Sherborne has two castles, one “old” and very much a ruin, the other “new” and very well preserved.
Today they sit facing each other, a few hundred metres apart, on opposite sides of tranquil gardens and a beautifully landscaped lake. All are set in stunning parklands and Dorset countryside.
Together, these two Sherborne Castles represent a microcosm of English history, embracing some of its most influential and well known characters and playing leading roles in some of its most significant events.
Visit these two magnificent historic castles and you will find yourself immersed variously in the lives and times of Elisabeth Tudor and Sir Walter Raleigh; the national and family rifts of the English Civil War; the wrath of Oliver Cromwell and a whole lot more besides. You will also find yourself walking through gardens sculpted by Capability Brown and a house built by Sir Walter Raleigh, but improved and enhanced by around 400 years of residency by the Digby family -and you can make some fairly impressive home and garden improvements in four centuries!
As an attraction for visitors, the older Castle is probably the lesser of the two, but is still worth the entry fee if you have the time. It also adds valuable historical context and perspective to everything that’s on view next door at the newer Castle.
The “Old Sherborne Castle” was built primarily as a fortified residence in the first half of the 12th Century and was every bit a castle, with fortified entrance towers, big walls and ditches and, in those days, surrounded by water and wetlands. It was built by a Bishop from Normandy in the times following the Norman Conquest (1066 and all that). For several hundred years, its ownership passed between various Bishops, Kings and Queen Elizabeth I until a passing Sir Walter Raleigh took a fancy to it. Somehow, Good Queen Bess, decided to hand her lease over to him as thanks for services rendered.
Raleigh lived in the Old Castle for a while but decided it was going to be too expensive to renovate to the standards of the day and so developed a hunting lodge on the other side of the lake into the “New” Castle. For one who was a Royal “favourite”, Raleigh wasn’t able to enjoy either Castle as much as he would have liked. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London twice, once under Elizabeth I and again under James I. By the time the latter had Raleigh’s head lopped off, the great adventurer and explorer had already lost both Sherborne Castles to the Digby family, who still own and run the New Castle today.
Like its former owner, the Old Castle was also fast running out of time. In the English Civil War it was besieged twice by Parliamentary forces, falling second time around, and was ordered by Oliver Cromwell to be destroyed in 1645.
Cromwell was clearly peeved by both the Castle and it’s Royalist residents, who had not only hosted Charles I’s army, but had also had the King himself round for a picnic!
Thus the Old Castle began a new career as a ruin and the New Castle took over the mantle as main residence of the verdant estate in which both were located.
The “New” Sherborne Castle, if that’s a title that can be given to a structure that’s getting on for four centuries old, is far more ancestral country house than functional battlement. It is by no means the grandest grand house you will ever see, but it is a pretty fine dwelling nonetheless. It’s décor and furnishings are impressive and will appeal to historical buffs and those who admire fine craftsmanship and antiques. There is also a huge collection of portraits and other artworks of famous historical figures such as Elizabeth Tudor and Sir Walter Raleigh, painted by the great artists of their day. If portraits in oil is your thing, you’ll find plenty here to hold your interest, but spare a thought for the subject of one picture hanging amongst so many lauded and famous names. Her picture is captioned simply “A Lady”. How ironic, and sad, to have been captured on canvas in perpetuity and yet also to have been completely forgotten!
There is a huge amount to see on the tour of the house, and whilst there is information available as you go, you’ll get far more from the visit if you invest in the Souvenir Guide which provides physical descriptions and historical context in equal measure for all that you will see.
The interior Castle Tour is probably not something that younger children will enjoy, but anyone else who has the remotest interest in fine furniture, fine art or the English Civil War will find threads that they can follow along their route through this magnificently preserved and presented house. This, before considering the vast array of human interest stories. Perhaps top of this list of tales “weird but true” is that of a Parliamentarian brother, and his fully equipped army, who besieged the home of his sister and Royalist brother-in-law! Now that’s got to make family lunches awkward!
What children and adults of all ages will enjoy is a walk around the lake and gardens of the house. In fine weather this is a truly wonderful and scenic place to be. There are fantastic lakeside views to be had of the castle and grounds, some of which, including the lake itself, were set out by the famous landscape gardener Capability Brown. In spring, summer and doubtless autumn too, the rich blends of colour from trees and plants give a backdrop of such beauty to any of the lakeside walks that even the oiled canvases inside the Castle could not hope to match them.
Small wonder that Sir Walter and others found this such a desirable place to be. And the fact that modern visitors can walk where they walked and sit where they sat adds piquancy to an already delightful stroll, complete with waterfalls, a folly and a view over the ruins of the Old Castle as well as many across the lake to the “New” one.
For the modern day visitor, although the Old Castle can be seen from the gardens of the New, there is no walkway from one to the other. They are in all senses separate visitor attractions.
The New Castle is the more expensive of the two to visit, but most will view it as being much better value for money. There is more to see and you also have the option of buying a ticket to see the house and the gardens, or a cheaper one for just the Gardens. The latter also gives access to the excellent Tea Shop at the Castle, which serves barista coffee, cream teas, home-baked cakes and hot or cold lunches, all at competitive prices.
Visitors to the Old Castle, which is run by English Heritage, get none of the above. The gate price is less, but all you get is access to the ruins and a small gift shop in a hut.
Without doubt, for those with the time and the money, the best way to “do” Sherborne’s Castles is to pay the entry fees for both and to spend time with the respective Guide Books visiting each of them. But, if you have only time and money for one, the New Sherborne Castle and its gardens is probably the best value way of doing it.
Visiting the Old Castle on its own, you are likely to catch glimpses of the new Castle, it’s lake and gardens and find yourself wishing you had paid the few extra quid to be on the other side of the wall. Conversely, if you visit the New Castle, unless you are seriously into historical ruins and military history, you can probably see enough of what the ruins have to offer from the gardens to leave you feeling that you have “done” the old Castle without actually going in and paying the fee.
Here, perhaps, is the biggest irony of the divided Castles at Sherborne. One remains the home of the family that took it over in 1617 and is immaculately preserved and presented. The other is now run by English Heritage, which was originally set up as part of a Government Department answerable to Parliament. And it was Parliament, albeit one several hundred years ago, which was responsible for the older castle becoming the ruin that it is today, even if, as a ruin, it too is immaculately preserved and presented.
Definitely visit both if you can, but for different reasons. Both offer the promise of peace and tranquility, of interest and education. But one is a day out, the other a historical stop off and point of interest.
Those lucky enough to combine the two will have got the very best out of the fascinating single narrative that these two magical, but now separated, locations have to tell. And if the weather is kind, they will leave feeling that they have had a truly “grand day out” in the greatest British tradition.
For further details on the New Sherborne Castle visit www.sherbornecastle.com
For more on the English Heritage Castle Ruins visit www.english-heritage.org.uk
Together, these two Sherborne Castles represent a microcosm of English history, embracing some of its most influential and well known characters and playing leading roles in some of its most significant events....."