There’s a picture postcard quality to almost everything in Berkhamsted, from the impressive remains of the old Norman castle to the exceptionally pretty and well-ordered manner that the Grand Union Canal winds through town, past pubs and fields. Both are here because the town is an important strategic between London and the Midlands, and both are worth visiting for an enjoyable day trip.
The castle was originally built in the 11th century as a timber motte-and-bailey castle. It was one of the most important Norman castles because of the proximity to London, and it was built by William the Conqueror’s half-brother and then occupied by a number of significant figures such as the Black Prince as it remained in royal hands. One owner was Thomas Becket, who acted as Henry II’s chancellor, and he constructed a large stone curtain wall.
Even the remains that exist today demonstrate that this was designed to be physically intimidating, and the castle was very much a fortress, with huge walls and various sets of earthworks. It also had water-filled ditches to prevent enemies from tunnelling under the wall. It was attacked in 1216 when Prince Louis of France was invited by English barons to take the thrown from the child king Henry III. After a two-week siege, the castle surrendered. In later years, Berkhamsted Castle became the administrative centre for the Earl of Cornwall, and was enlarged and made more accommodating. However, when Elizabeth I inherited the castle it was no longer occupied. She gave it to Edward Carey in 1580 and he built a new house nearby, Berkhamsted Place, and let the castle fall to ruin.
That’s the current condition of the castle, which is an English Heritage property. But like many ruins it’s picturesque, providing an atmosphere of faded grandeur and still dominating the town. Running close by is the Grand Union Canal – Castle Wharf was once the centre of boat building. A totem pole is now on the site of an old boat yard, while nearby is Ashridge woods, which was once the home of the Duke Of Bridgewater, the Canal Duke who built the first canals. There’s lots to do around the towpath at Berkhamsted – and there’s also three pubs should you need a rest – check out our website for more information on the area.