Look at a map showing the route the A49 takes through the county of Shropshire and you’ll spot a whole lot of castle symbols. The county is absolutely packed to the brim with castles.
The Shropshire tourism website claims the county has 32 castles plus 25 hillforts and quite a few abbeys and monasteries. I assume that originally this had something to do with the proximity of the Welsh border and the need to repel Welsh invaders. The largest defensive type structure to be found in Britain is after all Offa’s Dyke, the 8th century earthwork that runs for nearly 180 miles along the border.
Many of the stone castles were built in the years soon after the Norman Conquest, often on the sites of older hillforts or wooden structures. Over the years they’ve been adapted and changed, fallen prey to battles, civil wars, fires and the dying out of family lines and have changed hands many times.
Today many of them stand in ruins, but are still interesting to visit. I went to see what was left of them.
Moreton Corbet Castle
I started with Moreton Corbet Castle. This was a Norman castle built soon after the 1066 conquest and added to in the 13th century when it was acquired by the Corbet family. The family sided with the Royalists during the civil war (1642-51) and the castle was fortified. After the troops inside the castle surrendered it was burnt down by the Parliamentarians.
Today the castle provides a picturesque backdrop to a pretty village and seems a haven of peace and tranquillity. It was a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon when I was there and a few families were taking advantage of the weather and having picnics and playing football on the grass whilst some of the children clambered over the ruins and played hide and seek.
The castle is free to enter and although the sign says it is open during daylight hours, there’s nothing to stop you entering at any time. If you choose to visit after dark beware of the ghost of Paul Holmyard who is said to stalk the walls.
The small church next to the castle has some colourful tomb monuments dedicated to the Corbet family.
Acton Burnell Castle
Next up was Acton Burnell Castle.
This is also a ruin set a little way back from the village of the same name. It was never intended to be a real castle and was more of a fortified house built by Robert Burnell in the 13th century to replace an earlier building.
Burnell was the English Chancellor and a personal friend of King Edward I. The King gave him a licence to allow him to crenelate his ‘castle’ and build battlements. None of these embellishments remain to be seen today however.
Acton Burnell was abandoned in 1420 when the male line died out.
Today it lies in a small woodland and is even more picturesque than Moreton Corbet. The castle is free to enter, but the main gate at the top of the lane leading down to it is locked at dusk.
The nearby Church of St Mary was also built by Burnell and is one of the most complete 13th century village churches remaining in Britain.
Stokesay Castle was the most unusual looking of all the castles I saw on my trip. It was never really a castle at all and more just a fortified manor house built by Laurence of Ludlow in 1281. Originally there was a Norman structure here, but like so many places, it was replaced with the building we see today.
Laurence of Ludlow was England’s leading wool merchant and accumulated a vast wealth. Although the fortifications of the house would never have stood up to an invading army they were needed to protect his belongings and money from marauding bands of robbers who would otherwise have targeted him.
The ornate gatehouse was added in Elizabethan times and was only for decorative purposes. There is also a small church nearby.
The castle is managed by English Heritage and with my membership I was able to get in free. If you don’t have membership it costs £7.60.
Not much further down the A49 is the market town of Ludlow. The town in known as a foodie destination and I hadn’t realised it had a castle until I began my research for this trip.
The castle stands at the end of the market square right in the town centre. It’s privately owned and costs £5 to get in.
It’s another example of a Norman castle and was built soon after the conquest. Over the next 1000 years it seemed to pass hands fairly frequently and at one point in the Middle Ages was effectively the base for the capital of Wales (today it’s on the English side of the border).
It’s quite a large castle and the grounds spread over two hectares. I spent a lot of time climbing the different towers and following a maze of passageways from room to room.
Standing within the inner bailey is a completely round chapel, one of only five medieval round churches in the country. The inspiration for the round design came from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Although there’s nothing left inside the chapel the beautifully carved Norman archways can still be admired.
I left the A49 and started to make my way into Wales. On the way I stopped off at Hay-on-Wye, a small town known for its proliferation of bookshops and its annual Literary festival.
Hay also had a castle that I hadn’t previously known about, but this castle was not only ruined but deemed unsafe and no public access was allowed.
The castle, which dates to the early 11th century, was gutted by serious fires in 1939 and again in 1977. It’s now owned by the Hay Castle Trust who plan on turning it into an arts centre. Last year they were awarded a grant of £4.46 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund to put towards the renovations.
I didn’t realise Brecon had a castle until I arrived. The Norman ruin I saw was fronted by a modern hotel and I assume you have to be staying at the hotel to gain access. I’ve had a look at the hotel website and it doesn’t mention anything about seeing the actual castle. I did manage to snap a photo from the town though.
The final castle of my trip was Cardiff Castle. The whole point of my road trip was to take a meandering route to Cardiff where I needed to be over Easter for a conference. The conference finished at lunchtime on Tuesday and after spending 5 days indoors I was ready for some fresh air. I headed straight down to the castle to spend the afternoon in the sun wandering round the grounds and buildings. It was the best castle yet. So good in fact, it deserves its own separate post on it. But in the meantime here are a few photos.
I spent 6 days on my road trip and saw 7 castles (including Cardiff which was outside of the road trip days). This felt like a tiny taster of how many there are to see and now I’ve got the taste I’ll have to plan another road trip to see some more.
Which of these castles do you think would be your favourite? Share your thoughts in the comments below.