ENGLISH HERITAGE:Carisbrooke Castle Location: Castle Hill, Newport, Isle of Wight, PO30 1XY [map] Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar) Admission: £10.00 Website:english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/carisbrooke-castle Five word summary: the castle with the donkeys Time to allow: at least a couple of hours
A few Tudor sea defences ring the Isle of Wight, but the only proper Norman castle is slap bang in the centre on a chalk ridge outside Newport. Specifically it's above Carisbrooke, half an hour's walk from the town centre (which might be worth knowing on days when the buses are proving infrequent). Walking the last stretch on foot requires somewhat of a climb, and those driving can only negotiate round one of the bastions by passing an ancient trafficlight alongside a classic triangular sign warning Caution Dangerous Corner Drive Slowly. The gatehouse provides the sole point of access across the dry moat, now generally without fear of attack, although you may have to take evasive action if you meet an ice cream van coming the other way.
Carisbrooke has three big positives in favour of making a visit. The first is the castle walls, which provide an almost complete circuit around the entire central courtyard. The wall-walk is just narrow enough to be exhilarating, as well as endearingly irregular, and provides a prime vantage point to admire both the interior of the castle and the surrounding countryside, which is currently at its pastoral best. One particularly precipitous staircase with wildly uneven steps climbs steeply to the upper level of the keep, from which another flight rises to an outer walkway boasting the island's loftiest panorama. It's not uncommon to see a small child weeping part way up, or a wise parent at the bottom sitting out the ascent.
The second big positive is the castle's history. King Charles I was locked up here following defeat in the Civil War, and was well treated, with nightly banquets and a huge bowling green constructed out the back for his benefit, but spent the last year of his life repeatedly failing to escape. Another royal resident was Princess Beatrice, not the current one but Queen Victoria's youngest daughter, who spent twenty years here as Governor of the Isle of Wight. One of her creations was the Carisbrooke Castle Museum in the Great Hall, which showcases an impressively broad set of local connections covering fields from weaponry to seismology.
And the third star attraction is four-legged. Donkeys have been treading the wheel in the castle's wellhouse since 1696, when officers decided they were far more reliable than prisoners. Today the four donkeys stabled on site are only used for briefdemonstrations, and only lift empty buckets, and sometimes refuse even to do that. On my visit Jack, the naughtiest donkey, declined to cooperate and wandered off the wheel for strokes and nuzzling, quite unlike the time when Countryfile turned up and he behaved perfectly. Some visitors walked out disappointed, but I was able to fall back on memories of asinine rotation from the last time I was here in the early 1970s, confirming that Carisbrooke Castle is indeed unforgettable.