Castle Rising and Castle Acre

A whistle-stop tour of Castle Acre and Castle Priory

A tale of two castles

In days of old, when knights were bold and you could see for miles from your country pile . . . West Norfolk's brace of castles makes for an interesting day out and Chris Bishop takes us on a whistle-stop tour.

The castle has cast its eye over The Wash since the Normans built its formidable stone keep at Castle Rising in  1140. Since then it’s been a fortified home, a hunting lodge and the prison of a Queen who killed her husband. Today, it’s a tourist attraction; its massive earthworks survive, though the walls which once crowned them have long disappeared.Once the village and the castle could be reached from the sea. Paintings as recent as the 18th century show ships in the background, which could explain how a whale bone was found in more recent times in a well at the castle.Of course, now The Wash has retreated several miles from the keep, but visitors can still see the sea from the top of the walls. Climb the stone staircase into the castle’s remains and you catch a flavour of its history.Castle Rising was the last home of Queen Isabella, wife of King Edward II. Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, had him murdered. Together they ruled the country after Edward met his end in 1327.His heir, Edward III, was only 15 when his father died, but in 1330 the youthful Edward seized power. Mortimer was hanged for treason, but Isabella was spared and imprisoned at Castle Rising, where she spent the last 30 years of her life.Famed for her fiery temper, she became known as the She-Wolf of France.Some accounts say she lived out her days in luxury, with maids and knights in attendance. But a condition of her sentence was that she should never  show her face in public again. As her sentence wore on, legend has it she became deranged, and took to roaming the battlements at night, howling at the moon.After she died, her ghost was said to haunt the castle in the form of a spectral wolf. Some say her howls can still be hard when the moon is full.Castle Rising’s ruined corridors and stone stairs are said to be home to other ghosts too. Visit today and you might feel a presence in its surprisingly well-preserved interior, much of which can still be accessed.A caf� across the road is run by interiors firm Unique, which also has a shop in the village. It is open seven days a week, serving everything from a full English breakfast to a cream tea with home-made scones.On a winter’s day, you can also warm up beside the open fire at the Black Horse pub, famed for Sunday lunches. A young Diana Spencer – later to become Diana, Princess of Wales – was a regular visitor as a child, as her family often dined at the pub.Twenty miles down the A47, between King’s Lynn and Narborough, a turning leads up a winding road which goes to Castle Acre.Like Castle Rising, the Normans also chose it as a good site for a castle. Only its earthworks and one or two fragments of its once-formidable walls remain.Yet you can only marvel at their scale, which reflects the strategic importance  of this corner of Norfolk so many centuries ago.Shortly after the conquest, a priory was built as a home from home for the Cluniac monks from France. Much remains of the buildings around its cloister, along with the herb garden originally established by the monks.Castle Acre also boasts the Ostrich, a 16th century coaching inn with log fires and a firm emphasis on locally-sourced, free-range produce. Then there are the village’s two shops, selling eats and treats, and crafts.

Castle Rising Castle is open from 10am to 4pm, Wednesday until Sunday. From April 1, 10am-6pm. Admission is �4 adult/�2.50 five to 15 years. Castle Rising, King’s Lynn, PE31 6AH.01553 6313. Unique gifts and interiors, Castle Barns, opposite the castle. Open 9.30am-5.50pm. Unique also runs the tea rooms in what used to be the post office, next door to the Black Horse. They are open seven days a week and serve breakfasts, hot lunches and snacks and traditional pots of tea, coffee and home-made cakes and scones.

Castle Acre Priory is open from 10am-4pm Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, until March 31. From April 1, it's open from 10am-5pm daily.Admission is �5 adult, �2.50 child until March 31. From April 1, admission is �5.30 adult, �2.70 child. 01760 755394. Church Gate Tea Room is five minutes walk from the priory, on Stocks Green. Granny's fruitcake is their speciality, open from 10.30am-5pm. 01760 755551.Barnfields Caf�, also on Stocks Green, has a deli where you can pick up a picnic or enjoy a snack or light lunch, open 10am-5pm, Thursday to Monday. 01760 755577.

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