Whether it’s Downton Abbey, Bridgerton or Anne Boleyn, stately homes and countryside castles have had a starring role in our favourite films and television shows in recent years.
If you can’t quite stretch to your own palatial rural retreat, you’re in luck, because we’ve got the next best thing – a rundown of the UK’s best stately homes and castles to check out.
Carlisle Castle, Cumbria
Say hello to England’s most besieged castle. Carlisle Castle has a history spanning nine centuries, along with multiple other claims to fame. Our favourite? The famous ballad Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond was written here by prisoners held in the castle’s dungeon in the late 1700s, following a failed attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie to take the city in 1745. The castle’s exhibitions provide a fascinating insight into characters connected with the region (including William Rufus, Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie) and visitors can explore its ancient chambers, stairways and dungeons. Keep an eye out for the so-called licking stones in the dungeons – thirsty Jacobite prisoners would lick these in a desperate attempt to quench their thirst.
Stay nearby at Armathwaite Hall Hotel & Spa
Penshurst Place, Kent
Penshurst was built in 1341 as a rural retreat for the Lord Mayor of London. It’s packed with original features, including the 60-foot-high chestnut beamed ceiling in the Baron’s Hall, the vaulted crypt, which was used as a storeroom, and the Queen Elizabeth I room (the monarch was a regular visitor to Penshurst). The house’s Grade 1-listed gardens were laid out in the 1300s, and feature a rose garden, rainbow-hued borders of fragrant irises and a striking Union Jack garden, where the Union flag is depicted using precisely planted roses and lavender. Suddenly our own humble flowerbed looks rather plain.
Stay nearby at Gravetye Manor
Castle Howard, York
Image: Heritage Photographic
Don’t be surprised if Castle Howard, to the north of the beautiful city of York, looks familiar – it’s appeared in countless films and television series, including Bridgerton, in which it doubled as the Duke’s home. The castle is a true labour of love. Thought your latest home improvement project dragged on? Work on Castle Howard started in 1699, but it was 100 years before the property was complete. Highlights include the pre-Raphaelite-style chapel, with its William Morris décor and painted frescos, and the gardens, which include countless temples and monuments. However, our favourite spot is the woodland garden, which has 800 species of rhododendron alongside wild roses, magnolias, hydrangeas, viburnums, maples and rowans.
Stay nearby at Middlethorpe Hall Hotel
St Michaels Mount, Cornwall
Image: Matt Jessop
A wave-pummelled castle perched on a tidal island jutting out into Cornwall’s Mount’s Bay, this beautiful fortress has been home to the St Aubyn family since the 1600s – and they still live there to this day. It’s packed full of weird and wonderful treasures, ranging from a mummified cat and a clock which tells you the time of the tide as well as the hour of the day, to a piece of the coat worn by Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. The gardens are just as spectacular, with fragrant climbers clinging to the sheer rock and exotic succulents tucked into cracks in the granite. It’s a garden with something to admire in all seasons, thanks largely to the sheer amount of rock, which radiates heat and helps the plants to thrive during the colder months.
Stay nearby at The Headland Hotel and Spa
Pevensey Castle, East Sussex
You’ll struggle to find a fortress with a richer history than the ruined Pevensey Castle, which dates back to the fourth century, when it was one of the Roman empire’s last great coastal forts to be built. Another claim to fame? It was the landing place for William the Conqueror’s army in 1066. This ruined castle, with its thick walls and spectacular hilltop location, enjoyed a bit of a facelift in 2019, and it’s now possible to visit several areas which weren’t accessible before. These include two of the castle’s towers and the dungeon, and there’s also a new children’s trail designed to encourage younger visitors to explore its hidden nooks and crannies.
Bolton Castle, North Yorkshire
Image: Gareth Buddo
This is another castle which might well look familiar – it was the backdrop for Channel 5’s three-part Anne Boleyn series. For a fourteenth century castle, it’s in surprisingly good nick, and its highlights include the kitchens, dungeons, nursery, armoury, great chamber and Mary Queen of Scots’ bedroom. Nestled in the heart of Wensleydale, it’s a brilliant destination for families, thanks to the various activity trails and an enormous garden maze (a word of warning – steer clear if you’re short on time), and there are a wide range of falconry experiences, too. We recommend the hawk walk, during which visitors can spend an hour exploring the grounds with a beautiful Harris hawk for company. Allow plenty of time to explore the gardens, which date back to 1300s and include rose gardens and a fragrant herb garden.
Stay nearby at Yorebridge House
Harewood House, Yorkshire
Image: John Steele
Easily accessible from both Leeds and York, Harewood House is an eighteenth-century stately home which has one of England’s finest art collections. Today, it’s still very much a family home (albeit one open to the public) and is owned by descendants of Edwin Lascelles, who built it in the 1760s. Architecture buffs flock here to admire features such as the spectacular Italianate Terrace, which stretches along the house’s southern side, and the gardens, which cover 1,000 acres and were designed by Capability Brown. A more recent addition is the beautiful Himalayan garden, which contains some of the world’s rarest mountain plants. Harewood House runs a packed calendar of events throughout the year, ranging from glassblowing masterclasses to talks about the darker periods of the property’s past.
Stay nearby at Middlethorpe Hall & Spa
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
One of the stately homes with the most appearances in television series and films, Blenheim Palace has appeared in Harry Potter, James Bond, Transformers, Mission Impossible and Cinderella. You’ll struggle to see everything in one day due to the sheer size of the estate, which includes formal gardens, a walled garden, a maze and a bee trail, along with a miniature train, a butterfly house and a museum which explores the area’s military history. Then there’s the house itself – an explosion of eighteenth-century baroque architecture filled with art, tapestry and antiques. The most popular rooms include the palace’s wonderfully grand state rooms (visitors can see the room in which Winston Churchill was born) along with the Long Library. Thought your bedside book stack was out of control? Blenheim’s library has 10,000 books – along with a priceless Henry Willis organ. Head here on Sundays to hear it being played.
Stay nearby at Hartwell House and Spa
Stowe House, Buckinghamshire
Time to go back to school. Stowe House is both a prestigious boarding school and a beautiful stately home which is open to the public. Built by the wealthy Temple-Grenville family in the 1700s, it’s one of England’s grandest country homes – a neo-classical gem filled with priceless antiques and artworks, in the heart of sprawling gardens which are perfect for picnics. Sadly, the Temple-Grenville family’s luck changed in the 1920s, and the opening of the school saved the property from destruction following bankruptcy. Keep an eye out for the two lead lions guarding the staircase leading to the house’s east entrance. The city of Blackpool acquired these statues during an auction in 1921, but they were returned to their original location in 2013. One of the most beautiful spots in the gardens is the South Portico and Lawns, where you’ll enjoy breathtaking views of the Corinthian Arch in the distance.
Stay nearby at Hartwell House and Spa
Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire
Standing proud above the River Severn, Berkeley Castle is the kind of castle which you’ll find in fairytales – a fortress carved from pale pink stone and kitted out with all the essentials, ranging from sky-scraping towers and battlements to spiral staircases complete with so-called trip steps, designed to cause invading soldiers to stumble. The 6,000-acre estate which surrounds the castles include a deer park, several farms and a stretch of the River Severn. A fun fact? The current owners (the Berkeleys) are the only English family still in existence in England which can trace its ancestors back to Saxon times.
Stay nearby at Calcot and Spa