The Berkeley estate is made up of 6000 acres and encompasses a deer park, 18 tenant farms, a stretch of the River Severn, and the land on which the Wetland Wildfowl Centre at Slimbridge sits. Berkeley town itself is at least as old as the castle. Americans will be interested to learn that Virginiaís first governor was William Berkeley and that the first American Thanksgiving was held by Berkeley men. Berkeley Square in London is named after the family.
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Berkeley castle, made of pink stone, has survived for 900 years along with the familyís ownership and residence for that entire period. It is one of the March castles, designed along the border with Wales to keep the Welsh at bay. Its defences can be spotted in its arrow slits, murder holes, barred doors, portcullis slots, and a strong keep. There is a 60 foot drop from the castle battlements to the lawn below.
The family is fortunate to have archives dating back to the early 12th century. Some treasured household items are Francis Drake's cabin chest, Queen Elizabeth I's bedspread, and the banner that the 4th Earl of Berkeley took with him to the Battle of Culloden.
Visitors can take special delight in Berkeley Castle not falling into the hands of the Victorians or Georgians who spent a great deal of time in England playing havoc with earlier forms of architecture. Berkeley retains its original Norman fortress core complete with curtain wall. The castle was enlarged during the medieval period and later added to in order to provide a home suitable for ensuing generations.
The oldest part of the castle is the keep, dating from 1153. The guard room, dungeon, and holding cell are part of this building. The Kingís gallery has a cell and dungeon and was the murder room of King Edward II (1327). Here are portraits of English kings and a few pieces of Francis Drakeís furniture. More paintings are on display in the picture gallery and include a painting by George Stubbs. The tower room was used as a safe haven during times of siege. On display are 17th century Portuguese furniture, George III giltwood wall brackets, and a portrait of the 5th earl.
The dining room, formerly a servantsí hall, has family portraits on display along with Georgian silverware. The larders, buttery, and kitchen are from the 14th century and little has changed since then. Three fireplaces in the kitchen were in constant use. The 32 foot high, 62 foot long, 14th century great hall was the site of many a banquet. It is the second hall built here, the first dating to the time of Edward III. On the wall are Oudenarde tapestries giving the history of Queen Esther.
The grand staircase displays further portraits and Tudor embroidery. The morning room was once the chapel of St Mary, but was converted in the 1920s. The unusual feature of the chapel was the entire book of Revelations written in Norman French on the ceiling. In the long drawing room are a suite of 18th century gilt furniture and a series of wall mirrors. Thereís a small drawing room and a former beer cellar.
Appearances deceive in the grounds. The lily pond was once a swimming pool. A bridge in the south-west corner of the gardens hides old sluice gates used by barges drawing up to the castle and delivering goods. The car park was once an orchard. Hidden here are the crumbling remnants of an ice house. The butterfly house (42 different species of butterflies, some imported from Japan and Indonesia) and plant centre sit where the old Victorian kitchen garden once supplied vegetables to the castle kitchens. The shop is a former castle brewery, behind which is a 19th century venison larder.
As its use for defensive purposes lessened, the castle was enhanced with plantings and gardens. A bowling green was added. More recently the terraces were planted with Gertrude Jekyllís help. The speciality of the gardens is its roses that bloom in June. Also in the grounds are rare plants, shrubs and trees. Head down the steps to the great lawn, home to two pine trees, reputed to be grown from cones brought from the battle of Culloden.
Donít miss the path by the castle ticket office that leads to Berkeleyís village church, St Maryís. There is much of interest in the historic church. An abbey existed here as early as the 8th century. A Norman, followed by a medieval church, was built on the site. In the 12th century the church was given to St Augustineís abbey in Bristol.
The only remains of the Norman church are the south door and the font. The present church mostly dates from 1225-1250 which can be noted in the nave and west front. The nave has Early English arcades, while the pillars have clustered shafts and foliated capitals. There is an unusual feature up a stairway leading to the north aisle and nave roof: a door that opens on to the west window sill. The chancel and north aisle were rebuilt in the 14th century. A priestís room was added above the church porch in 1450. The bell tower (10 rings) is a restored one.
It is the medieval wall paintings that are most notable. They date from the 13th and 14th centuries (now reproduced). In the church is the Berkeley burial chamber with the tombs of family members.
Just off the A38, 26 mile south of Gloucester, midway between Bristol and Gloucester, just west of M5
Tel. 0 1453 810 332
Open: April-end Oct, Thu, Sun and BH, 11am-5.30pm; other times during school holidays; see website for exact dates; church open daylight hours and for Sunday services
Historic Houses Association member; free parking; tea-room: snacks, light lunches, coffee; afternoon tea, homemade cakes; Old Laundry Room restaurant for pre-booked groups; gift shop; butterfly house across the carpark by the entrance; special events throughout the opening months.
Web: Berkeley Castle
Web: St Maryís Church Berkeley
Photos © by Barbara Ballard