In the lair of the Wolf of France: why visit Castle Rising

Castle Rising castle. Once you say it, there’s no obvious place to stop: “Castle-Rising-castle-rising…castle…rise…castle.” That chant came, without fail, from the back of the car as we drove past fields of lavender, between tall hedgerows, down narrow lanes leading to nowhere except, yes, Ascent of the castle: the small village with hospices, old thatched cottages and abundant gardens; the fine church, its ornate west facade heavily restored but still a thing of Norman glory; and, dominating the low landscape, the castle itself.

It wasn’t just the name that had such charm. (The increase apparently comes from Hour, meaning “inhabitants of the place of brushwood”; poetic but not overly helpful.) The appeal of the magnificent 12th century keep, earthworks and associated buildings was its sense of remoteness, of a forgotten place. On the edge of the Fens, near the Wash, the castle stands on the mysterious plains of northwest Norfolk. The nearby Lost Village of Babingley – named after the river that meanders through the marshes between the castle and the sea – accentuates this secluded vibe.

Entrance to Castle Rising
The entrance to Castle Rising. Photograph: Anthony Jolley/Alamy

For several summers I rented a vacation home further up the coast. At the insistence of my two daughters, we visited Castle Rising at least twice a season. These Holidays in Norfolk spanned the years from childhood to beyond college age. We’ve dragged friends young and old there, wanting them to feel as spellbound as we do. They have all been obliged or given a good impression of doing so. Castle Rising was our find, a special place we had stumbled upon after taking a wrong turn.

Now checking English Inheritance website I see that this “secret” place is described as “one of the most famous 12th century castles in England”. That may be true, but other than those with local knowledge, no one I know of has ever heard of it – unless they have a fascination with the traitorous Isabelle, “Louve de France” (1295-1358). The rebellious queen, wife of Edward II of England, was banished to Castle Rising, living out her widowhood in a lavish existence of hunting parties and feasting in the great hall. His widow’s weeds were made of silk and gold, and adorned with pearls and rubies by the hundreds. Months before her death, in a pinch you could say, she gave up everything to become a nun, leaving Castle Rising to her grandson, the Dark Prince.

The audio guide, an aid we would normally have avoided, told us all about it in vivid detail, accompanied by lively medieval music. (1592 play by Christopher Marlowe, Edward IImade into a film by Derek Jarman with Tilda Swinton as Isabella, offers a more sophisticated grip.) We never get tired of it, and we know the text by heart. I’m not sure the kids were as interested in the Plantagenet Monarchy as I was, having the medieval history bug, but it appealed to their fantasy.

Re-enactments of battles take place there regularly, decorated with colorful pavilions and flags, but we were not tempted. On the contrary, we adored the emptiness and the silence: hot days, a light breeze stirring the grass, few people around. During our first visits, it was possible to walk freely in the park of the castle, paying if someone was around with an ATM and a bag of money. English Heritage has sharpened up. There is now the essential shop where you can equip yourself with the essentials of the game: plastic breastplates, spears, gauntlets and other accessories. As keeper of the household purse, I escaped slightly: an embossed pencil or a postcard perhaps, but no knightly pretense or armor was necessary. Most of the money – quite a lot, I remember – was spent on the village teahouse afterwards.

An aerial view of Castle Rising
An aerial view of Castle Rising. Photograph: Robert Harding/Alamy

I asked the children what they remembered the most. Among the hodgepodge of impressions: crossing the bridge and crossing the large gatehouse, running around the moat (now only grass); roll the banks; climbing on the high wall that surrounded the huge green basin in which the buildings are nestled. And then entering the castle itself, climbing beautiful worn stairs in hidden and empty passages and tiny stairs, the old kitchen, the great hall, the rebuilt parts, a chapel, the musty smell of the mossy stone, the glimpses through the open loopholes of the grey-green salt marshes.

In rainy summers we would always go there, always unprepared, freezing, soaked to the skin (reflecting my inability to get the right things in the trunk of the car). On those days we had the place to ourselves except for the couple who were always there, with a vacuum flask, sturdy shoes and hooded anoraks, showing us how it was to be done. Were they a figment of my imagination, ghosts perhaps? In this place of magic, you could believe anything.

Other historic houses associated with powerful women

marble hillTwickenham

This 1720s Palladian mansion was built for Henrietta Howard, 9th Countess of Suffolk. Although historically shunned as the mistress of George II, Howard was an extremely strong woman. She was an orphan who survived an abusive marriage to become a major influencer in political and literary circles.

Whitby Abbeyyorkshire

The abbey promontory site was believed to be infested with snakes until a nun called Hild turned them to stone and built her monastery there. This religious center for men and women was one of the most important of the Anglo-Saxon period.

Farleys Housesussex

Photographer Lee Miller moved here with artist Roland Penrose in the 1940s and it became a retreat for artists such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. Works by surrealists and modern artists cover the walls and also house the Lee Miller Archive.

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