A visit to Berkeley Castle is like a fascinating lesson in medieval history plus insights into the Civil War period and the development of vaccination. A lot to take in!
The Berkeley family, who have occupied the castle for over 800 years and still do to this day, were involved in the signing of the Magna Carta, the death of Edward II in the castle in 1327 and in the ebb and flow of the Civil War, when the castle changed hands five times.
Edward Jenner, who developed smallpox vaccination, was the local physician and lived in the Chantry next to the castle. His House, Museum and Garden are normally open to the public, but not currently because of the pandemic.
We visited in mid-September 2020 and found social-distancing fully in place. As well as touring the castle and learning its intriguing history, we had a pleasant stroll around the well-kept terraced gardens and grounds, following a one-way system, with great views back to the castle.
This of course is a real castle that has seen a lot of military action over the centuries, not one of those more recently built stately homes that are pretentiously called castles.
Its value as a strong defensive building finished however after the Civil War when George Lord Berkeley was forced to leave a breach in the keep in order to retain ownership. We could clearly see this breach as we approached the castle entrance.
Some of the castle is privately occupied by Georgina Berkeley, but the most impressive rooms are open to the public with many fine paintings and tapestries on display.
We were intrigued that the use of two of these rooms had changed dramatically over time. The Billiard Room was now displayed as a Dining Room and the Chapel had been converted to a Morning Room, catching the early light of day.
The castle tour commences in the King’s Gallery, with portraits of King James II and King Charles II, before going on to the Drake’s Room (where Sir Francis Drake may have stayed), the Tower Room, the Billiard Room, then through the Larders and the Buttery to the massive Kitchen, with a China Room to the side.
We found this all very impressive but the next room, the spectacular Great Hall is a real eye-opener. It is not surprising it was chosen as a location for Wolf Hall and some episodes of Poldark. Finally the Morning Room and the Long and Small Drawing Rooms, reached via the Grand Staircase, bring the castle tour to an impressive conclusion.
Having paused for refreshment at the Take Away Café (only external seating at present), we explored the gardens and grounds.
There are long terraces sloping down from the castle, well stocked with a wide range of colourful plants and shrubs. At the far end of the terraces, there is a small lily pond, which even in September had flowering water-lilies.
A rock garden with waterfall is being established as a memorial to Mr John Berkeley who died in November 2017.
There is also a Walled Garden, but this currently is closed to the public.
St Mary’s Church
Next to the castle, but outside the actual grounds, is St Mary’s Church, which dates back to the 13th Century. Apparently the church formed part of the castle defences during the Civil War.
It has many interesting architectural features, but what we found surprising was that the church tower is completely separate from the main church building.
The attached church tower was demolished in 1748 and rebuilt about 50 yards to the north so as not to impede the view from the castle!
Berkeley Castle provides a great half-day visit for senior travellers like us.
There is not much at the moment to keep young children amused, other than a slightly run-down adventure play area, so Berkeley Castle is not high on our list of family attractions.
However there is a Butterfly House at Berkeley Castle which would be of great interest to children, as well as us seniors. Unfortunately this currently is closed because of the pandemic. We will check this out when we revisit – hopefully in the not too distant future.
Entry to Berkeley Castle is £14 for adults, £12-50 for 65+ and £7 for children.
If you take up annual membership with Historic Houses, you will get free entry to Berkeley Castle and also Dr Jenner’s House when it reopens, plus 300 other heritage sites. Enter our unique code STEW05 at ‘Add discount code’ and you will receive a £5 discount. With this discount individual adult annual membership is £51 per year and joint membership £84. This also applies if you wish to give annual membership as a gift.
We have reviewed several other properties under Historic Houses and see also: Historic Houses versus National Trust – Which to join?
POSTED 30th SEPTEMBER 2020 by STEVE HANSON. The photographs were taken by BARBARA HANSON.