castle road trips in England
Cumbria is famous for its stunning views and historic landmarks. From the rugged fells of the Lake District to the panoramas of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Cumbria is the perfect place to embark on a seven-day castle road trip. Enjoy the best of the county’s pastoral plains at Hutton-in-the-Forest or opt for elegance at Bolton Castle.
Begin your journey in the historic city of Carlisle, close to the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. Here you will find the imposing beauty of a castle that has dominated the city of the same name for nine centuries. Carlisle Castle occupies a verdant four-acre site and dates back to the 12th century, boasting bright red sandstone walls and a large outer ward to explore. The rich history of the fortress confronts the visitor at every turn. Visit the turret and see where Mary Queen of Scots was held captive. Touch the intricate carvings made by bored prison guards. Explore the former bedroom of Richard III.
It doesn’t stop there. Head to the Alma Block in the Outer Ward and enter Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, to discover the fascinating history of Carlisle Castle as a military barracks. The museum showcases stories from Cumbria’s County Infantry Regiment, from 1702 to the present day.
Pick the right date and you can catch one of the popular Castle tours with John Bonner, the Site Manager at Carlisle Castle, who gives engaging and intimate insights into the bloody sieges and political wars of the 12th century. Subjects for tours have ranged from Bonnie Prince Charlie to the castle’s dark dungeons.
Beyond the castle’s walls, Carlisle is a city steeped in history. Those who wish to continue their adventure will enjoy Carlisle Cathedral, and Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, which is a previous winner of the Telegraph Family-Friendly Museum Award.
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Head south on the M6, through the pretty villages of Wreay and Calthwaite. This picturesque route takes in the best of Cumbria’s pastoral plains and carries us to your next castle, Hutton-in-the-Forest. Surrounded by the medieval forest of Inglewood, this magnificent home perches elegantly on the edge of the Lake District. Originally a medieval stronghold with a pele tower, legend has it that Hutton-in-the-Forest was the Green Knight’s castle in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Today, Hutton-in-the-Forest reflects centuries of history and change. Succeeding generations have altered and added to the house, resulting in a medley of different architectural and decorative styles. From the medieval Stone Hall to the high Victorian Drawing Room, visitors can view impressive tapestries and fine period furniture. Wander through The Gallery and marvel at the Carolingian décor, making sure to take in the delightful oriel window that peers out onto the Walled Garden.
Similarly, the elaborate gardens surrounding the house have evolved over centuries. Home to herbaceous plants and beautifully manicured terraces, cascading ponds and Victorian topiary, this wildlife-rich land begs to be explored. Why not head on The Woodland Walk and enjoy a picnic among century-old conifers?
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For your next stop, head 11 miles south to the picturesque ruins of Lowther Castle. Peering out across the Lake District National Park, this beautiful building is surrounded by 130 acres of gardens and enchanting woodland. Beyond this, visitors will find a 3,000-acre deer park laid out by the Lowther family in the 16th and 17th century – now most famous for hosting the Kendal Calling music festival. The evolution of the park has seen many extravagant touches over recent centuries, including a Japanese Garden, an Iris Garden and mile-long borders of perennials.
Closed to the public for over seventy years, and used by the Army for secret tank weapon testing during the Second World War, the castle and grounds became the subject of one of Europe’s largest renovation projects in 2011. Since then visitors have been allowed in, to explore the ruins of this amazing park. Make your way through the Sweet Scented Garden –popular during the Edwardian period– and see the seven-stone cairn water feature covered in creeping cranesbill. You may also see the stone-built garden shelters and limestone steps that were once entangled by years of undergrowth.
Visitors can meander through the Rock Garden, the Orchard and even the Parterre Tapestry Garden in front of the castle’s south façade. Families and history buffs could spend days on end wandering through The South Lawns, smelling colourful wildflowers and taking in the fresh Cumbrian air.
For children, there is plenty to do. Kids can spy from the summerhouses, swoosh from zip wires and follow secret paths to exciting tree swings. There is also a café for when legs grow tired.
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>The next stop on your road trip takes you 52 miles south-east of Lowther, to the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Six hundred years old, Bolton Castle is one of the country’s best preserved medieval castles, built to rival the finest and most luxurious homes in the land. It was built by Sir Richard le Scrope, Lord Chancellor of England in the reign of Richard II, as a grand family home - and a defensive fortress. In 1568, Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned at Bolton Castle after her escape from Scotland.
Bolton Castle sits atop a heather moorland with panoramic views of Wensleydale. The castle, which dominates the surrounding valley, boasts four gigantic towers, a central courtyard, grand entrances and an intimidating portcullis. It is also in excellent condition, despite having been damaged by Cromwell’s men after a year-long siege in the English Civil War. Cromwell ordered Bolton Castle to be “rendered untenable,” but the South West Tower and West Range survived and remained habitable.
