Looking to bring history to life for the kids? England is dotted with historically significant castles, many of which have recently let down their drawbridges and started taking in overnight guests. London-based writer Zoey Goto took her two children (aged 8 and 2) on a tour of England, finding the best castles for a regal sleepover.
Warwick Castle, Warwick
If there were a tournament for the most fun-packed castle sleepover, Warwick Castle would certainly be the conqueror. It’s got everything that children could desire from a castle visit – from a spectacular jousting show featuring white doves and fireworks to princess storytelling sessions, a spooky dungeon and a maze based on the British TV series Horrible Histories.
As impressive as the castle is for a daytime visit, it’s the sleepover experience that really makes Warwick Castle special. Situated in the castle grounds, Knight’s Village is a collection of modern wooden lodges decked out in a playful medieval style. Think walls adorned with shields and faux-tapestry wallpaper in the kids’ rooms. A full evening of medieval-themed entertainment is included in the price of your sleepover. This involves learning jester skills, have-a-go archery and sword-fighting demonstrations. My eldest daughter particularly loved taking part in the knight training school. All of the kids – generally dressed as knights or princesses – looked to be having a blast.
The next morning we tucked into a buffet breakfast in the medieval-themed dining room while two knights challenged each other to a duel just feet from our table, much to our kids’ amusement. There really is never a dull moment at a Warwick Castle sleepover!
Best for: Action-packed, medieval-themed entertainment
Drive time from London: 1 hour and 45 minutes
Rates: Woodland Lodge from $77 per person per night (including priority entrance to the castle, ground and gardens, breakfast and evening entertainment), based on a family of four.
Hever Castle, Kent
If you asked a child to draw their ideal castle, it would probably look a lot like Hever Castle. The medieval stronghold ticks all the fairytale boxes, with swans gliding along the impressive moat, a dramatic wooden drawbridge and crenelated walls with flags flying high.
Although smaller in size than some of its English castle contemporaries, Hever Castle really punches above its weight in the history stakes. It was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, England’s short-lived queen.
In the daytime, Hever Castle does a great job of making history engaging for kids, with actors in period costume, drop-in archery lessons and jousting tournaments.
Once the public leave at the end of the day is when the magic really begins, as overnight guests get sole access to the grounds. My kids loved running wild through the beautiful walled gardens at sunset. We bedded down for the night in the bed and breakfast wing, added onto the back of the original castle and consisting of 28 Tudor-style rooms, many with roll-top baths and four-poster beds. Zip beds and cots can also be requested for kids.
At daybreak, feast on salmon and scrambled eggs in the grand breakfast room, overlooked by noble portraits of Tudor forbears. It’s quite possibly the most fun living history lesson you’ll ever have!
Best for: Bringing history to life
Drive time from London: 1 hour and 10 minutes
Rates: Deluxe double rooms (including breakfast) from $371 per night.
Leeds Castle, Kent
If it’s good enough for Henry VIII and Charlie Chaplin, it’s good enough for my kids! Leeds Castle is often referred to as the loveliest castle in the world. The picture-perfect building sits on its own island, surrounded by a reflective moat. It has had many reincarnations – starting life as a Norman fortress, then a royal Tudor palace, before being taken over in the 1920s by a glamorous American socialite who hosted Hollywood stars and British prime ministers.
While Leeds Castle continues to be a hugely popular daytime attraction, few people know that you can now actually stay overnight. Sleepovers happen in the 16th-century Maiden’s Tower, the Stable Courtyard or the family friendly Knight’s Glamping village in the castle grounds. Inside our colourful striped tent we found a four-poster bed (plus extra beds for the kids) and a wood-burning stove for those chilly British evenings. There’s the option of either cooking your meal over an open fire pit. Or, for something a little less medieval, there’s a restaurant on site, offering stunning views of the castle illuminated at night. With plenty to keep the kids entertained – from Segway tours and Go Ape treetop adventures to the Knights Stronghold Playground and mini golf – parents can relax and take in the majestic ‘Garden of England’ scenery.
Best for: A quintessentially English castle experience
Drive time from London: 1 hour and 10 minutes
Rates: Glamping tents (including access to the castle and its grounds) from $300 per night.
Bovey Castle, Devon
If you’d like a heavy dose of luxury with your castle visit, head to Devon’s beautiful Bovey Castle. The huge Jacobean-style mansion is located inside Dartmoor National Park, home to herds of longhorns and wild horses.
While Bovey Castle might not have the historical clout of other castles. It was built in 1907, making it practically a new-build in English castle terms. However, it masterfully compensates by offering a five-star guest experience. It has become a hit with families, partly due to its extensive activity schedule for kids. These include outdoorsy adventure sessions building campfires, apple-pressing and fishing. We tried the fawn-feeding experience, which involved petting and bottlefeeding some gorgeous 8-week-old deer. It was utterly heartwarming!
The hotel itself has a Hogwarts-style interior and 60 generous-size guest rooms that can interconnect for families. Try to bag a room at the front of the house as these overlook the rolling moors. There are also two award-winning restaurants on site, a family pool and a tranquil spa area. With so much to do, you’ll need a couple of days to really do this castle and its magnificent surroundings justice.
Best for: A five-star castle sleepover
Drive time from London: 4 hours
Rates: Junior State Room from $650 per night.
This story first appeared in Family Travel magazine. To subscribe or read back issues of the magazine, click here.