Berkeley Castle, near Stroud, is a Norman fortress providing fantastic days out – thanks to the castle’s fascinating history, remarkable architecture, glorious gardens, Butterfly House and more.
On a delightful day trip to Berkeley Castle, near Stroud, a star struck SoGlos.com team took a tour of one of the most fascinating gems in Gloucestershire’s historic crown.
While the Cotswolds may now have become synonymous with polo-playing princes, cheese-making pop stars and wayward supermodels sashaying around their second homes, a grand Gloucestershire residence near Stroud has been entertaining the nation’s A-list for almost 900 years.
Since it was built in 1117, Berkeley Castle has wined and dined more monarchs within its pink-stoned walls than most people have had hot dinners. From King Richard II’s banquets, King Henry VIII’s hunting trips and Queen Elizabeth I’s games of bowls on the green, the Norman fortress’ visitor book would read like a who’s who of English history. A gruesome highlight for macabre day-trippers is undoubtedly peering into the dank dungeon where Edward II was infamously murdered with a red hot poker, and if that’s not enough gore for one outing, visitors can also crane their neck to see the spot where the last court jester in England tumbled to his death from the minstrel’s gallery too.
Trinkets of an eccentric history spanning the ages are sprinkled with such abundance around the castle – still home to the Berkeley family who first built it in the 12th century – that the uninformed visitor is in danger of overlooking some priceless artefacts. An intricately woven bedspread inadvertently left by Elizabeth I after a stay; Francis Drake’s cabin chest which reputedly accompanied him on his high seas adventures; the banner the 4th Earl of Berkeley took with him to the Battle of Culloden; or the piano where Noel Coward entertained an intimate crowd; might well be strolled past by the casual observer, for example, but with the help of one of the stupendously well-informed guides, the gems – and the castle itself – comes alive.
We had the pleasure of being given a tour by Tim Davies, an expert of Berkeley Castle’s past and present, who entertained us with juicy anecdotes about the Berkeley family’s long line of illustrious relatives. He was also well-versed in the ghoulish ghost stories of spectres that reputedly haunt the castle to this day – well-told tales that seemed to fascinate the group of children marvelling with open mouths, and while we felt like gripping onto one another’s hands like the little ones were, we abstained with grown-up restraint.
During the fascinating whistle-stop journey through the centuries, we, like Berkeley Castle’s other enthusiastic visitors, found ourselves climbing up the trip steps in The Keep to see the infamous dungeon and holding cell of the deposed king; perusing the fine collection of works in the Picture Gallery with a George Stubbs’ painting as its centrepiece; as well as sweeping by The Dining Room to discover an extensive collection of Georgian silverware being polished – all protected by alarms, should visitors want to take home a souvenir worth slightly more than a postcard or pencil from the little on-site shop.
The Larders, Buttery and Kitchen constructed in mediaeval times, and used well into the 20th century, were next on the tour with its array of antique implements and striking spider-web ceiling; before we found ourselves feeling quite small in the grandiose Great Hall illuminated by chandeliers and sunlight from the stained glass windows, which is now used for weddings; we tip-toed into The Long Drawing Room to hear the captivating tale of Mary Cole, a butcher’s daughter from Gloucester who became the 5th Earl’s Countess – ogling at tapestries, a collection of ceramics and family crest’s on the way; before we sank into the bowels of the castle for a peek at the Beer Cellar which plays home to Santa Clause at Christmas.
While, for safety reasons, visitors do not have access to the castle’s rooftops, we were lucky enough to take the vertigo-inducing climb for a breathtaking view over some of the 6,000-acre estate – including the terraced gardens, expansive fields of the Berkeley Vale, and the mediaeval deer park which supplies mouth-watering venison burgers to the castle’s shop when in season.
Situated a short walk across the castle’s car park is a spot which many day-trippers miss to their detriment – the Butterfly Farm, which will particularly appeal to youngsters. Inside the steamy greenhouse, we saw some of 42 multi-coloured species from around the world flapping gracefully through the tropical plants, not to mention a multitude of caterpillars and chrysalises. Keeping our eyes peeled for tiny quails as they hopped underfoot, we sought out the resident star attraction – the largest moth in the world – and discovered the slumbering brown creature posing for photographs.
It may be all too easy to think of a trip to a castle as a stuffy history lesson littered with dead monarchs with little relevance to today’s society, but our outing to Berkeley Castle was quite the opposite – brimming with fascinating facets which captured our imagination from start to finish. While 21st century superstars continue to flock to the county, with the help of a well-informed guide it is easy to see why the great and the good have been gallivanting to Berkeley Castle – a highlight of Gloucestershire’s history – for centuries.
Don’t miss SoGlos.com’s Berkeley Castle photo gallery, taken during the team’s visit.
By Michelle Fyrne
Tuesday 26 August 2008
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