This medieval stone castle, a little over twenty minutes by car from Rye or Hastings, evokes all kinds of childhood memories, from knights of old to sandcastles (complete with moat) shaped by buckets and spades. Bodiam’s imposing symmetry comes from its four lofty, corner drum-towers, each linked by a curtain wall to rectangular towers in the center. The exterior of the castle remains mostly intact, and though the same cannot be said for the interior, it’s not hard to imagine what it was like.
In 1385, with England under the threat of a French invasion, Richard II granted Sir Edward Dalyngrigge a ‘licence to crenellate.’ Instead of fortifying his manor house, Sir Edward chose a new location on higher ground and built Bodiam Castle to guard the Rother Valley against the French.
A member of an old Sussex family, Sir Edward had married an heiress whose family held the manor of Bodiam. He gained his wealth fighting in France as a mercenary in one of the Free Companies, serving under Sir Robert Knollys. The Free Companies operated during the Hundred Years War as private mercenary armies that raided and pillaged the French countryside, earning fearsome reputations and great fortunes. After retiring from the wars, Sir Edward’s connections and wealth helped him become a leading figure in Sussex society. His patron was the Earl of Arundel, and Sir Edward’s status reached the highest point in 1392 when the king appointed him Keeper of the Tower of London and Governor of the City. He died not long after and was succeeded by his son, Sir John Dalyngrigge.
Over the centuries, ownership of Bodiam Castle transferred to different hands. The castle was dismantled after the English Civil War and it eventually fell into disrepair. Restoration work first began in the nineteenth century, and in 1916, Lord Curzon purchased the castle and continued the huge task. On his death in 1925, he left Bodiam Castle to the National Trust.
A quarter mile walk from the car park brings visitors to a long, timber bridge that crosses the water-filled moat and leads to the castle entrance. Passing the Octagon (an island outwork that had enough space for turning wagons) and the remains of the Barbican, which was originally a two-storey gatehouse, one finally arrives at the twin rectangular towers of the Gatehouse. Embellished with Sir Edward Dalyngrigge’s coat of arms, the Gatehouse was a formidable structure with three sets of portcullises and sturdy gates as defense against an enemy. The broad moat would have impeded any attack, but should an intruder have breached the Gatehouse, he risked having missiles or boiling tar dropped on him through ‘murder holes’ in the vaulted ceiling. The rooms on the second floor of the three-storey Gatehouse have been recreated to give an idea of how they looked when occupied by the garrison.
Bodiam was designed as a comfortable home as well as a stronghold. Rooms were arranged around a central quadrangle, which today is carpeted with grass. Though the interior lies in ruins, the surviving footings, doors, windows and fireplaces hint at the size and layout of the buildings.
If gardens are your cup of tea, you’ll find a feast of flowers at Great Dixter in Northiam, East Sussex. Just a short distance from Bodiam Castle, the gardens of Great Dixter are the handiwork of famous garden writer Christopher Lloyd and his family.
A manor is recorded at this location as early as 1220, but the oldest section of the surviving house (or rather, houses) dates from 1454. This is the Great Hall, which will be your starting point if you choose to take the tour of the house. It is a classic “Weald Hall,” with high ceilings and half-timbered walls filled with a golden wattle-and-daub. (Some of that lovely colour comes from dung, by the way!) Today, you’ll see a lovely fireplace at one end of the hall, but originally the hearth would have been in the center of the hall, the smoke escaping through unglazed windows or through a louvered opening in the ceiling.
The first recorded owner of the manor was Hamo at Gate, whose property at “Dicksterve” was valued in the mid-1300’s at 40 shillings. Hamo’s daughter Joan married Robert de Etchingham, and the house passed into the Etchingham family after their deaths. Elizabeth Etchingham married Robert Wakehurst, who built the Great Hall in 1454. In the 16th century the house passed to the Windsor family (no relation to the royal Windsors), and then was sold to a succession of buyers. This family was also related to the Dalyngrigges, owners of Bodiam Castle.
In 1910, the house was purchased by retired printer Nathaniel Lloyd for £6000. Lloyd hired architect Edwin Lutyens to begin restoration and expansion of the manor. Over the years, the “Great Hall” had been “modernized” with the addition of a second floor and other changes; these were removed to restore the hall to its 15th-century state. The house itself proved a bit small for Lloyd’s needs, however, so Lloyd first added on to the original building, then purchased and dismantled yet another 16th-century timber house, the “Old House at Home” in Benenden (about nine miles from Northiam) and had this house reconstructed as an adjunct to the original Dixter house. This house became the principal residence of the Lloyd family. (Tours of the house sometimes include rooms in this section, depending on the family schedule.) During World War I, the Great Hall was used as a hospital, and during WWII the house was used as a residence for evacuee children.
The gardens completely surround the house, and include topiaries, a water garden, a tropical garden, a country meadow, and more. Much of the existing garden was also designed by Lutyens, but the entire family had a hand in determining the elements of different sections. Today, the gardens are maintained by the Great Dixter Charitable Trust.
No great battles or noteworthy trysts occurred at Great Dixter (at least, that anyone knows of), but if it’s “local colour” you want, you’ll find plenty of it in this peaceful landscape!