In the castle gardens, guests are treated to the authentic, albeit peculiar medieval practice of boar-feeding. Boars have been a common and valiant adversary in the area for generations. They signified valour in battle: the boar’s head was used as an emblem by Richard III. Visitors can view the boars, which are classed as dangerous wild animals and kept in fenced enclosure, while taking in sweet scents from the Catholic Garden. Children can also head to the Medieval Nursey where costumes, trails, activity books and games abound. There is even a bird of prey display and archery demonstration.
Travel 31 miles south, through the Yorkshire Dales National Park and onto the delightful market town of Skipton. Here, quaint cafés, city lights and a cinema dating back to 1912 have a backdrop of rolling hills, ancient landscapes and one of the most stunning castles in the UK: Skipton Castle.
Built more than 900 years ago, Skipton Castle is one of the best-preserved medieval castles in England. At first the castle was a motte and bailey construction, intended to help keep the Scots out of England. It was rebuilt in stone during the 12th century and later, withstood a three-year siege during the Civil War.
Today, visitors can explore the castle’s interior. Head through the large, stout towers of the gatehouse and meander through the Tudor courtyard. At its centre you will see the weaving trunk of a yew tree, supposedly planted by chatelaine Lady Anne Clifford in 1659.
Keep walking and you will see imposing stonework, the remains of an old portcullis and intricate masons’ marks. Inside, you can visit the social centre of the stronghold: the Banqueting Hall, where the lords and ladies dined. Explore the Royal Bedchamber and Privy, before descending to the castle’s eerie Dungeon. To guide visitors through this formidable castle, everyone is given a detailed tour sheet with lots of information.
Outside the castle walls, visitors will find Skipton Castle Woods. A short walk from the Skipton canal towpath, this 36-acre plot of woodland provided Skipton Castle with firewood, timber and food for hundreds of years. The woods are filled with ash trees, bluebells, orchids and nocturnal wildlife, such as bats. Why not take a calming stroll through the woods after an exciting day of castle exploring?
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Following the A65 through Long Preston and Clapham, you will enjoy stunning scenery on your drive north-west. On one side, the Forest of Bowland dominates vast stretches of countryside; on the other, the Yorkshire Dales National Park gives way to the Lake District National Park. Curling up the north-west coast of England, we find Sizergh Castle nestled into the outskirts of Whitbarrow National Nature Reserve. Situated 20 miles from Windermere and a half-hour drive from Morecambe Bay, Sizergh Castle is a stately home with an award-winning rock garden.
The Strickland family has lived at Sizergh for more than 750 years and today, the castle houses some of the country’s finest examples of Elizabethan carved overmantels. Sizergh Castle could be the setting for a period drama: red Boston ivy climbs the walls of the Solar Tower, while the water gardens ripple with deep shades of green.
Sizergh is home to the National Trust’s largest limestone rock garden, including part of the National Collection of Hardy Ferns. Visitors can amble along the extensive network of paths winding through the estate, stopping off at play areas along the way. A café and shop are located in the visitor centre.
If Sizergh’s beauty has inspired you to discover more in the area, the 12th-century ruin of Kendal Castle can be found just five miles away. Boasting awe-inspiring views over the town, this was once believed to be the birthplace of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last Queen.
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After seven days of history, culture and memorable sights, we finish our castle road trip on the north-west coast of England. Around an hour’s drive from Sizergh, Muncaster Castle sits a mile east of Ravenglass, overlooking the River Esk, which is a hotspot for trout and salmon-fishing. Set in 77 acres of woodland that stretch back to the fells of the Lake District, Muncaster Castle is perhaps the most ambitious and flamboyant fortress to feature on our road trip. Step through the front door into the ancient Great Hall and browse a sumptuous collection of antique furniture, passed down through the Pennington family over eight hundred years. The Castle’s audio tour, narrated by members of the family, provides visitors with lots of information about the opulent decorations on offer, as well as a few anecdotes about the people who once lived there – such as Tom Skelton, a cheeky court jester from the 16th century. It’s said that his ghost causes havoc around the castle, so keep your eyes peeled!
John Ruskin once described the view across Muncaster’s gardens as the ‘Gateway to Paradise’ – and it’s easy to see why. Rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas run wild over hillsides, cascading past ravines and lighting up banks with riots of colour. The gardens are a blend of cultivated areas, lawns and woodland, with a small play area for children. Because the gardens roll for acres upon end, it’s recommended that visitors wear sturdy footwear to make the most of their visit. Close to the Castle is the Muncaster Hawk and Owl Centre with a diverse range of owls and raptors providing two exhilarating bird of prey displays daily. There is also a wild heron feed in the afternoon, with birds flying in from the estate’s centuries-old heronry.