Historic sites and romantic relics: Britain’s stunning open-air castles

From moated medieval fortresses to Elizabethan palaces and historic castles nestled beside romantic lochs, Britain is awash with ruins that span centuries of heritage. Dotted throughout our coast and countryside, these open-air sites provide a glorious glimpse into the nation’s past and are a must if you’re dreaming of delving into Britain’s historic roots.

Peveril Castle, Peak District

Perched on a picturesque Peak District hilltop, Peveril Castle was founded in 1066 and has commanding views over the vast Hope Valley – a must-see part of the Derbyshire countryside. One of the oldest remaining Norman strongholds in the country, the keep was built for King Henry II in 1174, with highlights including fantastic examples of herringbone masonry and even a garderobe (a medieval toilet) for visitors to marvel at.

From inside the castle it is possible to spy Castleton, one of the most charming villages in the Peak District, which was founded 100 years after the cliff-top castle was built. Although the keep is currently closed, the visitors centre remains open and gives a fascinating insight into this ancient site. Beneath the historic fortress visitors can also see the dry limestone valley of Cave Dale, which was carved into the rock by melted glacial water thousands of years ago. Parts of the chasm reach almost 50 metres in height, with a walking route leading to the breathtaking Winnats Pass.

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Peveril Castle

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex

Originating in the 14th century, Bodiam Castle is a stunning example of a moated medieval stronghold, with the interior ruins offering an enthralling insight into England’s medieval period. As you cross the majestic moat and bridge you’ll be welcomed by the imposing Gatehouse, complete with a parapet to conceal archers. From the central courtyard, the ruined medieval walls lead to grand stone doorways, the kitchen, the Great Hall, a mesmerising water pool and the tranquil chapel, allowing your imagination to run wild with visions of battles and grand feasts in the Great Hall.

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Bodiam Castle

Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden, Warwickshire

Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. Castle ruins of a Norman fortress and Elizabethan palace.

Also offering a fantastic walk through Britain’s history are the romantic ruins of Kenilworth Castle, which has stood proudly in Warwickshire for 900 years. It is easy to imagine the comings and goings of Britain’s royalty in this sprawling fort, which was once redeveloped by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to woo Queen Elizabeth I. Although the towers are currently closed, when open a new visitor platform will take you 18 metres up to same floor level as the royal chambers, where you can spy ornate fireplaces, the Queen’s private staircase, magnificent windows and vistas once admired by the great monarch herself.

As well as a viewing tower, Queen Elizabeth was spoilt with a highly ornate garden full of fragrant flora, heavenly walkways, marble fountains and an elegant aviary – all recreated to provide an authentic Elizabethan experience. Other highlights include the Norman keep, the remains of the Great Hall and an invigorating walk around the castle walls.

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Kenilworth Castle

Portchester Castle, Hampshire

With its roots in the third century, Hampshire’s Portchester Castle sits proudly in a corner of Portsmouth Harbour. A former Saxon shore fort, the castle was used by the Romans to defend the city against attacking Saxon pirates, and what remains is one of the best preserved Roman forts in Britain, with the castle later being used as a grand royal residence by King Richard II.

Its historic walls and grand stone doorways provide a tangible link to Britain’s rich past, allowing you to take in the sea air while discovering the site’s influential role as a defensive fortress, palace and 18th century prisoner-of-war camp. Also found in the grounds is the quaint 12th century Parish Church of St Mary, a striking example of Romanesque architecture.

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Portchester Castle

Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire

Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire. Credit Visit Scotland and Kenny Lam.

Set upon a rugged outcrop along the Aberdeenshire coast and offering up bracing sea views, Dunnottar Castle has a legendary history. Having been attacked by Vikings in the 9th century, taken over by William Wallace, and visited by royalty including Mary Queen of Scots and James VI, this coastal gem combines mesmerising vistas with a unique look into Scotland’s colourful past. Below these captivating cliff-top ruins is a tranquil beach, which as well as being an idyllic off-the-beaten-track walking spot, is also home to seals, dolphins and puffins, with local boating companies offering ‘sea safaris’.

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Dunnottar Castle

Kilchurn Castle, the Highlands

Nestled beside the dramatic Loch Awe and surrounded by stunning mountains, Kilchurn Castle is a spell-binding building with a rich history. The oldest barracks in mainland Britain, this 15th-century fort is perhaps best known as the base for the mighty Clan Campbell – one of the largest and most powerful clans in Scotland’s history. The picturesque castle at the loch’s northern tip once boasted an impressive five storeys, complete with a grand hall and prison. Its surviving barracks now provide an atmospheric viewpoint over the region’s awe-inspiring scenery.

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Kilchurn Castle

Chepstow Castle, south Wales

Chepstow Castle, Monmouthshire, Wales

Located on a limestone cliff over the babbling River Wye are the towers of Chepstow Castle, a grand stone fortress that has stood guard on the Welsh/English border since 1067. Many powerful people made this site their stronghold, including William Marshall, the Earl of Pembroke, and William the Conqueror, who decided to build the Great Tower less than a year after victory at the Battle of Hastings. Bedecked with the leaves of native trailing plants, this romantic relic from Britain’s fascinating medieval past comes complete with turrets and arching entranceways, while you can also explore the open spaces that would have once housed lavish furniture, grand feasting halls and an abundance of weaponry!

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Chepstow Castle
02 Nov 2020(last updated)

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