Tiny Hertfordshire is rife with a network of highways coursing through its primarily rural landscape boasting of over 90 towns and villages. Proximity to suburban East London doesn’t quite encroach, although Berkhamsted Castle once held a strategic position on the road to London. Sumptuous gardens and miles of public footpaths abound including eleven miles of Ver-Colne Valley Walks accompanying diverse historic sites. The county cradles sleepy villages, marvelously beautiful woodlands, rivers and open farmland in a bustle-y type of pastoral bliss.
As the principal city, Hemel Hempstead is closest in proximity to Berkhamsted Castle with a population of 89,000 and nearby Stevanage holds 80,000. Along with Tring, on the far west, they comprise a quaint and peaceful area known as the borough of Dacaorum. I overheard talk in London, many years ago, that the most peaceful parts of England are just outside the din of London. Those words certainly apply here and in a modern context which is no small accomplishment. Equally extraordinary is the fact that there is so much to see, hear, experience and enjoy in this compact slice of England. I suggest that the next time you know you are within Hertfordshire borders to slow down long enough to see all that there is to see. It will not fail to delight you. –The Castle Lady
Destruction from the first Civil War in England seriously affected the remains of many castles but Berkhamsted Castle was not documented among them. There are several former motte and bailey castles in the county of which Berkhamsted is one of the best examples with its intact original motte! It is seated on the westernmost portion of the county along the border of Buckinghamshire in the Chilterns and, although it has been compared to Dover Castle during the time of Edward IV’s reign, there is a vast difference between what remains of Berkhamsted and Dover’s current 19th century magnificence, save for the size.Moreover, this castle was ignored by Edward IV, despite its possession by the crown, while Hertford Castle was rebuilt during the second half of the15th century. This aerial view imparts the castle’s former glory much better than just visiting the remains at ground level.
Berkhamsted was founded by Robert, the Count of Mortain (aka the Earl of Cornwall) and was listed as the owner in the Domesday book. As the half-brother of William I, Robert was part and parcel to the Norman Conquest. By the time of Henry I, Robert’s son had taken possession but supported Robert of Normandy against the King. As a result, the castle was confiscated by the crown and for the next hundred years the castle was leased to various individuals, including Archbishop Thomas a` Becket from 1155 to 1165, who was largely responsible for most of the remaining masonry on the site. Only five years later Becket was murdered by four knights taking action after he argued adamantly with Henry II. Military action occurred here solely during the First Baron’s War of 1216 when the castle fell to the Dauphin Prince Louis (who later became Louis VIII) after a heavy siege that lasted an entire fortnight. Henry III revived an alliance with the Earldom of Cornwall by granting Berkhamsted to his brother Richard who was given the title of earl and ‘King of the Romans’ instead of Holy Roman Emperor in 1256. King John’s widow, Isabelle, lived out her remaining days within its walls. In 1337 the castle became an outlying possession of the Duchy of Cornwall when Edward III granted the castle to his son Edward (the Black Prince) and set off the beginning of the Hundred Years War. The French King, John ( II ) the Good, was kept prisoner at this castle following his capture at Poitiers by the Black Prince who, in 1361, after marrying Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent spent his honeymoon at the castle which had an extensive deer park then and was his favorite hunting ground. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales some decades after working a second job as a clerk at Berkhamsted. For several years thereafter he was controller of customs at the port of London. The book was published in 1387 and Chaucer is memorialized along with all the great English poets at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey and the first so honored.
An interesting shift of power occurred in 1399 when the Black Prince’s son, Richard, was deposed to Pontefract Castle (in Wakefield, West Yorkshire) and died there as a prisoner. Henry IV ascended the throne even though Edmund Mortimer laid greater claim to the throne, Edmund’s lineage being more ancient. Berkhamsted was granted to Henry’s son who was to become Henry V and by then the struggle by two families who descended from Edward III- the Yorks and the Lancastrians- all Plantagenets- was in full swing. The final grant of the castle was to Edward IV’s mother Cicely, who was the Duchess of York. From 1469 she lived out the remainder of her life there (twenty six years) but the castle was already in decline by that time and eventually abandoned in the Elizabethan period.
The only exception was that Elizabeth I herself leased the property in 1580 for which she paid a single red rose to Edward Carey who was the keeper of the Queen’s jewels. He built a new dwelling above the castle premises referred to as Berkhamsted Place which he built with the bricks and stone from the ruins. This was not without damage to the castle but preservation of historic castles was not honored at the time- not even by royalty- and Elizabeth didn’t particularly like dwelling in castles, anyway. She preferred to be comfortable.
