A short walk from Stafford town around one of the county's oldest monuments.
Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)
Minimum time 1hr 30min
Ascent/gradient 240ft (73m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Pavement, gravel tracks and grass trails, 2 stiles
Landscape Town, golf course, hilltop and farmland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 244 Cannock Chase
Start/finish SJ 918232
Dog friendliness Keep on lead near livestock
Parking Ample paid parking near start point
Public toilets None on route
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1 From the roundabout head away from the town, over the river. After 100yds (91m) go left along Castle Street and over the railway bridge to the main road with a roundabout. Cross and walk along the path to the next road.
2 Bear right here, heading diagonally across a road and through an avenue of trees on the other side, following the public footpath signs to the left of the houses. Follow the gravel track all the way up through the middle of the golf course and, at the top of this track, keep going straight across the field ahead of you, following a faint grass trail to a stile and, shortly after, to a path into the wood, signed to the castle visitor centre. The centre makes an ideal starting point for any visit, packed as it is with information on the Norman Conquest and featuring a short film on the history of the castle itself. There's also a shop selling snacks, souvenirs and guides, not just on the castle, but on other castles, churches and historical buildings throughout Staffordshire.
3 After following the castle's self-guided walk (¾ mile/1.2km) go back the way you came, along the bottom of the wood to the stile, and skirt left around the outside of the wood. At the corner of the wood go through the hedge and head right. Continue down through the fields following footpath signs to Doxey. Descending through these fields also serves to illustrate how tough it must have been for Saxon forces to charge in the opposite direction; even assuming they survived the onslaught of arrows from Norman long-bows, by the time they got anywhere near the castle they'd have been absolutely spent.
4 When you come to a junction and a hedge ahead, go left to a T-junction and then right towards Doxey and Burleyfields. Follow the track round to the right and back towards Stafford. When the track runs out, bear right on to the road and then left across a roundabout. Just before the next roundabout (Point 2) head left, retracing your steps back into Stafford.
In the 11th century a castle was built on the hill to the west of Stafford by William the Conqueror to keep rebellious Saxons in check. It was at this time that the substantial earthworks around the present-day castle were built. They involved a series of avenues, deep ditches, steep slopes and an impressive motte, or steep-sided earth mound, at the centre of the castle complex. Today, it's possible to take a tour of these earthworks by following a series of excellent information panels around the site, and with the help of sketches it's not hard to imagine how the castle might have looked.
Initially, the site would have resembled more of a hilltop settlement, with wooden ramparts built in concentric rings behind a series of deep ditches. The castle proper would have been a three-storey timber keep on the motte and would have doubled as the lord's residence and his military headquarters. The timber may have been plastered and painted to look like stone, to fool any approaching enemies.
It wasn't until the middle of the 14th century that Ralph, Lord Stafford, built the first stone castle on the site, complete with four octagonal corner towers. The castle stayed in the family until 1521, when Henry VIII had Edward Stafford executed on a dubious charge of treason (in reality he had a distant claim to the throne). Some 25 years later the Staffords recovered their property and titles but failed to recover their fortune. By the end of the 16th century, the castle was in a ruinous state and remained so until the Civil War broke out in 1642. Isabel, Lady Stafford, was requested to defend the castle against Parliamentary forces by Charles I, and successfully resisted months of siege.
The castle continued to be neglected until Sir George Jerningham had the ruin cleared of debris in the early 19th century and rebuilt the eastern towers in what was an early example of Gothic revival architecture. The lords and ladies of the mid-19th century were a romantic bunch and liked nothing better than to dress up their summer piles as Gothic follies complete with pointed arches and mock battlements.
Alas, Sir George never got around to the rest of the renovation and the castle has been more or less neglected ever since. In 1961, a boy playing on the remaining stonework was tragically killed by a collapsing window. The reaction of the local council was to demolish the upper part of the building, although they resisted calls to demolish the entire thing on the basis that it may still contain some of the original 14th-century masonry. Indeed, excavations begun in 1974 have shown this to be the case. Today, the castle is preserved, with a visitor centre providing a useful insight into the chronicle of the castle, and in particular its Norman founders.
There are numerous tea shops, bakeries, restaurants and bars to choose from in the town centre, from Tex-Mex to traditional pub food, but you can't go wrong with the Swan Hotel, a former coaching inn dating from 1750 which still features the original carriage entrance. The brasserie serves an extensive and varied menu, 12-10pm daily.
Built in 1595 during the reign of Elizabeth I, Stafford's Ancient High House is today the largest timber-framed townhouse in England. Charles I stayed here in 1642 at the beginning of the Civil War and the following year, when the town was captured and the castle besieged by the Parliamentarians, it became a prison for Royalist officers. Today, it has been restored to house the town's tourist information centre.
Although the castle is barely 75yds (69m) higher than the surrounding countryside, it commands surprisingly good views in every direction. From the top, looking out over the earthworks, it's easy to see how enemy forces could be spotted approaching from miles away, and how easy it must have been to defend.