It’s not easy picking England’s most beautiful castles. This is, after all, a country with around 800 such buildings and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Luckily, virtually all 800 have plenty of appeal, but here is the best eight which really put on a show for visitors.
Some castles are just a pretty face; some are more historic, less pretty. Dover is the full package. Dotted around the vast site are a Roman lighthouse (around 2000 years old), an Anglo-Saxon church (around 1000 years old), a tower with interiors recreating life under Henry II (around 800 years old), and secret WWII tunnels which shed light on the castle’s strategic importance, not just in the 20th century, but throughout its existence. And exactly why has this site always been so vital to England’s security? The beautiful views from the grounds across the Channel to France and continental Europe answer that question.
How to get to Dover Castle: Frequent trains connect Dover Priory station on Kent's Heritage Coast with London.
The university city of Durham is famous for its magnificent cathedral, well worth a visit in its own right. But directly across from the cathedral is the almost-as-magnificent castle, sitting on the same lofty hill as its ecclesiastical neighbor and once the home of the bishop. Tours around this 900-year-old beauty take place every day, but perhaps the greatest attraction is that, out of term times (the castle is now student accommodation), visitors can spend the night here. Rooms range from basic to four-poster-bedded and most have views fit for a bishop.
How to get to Durham Castle: Durham is on the main London-Edinburgh train line with very frequent services to both.
Located in Northumberland, Alnwick has been occupied by the Percy family, dukes of the county, for over 700 years. From across the River Aln, the view has changed little since medieval times – an assortment of battlements and towers that check every castle wish list. Head inside for grand Italian palazzo rooms, filled with priceless paintings and furniture. You'll also get a glimpse into the private life of the duke – a huge television, comfy beanbags, and family photos in the library show that this is still very much a lived-in home. If you think you recognize Alnwick, you're probably right: It plays a starring role in the Harry Potter films as well in episodes of Downton Abbey.
How to get to Alnwick Castle: The nearest train station is Alnmouth, with connections to London, Newcastle, and Edinburgh, from where it’s a quick bus ride to Alnwick or a signposted one-hour walk.
Ask a child to draw a castle and they’ll likely come up with something like Bodiam. Tucked away in the gentle Sussex countryside, this place is almost impossibly picturesque – a 14th-century fortress with its original gatehouse and stout round towers surrounded by a tree-lined, water-filled moat. Like many other castles, Bodiam is largely just the external stone shell, with little inside to see. But what a shell.
How to get to Bodiam Castle: The best way to get here is with your own car as there’s no public transportation.
If first impressions matter then nowhere makes a better one than Bamburgh Castle on the northeast English coast. Even in Northumberland, nicknamed “the castle county of England”, Bamburgh literally stands above other fortifications, perched high on a rocky outcrop above a wide beach, the wild North Sea, and a charming eponymous village.
There’s been a castle of some sort here since at least the 6th century, though the current building began life (as many other English castles did) with the Normans in 1066 and saw major 19th-century restoration. The interior has ceramics and art to explore, but it’s the imposing exterior, best seen from the beach, that provides the abiding memory.
How to get to Bamburgh Castle: Regular buses run along the coast, connecting Bamburgh to train stations at Newcastle and Berwick.
Prepare to fall in love. Corfe Castle might be a ruin but it, and its namesake village, are one of the most romantic spots in the whole of England. The shattered, odd-angled fragments that can be visited in the 21st-century are the result of two sieges during the civil war of the mid-17th century which pitted the king, Charles I, against parliament. Lady Bankes, a royalist, held out in Corfe Castle for six weeks against a besieging parliamentary army until she was betrayed by one of her own soldiers. After the castle’s capture, the order was given to blow it up with the result being the scenic remains we see today.
How to get to Corfe Castle: The nearest train station is Wareham, from where buses run to the village.
Another southern English belle, gorgeous Leeds Castle floats on an equally gorgeous moat and offers visitors 900 years of gloriously diverse history and architectural beauty. Originally a Norman fortification, it was subsequently owned by various queens, turned into a sumptuous Georgian mansion, and then, in the early 20th century, was restored by an Anglo-American heiress, Lady Baillie, who entertained high society friends here. The gardens are as photogenic as the castle – enjoy a gentle stroll or lose yourself in the maze.
How to get to Leeds Castle: Using your own car or joining an organized tour from London are the simplest options, though trains run from the capital to Bearsted from where, April through September, a bus service connects with the castle.
Huge, splendid Warwick Castle is both an impressive medieval fortress and a fun modern theme park. Originally a motte-and-bailey construction built in 1068, just after the Norman Conquest of England, the castle developed over the centuries, growing along a ridge above the River Avon, and remains remarkably well preserved: tours delve into its long past. Since being taken over by the Tussauds Group (of Madame fame) the emphasis has shifted to family-friendly, Middle Ages-themed activities, ranging from falconry demonstrations to jousts.
How to get to Warwick Castle: The town has train services to London and Birmingham.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified a photo of Durham Cathedral as Durham Castle. The photo has been updated.