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Herstmonceux Castle


Visited August 2015

Location Nr. Hailsham, East Sussex
Entrance Fee Yes
Railway Station Nearby Polegate Station
Parking Yes
Facilities Cafe, Toilets, Science Centre


This fifteenth century castle, which appears to be almost floating on the wide moat around it, was one of the first to be built in brick rather than stone. It is the oldest example of a large scale brick building to survive in England.






The builder of this castle was Sir Roger Fiennes, born 1384 at Herstmonceux in Sussex. He was greatly rewarded for fighting in campaigns for Henry V, and was made Royal Treasurer by Henry VI. At the time he was the owner of the manor of Herstmonceux and also Hever Castle, but was not satisfied that either of them were grand enough for a man of his position. In 1441 he was granted a licence to crenellate his manor house , and so the building of the castle was begun. 


Despite giving the impression of a mighty medieval stronghold, the castle was actually pretty useless as a defensive structure. The moat does not go all the way round, the brick walls would not be strong enough to repel cannon fire and the gun ports are at the wrong angle to actually fire a weapon from. However, Sir Roger was aiming more for a symbol of his great wealth than a fortress, and at Herstmonceux he certainly succeeded in creating an impressive country pile.


Sir Roger did not have much time to enjoy his new home as he died just four years later in 1445. His family held onto the castle for several more generations until 1541 when his great grandson Thomas was hanged for the murder of a gamekeeper at the age of 25. All the Fiennes land and titles were forfeited to the King,  and although they were eventually restored to Thomas' daughter Margaret by Elizabeth I, the castle was at that time in decline. Margaret's husband was a Lennard, and the Lennard family owned the castle until 1693 when the castle was sold to pay off gambling debts.





The castle then had a succession of owners, some of them attempted to keep the castle in good order, others not at all interested. Fast forward to 1948 and the grounds of Herstmonceux were chosen for the new location of the Royal Observatory, which was being moved from Greenwich. Telescopes were installed in the grounds, and the observatory remained there until the late 1980's, when it was moved again. The buildings vacated by the Observatory were then turned into a science centre, which is open to the public as an attraction (see our 'Other Places of Interest' page for details).


Meanwhile in 1992 the castle was bought by Queens University , Canada and operates today as a college under the name of 'The Bader International Study Centre'. The castle and gardens have been restored and are open to the public, although the college is the main business at the castle today, with tourists as a sideline. The castle interior can be visited as part of a tour, but we did not go inside as their was a wedding on the day we visited so the inside areas were closed to visitors. The gardens are spectacular, with formal areas, woodland walks a mock Georgian house, and a magic garden with mushrooms, tree logs (and Fairies, apparently).


There is a tea room at the castle selling light snacks and they also sell a few souvenirs & postcards, as there is no gift shop at the castle (which is a relief sometimes!)





The castle & gardens offer a joint ticket with entry to the science centre in the castle grounds. It is a hands-on experience, with lots of activities to try. The joint ticket is good value and the science centre is a good fun way to round off the day. It has outdoor as well as indoor activities, so is good for all weather. It was very busy on the day we went.  There is a cafe and gift shop on site, and tours of the telescope domes at certain times.


Our main tip for visiting the castle is don't get there before the opening time. The grounds open at 10am, due to more favourable road conditions than expected we arrived a whole ten minutes early at 9.50. The member of staff in the payment booth was most upset by our early presence, and seemed to not know what to do with us, even though we said we were happy to sit in the car and wait the ten minutes until opening. It was a slightly uncomfortable atmosphere while we waited, but we cannot believe that arriving a few minutes before opening time is such a rare occurrence that it should have caused such a state of flummox! Still, once we were allowed in we were early enough to be able to take our photos with no other tourists around, so it all worked out in the end.





More info:  Herstmonceux Castle

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