The layout of Berkhamsted is a true prototype of a typical concentric early motte and bailey stronghold with a tall conical motte and a large inner and outer bailey encased by a double ditch with ramparts built up between the dry ditches and moats. In the case of this castle, no attempt to correlate the outer banks with the inner was provided as they were built very close. Such works are an effective siege deterrent but makes defending more difficult. As per usual, the two moats were drained in the 1900s and was left that way. A high rampart supports defenses along the north and east sides and the circumference of the motte- all attributed to Richard of Cornwall. Some of the bastions of earthworks which project from the sides may have been raised as temporary platforms for trebuchets during the siege exacted on the castle by the Dauphin Louis. These bastions were usually never built by defenders, as it would compromise the security and purpose of the walls. The motte once held a shell keep atop which has vanished but the descending walls which joined the bailey curtain can still be discerned. The outline of considerable lengths of flint curtain walls survive just above the ground, especially along the east side but the former heights of them are pitiably gone. A large portion of that masonry dates from the time when Thomas a` Becket occupied the castle, though the money for building, which were substantial amounts, came from Henry II’s exchequer. Three semi-circular mural towers also can be made out and were most likely later additions. Little more than foundations are left of the towers now. A large oblong outline of foundational structure along the west curtain is most likely the remains of a tower built by Richard of Cornwall circa 1254. Foundations show that the north end of the inner bailey was walled off to form a separate enclosure, in effect a type of barbican in front of the motte.
Sixteen full color information panels abound at this English Heritage site visitor center with plentiful illustrations, photos, diagrams and drawings of the general and royal history along with the development and building of the castle plus an explanation of the ruins in two separate panels. The decline of the castle after the 15th century is also well documented with historical photos in the display.
On the London Midland line, Berkhamsted Station is adjacent to the castle.
The Castle Lodge is right on castle grounds led up to from the causeway.
T- 01442 871737 Jenny Sherwood, to book large groups
If you are a garden enthusiast and enjoy strolling you must also visit Ashridge while you are in the neighborhood. Once the residence of Lord Thomas Egerton, the landscape is one of the finest in England with 150 acres of park and gardens drawn up on a plan influenced by Humphrey Repton. It can be accessed 3.5 miles north of the town just off the A4251 and south of Little Gaddesdon smack dab in the middle of the Chilterns spilling over from Buckinghamshire. The mansion is a Gothic masterpiece graced with the crowning achievement of the Wyatt family’s finest work with hints of the remnants of its predecessor, an old monastery. The elegance here will give you a foretaste of the former Tudor elegance which graces other stately homes which Hertfordshire hosts within every corner of her borders. Gardens abound here.
You’ll find an intriguing lesser known country estate about two miles southwest of Aldenham situated in the southernmost part on the Greater London border and just east of Elstree Aerodrome with the M1 passing along the west. Alternately known as Hilfield Castle and Hilfield Lodge the existing edifice dates from 1798 and was drawn up by Jeffry Wyatt, the equally famous Regency architect (as his uncle Sir James Wyatt). Interestingly, it is picturesque Gothic but has some features which suggest medieval renaissance. It is doubtful that the latter mentioned features date from that period however. In Pevsner’s notes it states that the mansion was ‘castellated, turreted and cemented with a gatehouse and portcullis.” Additionally, he wrote about the symmetrical nature of the side and a conservatory having an ecclesiastical appearance but its uniqueness is in its asymmetrical features, the location and the Victorian Gothic overall outer appearance which is quite enigmatic and worth seeing.
Throughout the 19th century it was passed down periodically to members of the Timins family after the original owner Hon. George Villiers sold the home to John Fam Timins in 1818. The house was sold, once again, to Lord Aldenham in 1906 along with much of the property. It is uncertain how long the house has been unoccupied but as a wonderful backdrop for Borehamwood Studios Hilfield has been featured in numerous major films since the 1960s and the TV series Randall and Hopkirk during which time it was occupied by Lois Maxwell.
Wyatt’s work is well represented with medieval renaissance octagonal turrets (with slits!), shorter 4-storey bays, mansard roofs and vaulted ceilings with a Gothic conservatory. Thirty years ago it was given a Grade II listing which may give an indication of how long it has been unoccupied but still privately owned.
http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/eaw023649?filter=new aerial photo dating from 1949
old postcard of Hilfield https://www.flickr.com/photos/picturepost/15538243818/
Two motte and bailey sites exist along the north western region of the county. Great Wymondley and Pirton (depicted above) are located closest to the town of Hitchin and Pirton’s site is not far from Ravensbury Castle, (depicted below) an iron age hill fort seated on the Berkshire/Hertfordshire border. ( Hitchin is the town where Elizabeth, the Queen Mother’s birth was registered- being born at St Paul’s Walden Bury a short distance away!) When you visit the site at Pirton, three miles northwest of Hitchin, you will find the rebuilt 11th century Church of St. Mary seated one of the former baileys of the castle. It was rebuilt late 19th century but its original 12th century tower still stands and was incorporated with the reconstruction. Pirton’s inclusion in the Domesday book, however, was not its earliest inception and several sites have been uncovered in the village which are Roman and Anglo-Saxon. Toot Hill is depicted here and features a motte, a moat and two baileys.
