I am a sucker for castles. The older, the better. You can keep your elegant, reconstructed family residences, your period furniture, your costume galleries, formal gardens and the like. Give me crumbling any day. And if there’s a secret passage or two, all the better. Perched on cliff tops, high on mountains, overlooking deserts, preferably with a keep and a drawbridge.
Guernsey’s Castle Cornet meets all my requirements, with a bonus: it’s set at the end of a granite breakwater, and is surrounded on three sides by the sea. It is fondly known by many islanders as Castle Crumpet. I haven’t a clue why, though it may be connected with the delicious cream teas you can have in the castle tearoom.
The earliest parts of it date to the 13th century, when King John lost control of Normandy and Guernsey belonged to England. Oh dear, he had to defend the island against the French: better build a castle, then! At that time the castle was a mile away from the coast and to get to it you had to walk, and unless you were bonkers you could only do that at low tide! About 150 years after it was built the wretched Froggies captured it and held on to it for seven years. By the sixteenth century there were cannons galore all over the place, no doubt to avoid a repetition of that embarrassing episode.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 Guernsey declared for Parliament, but being awkward, Castle Cornet remained loyal to King Charles I. Needless to say that wasn’t going to work, so the Castle was under siege throughout this period and finally it was the last Royalist stronghold to surrender in 1651.
From then on the castle served as a fortress, and visitors can learn all about its various occupants including famous gardeners and generals, until finally, in the year I was born – which will remain a secret for the purposes of this article – H.M. King George VI (oops, that was a bit of a give-away!) handed Castle Cornet as a gift to Islanders.
I can recommend the castle as a great place to run around if you’re only five or six, as proven by my grandchildren on a fine sunny day this summer. And it’s even better to stroll around, admiring the thick granite walls, the gardens and the glorious views of Herm and Sark islands as well of course as its closest neighbour, Guernsey. Okay, yes, there is a costume gallery, but the joy is that they provide costumes for you to dress up and play in. And there are gardens, but not all boringly formal: more higgledy-piggledy and rather fun. Plus, there are even WW2 shelters and gun emplacements left over from the German Occupation. And great big enormous cannons to clamber on. Be careful, though, because at noon every day they let off eardrum-shattering bangs, an age-old tradition started in 1974. I jest: it first started at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was reintroduced as a tourist attraction during the summer season.
If all that’s not enough there’s a prison, and five museums including the Guernsey Militia and Guernsey’s own RAF 201 Squadron, and there’s battlements, and narrow passages, and even outdoor plays in the summer evenings. Oh, and an underground bit which was once a German bunker named after a German girl called Ursel. All in all, it’s a pretty good place to visit!
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