In the many years I have spent traversing this kingdom of Logres, from Camelot in the west to the depths of Staffordshire, I have always been impressed by accommodation offered to me. Whether hall house or manor, whether some lowly stable or some vast tower, I have seen them all. Yet few places stand out so much as the keeps and donjons in which it has been my pleasure to lie.
Now, of course, you will know well of my stays with lord and lady Bertilak and my meeting with the Green Knight up near the Staffordshire Roaches. And, of course, for reasons of my shame, I cannot say that my stay in their castle brings me great joy – save to say that it challenged my purity and my arrogance and is therefore worthy of remark. The best place for that castle is in my memory, befogged and dim of view – but there are others, dear reader and here I share my favourite with you, Castle Rising near King’s Lynn in the County of Norfolk, England.
To my mind, there are several great houses and all of them worthy of note: The Tower of London or Windsor, both great Royal keeps; Conisborough, surely the greatest circular keep in the land; Rochester, one of the tallest; Warkworth, one of the most striking; Peveril, one of the most dramatic; Orford, one of the most ingenious; Dover, one of the most impregnable; and Middleham, one of the most solid. Yet, for me, Rising outshines them all.
Rising is a veritable palace, a fine Norman keep of c.1140 set among rolling sandlings and built within great earthworks and – indeed – dwarfed by them. From the outside, it is difficult to gauge the sheer scale of the place; from the village, the tower is scarcely visible. But press on into the bailey and thence to the inner bailey and surely one of the finest keeps in all Albion awaits.
The keep at Rising is a statement of grandeur: a home above all others and the home in my day to William of Albini, the second of his line. The keep is approached up a flight of stairs all within a forebuilding which I would describe as probably the most magnificent in all the land: exquisite arcading, ornate craftsmanship and execution of the highest quality. To enter this building is to be impressed from the moment you walk through the door.
And now, once atop the stairs within a vaulted vestibule, turn left and enter the main building itself – sadly now without its floors but in my mind I recall well the feasts of pork, ox, venison and mutton we ate there with great joy. Oh what majesty! A lofty hall, well equipped with its own private kitchen and – unique possibly – garderobes split between lords and ladies. William respected the privacy of all his guests and built for that accordingly.
But there is more. In my day, few could enter the lord’s private rooms but today you can see within theme clearly. The private garderobe, an ante-chamber, a private staircase and also the keep’s own exquisite chapel. This is a building which clutches you and warms your spirit. It was – and is – a statement of power in the landscape, and quite rightly so.
Lord William was a powerful man, with other possessions (now sadly much depleted) at New and Old Buckenham – including, at the former, a most unusual planned town with a vast motte at one end surmounted by the stump of a round donjon in the continental style. When he built his castles he built them within earthworks so vast – especially in the huge flatness of East Anglia – that they brooded on the land, surveying his territories and visible for miles.
He was nothing if not adventurous in his experimentation in building but he was also a fine huntsman and sportsman which is why, for me, Rising is so special. What is not clear to today’s visitor but which for me kindles the magic of the place, is the great Chase, or park all around it, encompassed by banks some 15 miles long. Rising was a statement within a planned landscape of feudal lordship: proud from without, proud from within.
Oh what pleasant days I had there riding with Sir William, talking about the joys of the hunt, of chivalry and of his beloved Norfolk lands! And so it is, dear reader, that I recommend this place to you if, on your travels, you venture east into Norfolk.
Little wonder that the duke of Norfolk himself in later years, writing a letter to the duke of Suffolk in 1538 took time to say that it was “written on a molehill in Rysyng Chase, 8 August, 11 o’clock”. It’s that sort of place – you’ll like it so much that you’ll want to tell your friends.
Note: until recently, Castle Rising was in the care of the State under the auspices of English Heritage. It is now managed by Lord Howard of Rising although I shall say that I have not been hunting with this gentleman. For information, visiting times and entry charges (not levied in my day but, then again, you had to know the owner personally), click this link to Castle Rising.