Castle Rising Castle† Once you say it, there’s no obvious place to stop: “Castle-Rising-castle-rising…Castle…Rising…Castle.” This chant would without fail come from the back of the car as we drove past fields of lavender, among tall hedges, through narrow streets leading nowhere, except, yeah, Castle rises: the small village with courtyards, old houses and lush gardens; the pretty church, the ornate west facade heavily restored but still a thing of Norman glory; and, which dominates the low landscape, the castle itself.
It wasn’t just the name that had such charm. (Rising apparently comes from) hrsing, meaning “dwellers in the place of undergrowth”; poetic but not overly helpful.) The appeal of the beautiful 12th-century keep, earthworks and associated buildings was the sense of remoteness, of a forgotten place. On the edge of the Fens, close to the Wash, the castle sits in the mysterious plains of northwestern Norfolk. The nearby lost village of Babingley – named after the river that meanders through the marshes between castle and sea – reinforces this air of isolation.
A number of summers I rented a holiday home further up the coast. At the urging of my two daughters, we visited Castle Rising at least twice a season. This one Norfolka Vacation span the years from childhood to beyond university age. We dragged friends there, both kids and adults, and wanted them to feel as enchanted as we do. They were all obligatory, or gave a good impression of it. Castle Rising was our discovery, a special place we had come across after taking a wrong turn.
Now, check the English Heritage website, I see this “secret” place is described as “one of the most famous 12th century castles in England”. That may well be so, but those with local knowledge aside, no one I know has ever heard of it – unless they have a fascination with the treacherous Isabella, “she-wolf of France” (1295-1358). The rebellious queen, wife of Edward II of England, was banished to Castle Rising, where she lived her widowhood in a lavish existence of hunts and feasts in the great hall. Her widow’s weeds were made of silk and gold, and adorned with hundreds of pearls and rubies. Months before her death, you might say, she gave up everything to become a nun and left Castle Rising to her grandson, the Black Prince.
The audio guide, a tool we would normally have avoided, told us all this in great detail, accompanied by rousing medieval music. (The 1592 play by Christopher Marlowe, Edward IIfilmed by Derek Jarman with Tilda Swinton as Isabella, offers a more refined look.) We never got tired of it and knew the lyrics by heart. I’m not sure if the kids were as interested in the Plantagenet monarchy as I was, with the medieval history bug, but it sparked their imaginations.
Combat reenactments, complete with colorful pavilions and flags, take place regularly, but we weren’t tempted. Instead, we loved the emptiness and silence: warm days, a gentle breeze blowing through the grass, few other people around. On our early visits it was possible to roam freely in the castle grounds, paying if anyone was around with a ticket machine and money bag. English Heritage has honed itself. Now there’s the inevitable shop where you can equip yourself with jousting supplies – plastic breastplates, lances, gloves and other paraphernalia. As keeper of the household purse, I escaped slightly: an embossed pencil or a postcard perhaps, but chivalrous forgeries or armor were not necessary. Most of the money – quite a lot, I remember – was spent afterwards in the village tea room.
I asked the children what they remembered most. Between the jumble of impressions: over the bridge and through the large gatehouse, racing around the moat (now just grass); rolling down the banks; up to the high wall that surrounded the huge green bowl in which the buildings nestle. And then into the castle itself, beautiful and worn up stairs to hidden, empty corridors and small stairways, the old kitchen, the great hall, the rebuilt parts, a chapel, the musty smell of mossy stone, the glimpses through slit windows looking out on the grey-green salt marshes.
In rainy summers we still went, always ill-prepared, freezing cold, soaked to the skin (reflecting my inability to ever have the right things in the trunk). On such days we had the place to ourselves, except for the couple who were always there, with a thermos, sturdy shoes and hooded anoraks, who showed us how. Were they a figment of my imagination, ghosts perhaps? You could believe anything in this magical place.
Other Historic Houses Associated With Powerful Women
This Palladian mansion from the 1720s was built for Henrietta Howard, 9th Countess of Suffolk. Although Howard was historically dismissed as George II’s mistress, he was an extremely strong woman. She was an orphan who survived an abusive marriage to become a major influencer in political and literary circles.
The headland of the abbey would be plagued by snakes until a nun named Hild turned them to stone and built her monastery here. This religious center for men and women was one of the most important in Anglo-Saxon times.
Photographer Lee Miller moved here with artist Roland Penrose in the 1940s, and it became a haven for artists such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. Works by the surrealists and modern artists cover the walls and this is also home to the Lee Miller archive.
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