Castles on the Waterways
England and Wales are famous for castles, signs of our more turbulent past. Many are visible or within convenient distance from a canal or navigable river.
Castles would be built on or overlooking important trading routes. Those routes frequently followed rivers, and when canals were built they often ran along established trading routes.
Castles were a popular image used in traditional narrowboat painting of course, evidence that the canal people were keenly aware of them. We’ve illustrated below some of the castles painted on watercans and narrowboat cabin table cupboards by generations of canal painters. Also see our Canal Folk Art section.
King John’s Castle, Odiham – built by King John in 1207, it was a three-storey octagonal tower (the only one in England) built for the pleasure of the king, (hunting etc.) rather than as a fortress, although it was held to good effect by a handful of men for a week in 1216 against the French. It was in 1215 that King John set out from here to sign the Magna Carta.
Tamworth Castle – although Norman in origin the majority of this castle dates from the reign of Henry VIII.
Lincoln Castle – Built in 1068 on the orders of William the Conqueror on his return from his first expedition to York. The castle grounds cover six acres inside the walls. There are two original towers and a 14th century addition the Cobb Hall. Built on separate mounds on the south side are the Observatory tower and the Old Keep. The latter is a ruined shell now but the former is in good order and the views from the top make the climb worthwhile. Cobb Hall was a lower tower, with battlements used as the prison and place of execution.
Tattershall Castle – 1 mile north-east of Tattershall Bridge. Originally a small motte-and-bailey not used so much for military defence but rather as a centre for revenue collection from the surrounding farmland. Rebuilt in brick and limestone as a grand keep for the Lord treasurer of England, Ralph, Baron Cromwell, in the 15th century, it had four storeys as well as a basement.
Hartley Castle – only the moat remains of this 13th century castle.
Holt Castle – a 14th century tower onto which a 19th century mansion has been built.
Berkhamsted Castle – the remains of one of the string of castles built by William the Conqueror along the route taken into London supposedly the site were he was offered the English crown in 1066. The curious mounds surrounding the castle were probably built by the French in 1216, when they held it under siege, to support their great Ballista crossbows or siege engines.
Ivinghoe – an Iron-age hill fort 1 mile north east on top of Beacon Hill. A triangle of 6 acres includes a bowl barrow from the bronze -age and tumuli to the south east of the hill.
Northampton Castle – Northampton Arm – all that remains of the once elaborately decorated royal castle, place where Thomas a Becket was tried in 1164 is the 12th century archway.
Warwick Castle – built in 1068-9 by William the Conqueror and entrusted to Roger of Beaumont it became the hereditary home of the de Beaumonts and was developed over many years to be a palace castle. It now contains art by the likes of Rubens, Van Dyck and Velaquez. The grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown.
Leicester Castle – Leicester Section – Built in 1088 on a popular route of travel (where four or more roads converge). It contained underground dungeons for imprisoning the more dangerous criminals, and also a magnificent aisled hall in the bailey some of which remains. Leicester was one of the larger baronies in the 13th century and although the order went out for the castle to be torn down it must have been built up again soon afterwards.
Devizes Castle – the mound and earthworks are all that is left to be seen of the original Norman castle. There is now a Victorian Folly built on the site.
Greenhalgh Castle – The ruins can be viewed with permission from the adjacent farm. The castle was built in 1490 by the Earl of Derby, and was mostly destroyed by the roundheads in the civil war.
Lancaster Castle – the Norman keep was built on the site of a Roman fort. It was extended in the 13th and 14th centuries. There is a tower known as John o’ Gaunts Chair. The Shire Hall displays shields, but most of the castle is used as a prison. Escorted tours can be arranged.
Hertford Castle – built in 1100 the castle belonged to the Cecil family. In 1216 Prince Louis of France overthrew the besieged castle in 25 days using siege engines. A few of the remaining medieval structures are the 12th century curtain wall and the 15th century gatehouse. Some of the outhouses of the castle are now in the surrounding Water Lane and Fore Street.
Waytemore Castle – Bishops Stortford – in Bridge Street the foundations of the rectangular keep remain, a pleasure garden has been developed where the bailey used to be.
Chirk Castle – one mile west of Chirk tunnel built in 1295 as a marches fortress, a square court with a drum tower in each corner. Since 1595 it has been the home of the Middleton family. The gates were added in 1721. Three quarters of the curtain wall remain. Within the park traces of Offa’s Dyke can be found.
Eilseg’s Pillar – a quarter mile north of Valle Crucis Abbey, the pillar was erected in the 18th century to commemorate Eilseg who built the fortress on top of Dinas Bran.
Castell Dinas Bran – half mile north, on top of 1100 ft. mountain. This was an important fortress defending Wales from the English. Built by Eilseg, Prince of Powys, it was later abandoned by De Warenne who decided to build a new castle at Holt near the River Dee. The ruins remain stark against the skyline, the walk is worth it for those who have the stamina.
Skipton Castle – Norman castle built to fill in a gap in the Pennine defence against the north. It has six very large round towers a banqueting hall kitchen complete with cooking hearths, and a dungeon. It saw a three year siege during the civil war and although Cromwell allowed restoration afterwards it was not rebuilt as a place of strong defence. It is open every day with the exception of Sunday mornings.
