One of England's best surviving examples of a medieval fortification is small but perfectly formed Leeds castle, in Kent, charmingly situated on two islands in the river Len. A simple fortification was reconstructed in grand style by Edward I in 1278; though he intended it as a royal palace, he added many defensive structures, such as the drawbridge, gateway and barbican. These were put to the test in 1322 when the castle was besieged by Edward II, after its owners refused to admit his Spanish wife Isabella. From then on the castle has enjoyed a reputation as the 'ladies castle', and no fewer than six queens of England have lived here. Henry VIII loved the place, and added styling touches such as the distinctive Tudor windows. Today the place is very well maintained, with sumptuous parkland all around.
For scale and intimidating presence, you can't beat stern Caernarfon Castle, built by Edward I in 1283 as a way of putting the final stamp on his conquest of Wales. Standing over the River Seiont, the castle dominates the town with its unique polygonal towers and colour banded stonework - a deliberate echo of Constantinople's city walls, which Edward would have seen on the crusades. It was built not only as a stronghold but also as palace and a seat of government, and its importance was confirmed when Edward's son, the first English Prince of Wales, was born here in 1284. Today, looking much as it did when it was first finished, it is still used as the setting for the investiture of the Prince of Wales (currently, that's Prince Charles).
Towering magnificently atop black volcanic rock over two hundred feet above the city, Edinburgh Castle is one of Scotland's most iconic attractions. The first fort on the site was built by a Celtic tribe, but it didn't begin to take its modern form until the 12th century, when it was used as a royal residence. It saw some fierce fighting over the following centuries as England and Scotland squabbled over territory. Few of the present buildings pre-date the 16th century, when the fortifications were largely destroyed by artillery during in the Lang Seige. Today the castle is home to the crown jewels of Scotland, the so-called stone of destiny, a huge 15th century siege gun called Mons Meg, and the famous one o'clock gun, fired every day.
Tower of London
London's famous defensive fort, the Tower of London was founded in 1066 by William the Conquerer, with the curtain wall and moat added by Richard the Lionheart in the 12th century. Over the following centuries a dozen more Towers were added to the original Norman White Tower, creating a huge and menacing complex. Its sinister reputation has been reinforced by bloody events, for the Tower was used as a prison and execution ground for high class prisoners, and has held numerous royals, including Charles I and Edward V; Lady Jane Grey and Henry VIII's unfortunate second wife, Anne Boleyn were among those executed in the courtyard. Today the castle is famous for its colourful red uniformed yeoman wardens, the Beefeaters, and as the home of the British crown jewels. Legend has it that should the castle ravens ever leave, the tower will crumble and the kingdom be dissolved.
Windsor Castle, in Berkshire, not far from London, is one of the queen's favorite residences, making it the world's largest inhabited castle. It was originally a wooden Norman fortification, part of London's defenses, but was turned into a royal residence by Queen Elizabeth I. Its current form might look medieval but in fact most of it is Victorian pastiche. Though these days it's rather more palace than fortification, it still gives a excellent indication of the standard form and structure of a keep, with intimidating battlements and a fine gatehouse. The main area of the castle to visit are the state apartments, where foreign dignitaries are entertained, and the lower ward, where most mornings you can watch the colourful changing of the guard ceremony.
As well as these prime examples there are numerous other castles spread across the British Isles, from sumptuous palatial dwellings to picturesque ruins. It's well worth seeking them out, and they make for great family trips, as kids love them. As well as being impressive in their own right, they provide a compelling glimpse into history. And, of course, most British castles are situated in beautiful (if sometimes remote), countryside, and surrounded by parkland. So next time you're wondering where to head for a day out, why not think about checking out your nearest castle? The drawbridges, these days, are open.