Carisbrooke Castle is real thing - and now you can be part of its history

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The Independent Online

Our kitchen window looks out on the grassy motte – a steep man-made mound built in 1100 – topped by the thick stone walls of the keep, the defensive heart of the castle. From the bedrooms we have views over the bailey (a vast courtyard of grass and gravel), the Great Hall, a chapel, a ruined Tudor mansion, donkey stables, and the bedroom from which King Charles I attempted to escape in 1648. All of these – and we ourselves – are surrounded by thick 12th-century rampart walls, along the top of which my son Luke and his friend Mikey will soon be marching, retaking possession of what is, at least for a while, their castle.

We were staying in the newly converted Bowling Green Apartment, English Heritage's holiday let inside the Isle of Wight's 900-year-old Carisbrooke Castle. We'd arrived in the dark. The huge iron gates had swung open for us, and we'd driven slowly in through the story-book gatehouse, which (though we couldn't see it at the time) has three distinct layers – the lowest with longbow loopholes, the middle for crossbows, and the top with some of the earliest musket loopholes in Britain. Carisbrooke is a real castle.

We fully expected a portcullis or hot oil to plunge down on our heads, but luckily we were expected, so passed safely across the dark courtyard (unlit for the sake of the resident bats) to the only accommodation on site, in what used to be the service block for the resident gentry. The flat proved to be well equipped and comfortable, and a welcome hamper provided us with a late -night snack of cheese on toast and Musket Balls (made of aniseed).

Morning brought the views – Luke could see the castle from his bunk. We were all out on the ramparts and up into the keep before breakfast, staking our claim ahead of public opening at 10am. The keep has fabulous views across the castle and the island, as well as down on to the vast bowling green built for Charles I when he was under house-arrest here shortly before his execution. The green, defended at two corners by cannons, is now a great place for run-around games and spotting the rabbits who live in the – mostly Elizabethan – earthworks around it.

As the clock ticked round to 10am, the cry went up, "Invasion! To the keep!" But no hordes descended, just a trickle of friendly visitors whom we joined in order to explore the castle interiors. The Great Hall is now the museum. It tells the story of the siege of 1377, as well as the life of Carisbrooke's most recent royal occupant, Princess Beatrice (daughter of Queen Victoria), who spent her summers here until 1944, the year of her death. There are child-friendly exhibits such as helmets and chain-mail to try on, and a crossbow and sword to lift (or try to). Another boast is a chamber organ dated 1602, the oldest in Britain that still plays. " Carisbrooke Caskets" provide activities for young children, and there are information booklets for older ones.

In a tiny room in the furthest reaches of the museum are some remarkable Civil War artefacts, including part of the lace cravat Charles is said to have worn to his execution, and two coded handwritten letters from Charles to royal accomplices planning his escape. The letters are signed "J". In memory of this, all of Carisbrooke's donkeys have names beginning with J.

These donkeys still walk the wooden wheel to bring up water in the 13th-century well-house, as they have for centuries, although now they only do it a few times a day for visitors. The boys loved the donkeys, and with their day-stables next to our apartment, we got to know them quite well. We particularly enjoyed watching lazy Jack tease his handler in one demonstration, taking an inordinately long time to turn the wheel (a mere two turns) and bring up the bucket. It was amazing, too, to listen as a jug of water was poured down the well. We counted a full five seconds before the splash.

Most of all, though, the boys were drawn to the ramparts, and at 5pm, when the visitors leave, these ancient stones really come into their own. Suddenly, we had a fantastic castle all to ourselves. For younger children, a trip to the shop would have been in order: it sells plastic tabards, helmets, swords and shields, and bows and arrows (with sucker tips) that, with supervision, can be shot off the ramparts to great effect.

Instead, our boys chose a massive game of mobile hide-and-seek. There could hardly have been a better setting. Having delightedly explored every nook and cranny of the place, we brought wine, juice and snacks out on to the grass and watched the sun go down over the ancient walls.

Along with the Carisbrooke apartment comes a day pass to English Heritage's other two properties on the island: Yarmouth Castle, built on the coast by Henry VIII to defend the Solent; and Queen Victoria's beloved Osborne House, where she and Albert, plus their nine children, would spend the summer.

Osborne is a great place to visit with older children (and also has an English Heritage holiday home in its grounds). You can ride the Victorian horse carriage (50p) up to the house, which contains a remarkable variety of things to see. These range from the ornate full-size billiard table (built higher than usual so that Victoria and her ladies could play without bending over indecently) to the extravagant golden Durbar room full of gifts from India to its Empress (with child-friendly interactive descriptions). The family portraits include likenesses of Princess Beatrice (later of Carisbrooke) and Victoria's angelic-looking favourite grandson William, who grew up to be Kaiser Wilhelm II.

A pleasant walk through the grounds brings you to the child-sized fort and full-size Swiss Chalet that Albert built so that the royal offspring could learn cooking, housekeeping and military strategy. They had their own museum, too: an Aladdin's cave of strange objects, from a nine-legged spider to Chinese women's shoes and Zulu shields. Outside stands the Queen's bathing machine, a roofed and walled cart that could be wheeled into the sea so that she could bathe in private and maintain her dignity.

The bathing machines may be long gone, but the Isle of Wight's many, varied beaches remain. On a family fossil walk on Sandown beach, we were shown hefty lumps of sandstone that, on closer inspection, turned out to be three-toed moulds of iguanodon footprints. (The Isle of Wight is one of the most prolific dinosaur-fossil sites in Europe – even on our short walk a piece of dino-bone was found.) After the walk we explored Dinosaur Isle, the interactive dinosaur museum across the road.

Indeed, there is plenty for families to do on the Isle of Wight: you can visit amusement parks, take country walks, travel on the steam railway, or stroll round the shipwreck museum. But our boys preferred being kings of the castle. "We want to go back to Carisbrooke!" they yelled. So we did.

Traveller's Guide

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled from Portsmouth to Fishbourne with Wightlink Ferries (0870 582 0202; www.wightlink.co.uk ), which also operates Portsmouth-Ryde and Lymington-Yarmouth ferries. Red Funnel (0870 444 8898; www.redfunnel. co.uk) operates ferries between Southampton and Cowes, and Britain's last remaining hovercraft runs between Southsea and Ryde (01983 811000; www.hovertravel.co.uk).

Carisbrooke Castle is on the edge of Carisbrooke village, 1.25 miles south-west of Newport (in a car, 15 minutes from Fishbourne; 30 from Yarmouth; 20 from Cowes).

STAYING THERE

The Bowling Green Apartment (0870 333 1187; www.english-heritage.org.uk/holidaycottages) in Carisbrooke Castle can be rented from £245 for three nights. It has one double bedroom and a bedroom with bunks and a cot, as well as a fully equipped kitchen.

VISITING THERE

Carisbrooke Castle (01983 522107; www.english-heritage.org.uk/carisbrookecastle). Open daily, 10am-5pm, adults £5.60, five-15 year-olds £2.80.

Carisbrooke Castle Museum (01983 523112; www.carisbrookecastlemuseum.org.uk). Same opening hours as castle, included in the castle admission ticket.

Yarmouth Castle (01983 760678; www.english-heritage.org.uk/yarmouthcastle). Open Sunday-Thursday, 11am-4pm, adults £2.90, children £1.50.

Osborne House, near East Cowes (01983 200022; www.english-heritage. org.uk/osbornehouse). Open daily, 10am-6pm (until 4pm in October, closed November-April), adults £7.40, five-15-year-olds £4.80.

MORE INFORMATION

Isle of Wight Tourist Office: 01983 813813; www.islandbreaks.co.uk

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