(Wo)Man the forts! Castles and hillforts to visit in Sussex
From crumbling ruins to moated fortresses straight out of the Chaucer era and stunning hilltop views, here's where to go for your history (and Instagram) fix.
Thanks in part to a certain Mr W. The Conquerer, Sussex does well for castles. The location makes the county the gateway to Britain from the continent, and this naturally has led to the odd dispute here and there. Today history-steeped sites dotted over the county make for great days out, educational trips with the kids and wonderful walks across some breathtaking scenery.
Pevensey Castle, Pevensey, East Sussex
If this were an episode of Friends, Pevensey Castle would be The One Where It All Began. A Roman fort on this strategic site is documented in 4th century writings, but it’s when William the Conquerer landed at Pevensey before dawn on September 28 1066 that the site’s history gets, um, interesting. Within a day, William had built a temporary fortification to shelter his troops and the next day, off to Hastings the army marched and gave King Harold an unpleasant welcome. After defeating Harold and crowning himself King of England, William left on a celebratory tour of Normandy, choosing to set sail from Pevensey, leaving the castle and land in the care of his half-brother. Pevensey Castle had a resurgence during the Second World War, when its site made it once again a prime target for invasion and defences were reinforced. Today its remains are owned by English Heritage, and well worth a visit.
Arundel Castle, Arundel
Arundel is one of the largest complete, and inhabited, castles in the entire UK. In a lofty hilltop location with views across the South Downs and River Arun, original features date back to 1067 and are in remarkably good nick, to say they’re nearly a millennium old. The house was almost completely rebuilt in the late 1800s and the Gothic architecture is considered one of the great works of Victorian England. Its location and style puts Muddy in mind of the castle in Beauty and the Beast. Book online in advance, some parts remain closed to enable social distancing. Scoff and quaff in nearby Arundel.
Bodiam Castle, Bodiam
Set on the border of Sussex and Kent near to the village of Robertsbridge, Bodiam Castle is pure Chaucer and has been a brooding symbol of power for more than 700 years. It has all of the key ingredients – spiral staircases, battlements, portcullis and a surrounding moat with a ruined interior that will fire up anybody’s imagination. Built in around 1380, its owners had already lived through the Black Death and the royal disputes leading to the War of the Roses, not to mention an ongoing war with France. It’s enough to make anybody feel what they really needed in life was a gigantic castle. Now in the hands of the National Trust.
Bramber Castle, near Steyning
We give you fair warning, there’s not a huge amount left of this one. Founded in 1073 as a defensive and administrative centre for Bramber, one of six regions Sussex was divided into following the Norman Conquest (each with its own castle, which explains why there’s so many!) the castle stood until subsidence in the 16th Century rendered it a ruin. But the masonry didn’t go to waste – instead, it was used to build roads. What remains presides over lofty views of the Adur valley, which can be enjoyed by climbing to the top of the motte (man-made mound). The sole remaining wall of what was once the tower stands 14m high, which gives a feel of how imposing the building once was. While you’re in the area, tuck into some lunch at the Castle Inn then head up Chanctonbury Ring (below) too.
Herstmonceaux Castle, Herstmonceaux
Another moated castle and a relative youngster this time, built in the 15th century. Herstmonceaux Castle overlooks Pevensey Levels and is one of the earliest examples of a red brick building in England, set in 300 acres of woodland with themed and formal gardens. The castle now operates as an International Study Centre for Queens University in Canada, making it a class above the usual halls of residence. Built by the owner of Kent’s Hever Castle in 1441 (because one castle just isn’t enough) the building fell into ruin in the 1700s but was restored in the early 20th century. Gardens are open to visitors, book online in advance.
Hastings Castle, Hastings
Another one in less than great nick, Hastings Castle was once a wooden tower sat atop a motte. After Will the C rocked up in Pevensey in 1066 he swiftly decamped to Hastings where he demanded a castle, natch, and a wooden one was duly provided. After he’d taken victory, William was crowned at Hastings on Christmas Day, 1066, and ordered the castle be rebuilt in stone. Legend has it the building was virtually impregnable on three sides. Since then it’s been dismantled and rebuilt several times (those Normans, eh?) and parts fell into the sea during the savage storms in the 13th Century. Less than half of William’s original stone fortress remains, but it’s steeped in history and a fascinating part of the 1066 Story.
Before there were enormous stone castles, defences were provided through hillforts. In Sussex, some of these date back to the Bronze Age – the historical period 3000 – 1200 BC. Admittedly there’s not much to a hillfort other than intricate earthworks, but the sites were chosen for a reason. These will give you some of the best views in Sussex, and all encompass a spirit and sense of human evolution through land, time and place. Remember these are historic monuments so don’t alter or disturb the land in any way, and absolutely no fires or barbecues.
Cissbury Ring, near Worthing
6,000 years of history – and ponies! Today wild New Forest ponies graze the land at Cissbury Ring, restoring the precious chalk grassland and making for spectacular romantic photographs, especially at sunset. Once a Bronze Age burial ground, then an Iron Age fort used for defence for 300 years, Cissbury has seen all kinds of action over the years – the discovery of coins suggests there was even once a mint here. In Tudor times it joined other South Downs sites as a warning beacon, but no military action actually took place here until the Second World War. Thanks to the ponies, historic features on the ground are becoming visible once again and the whole area is a beautiful and diverse habitat. Ample parking nearby make this one of the most popular spots on the Downs, and you’re a stone’s throw from Worthing for grub and sea views.
Chanctonbury Ring, near Wiston
Because Chanctonbury Ring is known so widely both for its circle of beech trees and its mystical leanings, it’s easy to forget this was once an Iron Age hillfort. The trees were planted in 1760 by a 20-year-old named Charles Goring and in true Sussex style even back then locals complained about the development compromising the character of the area. Many were decimated in the hurricane of 1987 and have since been replanted. Be careful though, it’s said if you run round it backwards three, six or even seven times you can summon the devil. Muddy can’t attest to have tried this out, but having ridden bikes past Chanctonbury in all weathers can confirm during mist and fog, we can see why it’s thought to be a hotspot not only for Beelzebub but also UFO activity. Atmospheric doesn’t even come close. Car parks off the A285 and A24 will get you to the foot of Chanctonbury Hill but it’s a steep climb up whichever way you traverse it.
Mount Caburn, Lewes
Evidence of human activity at Caburn (traditionally pronounced ‘cawburn’) dates back to the Neolithic period. A steep and very distinctive local landmark, it’s easy to see why it attracted so much attention, including an Iron Age fort. Today, it’s a hotspot for hang gliders. If you’re in the mood for a history session, combine a walk at Caburn with a visit to Lewes Castle, another one of William the Conquerer’s efforts, although currently closed due to coronavirus.