England's rich array of castles offer visitors a superb opportunity to see the country's history up close and personal. Harriet O'Brien takes a journey into the past

Bastions of Olde Englande?

Absolutely. England is peppered with magnificent castles that date back to medieval times and even earlier. Some were developed from Roman forts, but most were purpose-built later, many of them stamps of authority and domination quite as much as defensive structures. The very word castle, or castel, arrived in the English language courtesy of the Normans, who, of course, established many such fortresses shortly after they conquered the Anglo Saxons.

While a fort had been a military base, a castle (a fully functioning one, as opposed to later Victorian follies) was a well-defended place of residence with moat, drawbridge and more. It was also a base from which to make attacks and a place to entertain and generally impress. The majority of "real" castles in England were built between 1066 and about 1500 when developments in weaponry and in the way battles were fought resulted in new styles of military forts being constructed instead.

I want the full works

For a wow-factor castle complete with crenellations, round towers and drawbridge head to Robertsbridge in East Sussex. Here Bodiam Castle is beautifully set beside the River Rother. It dates from 1385 and among its many medieval castle trimmings it has a gatehouse with murder holes in the vaulted ceiling – this was where arrows, heated oil and other substances could be poured onto the heads of invaders. While the exterior stands proudly, the interior, as with so many English castles, was largely destroyed during the Civil War. However, you can get an idea of how the castle would have operated from its absorbing small museum, newly refurbished this year. Bodiam Castle (01580 830196; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) is open daily from 10.30am to 6pm. Tickets cost £4.60 per adult, £2.30 per child.

Perhaps even more remarkable is Dover Castle in Kent (01304 211067; www.english-heritage.org.uk; during August daily 9.30am-6pm and daily from 10am in September; adults £10.30; children £5.20). This stupendous complex not only has picture-book looks – until relatively recently it also had real purpose. The castle played a significant role in the country's defence up to the mid-20th century. The Romans originally built a fort here in order to control the shortest passage between Britain and the Continent. Dover Castle was subsequently much expanded and restructured, particularly by the Normans and by Henrys II and VIII.

Dover Castle played a vital part in the Second World War, when tunnels built into the cliffs beneath the castle during the Napoleonic Wars became the headquarters of the operation to evacuate Dunkirk.

Show me living castles

With a clash of swords and a jangle of knights' harnesses, the medieval world returns this summer. Across the country, English Heritage (www.english-heritage.org.uk) is staging events at many of its castles. Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire, for example, (01246 822844; open daily 10am-6pm – until 4pm on Fri and Sat; adults £7; children £3.50) is hosting a number of different themed events throughout August. You can choose to attend Fool School from Monday 18 to Friday 22 where you can learm how to apply yourself to the arts of juggling and more. You'll see knights in combat (and shining armour) on Sunday 24 and Monday 25, parading and defending the grounds between 11am and 4pm. Bolsover Castle is in any event an intriguing place to visit, originally constructed just after the Norman Conquest, it was rebuilt for elegant living in the 15th century complete with an elaborate riding academy.

At Marldon, near Paignton in south Devon, Compton Castle (01803 843235; www. nationaltrust.org.uk) has been almost continuously inhabited by the Gilbert family since the foundations of this wonderfully fortified manor house were laid back in 1340. This is a building of high curtain walls and squints (or observation holes). There are machicolations (parapets from which defenders could drop missiles on attackers) spiral staircases, a reconstructed great hall and, new this year, a herb garden in the beautifully laid out grounds. Given that the castle is still a home, public opening times are slightly limited: you can visit on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11am to 5pm; tickets cost £4 per adult; £2 per child.

The grandest of the country's castles, and indeed the largest inhabited castle in the world, is the 1,000-year-old fortress at Windsor that is still a working royal palace. Windsor Castle (020-7766 7304; www.royalcollection.org.uk) started life as a wooden fort built by William the Conqueror and has evolved under the influence of most of England's kings and queens. It has been splendidly restored since the fire of 1992 and today the State Apartments and the even more glorious Semi State Rooms with paintings by Holbein, Rubens and more, are open to the public, provided the Queen is not in residence.

