posted 05-09-2005 05:52 AM
A couple of years ago I toured the castle hotels of Britain with my wife as part of the celebrations for our wedding anniversary.
My idea of a true castle is one that was designed to have both defensive and luxury accommodation components. Without the defensive element you simply have a manor house, often with faux crenellations around the roof. Without the luxury accommodation it is a fort. I wanted to stay in a building that had been a genuine seat of power in the formation of Britain, a building that had seen cannon fire (or at least looks like it could have).
Even in Britain, pock marked as it is with defensive fortifications, using so strict a definition of a castle limits the choice available. Many of the castles fall into two categories: ruin, like Bodiam [http://www.castles-abbeys.co.uk/Bodiam-Castle.html] (in my opinion the quintessential castle) or still in use like Windsor [www.royal.gov.uk/output/Page557.asp]. Those that are in private hands are most often used as homes and are not available to the general public. There are, however, a small number of castles run as hotels.
Amberly: Set in the Sussex countryside, Amberly was built in the 14th century as a defensive curtain wall around an even older central manor house (~early 12th century). It is possible to stay in rooms within the towers of the gatehouse set in the curtain wall itself or take rooms in the original manor house. This is not a large castle in accommodation terms. The public areas are similarly compact with the exception of the dining rooms one of which has a spectacular, vaulted ceiling in the oldest part of the castle.
The exemplary dining experience is full of contrasts, the setting is formal the atmosphere relaxed, the food is modern but elaborate, the waiting staff though mostly French are never aloof and down right amiable when the mood takes them.
The exterior of the castle demonstrates similar contrasts. The curtain wall is partly in ruins and guests can roam throughout these (at their own risk). This gives the guest the chance to experience an historic ruin without loosing any of the luxury of a manor house. The accommodation is superb, we stayed in the Arundel suite, which contained an antique, heavily carved four-poster bed looking out through an enormous ornate stone and leaded window.
Amberly castle is truly spectacular and priced accordingly. The cost, however can not be considered a negative point, the service is second to non the setting looks amazing and the accommodation is in a nine centuries old building, it is worth every penny and more.
The only negative aspect I found is a certain lack of scale. When standing outside the sixty feet high curtain wall across from the working portcullis (lowered at night) the castle is certainly very impressive, but there is little feeling of the defensive might of a castle when inside. Unusually, this is not the result of contemporary over development (as is the unfortunate case in many other castles) but the fact that the original building was not in itself a castle and thus not built to the scale of a castle. In terms of being a luxury hotel however, Amberly Castle is superior to the others I am about to discuss here and justly earns its place as one of the top ten hotels in the world.
Borthwick: Built in the tower-house style early in the 15th century (~1430), Borthwick stands in open countryside some 12 miles from Edinburgh. (Although the ride from the airport felt a lot further.) This is almost certainly the most historic castle in Britain (and indeed the world) in regular use as a public hotel. Mary Queen of Scots and Charles 1st both sort refuge within its 15 feet thick walls. One of these walls was scarred by the cannon fire of Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads during one of the many sieges and battles Borthwick has faced over the centuries, which have left the outer surface of its walls pitted with musket balls.
The history in the enormous public spaces is genuinely palpable, even if the suits of armour, which decorate the inside, are not entirely in period.
The bedrooms themselves are on a larger scale than Amberly and feature much exposed stonework. The furniture although not of the finest order still stretches to four poster beds draped in heavy fabrics, again convincingly capturing the essence of ‘castle style’.
The food is elegantly simple and expertly prepared. Guests dine in the great hall, which also doubles as the public lounge (it’s easily big enough) just as they would when the building was originally conceived. Don’t however get the impression this is going to be some disney-esque medieval banquet experience, the space is such that the tables can feel intimate and private for a romantic meal.
This is a real castle in every sense of the word, from its place as an historic stronghold to some of the grisly tales of its use as a primary weapon of control of the surrounding lands, and this is the only area in which any criticism can be made of Borthwick as a hotel. The accommodation is reached by long spiral staircases, which can reasonably be described as tortuous, particularly when attempting to carry two large suitcases. The ‘bath’ rooms are cut into the defensive walls themselves and even though the walls are up to 15 feet thick the bathrooms are, unsurprisingly, not. Mostly, only a shower is available; even in the Mary Queen of Scots room in which we stayed.
I’m not sure if my next point is good or bad (I think good) but it may be one you need to consider: there are no electronic audio video entertainments of any kind in this castle. Also, as the management often have to explain to their 21st century guests: there were no elevators in the 15th century, well non you’d want to ride in. I can’t imagine how they got permission to carve up the inner walls to put in the shower rooms they have in such an historic building let alone install a lift shaft through the 600 year old painted ceiling.
In the end Borthwick must be judged as a ‘castle in which you can stay’ rather than a luxury hotel. The accommodation is sufficient and the food is great but it is most definitely first and foremost, an historic castle, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Langley: Constructed on a massive scale from the enormous towering stone walls to the vast twin fireplaces of the cavernous main hall.
The public spaces generate a sense of awe with paintings, large elegant seating areas and of course a scattering of suits of armour.
Although not playing as important a role in British history as Borthwick, the owners through the centuries have been involved in many a fray including the Jacobite uprisings, which eventually saw property transfer at the blade of an executioners axe. However, it is its position off the track of historic action that has seen the castle remain in such a state of preservation.
Built in the 14th century (~1350) close to the English Scottish border in Northumberland Langley was designed with defence in mind but without compromise in the size of its accommodation. The large windows seen at the front of the building today might be something of a defensive liability but they are greatly appreciated as light collectors for the large public rooms. The bedrooms are similarly huge, with high ceilings and window seats set into exposed stone walls, draped with luxurious fabrics the grandeur and scale of a castle is foremost in any guests mind.
We stayed in the Josephine room (it was the only room available), which had an expansive bath. The other rooms are similarly spacious and just as sumptuously appointed.
Dining takes place in the Josephine restaurant (as distinct from the Josephine ‘room’ where we slept; although there would have been enough room) named for the early 20th century owner responsible for much of the restoration work. The restaurant is rather less spectacular in comparison to the other public spaces but the food was fantastic as was the service, so it’s hard to complain.
If I must find a complaint at all it would be about the inconvenience of its location, up in the wilds of Northumberland. Even Borthwick remote as it at first appears is only 12 miles from Scotland’s capital, and Amberly is a train ride from London and perched on the doorstep of some of Neolithic England’s greatest treasures. You could visit Langley as part of a trip to the Yorkshire Dales or the Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall runs nearby. However, Langley offers such a fantastic balance between first class hotel and authentic castle that it could be considered a destination in itself; you’ll just have to find ways to occupy your days when you visit.
There are other castle hotels in Britain, if anyone has stayed in one I would be delighted to hear what you thought of it as we are looking to visit some more in another castle tour this year.