“ Address: Shropshire / SY7 9AH / England „
Stokesay Castle is a fortified medieval manor house situated on the Welsh borders which is still relatively isolated and surrounded by open fields. Most people have probably heard of some of the more famous castles in the area (such as Ludlow), but Stokesay is perhaps remains unknown to many people. It is, however, a hidden gem and if you find yourself driving past, you won't regret taking a minor detour to go and visit it.
Despite the fact that it is surrounded by open fields, Finding Stokesay really could not be easier, since it sits just off the A49 - the major (non-motorway) route connecting England and Wales. Head out of Shrewsbury, on the A49 towards Hereford. Pass through the village of Craven Arms and after about a mile, you will see a sign telling you to turn off to Stokesay Castle. The property itself sits about a half a mile down a small, but well-maintained country road. Once you come to the small, picturesque church, the Castle car park is signed to your right. The car park is large and well-maintained, so parking should not be an issue, even at busy times, and the castle itself is less than 3-4 minutes' walk away.
A Quick History Lesson
In many ways, Stokesay is a unique building. Built in the 13 century as a fortified manor house, it combines the functionality of a medieval home with the grandeur, scale and defences of a castle. Visiting Stokesay is like stepping back in time, since the castle has scarcely changed since it was built, making it one of the few places in the country where you can see a genuine, unaltered 13th century building.
Although a complete ruin, Stokesay Castle is so stunningly picturesque, it almost makes you sick! It's like a Disney version of a medieval fortified manor house, except for the fact that it's real and (thankfully) the House of Mouse has never been anywhere near it.
The main way to get to the house is through the grounds of a Norman church (sadly locked when we were there, but I have been in before and it's well worth a look if it's open). As you approach the property, you are greeted with an impressive view as you enter through a stunning black and white timbered gatehouse, which leans slightly to one side in sickeningly pretty way. This approach to the castle is still very impressive today - imagine how overawed visitors must have been in the 13th century!
From the outside, Stokesay doesn't look to be that big, but once you go inside, you realise that it is actually much larger than initial impressions suggest. It is of those very rare houses where you can really see how it evolved over the years. Because the basic structure has been standing for a long time and has only been modified slightly over the years it really reflects the changes in the purpose of the building. The earliest parts show that the house was intended to be a fortified residence, its layout and location making it easily defendable from raiders coming from either side of the border. Subsequent rooms were built in more peaceful times when comfort was more important than security. It's very rare to find a property where all the elements of castle and home can be seen so clearly in one place and it's an ideal visit if you are interested in architectural history.
The whole property has been very well preserved and restored. Although most of the shell of the building is intact, it is still a ruin and none of the rooms contain any furniture. This sparse look might not perhaps be to everyone's taste, but personally, I like things this way, as it allows you to concentrate on the impressive structure of the building and the feat of engineering that it represents. Stokesay might be relatively small overall, but it is hugely impressive - far more so than some other, larger properties I have seen.
There's no doubting the centrepiece of the property, however: the stunning Main Hall. Virtually unaltered since it was first built in 1291, it is an incredible building in terms of both its durability and scale. Even now it impresses with its size and in its heyday would have been a real demonstration of the power of Stokesay's lord. When you enter the Main Hall, be sure to look up at the massive timbered roof: it beggars belief that such a massive thing could have been constructed in the 13th Century. Even today, with all our technology and "know how" we would struggle to re-create anything so good (and certainly anything that would still be standing in 700 years' time!)
As with so many English Heritage properties, the most disappointing aspect is the lack of information boards available. As you walk around, there is absolutely nothing to tell you what each room is, when it was constructed, how it has changed over the years and so on - in other words, there is nothing about the history of the place.
In fairness, this is because an audio tour is available for free and the castle expects everyone to use these (certainly the lady at the ticket office was most surprised when we declined to take a handset with us). Even allowing for this, though, it's a shame that there is no alternative offered. Personally, I hate audio tours, having to walk around with a phone like device permanently attached to my head, whilst someone whines in my ear about the history of the place. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I much prefer to read the information for myself, wander around at my own pace and in my own order, not have to follow a pre-ordained route or hear the information delivered at a pre-ordained speed. Sadly, Stokesay offers none of this, so if you choose to wander around without an audio tour, you're very much on your own. Of course, you could buy an official guide book, but that'll cost you a few extra quid and being a tight fisted so-and-so, I don't want to pay that either!
I know this might sound a little bit churlish, but at the end of the day, I do like to read information about a place rather than be forced to listen to it. This is obviously a matter of personal preference - but that's the point. Stokesay doesn't offer this flexibility - it's audio tour or nothing.
