

Ask any five-year-old to draw you a castle and you'll probably end up with a version of Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. With its fairy-tale battlements, arrow slits, portcullis and moat, it is the very image of a forbidding medieval fortress and undoubtedly one of England's most evocative, especially in the early morning mist with the caws of crows rasping in the air. Yet while it certainly looks the part, Bodiam may be, whisper it, something of a fraud.

Historians, you see, can be a tad sniffy about Bodiam, claiming it's little more than a beefed-up manor house rather than a "proper" castle. For starters the moat, seemingly a tricky barrier for the assumed French invaders, could have been drained in a few hours by a man with a shovel. Then there are the thin walls, the vulnerable large windows and the lack of a proper drawbridge. Yet gripes like these rather miss the point. Its owner, local bigwig Sir Edward Dallingridge, had little intention of holing up inside and pouring boiling oil through the murder holes when the castle was completed in 1385. For him Bodiam was about impressing the neighbours and displaying the new-found wealth he had obtained by plundering French villages.

What really sets Bodiam apart, though, is its unspoilt exterior and the sweeping views from its battlements. It's a location manager's dream (it played a key role in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and just a few hours here will set your imagination into overdrive - you half expect toothless peasants to be tilling the fields or to see a dragon swoop overhead. For the kids, there are plenty of ye olde activities to take part in, from dressing up in medieval garb to archery and falconry displays.

Bodiam Castle, near Robertsbridge, East Sussex,

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

Stokesay Castle with garden and guardhouse @ Snaphound Photography/Shutterstock

Stokesay Castle with garden and guardhouse @ Snaphound Photography/Shutterstock

Sitting in lush Shropshire countryside, all dense hedgerows and patchwork arable land, Stokesay is comprised of a harmonious cluster of buildings: the original honey-coloured and crenellated fortifications, topped with a weathered slate roof; an Elizabethan half-timbered gatehouse decorated with carvings of Adam and Eve; and a little country church with canopied pews. Edward I granted the licence to fortify, but it's likely the steep castle walls were designed with aesthetics in mind, rather than to keep marauding Welshmen at bay; the castle was built during a lull in the border battles.

And it is the domestic rather than military nature of Stokesay that gives it its particular charm, and enables it to sit so very prettily in this verdant landscape. The great hall, which dates from Lawrence's time, is spanned by a massive timber-framed roof, and still has its original interior staircase. Instead of a fireplace, there's an octagonal hearth in the centre of the room. Elsewhere, the north tower has its original tiled floor, and the gatehouse features seventeenth-century wall paintings; until the time of Charles I, Lawrence's descendants were responsible for the attractive development of the castle.

After this point, Stokesay was used as base for the king during the Civil War, and was then handed to the parliamentarians without any significant fighting taking place. Having survived its long history conflict-free, this overwhelmingly attractive and eccentric collection of buildings was thus preserved for future visitors.

Stokesay is 7 miles northwest of Ludlow, Shropshire

Stirling Castle, Stirling

Stirling Castle, Scotland

@ Shutterstock

Perched on a jagged outcrop of granite, and framed by heather-smothered hills, Stirling Castle looks like the classical impregnable fortress, its bleak, stolid walls witness to a long history of murder and mayhem. Thanks to Braveheart, almost everyone in the world knows about William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling Bridge where he trounced the English in that memorable (and bloody) battle scene. Disappointingly for Wallace fans, little remains of the castle he took in 1297; after another hero, Robert Bruce, decisively beat the English again at Bannockburn in 1314, the castle was effectively destroyed and then rebuilt. The oldest surviving part of the castle today is the stern North Gate, built in 1381 during the reign of Robert II.

Yet the castle's later history is wonderfully preserved, offering an alternative to that blood-and-guts image. Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned in the Chapel Royal in 1543, and the Great Hall where she held lavish feasts is still there. It remains a majestic space, with enormous walls, high oriel windows, and a fine oak hammer-beam roof, encrusted with vivid stone carvings. The castle is also painstakingly reproducing the set of 33 gorgeous hand-carved oak medallions that once adorned the ceilings of the Palace. The replicas will eventually return to the ceiling of the King's Presence Hall, while a special gallery is being created for the originals.

Then there are the famous Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, medieval gems being recreated for the castle by weavers at West Dean College. It remains to be seen if Gibson, or the ghost of William Wallace, will make an appearance at the unveiling in 2014.

Stirling Castle, Castle Wynd, Stirling 01786/450000,

Hampton Court, Surrey

Hampton Court Palace, England

@ Shutterstock

Ghosts stalk the corridors of Hampton Court Palace: Catherine Howard, dragged back to her rooms after being accused of adultery, not long before her execution at the Tower of London, is apparently seen screaming in the appropriately named Haunted Gallery; while Henry VIII's favourite wife, Jane Seymour, has been spotted walking through Clock Court, carrying a lighted taper. Whether or not you believe in ghosts - or are fortunate enough to see one - there's no denying that the palace is so rich in history that there seems to be more to it than just the many visitors that wander through its rooms.

It was Thomas Wolsey, during the reign of Henry VIII, who transformed what was a large private house - built as a grange for the Knights Hostpitallers in the thirteenth century - into the impressive complex that we see today. The palace was a striking, modern centrepiece for the king's rule, used to impress and entertain foreign dignitaries and, of course, house his various wives in lavish rooms.

Even today, it's impossible not to be enchanted by the architecture and design of the buildings and grounds. Rivalling the ghosts as the palace's most famous attraction is the trapezoidal maze, planted at the end of the seventeenth century as a place for courtiers to lose themselves when needing to escape palace politics.

Hampton Court Palace, Hampton Court, Surrey,

Top image: Stokesay Castle with garden and guardhouse @ Snaphound Photography/Shutterstock

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