There is, of course, much more besides, not least St George's Chapel, which is arguably the most beautiful religious building in the country, and Queen Mary's Dolls House, an exquisite world in miniature devised by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the early 1900s. Windsor Castle is open daily from 9.45am to 5.15pm (although St George's Chapel is closed to visitors on Sundays). Tickets cost £14.80 per adult, £8.50 per child.

And romantic ruins?

Lashed by wind and sea, the grey-stone ruins of Cornwall's Tintagel Castle rise majestically from the sheer cliffs of a rocky headland. This is a spellbinding place – almost literally so. What you mainly see at this spectacular reach of coast are the strikingly haggard remains of a 13th-century stronghold built by the earls of Cornwall. But the site has much older associations, both as a Roman and a Celtic settlement. The Celtic connection has the strongest reverberations: according to some myths it was here that King Arthur was conceived and born, while other stories hold that this was Camelot, where the legendary Dark Age king held his court. Getting here is a quest in itself. The castle is on a promontory joined to the mainland by a much-eroded causeway and today can only be reached via two steep stairways. It is a breathtaking and exhilarating place to explore. Tintagel Castle (01840 770328; www.english -heritage.org.uk) is open daily from 10am to 6pm. Tickets cost £4.70 per adult, £2.40 per child.

In Cumbria, the picturesque remains of Brougham Castle lie beside a serene stretch of the River Eamont near Penrith (01768 862488; www.english-heritage.org.uk; daily until the end of September 10am-5pm; adults £3, children £1.50). The peaceful atmosphere belies the past. Constructed on the site of a Roman fort, this was a substantial 13th-century complex built primarily to deter intrusions from Scots across the border. In the mid-17th century it was inherited in a state of disrepair by the formidable Lady Anne Clifford who restored it to its former glory (along with the castles at Skipton, Appleby, Pendragon and Brough). With her death here in 1676, the castle's fortunes once again foundered and it fell into ruin. Today, its square keep and surviving walls stand in bucolic landscape grazed by sheep.

Where can I sleep like a noble?

Take your pick of several elegant hotels set with all mod cons in ancient castles – although in the summer particularly you may find yourself arriving at these establishments with a host of wedding guests. One of the finest, and inevitably most booked-up, is 900-year-old Amberley Castle near Arundel in West Sussex (01798 831 992; www.amberleycastle.co.uk) has doubles from £200, excluding breakfast. Leased by Elizabeth I and attacked by Charles I, it exudes historic appeal and retains dramatic, 60ft curtain walls. The interior is plush yet comfy, the 19 bedrooms furnished with great swathes of curtains, while all of the bathrooms feature Jacuzzis.

Or make your way to Langley Castle near Hexham in Northumberland (01434 688 888; www.langleycastle.com), which features rooms from £67.50 per person per night based on two sharing, including breakfast. The building dates from 1350 and is set in a 10-acre woodland estate. The 19 lavishly decorated bedrooms have canopy or half-tester beds and most offer magnificent views.

Other castle hotels include 73-bedroom Lumley Castle near Chester le Street in County Durham (0191 389 1111; www.lumleycastle.com) which has doubles from £180 without breakfast, and 500-year-old Thornbury Castle in south Gloucestershire (01454 281182; www.thornburycastle.co.uk) with doubles from £250, including breakfast.

An Englishman's home...

Live like a lord in your own castle, albeit temporarily. The Landmark Trust (01628 825925; www.landmark trust.org.uk) has several castles you can rent as holiday accommodation. One of the most atmospheric properties offered by the buildings preservation charity is Kingswear Castle near Dartmouth in Devon. Set right on the water, it was built in 1491 to protect Dartmouth harbour, but within 50 years of its completion it was largely redundant. It did however see service in the Second World War when a concrete blockhouse was added. This now serves as an extra bedroom for hardy souls (you climb into bed via a ladder). In all, the property sleeps up to six people, the furnishings suitably hardy, the views across the water mesmerising. A week here costs from £858.

The holiday property specialist Hoseasons (01502 502588; www.hoseasons. co.uk) offers a turreted getaway in Staffordshire. Castle Moat House at Caverswall near Leek dates back to the 1550s and retains some original leaded windows as well as stone mullions and interior panelling. Sleeping up to 12 people, the property costs from £1,050 for three nights.