Appleby Castle reopens to the public

The portcullis at the original castle entrance

The portcullis at the original castle entrance

Appleby Castle has just reopened its gates to the public after a being shut for over a decade.

For many years, we’ve stopped off at the imposing and tantalisingly chained up entrance to the 12th Century Grade I listed castle at the top end of Appleby’s main street, Boroughgate. I also took rather perverse pleasure in the intriguing signs that were posted on the gates – not so much in what they said, but in the way they left me wondering about the stories behind the words. These signs listed the ancient history of the castle, but also detailed the then-owner’s run-ins with an alleged dastardly triumvirate of bureaucrats, bankers and English Heritage.

Despite my occasional attempts to peek in between the gates or elsewhere, views of the castle remained determinedly elusive. So when we saw an item in the Cumberland News about it reopening I couldn’t wait to book.

Advertised as a ‘personal tour’, tickets have to be bought through the Appleby Tourist Information Centre (tel: 017683 51177) and cost £18 per adult or £12 per child (Family of two adults, two children is £50; Two adults, three children is £60).

Suits of armour flank a doorway

Suits of armour flank a doorway

Uncertain of what to expect, we duly turned up at the appointed time on a damp September day, meeting another equally hesitant couple outside the familiar sight of the closed gates. Our guide arrived, unlocked the side gate and introduced himself as Peter. He explained that the tours last approximately two hours, but as the weather was inclement, our main focus would be inside the castle.

He proceeded to lead us up the hill, explaining how the castle was originally the site of a Roman look-out and pointing out various features such as the motte and bailey, as well as the path of the old Roman Road, before leading us to the Bee House – a small square structure overlooking the town and countryside, with stained glass windows and vivid paintings of female goddesses on its walls and ceilings.

We continued up the driveway, passing the stable blocks to our right, before skirting around the side of the castle to view the portcullis on what was the castle’s original entrance. Peter explained that some falling masonry the previous week meant we couldn’t get too close, but that we would see more of the portcullis from the inside.

Appleby Castle is renowned for its fantastic Norman keep, currently clad in scaffolding, owing to subsidence. Peter told us that the brickwork hadn’t been pointed for years and that the gaps were wide enough to fit an arm into. It is thought that the subsidence may have been caused by a previous owner filling the moat with water, disturbing the original water table levels. But restoration work is ongoing.

The castle's keep is undergoing extensive renovation works

The castle’s keep is undergoing extensive renovation works

So far so good, but it is when you enter the main building that you are struck by the history of this place. Make no mistake, this is a proper castle, with long, eerie, dark corridors, wooden panels, suits of armour and the obligatory occasional damp patch lending period authenticity – in my opinion, exactly what a castle should be like: the stuff of fairytales.

We climbed the stairs and made our way to the Great Hall where, sitting on wooden pews, we heard a recording of a woman, speaking as if she were Lady Anne Clifford, telling us about her life, properties, restoration work and her legacies. Portraits of Lady Anne, her mother and father, as well as some laminated copies of her letters, had been placed in the room for visitors to look at. A replica suit of armour – the original is in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – stands proudly on the high mantelpiece.

And then the real fun started. We were shown the library, which was originally the chapel, and Peter recounted past and recent ghostly goings on. “Spirits walk the walls of the castle,” he explained. “The family has had experiences in various rooms…”

Sally Nightingale, owner of Appleby Castle and the driving force behind its reopening, discreetly joined us at the back of the room. When we made our way up to a magnificent tapestried bedroom, the ice was broken and everyone suddenly started chatting to one another.

I particularly love the little human touches around this castle that show it is still a home, such as the trouser press in a bedroom featuring a most imposing tester bed and drape-lined walls, or the hostess trolley endearingly snuggled between ancient chairs and chests in the dining room.

The dungeon was exactly what one would expect – damp, dark (thank heavens for mobile phones), low and with the occasional skeleton lying around or reclining on a deck chair. When I came up the stairs, Sally asked if I had been warned about the spiders, which, apparently, are remarkable in their size. I’m glad that I hadn’t seen any, or I would have trampled the other visitors in my haste to reach the exit.

Inside the round tower, we saw the bones and heart of the castle, with the ancient bricks and exposed staircases demonstrating the construction’s historical pedigree.

At the conclusion of the tour we sat in the old great hall, where Sally poured tea and coffee and Peter served up generous slices of delicious locally-made carrot cake.

The group chatted, learning more about future plans. It was fascinating talking to  Sally about her wishes  to expand the rooms available for public viewing and encourage more visits from schools and the local community. She told us she wanted to keep the tours ‘personal’ to make sure that everyone got the most out of their visits, which meant limiting the numbers on any one tour – a decision that has been subject to some criticism.

However, I agree with her decision. We felt like valued and welcome guests as we were shown around, rather than being treated impersonally as an anonymous tourist wallet whose only function is to be fleeced, as can happen with some of our more well-known historical attractions and organisations (naming no names).

Conversation shifted to another member of our tour who, it turned out, was going to become a guide at the castle, and who is an enthusiastic historical re-enactor. His ideas to engage with children were fantastic, though I could see Sally politely inwardly balking at his proposals for sword training, probably envisioning insurance premiums, lawsuits and a succession of irate mothers.

After two cups of tea and a pleasant, if rather unorthodox, chat about trebuchets and ballistas (and how if these were ever brought in to the tours, they would have to face away from the windows), we decided to make a move – well after our two-hour allotted time.

In summary, I encourage you to visit. There have been some rumblings about the price, but in the ocean of mediocrity, tacky gift shops and over-priced and indifferent tea rooms that our historical and cultural monuments and buildings seem to spawn in the UK, I truly believe this is fascinating, personal and value for money tour.

If you are visiting the area, be sure to book. And if you are a local, leave the burning brands and pitchforks behind for the moment – try the carrot cake, a cup of tea and a chat instead; much more civilised.

Click here for the castle’s website

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