Group Travel Guide to Castles

Lowther Castle

Lowther Castle

Whether it’s a peek behind the scenes at Britain’s ancestral homes, or a better understanding of the UK as a fortress nation, the country’s historic houses hold much in store for groups in 2019, reports Abbe Bates.

Hever Castle & Gardens, the romantic double moated castle in the Weald of Kent, is famous for being the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. The original medieval castle, with its gatehouse and walled bailey, was built in 1270 and the Tudor dwelling was added by the Boleyn family, who lived at Hever during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Its panelled rooms contain fine furniture, tapestries, Tudor portraits and artefacts, and a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots is soon to be added to the collection. Much of what visitors see today is down to the efforts of William Waldorf Astor, who used his fortune to restore and extend the castle in the early 20th century.

Hever Castle hides an amazing pink bathroom! © Hever Castle and Gardens

Hever Castle hides an amazing pink bathroom! © Hever Castle and Gardens

Private guided tours of the castle or gardens can be pre-booked for groups of 15 or more. The ‘Hidden Hever’ tour for groups of up to 15 offers visitors a behind the scenes glimpse at William Waldorf Astor’s study, Lord Astor’s bathroom – accessed via a secret panel – and Lady Irene Astor’s pink bathroom. Special events run throughout the year.

One of the best preserved fortified medieval manor houses in England, English Heritage’s Stokesay Castle in Shropshire was constructed at the end of the 13th century by Laurence of Ludlow, who at the time was one of the richest men in the country; the great hall has remained unchanged for over 700 years. A garden upgrade opening in the spring will be in glorious full bloom for visitors to enjoy by summer.

Spectacular Gothic ruins await groups visiting Lowther Castle and Gardens in the Lake District. A 10-minute introduction in the Castle Courtyard along with the ‘Story of Lowther’ exhibition gives an overview of the ancient estate that has connections to Vikings, Mary Queen of Scots, William Wordsworth, Winston Churchill and Prince Phillip.

The castle, designed by Robert Smirke (who later designed the British Museum), stands in 130 acres of gardens and woodlands, and groups will discover the story of a 20-year restoration project led by Jim Lowther – son of the 7th Earl of Lonsdale.

From April, a refurbished Sculpture Gallery will open as an exclusive space for coach groups to enjoy coffee, lunch or afternoon tea and tours with Martin Ogle, head gardener are now available for groups.

The magnificent St Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle – home to many royal weddings. Ian Jones Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

The magnificent St Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle – home to many royal weddings. Ian Jones Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

In Northumberland, Bamburgh Castle is one of the largest inhabited castles in the country. Once the royal seat of the Kings of Northumbria, the castle was built to impress on a rocky plateau.

Touring the castle your group will discover the history of its fortifications, the Battery Gate, for instance, has medieval arrow slits in the gate towers and cannons were sited there when Napoleon threatened to invade.

There’s plenty of legends to discover as well as the legacy of the Armstrong family who bought the partly restored castle in 1894 and set about completing the refurbishment in grand style.

There are 14 rooms to visit and over 3,000 items are on display ranging from armour and porcelain to furniture. Groups of more than 15 people receive discounted rates.

Also making the most of a rocky promontory and a natural defensive position is Pembroke Castle in South Wales. Harri Tudor, born there in 1457, became Henry VII. The castle eventually fell into disrepair and was restored during the 1930s.

It’s an interesting place to explore with dungeons, keeps and walks around the walls. Groups of 20 plus people receive discounted entry and guided tours can be booked. Tours can be adapted to suit the age of the group.

The recent royal weddings at Windsor Castle have shone light on its 900-year matrimonial tradition. A new talk will consider how royal weddings have evolved into the magnificent ceremonies and celebrations now shared throughout the world.

Hillsborough Castle – the elegant hallway and staircase. © Richard Lea Hair

Hillsborough Castle – the elegant hallway and staircase. © Richard Lea Hair

After the talk, your group will go on a self-guided tour of the castle with a multimedia guide, taking in the State Apartments. Many of these were built for Charles II and are today the setting for State and official occasions.

Your visit also includes St George’s Chapel – the final resting place of 10 monarchs including Henry VIII and Charles I.

More royal connections are available for groups visiting The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh where the exhibition, ‘A Royal Wedding: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’ featuring the couple’s wedding costumes will run from 14th June to 6th October 2019.

This year’s summer exhibition at Buckingham Palace will trace how the Palace was transformed during Queen Victoria’s reign. During a visit your group will also be able to see iconic rooms such as the Throne Room, and the Picture Gallery displaying some of the greatest paintings in the Royal Collection. You can also combine the visit with a Garden Highlights Tour.

At the same time, 200 of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings will be on show at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace to mark the 500th anniversary of his death. ‘Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing’ will run from 24th May to 13th October and a smaller exhibition will be at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh from 22nd November to 15th March 2020.

Hillsborough Castle Gardens

Hillsborough Castle Gardens

More royal history can be explored at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, which will reopen fully on 10th April after a large renovation project to the house and gardens.

During your guided tour of the eight re-presented State Rooms, including the Throne Room, you will learn the history of the 300 year old Georgian House and follow in the footsteps of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Heads of State.

Meanwhile, the garden covers some 100 acres and amongst areas to discover are peaceful woodlands, the Lost Garden and the restored Victorian Walled Garden.