The castle is also a little bit out of bounds if you are in a wheelchair, even a motorised one. The gateway entrance is up a considerable incline and will be difficult to get up. Similarly, there are a number of stairways throughout the property, including a number of climbs to the upper rooms which give some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Essentially, if you are elderly, infirm or in a wheelchair, you are not really going to get value for money from your visit, because large parts of the property will be inaccessible.
Facilities-wise, the castle is OK, although fairly basic. There is a small shop (selling the usual English Heritage stuff designed to part children from their pocket money!), a small cafe (we didn't visit this, so I can't vouch for its quality) and some toilets. If you want anything else, you'll need to head back to Church Stretton or Craven Arms.
Price-wise, Stokesay offers better value for money than many English Heritage properties. 2011 prices are £5.80 for adults (£5.20 for concessions) and £3.50 for children. English Heritage members, of course, can get in for free. For the amount there is to see at Stokesay, I think that's not too bad a price and can recommend Stokesay as a pleasant and slightly different experience from most stately homes or castles.
© Copyright SWSt 2011
Stokesay Castle technically isn't actually a castle. It is a fortified medieval manor house, so it has a turret, but was more the home of a wealthy, aspirational merchant than the site of battles (other than the domestic variety perhaps). The house is now owned and managed by English Heritage. It is located near the Shropshire village of Craven Arms close to the Welsh borders, and you access it through the grounds of the nearby church.
As the Anglo-Welsh wars came to a close, towards to end of the 13th Century, local wool merchant Laurence of Ludlow bought the property and built on it, (there had been a property on this site since the Norman Conquest) and according to extensive tree-ring dating, a lot of his original building still remains. As you arrive you walk through an impressive 17th century gatehouse. This is large and imposing, but at the time of my visit was sadly covered in scaffolding and net due to essential renovations so we were unable to explore it. Looking at the pictures on the postcards and guide books it shows that it is a lovely building, and hopefully the work will be completed soon. Once through the gatehouse the audio tour (included in your admission) starts, and you press the first number on the keypad of your handset. One of the first parts you come to is the Great Hall, there would have been a large fireplace in the centre of the hall, smoke rising within it (it is two stories high), the windows had shutters and there is an impressive timber roof, all showing what a successful man Laurence of Ludlow was. There are many annexes to the house, and in some you will see furniture and artifacts representative of the era, and one contained Laurence of Ludlow's extended family tree which I found quite interesting. The Solar Block (private apartments) also contains some 17th century renovations, including lots of wood paneling and carving and a slit in the wall to spy on the goings on in the great hall below.
The South Tower, was defensive in name only (the residents surrendered without fighting at the only know incidence of a military attack during the civil war in 1645), but you can climb up it for some lovely panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. There are slits at the top for firing bows and arrows, so possibly the owners expected a form of attack at some point.
I visited in winter and I don't think you get the best of the building and its surrounds at that time, there are gardens and an empty moat (presumably for decorative purposes as the house is on a slight slope) and I think when the gardens are in full bloom they would be much nicer, I also would have loved to see the gatehouse in all its glory, so I recommend checking the English Heritage website to check if the work is still going on. Obviously a medieval house doesn't have central heating or electric lights, so if visiting in the winter it will be cold and quite dark. The staircases are narrow and steep and this is a consideration for people with limited mobility or with pushchairs or wheelchairs.
There is a free car park just the other side of the church and access is mainly cobbled, and you walk through the church grounds to get to the castle. There was a service going on when we went, so we couldn't visit the church, but I understand it is quite nice inside. As always, the staff at these places are very friendly and enthusiastic. Admission is £5.50 for adults (from April 2010) but free if you are an English Heritage member. This includes a free audio tour. The tour lasts 30-40 minutes and is narrated by an actress playing the part of one of the ladies of the house. It is quite interesting and informative, with the appropriate household sound effects in the background. It does occur to me that younger visitors might not enjoy it so much. There is a gift shop which sells relevant and tasteful gifts from medieval themed books to cute, cuddly toy sheep. The gifts are reasonably priced and I bought a postcard of the gatehouse for 35p. Guidebooks were available for £2.99. Apparently in summer months there is also a tea shop within the castle. There are also toilets on site, but we didn't visit them. The castle is open everyday from spring to autumn, but only four days a week in the winter. The castle is available to hire for functions, so may close early on these days, so this is worth checking if you are planning to visit later in the day.
I do recommend a visit if you are in the area, although it is one of the pricier places. I do think that weather needs to be a factor though and if you can schedule your visit for the warmer months when the garden will be in bloom, I think this will be an advantage.