How to identify a Proper Castle

On the weekend, I took my husband on a surprise birthday trip to the Isle of Wight. I claim it was a surprise birthday trip for him, but really we mostly went because I wanted to go to Carisbrooke Castle. Which is just as valid, if not quite as romantic, a reason to go.

I’m all about the castles, except for when I’m all about knitting, or music, or scones, or falling over. It probably stems from childhood visits to Corfe Castle, even though I seem to be the only member of my family who actually remembers going there. If you’re looking for an introduction to castles, there’s none better than Corfe. It instilled a seemingly lifelong enthusiasm for crenellations, even though I had no idea what they were when I was four.

So even before we made it to the Isle of Wight, I managed to convince my husband to go for dinner in a castle (the rather good Courtyard at Southsea Castle, if you happen to care). And given that I love lists almost as much as I love castles, I of course took this opportunity to ask him for his list of his top five castles. But, ever the irritatingly argumentative type (marry a PPE grad at your peril, people), he first wanted a stricter definition of what constitutes a “Proper Castle”. Because apparently they vary a lot, and there are many imposters.

And so I present you with a guide to how to identify a “Proper Castle”, so that you can then create your very own top five. Because castles are important.

Just because it has the word “castle” in its name, don’t assume it is one.
It seems that at some point in time, various members of the aristocracy found themselves suffering from castle envy. And so we have sneaky little buggers like Croft Castle and Castle Howard. Both very lovely, but both definitely stately homes, not castles.

“Castle” Howard. Nice, but not a castle.

I could call myself “President Badger”, but that doesn’t make me president of anything. And the same thing applies to castles. Nominative determinism has no place here.

A true castle should trip you up a bit, and get you a bit rained on.
Proper castles are old. And old things fall apart a bit. Sometimes they fall apart so much that they’re basically just a pile of stones. So it follows – the more ruined it is, the more likely it is to be a castle.

If it’s got a roof all over every single bit of it, chances are you’ve been tricked. Even Leeds Castle, a place which these days is  more stately home than castle, has got a tiny bit of roofless ruin out the front. It’s the only thing that saves it from being condemned completely to the “imposter” pile. Places like Bodiam, one of the true greats of the Castle genre, meanwhile, afford you no protection from the elements. I should know. It snowed on me when I was there.

These ruins are the saviour of Leeds Castle.


(A small aside: be wary of those other ruins of the British landscapes, the Abbeys of the Tudor period. Thankfully those are usually accurately named though, so you should be safe.)

You should fear for your life on a visit to a Proper Castle.
Not because you’re under siege, or in danger of being shot with a cannon, or being held prisoner in a disgusting dungeon. No, you should be a bit terrified that you’re going to plunge to your death from a terrifying wall walk that seemed like a really great idea when you started climbing the first few steps. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a full wall walk; Ludlow Castle’s too ruined for one of those, but still manages to have some terrifying ramparts.

In all my (many) visits, this is the only time I’ve made it to the top of Ludlow Castle.

As someone with a great big fear of heights, this one’s the clincher for me: no panic attack, no castle.

Don’t let a moat trick you.
Children’s books would have you believe that a moat is the defining feature of a castle. But actually, it’s the defining feature of places owned by folk who don’t like people much. I’d put a moat around my house if I could. If only someone would come up with a way to put a moat around a semi-detached house without really inconveniencing your next-door neighbours or stranding them with you.

Case in moating point: Baddesley Clinton. Definitely got a moat. Definitely not a castle.

The moat of lies at Baddesley Clinton.

Same goes for crenellations.
Yes, once upon a time crenellations were the true marker of a castle. You had to get a special licence from the King and everything. But that all buggered off sometime in the 16th century, and since then anyone’s been able to smack crenellations on whatever they want.

There’s a row of houses in Henley upon Thames which are just your normal Victorian houses with some crenellation on top. Nobody would besiege them, unless they were feeling particularly bitter about the prohibitive property prices in the town.

Pay special attention to the playground
Not in a creepy way, though. But if you’re still struggling to work out if you’re at a Proper Castle, then the playground may just be the thing that cinches it for you.

Is there a ridiculously over-elaborate castle-style playground? Yes? Then you’re not at a Proper Castle. It’s like the cliché of men making up for other shortcomings by buying a really fast car. Rubbish castles make up for their shortcomings by creating a really good imitation in their grounds.

I refer to this as the “Hever theory” of castles, named of course after Anne Boleyn’s childhood home – which is definitely more of a stately home. Its castle-maze-bridge-slide extravaganza of a playground is magnificent, though.

The better of Hever’s castles.

Just don’t go down the slide if you’re a size 14 and don’t want to get embarrassed by getting your arse stuck. Trust me on this.


2 thoughts on “How to identify a Proper Castle

  1. This is really, really useful, especially for those of us who have never visited a castle, proper or otherwise.


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