Cliffe Castle – This totally restored castle in Keighley is now the home to the museum and art gallery. The grounds are beautiful also.
Mow Cop Castle – Now owned by the National Trust this purpose built ruin dominates the skyline for many miles. It is 1100 ft. above sea level. It was built in 1750 and is the site used by the primitive Methodists for their first meeting in 1807, a marathon event lasting some 14 hours!
Abergavenney Castle – motte and bailey built to dominate the area and be a centre for administration of the territory. They were transformed into English style manors. In 1171 it was the scene of the massacre of several Welsh leaders who were murdered by William de Braose. He had invited them to dine at the castle. Only parts of the walls towers and a gateway survive, these can be visited daily.
Crickhowell – destroyed in the 15th century, only scant remains (part of the curtain wall and small tower) survive of this Norman motte and bailey castle.
Tretower Court and Castle – 2.5 miles northwest of Crickhowell. In the 14th century a fortified manor was built to replace the Norman Castle.
Pencilli – only castle mound remains.
Brecon Castle – permission is required from the owners of the hotel in whose grounds can be found the remains of the 11th century castle. The civil war saw the destruction of a large part of the castle, helped by the locals who did not wish to have the castle occupied by either side.
Broughton Castle – 3miles southwest of Banbury. This is a tudor castle mostly surrounded by a moat. The interior has fine fireplaces ceilings and panelling and houses a collection of civil war relics.
Brinklow – next to the church can be found the earthworks of a castle built to defend the Fosse way.
Bell’s Castle – an eighteenth century castellated folly on top of the south slope of Bredon Hill 3miles to the North-east.
Little Wittenham – remains of an Iron age hill fort on top of Castle Hill.
Windsor Castle – 1165-1179 Originally one of the Norman castles marking the route into London taken by William the Conqueror, the site was ideal for a royal castle as it was out of town but within a days journey. Because of the position of Windsor it had vast amounts of money spent on it turning it into a palace without changing it from a fortress. The attached parkland provided both hunting and timber for construction and fuel. It is the largest inhabited castle in the world divided into three wards, the lower – St George’s Chapel, built in the perpendicular style and housing the Albert Memorial chapel; the middle – the Round Tower from which one can see twelve counties; the upper – which contains the private and state apartments.
Oakley Court – Now a hotel, Oakley Court was originally a Victorian Gothic castle.
Tower of London – the keep or White Tower built by William the Conqueror as a defensive measure against the large population of London in the southeast angle of the rampart of the city, in 1087. Expanded by succeeding monarchs to become a palace as well as a place of defence, until after the reign of Edward 1. Also used as a prison, the famous traitor’s gate opening onto the river itself. Now it has become famous for housing the crown jewels and also for the colourful Yeoman Warders or Beefeaters.
Tower Bridge – built in 1894 by Sir John Wolfe Barry and Isambard Kingdom Brunel the younger, the twin gothic towers house the mechanism which raises the road to allow ships through.
Wallingford – remains of a Norman castle one of the many which marked the route of William the conqueror as he approached London, built into a corner of the rampart of the original Anglo-Saxon town.
Nottingham Castle – famous for its connection with the story of Robin Hood. Built in 1068 under instruction of William the Conqueror, it had large sums of money spent on it, the outer bailey being walled in masonry and much done to transform it to a palace. The original caves beneath the castle still exist. The present building dates only from 1674 and is home to a museum and art gallery.
Newark Castle – the shell is all that remains of this riverside building. Built in 1129 for the Bishop of Lincoln and was added to in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. In 1216 King John died here and in 1646 the castle was destroyed by the Roundheads.
Conisburgh Castle – Built in 1185 the round keep has large protruding towers and once had a wooden roof. The chapel was built into the thickness of the wall with the chancel in one of the buttresses. Because the single-aisled hall is built against the perimeter wall it is curved rather than straight. When the fireplace was built in the keep the flue rose within the wall to the fighting platform at the top and was finished with a chimney. This keep is the best preserved of its kind in the country.
Beeston Castle – built in 1220 by Ranulf de Blundeville, Earl of Chester, and paid for by a levy on his tenants. Built on the summit of a step crag it dominates the skyline for miles as it looks down over the Cheshire plain. Its enclosure was irregular but it had a very strong gatehouse. The walk from the canal is well worth the effort for the views alone but the castle ruins are fascinating themselves and include the 360ft. deep well in the courtyard.
Peckforton Castle close to Beeston Castle is actually a Victorian stately home, now open to the public, built in the form of a medieval castle. It has been used as a location in a number of films and TV programmes.
Chester Castle – One of the earlier Norman sites Chester castle was built in 1069 against the southern wall of this Roman city from timber. Henry VIII replaced the timber with stone. It is used by the Cheshire regiment although the 13th century Agricola Tower is open to the public.
Hartlebury Castle, Stourport – 2 miles east. Originally 15th century and home to the Bishops of Worcester it was virtually destroyed in 1646. In the 18th century it was rebuilt and now contains the Worcestershire County Museum.
Perrots Folly – Monuments Road, Edgbaston. In 1758 John Perrot built this seven-storey tower so that he could see the grave of his wife buried ten miles away. It is now used as an observatory.