A Lesson in the Historical and Cultural Capital of Castles
By Erica Garnett
Dr. Edd Harris loves castles, especially Medieval ones. He has been to Islamic fortresses in the plains of Spain, the large Harlech Castle in Northern Wales, and the picturesque Burg Eltz in the woodlands of Germany, needless to say all over Europe.
However, the British native returned to his roots to write his first book, ‘Exploring English Castles.’
The Complexities of Castles
The time period of the book stretches from the Norman Invasion of 1066 until about 1300, three centuries before the first World War. During this time period, the majority of castle building took place since they were introduced to the country by the Normans of France.
Harris’ approach to castles is different than commonly seen. Harris explains the connection that castles have to famous historical moments in England’s history and in modern-day culture. He is simultaneously giving a crash course in England’s history with a multitude of information about the structure, variation and what makes a true castle.
From Charles Dickens to King Arthur
Harris highlights some of the main castles in England including, Kenilworth Castle, Bodiam Castle, Tintagel Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle, and Corfe Castle. The Tower of London, one of the most famous castles, was used as a prison for a time period and presently holds the country’s crown jewels. Framlingham Castle, located in Suffolk, was where Mary Tudor was proclaimed the first Queen of England.
It was built in 1190 and still remains in good shape. Rochester Castle was featured in some of Charles Dicken’s novels and is close to London. Dover Castle has a long-spanning military history that from the Medieval Times through the World Wars.
He begins the book by explaining that castles have varying functions. They have changed through history and are reflected in the modern-day representation of castles. Harris writes:
“Essentially, then, there’s a tantalizing tension at the heart of a true castle. A castle isn’t a fortress, and it’s not a stately home. It’s somewhere on the spectrum between the two, combining military prowess with unimaginable luxury. To put it another way, it’s a place where you could step in a decadent four-poster one night and have your head chopped off and placed upon a spike the next (an eventful weekend, by any account). A true castle has a heady mix of violence and decadence, bloodshed and splendor, which is why, almost by definition, no real castle can ever be boring.” Viewing castles is all about your perspective. Eddy Morris photo
Losing an Essential Function but Gaining More
Once so fundamental for protection in medieval times, castles are now majority serving as aesthetic sources today. Harris explains that after the English Civil War the castles were left dismantled and many people stole stones to build their own houses rather than attempt to build them back up.
As time passed, castles became relics. “There are layers of history culminating onto each other, like actual layers of rock,” says Harris.
There are an unknown number of castles in England because of how many are estimated to be in ruins and how many are in need of repair. Harris views castles as, “a connection to history and a romantic connection to the past.”
There is an underlying cultural aspect transcending beyond the architectural structure. Castles embody different time periods and show how the topography of the land fits in with the natural environment.
“Tourists get that connection when they travel to England and view the castles here,” explains Harris. “Castles are what the United Kingdom has become in a tangible way.”
A Local Castle Close to the Heart
Though Harris has traveled across Europe and well over England, viewing castles, Goodrich Castle holds sentimental meaning. The red sandstone castle is located in Herefordshire County, the same county that Harris grew up in. He has visited it many times.
When visiting Goodrich Castle, there are many plaques prompting historical meanings for different parts of the castle as well as an audio guide that is factored into the price you pay to get in. Harris explains that reaching the castle through public transportation is not easy but achievable by taking the 43 bus the town of Rye or a taxi ride from the center of the town. Driving is easier. There is also a youth hostel nearby and numerous hotels in the area.
Tips for Traveling to Europe for Castle Viewing
For those who don’t want to leave the castle behind to stay in a hotel, there are castles in England that function as hotels. The Amberley Castle Hotel is located in the South Downs and is drivable from London.
At over 900 years old, it still leaves a good impression, even before you know that Elizabeth I stayed there. To really experience the history of the castle, the drawbridge is raised at night.
For those staying in England for only a short period of time, Harris recommends seeing Bodiam Castle. Although a car is needed to access the site, the view is worth it. “It is what you think of when you think of a fairytale castle,” Harris describes. Dover Castle and the Tower of London are also on the list and are reachable by train and public transportation respectfully.
Castles Across Europe
For tourists who prefer a hands-on approach and accept the challenge of driving a little on what may be a new side of the road, Harris encourages you too! He recommends leaving from a capital city, in the case of England, would be London.
By staying in the capital for a few days and observing and interacting with the culture, it gives tourists an initial understanding and day-tours are easily accomplished.
When looking into touring castles, Harris recommends Viator as a tour guide because they operate to and from London to the more main touristy attractions that are a must for one’s first time in England.
He also recommends taking day trips into Germany, Spain, and the rest of the United Kingdom to explore castles there. Harris reccomends Germany’s Heidelberg Castle and Neuschwanstein Castle. The Alcazar of Segovia is the most famous and conveniently nearest in proximity in Spain. According to Harris, Ireland presents more opportunities for those tourists itching to stay in a castle hotel.
Combining Passions of History and Photography
Harris’ grandmother lives in a 15th-century tin frame cottage. This was his first exposure to rich, historical architecture and discovering castles solidified that passion for him. He says that he felt a connection to the heritage of his country through this historical representation. What infatuates Harris about castles is the element of eeriness they hold in their ruins and their very structure.
Their ruins resonate with him by the power they once held and messages they show; among them being “the impermanence of human achievement.” Harris is mainly interested in the Romantic re-interpretation of castles around the time period when castles were being rejuvenated in the gothic artistic movement began.
When he visits the castles he often talks to the custodians because they clean the nooks and crannies of the place and know it better than anyone else from a layout perspective. Good tip–next time you visit save the hardest questions for the janitors!
The interpreters of the castles are a great source of information as well as the tour guides. “In the United Kingdom we are really lucky because we are surrounded by a lot of really beautiful historical sites,” Harris says.
Buy Exploring English Castles on Amazon.
Make sure to check out Edd’s website for more information on castles in Europe!
Erica Garnett is a former intern at GoNOMAD Travel. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, pursuing a double major in Journalism and Anthropology.