Huge battlements, twisting spiral staircases and towering turrets – children and grown ups are guaranteed a dramatic day out at a castle. Arundel Castle in West Sussex is especially spectacular with its enormous Norman keep and gatehouse, and incredible network of twisting stone passages and vast fortified rooms. It contains nearly a thousand years of history and is a great place to watch some of this history come alive; there are regular events throughout the year with medieval knights and archers, Norman soldiers, pirates and smugglers and even an international jousting competition taking place.
We visited on a sunny summer’s day and were drawn to the tranquil gardens with their colourful borders and stunning fountains. Three-year-old Catherine was enthralled by the lovely ‘Oberon’s Palace,’ built on a rockwork mini-mountain and lined with shells. The fountain in the middle has a gilded crown balancing and splashing on top of the water jet which she thought was magic. The grounds are very picnic-friendly – but life in a castle was not all peace and tranquillity and Arundel’s recreated medieval siege was a cut-throat performance of epic proportions. Almost 200 participants battled for control of the castle in a three-day siege as visitors enjoyed the spectacle and cheered their side on. Re-enactors from the British Plate Armour Society and Raven Tor Living History Group skirmished as English and French troops, clanking about in their authentic armour and unleashing surprisingly realistic bloodcurdling war cries.
The noise intensified when The Company of St Barbara put on their bone-rattling artillery display with an assortment of guns and cannons, including the massive Bombard Cannon, which would have been used to throw stone balls at an opponent’s walls to batter them down.
It was a fantastic way to learn what castle life was really about and after the battle we enjoyed wandering through the tented encampment, watching performers go about their everyday lives of cooking over open fires, eating from rough-hewn wooden plates and chatting with their neighbours. There were quite a few medieval children running and playing which was fun for the more conventionally-dressed 21st Century kids to see.
Once we’d seen the awesome power of medieval weapons it was easy to see why Arundel Castle had to be such a solid, imposing home. The castle has been massively renovated through the centuries and boasts a fine Victorian interior. It’s a traditional English country house albeit with arrow slits along the corridors and thick, impenetrable stone walls. We toured through rooms, peering through windows to watch the soldiers below, imaging what life might have been like. We were grateful to be sheltered from the deafening ‘boom boom boom’ of the cannons – and relieved to follow the visitor signs, without which we’d have been hopelessly lost in the maze-like interior.
Arundel’s grand interior is filled with rare paintings, fine tapestries and beautiful furniture. The bedrooms looked extravagant and the Victorian bathrooms were surprisingly luxurious with their massive bathtubs and comfortable-looking loo seats. We all loved the armour on display with its almost comical appearance. Heading out into the sunshine and past the soldiers once more, we had a new appreciation of how anyone even managed to walk in it.
Arundel Castle in West Sussex is open Tuesdays to Sundays until 2 November, 2014, along with every Monday in August, 10am to 5pm. Tickets cost from £9 for adults and children aged 5-16 for the gardens only. A Gold Plus family ticket for two adults and up to three children costs £45 and allows access to the gardens, grounds, chapel, castle keep, main castle and bedrooms.
Arundel Castle will be hosting an international jousting and medieval tournament 22-27 July, 2014. Professional opponents from around the world will be flying in to compete in the high-stakes tournament, which promises six days of thrilling and authentic combat.
Find out more at www.arundelcastle.org