Cromwell’s Castle, Tresco, Isles of Scilly
One of the UK’s most far-flung strongholds, Cromwell’s Castle is in a glorious location on a rocky promontory guarding a channel. A rare surviving example of a fortress built during the Commonwealth, it was erected to deter Dutch invaders. Despite their defeat to Cromwell, royalists were still using Scilly as a base for their “privateers” (a euphemism for pirate ships) that often waylaid passing Dutch vessels. Cromwell dispatched Admiral Robert Blake, who captured the islands and built this fortification on top of a Tudor blockhouse. The ruined 16th-century castle directly above it was so poorly sited that to hit enemy ships its cannons had to be aimed downwards … causing cannonballs to roll out before they could be fired.
• Admission free, open daylight hours, english-heritage.org.uk
Stokesay Castle, Stokesay, Shropshire
Built in the late 13th century, Stokesay was the creation of Laurence of Ludlow, a wool trader who had become one of the wealthiest men in England. It proved successful in protecting his fortune from the brigands who plagued the Welsh border but not in conserving its master’s life: he drowned when his wool-packed ship sank in the Channel. Stokesay’s highlights include the south tower – whose roof affords wonderful views over the Shropshire countryside – and the wood-and-plaster gatehouse, with its mustard-yellow colouring.
• Admission £8.60 adult, 5-17s £5.20, family (2+3) £22.40, open 10am-5pm daily until 3 November, then 10am-4pm weekends only until 16 March, english-heritage.org.uk
Pendragon Castle, Mallerstang, Cumbria
Legend (and indeed the castle’s name) would have visitors believe that this bijou fortress in the Vale of Mallerstang was constructed by Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur. Actually, it was a Norman, Ranulf le Meschin, who built the castle in the 1100s, probably on the site of a Roman fort. Once owned by one of the knights who murdered archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, Pendragon was burned down twice by Scottish raiders and, despite a later valiant restoration, was abandoned to its fate. It stands today the very definition of a craggy castle, its ruined walls, doorways, arrow slits, spiral staircases and windows a fascinating hotchpotch of eras set amid stunning scenery.
• Castle is on private land but visits, with care, are free, yorkshiredales.org.uk
Nunney Castle, Nunney, Somerset
A visit to Nunney Castle can be very illustrative – especially if you’ve ever wondered about the power of a 17th-century cannon. An exquisitely small castle (there’s so little room on its tiny island that the corner towers bash into each other at both ends), Nunney was built by Sir John de la Mare with the money he made by kidnapping French nobles during the hundred years war. By the time of the civil war the castle was in the hands of staunch royalist Richard Prater and was besieged by Sir Thomas Fairfax. On the third day of the siege, the Roundhead general ordered a single cannon shot to be fired from a nearby hill. It blew such a large hole in the north-west wall that Prater surrendered immediately.
• Free, open daylight hours, english-heritage.org.uk
Preston Tower, Chathill, Northumberland
If you lived on the England-Scotland border during the time of the reivers, your chances of making it to old age (or at least dying in your bed) were considerably improved if you lived in a well-fortified pele tower. This elegant example first saw life in the 1390s, when English and Scottish border raiders were at each other’s throats. Its three storeys contain a minute cell with an unfeasibly low door, a bedroom and living room decked out with the spartan accoutrements of the day, and a room devoted to the story of the Battle of Flodden, which took place nearby in 1513.
• Admission £2 adult, 50p child, open daily year-round 10am-6pm or dusk, prestontower.co.uk
Dolbadarn Castle, Llanberis, Gwynedd
A symbol of Welsh defiance, Dolbadarn became arguably the nation’s oddest prison. Constructed in around 1230 by Llywelyn the Great on a knoll overlooking Llyn Peris, it guarded an important pass through Snowdonia. Some 25 years later, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd seized power after winning the battle of Bryn Derwin against two of his brothers. The victor captured one of them, Owain Goch, and imprisoned him in the castle keep. He remained there, all alone, for the next 22 years. The solitary inmate was the subject of a famous lament (well, it was a big hit in the middle ages) by 13th-century poet Hywel Foel ap Griffi, and Owain’s singular prison remains remarkably well-preserved to this day.
• Free, open daily 10am-4pm except 24-26 December and 1 January, cadw.gov.wales
Wiston Castle, Wiston, Pembrokeshire
Though very small in comparison with more famous Welsh castles, Wiston is an immaculate fragment of the country’s history. A classic motte-and-bailey affair, its on a hill in the midst of farmland and still retains its unusual 18-sided shell keep. It was probably built in the early 1100s by a Flemish colonist – the gloriously named Wizo – on the site of an iron-age camp. Riled by this intrusion, the locals captured the castle at least three times over the following 100 years. It even managed a civil-war cameo before finding peace as a picturesque attraction on a manor house estate.
• Free, open daily 10am-4pm except 24-26 December and 1 January, visitwales.com
Portencross Castle, Portencross, North Ayrshire
It’s nigh on impossible to resist the charm of this wee stronghold and its delightful setting. An unassuming tower house, it stands alone on a low headland between a long sloping beach and a small natural harbour. Though it’s hard to imagine it, Portencross was once the preferred venue for the signing of important royal charters and Robert II, grandson of Robert the Bruce, was a frequent visitor. Abandoned in the 18th century, it later took on an unexpected new life as a base for fishermen, who mended their nets in its cellar right up to 1980. The dangerously dilapidated fortress was recently saved by the heroic work of the Friends of Portencross, who have now opened this tiny treasure to the public.
• Free, usual opening hours 11am-4pm, see website for variations, portencrosscastle.org.uk
Broughty Castle, Dundee
Follow the River Tay downstream from the centre of Dundee and you’ll find an unexpected treat in the midst of the suburbs. Built in the 15th century to guard the mouth of the Tay, Broughty Castle is as neat and trim a castle as you could hope for. In its youth, it was also the subject of a somewhat unusual military tactic. When Henry VIII launched a series of attacks on Scotland, instead of besieging Broughty, he got in touch with the castle’s owner, Lord Gray, and bought it from him. In the years since, it has been used, with varying degrees of success, to ward off the Scots, the English, the Russians, the French and the Germans. Nowadays it’s keener on attracting folk of all nations to its excellent museum and art gallery.
• Free, open Tues-Sat 10am-4pm, Sun 12.30pm-4pm (October-March), Mon-Sat 10am-4pm, Sun 12.30pm-4pm (April-September), historicenvironment.scot
Cubbie Roo’s Castle, Wyre, Orkney
Just over a square mile in area, Wyre is one of the smallest inhabited islands in the Orcadian archipelago, and was part of Norway for more than 600 years. Its star attraction was described in King Haakon’s Saga as “a very unhandy place to attack” – which, if you own a castle, is the sort of review you like to read. There are no Norse castles at all in Scandinavia, and Cubbie Roo’s is one of only two to have been excavated in Britain. While few of the remaining walls are particularly high, the main outlines of the castle buildings are well-preserved and, along with the defensive ditches and ramparts, give the feel of an ancient labyrinth.
• Free, open daylight hours, historicenvironment.scot
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