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Castle Rising - a Queen's Prison?

From the medieval splendour of Castle Rising to lovely ancient woodlands.

Distance 7 miles (11.3km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 131ft (40m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Some country lanes, but mostly footpaths, 3 stiles

Landscape Woodland, farmland, heath and meadow

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 250 Norfolk Coast West

Start/finish TF 666244

Dog friendliness Dogs are restricted in nature reserves

Parking English Heritage Castle Rising car park opens at 10am, or on lane outside church

Public toilets At car park

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1 Leave the car park, turn left, then go straight ahead at the crossroads. You pass houses built of carrstone. Follow the lane past the Norman church and Trinity Hospital, then past the point where gates close it to vehicles. The bend is called Onion Corner and in spring there is a powerful aroma of wild garlic. Continue until you reach a bridge with white railings.

2 Take the path to the right through a grassy meadow, with Babingley River gurgling to your left. Cross the A149 to the stile opposite. The path passes an ancient beech before heading for a gate. Follow the gravel road in front of you until you reach Mill House Cottage, then take the track (not the footpath) to your right, just past the ruined barn.

3 Cross a bright orange stream (stained by dissolved iron-rich rocks). Head across the meadow in front of you by aiming slightly to your left until you reach another stream. Turn right, following the stream. Nettles can be a problem, although these do not deter the geese or pheasants that feed here. When you reach a gate, turn right, away from the stream. Pass through a gate and go left at the track. Turn right when you reach a paved lane.

4 Turn right at the A148, then walk along the verge on the opposite side until you reach the first lane on your left. Go down it. Enter Roydon and turn into Church Lane. The church has a marvellous Romanesque south door. Continue out of the village until you see Hall Farm. Church Lane bends to the right, reaching a green-gated lane.

5 Turn left on to the green-gated lane (marked as a footpath) and follow signs for the Sunnyside Veterinary Clinic. On your right is a farm track leading straight ahead. Follow this for about 700yds (640m) until you meet another public footpath on the right.

6 Follow this sandy track until you reach the A148. Take the minor road opposite, which has oak trees that grow progressively larger as you walk further from the main road. By the time you reach Fowler's Plantation, they tower above you. To your right is a conservation area where native British wild species have been introduced. It is an excellent place for a detour, but dogs must be kept on a lead.

7 Cross the A149 to the lane opposite. Turn left up the lane marked towards the castle and then right, into the car park.

Castle Rising has a magnificent Norman castle, complete with narrow corridors, unexpected little chambers and a small chapel embedded in its ramparts. There is also a sturdy 12th-century village church with a peaceful graveyard and a picturesque post office. And there is a pleasant pub, pretty traditional carrstone (red sandstone) cottages, delightful almshouses and a fascinating history. Who could want more?

Castle Rising's best known incumbent was Isabella, wife of the unfortunate Edward II. Not for nothing was she known as the 'She-Wolf of France'. She was intelligent and power-hungry and soon tired of her ineffectual (and probably homosexual) husband. She joined forces with her lover, Roger Mortimer, to depose and eventually murder Edward, and enjoyed several years effectively ruling the country while her son Edward III was in his minority. However, no man wants his mother looking over his shoulder while he tries to rule a kingdom, and Isabella was gently prised from the court and sent to live in her various castles and palaces once Edward III came of age. One of these was Rising.

The real story about Isabella and Castle Rising has been badly distorted and many tales have her banished from Edward III's court to languish as a prisoner here for 27 years, before her death in 1358. The truth is rather different. The monarchy could not afford to acknowledge that the King's mother was instrumental in murdering his father and so the incident was covered up. After 1331, Isabella did spend more time in her role as Dowager Queen and less time trying to influence affairs of state, but she was never a prisoner. She lived in great luxury, moving with her vast army of servants from one place to another, like any wealthy lady of her age. The King even visited her here and there are records mentioning the hiring of eight carpenters to make the castle impressive enough to receive them both.

Isabella seems to have enjoyed life at Castle Rising and records also show that she was often in residence. Archaeological evidence indicates that new buildings were raised during her ownership, including a rather handsome residential suite with its own chapel. You can see these if you visit the castle today.

The castle has a great deal to offer, starting with its awesome banks and ditches, its half-buried Norman chapel and its two wells. But the most impressive feature is the keep, a squat, rectangular tower that stands some 50ft (15m) high. The blind arcading (a series of arches on a wall) that decorates its front would not be out of place on a grand cathedral and helps to make this one of the best castles in England.

While you're there

Just 5 miles (8km) away is King's Lynn with its fascinating architecture, Lynn Museum and Old Gaol House Museum. Congham Hall herb garden is in the grounds of a hotel just to the east of Castle Rising, off the A148. South east of King's Lynn is the East Winch Common nature reserve, owned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Sandringham House and country park are located to the north.

What to look for

You walk past the Hospital of the Holy and Undivided Trinity as you leave Castle Rising. This is open to visitors at certain times and is well worth a look. The building dates from the 17th century, and was originally intended as almshouses for 'needy women of good character'. Fallow and roe deer are common in the woods around the walk, and you may glimpse red squirrels in Fowler's Plantation.

Where to eat and drink

The Black Horse in Castle Rising, pleasantly situated near the church, serves good food seven days a week. The Castle Rising Post Office and Tea Room is a lovely place to enjoy a cake and a cup of tea after the walk, and you can always write your postcards while you rest!

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