Southeast of the motte and bailey a large grassy knoll, referred to as the Bury is the remains of the ancient village of Pirton. Upon examination you will detect elongated depressions which were the streets and areas of raised ground were the sites of many houses. These can be seen as far as the modern Walnut Tree Road. Both the castle and bury are scheduled ancient monuments and are included with another medieval moated site at Rectory Farm where the ridges and furrows are medieval and equally protected as historical.
Great Wymondley, located only a couple of miles from Hitchin, retains the earthworks of a motte and bailey site within a short distance from the small Norman St. Mary’s Church which manages to dominate the town. Its thatched cottages have a curiosity of a set of terraced cottages with names corresponding to every one of Henry VIII’s wives! I can’t imagine what the story is about that, can you ? The town is graced with an exquisite Elizabethan mansion called Delamere House.
Ravensbury, which is also called Ravensburgh, is the largest hillfort in southeast England and heavily protected on the west with two banks and two ditches. The remaining sides of this rectangular earthwork are defended by a singular rampart with a ditch and counterscarp comprising 22 acres of landmass. Both original entrances were seated along the east closest to the southeast corner but a northwest corner was fortified with an outer rampart inverted to form another entrance and may have been the main gate possibly built much later. It dates from 400 B.C. during the Roman occupation and was palisaded with timber secured by cross timbers. Later works were built in mid-1st century and speculation centers around the possibility that a skirmish between Caesar’s army and the British warlord Cassivellaunus may have taken place here in 54 B.C.
St Paul’s Walden Bury
(off B651) T-01438 871218 contact: S. or C. Bowes-Lyon
18th century 40 acre landscape garden, 5 miles south of Hitchin
St. Albans and nearby Welwyn are two more Roman Heritage sites which you must visit ! Between these two towns you may be able to get a real sense of what Roman occupied Britain must have been like and you will certainly see as much evidence as you will ever need to see. You can start with the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban, who was Britain’s first martyr. It has been a shrine of pilgrimage for hundreds of years now. The 15th century Clock Tower of St Albans can be seen from miles away and is a rare example of a town belfry and surrounded by voluminous amounts of modern shops and restaurants. The dazzling marketplace is on every Wednesday and Saturday and has been running for over a thousand years as the largest in southeast England with a wide array of goods offered. This is in the center of the town and as you go further afield the attractions become more… well, attractive! Gorhambury House and Old Gorhambury House, only three miles west, both have their own charm with the former being a late 18th century classical Palladian built by Sir Robert Taylor and the latter a Tudor ruin built by Sir Nicholas Bacon who was a courtier for Henry VIII and Elizabeth I ! The physical distance between the two houses was not enough to disinherit each other so I recommend taking in both in the same afternoon. Don’t miss the family portraits which span the 15th to 20th centuries of the Earls of Verulam ! Speaking of that, don’t miss the Roman Theatre of Verulamium on Bluehouse Hill which is right within the city. These ruins were built circa 140 AD and were unearthed in 1847. Roman Verulamium itself is protected in 100 acres of parkland and is open to the public during regular hours six days a week and special hours on Sundays. Then, of course, you cannot get this close to Shaw’s Corner without visiting playwright George Bernard Shaw’s Edwardian villa. Another nearby attraction is The Gardens of the Rose which is at Chiswell Green outside the town of St Albans and headquarters for the Royal National Rose Society. You can find out lots more about that at www.rnrs.org. The Organ Theatre at St Albans will delight any music lovers- viewing and hearing the permanent play exhibition will be worth more than the price of admission. There is so much to take in for this immediate area so take full advantage, pack a lunch and have fun.
Just a little further afield west from Berkhamsted you’ll find a wonderful natural history museum at Tring which is the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum on Akeman Street. It was opened in 1892 to the general public and houses Lionel Walter’s private collection of more than 4,000 species of animal in a glorious Victorian setting. T- 020 7942 6171
www.stalbansmuseums.org.uk/blog Tel/Fax: 01438 820307
The Roman Theatre of Verulamium Tel: 01727 835035
Jack and Joan they think no ill,
But loving live, and merry still,
Do their weekdays work and pray
Devoutly on the holy day.
– John Campion, poet and musician, born and baptized at Anstey