So, I honestly wasn’t all that keen on visiting Carisbrooke Castle. Charles I has never been that high on my list (he’s never been that high on anyone’s list, which was clearly part of the problem), and to add to that, Carisbrooke is a good mile and a half from Newport, which, to avoid the expensive and erratic local buses, necessitated a long trudge up a very steep hill. However, it seemed silly to take the hovercraft over to the Isle of Wight solely to see Osborne House, and as I’d been to the Needles, the donkey sanctuary, and the Garlic Farm on a previous trip, I was fast running out of island attractions. Therefore, Carisbrooke Castle it was.
Carisbrooke is an English Heritage property, which means they will try to persuade you to buy a membership, (even going so far as to only post the membership prices outside the door, to confuse foreign tourists) but if you stand firm, admission to Carisbrooke alone is £7.70. The castle is most famous for being the place where Charles I was imprisoned prior to his execution, but the oldest bits of the castle date back to 1100, with various renovations throughout the centuries – the last being by Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, the other most famous resident. The castle is also fairly renowned for its donkeys, of which more later.
There’s a fair number of things to see around the castle, but we began with the museum, which was laid out in a handful of rooms over three floors. I really disliked the signage in this museum; everything was in an irritatingly large font, giving the impression that the displays were intended solely for children, which I don’t think was the case, but it nonetheless infantilised the exhibits in an unpleasant way. Captions aside, there wasn’t much point attempting to look around the ground floor, as it was packed full of children using the miniature trebuchet; clearly their parents were desperate to distract them after the donkey water wheel demonstration was postponed (I almost typed “donkey show” but I’d better not even go there).
The top floor did contain some cool things, like the freaky doll pictured above, (her legs were in, er, pap smear position, whilst her torso was rotated the other way; no explanation for this was provided) and a player piano dating back to the 17th century that still worked! The main exhibit was on John Milne, (no relation to A.A.) geologist and pioneering seismologist, which my boyfriend was pretty excited about, but I found it kind of boring, and only perked up when I saw his paper on the Great Auk (anyone pick up on the Laura Ingalls Wilder connection?).
There were some good Charles I artefacts in one of the attic rooms (yeah, he stinks compared to his son, but I’ll take regicide-related objects over geology any day), including the lace cap and cravat he was said to have worn on the day of his execution, and a lock of his hair, as well as some Roundhead armour and other Civil War memorabilia.
The first floor contained Charles’s bedroom, but it has been so altered over the years, from having all the furniture replaced, to adding a useless minstrels gallery (and that’s not me being snarky, it actually was useless, as there were no stairs to access it!), that it bore little resemblance to the room he would have known. Even the windows, which he mounted an escape attempt from, were changed, so I couldn’t even tell if he reasonably got stuck, or if he simply wasn’t trying hard enough (the current windows are much bigger than the originals would have been, so I couldn’t go by that).
There was, at least, a rather good portrait of Charles II as a child, which wasn’t really compensation for the renovated windows, but it was something. It’s worth noting that Charles I’s daughter Elizabeth was also imprisoned briefly here after his death, until she contracted pneumonia and died.
Stepping out of the museum, we headed over to the chapel, which serves as both a Charles I and WWI memorial, and contains the cracking bust of Charles pictured at the top of this post. Though the whole “remember” thing just made me think of the Guy Fawkes rhyme, which was another monarchical crisis entirely, it was a lovely quiet chapel, with a nice echoey floor.
In an antechamber off the chapel, there was a video room showing the history of Carisbrooke Castle as told by a cartoon donkey that appeared to simultaneously rip off Shrek and Wallace and Gromit. The actual donkeys are kept in a stable at the other side of the complex, from which they emerge several times a day to walk around the treadwheel to power the well, mainly for the delight of tourists. They’re all given “J” names, but alas, there was no Jessica donkey; however, there was a Jill and a Jim Bob, which reminded me a bit too much of the Duggars (yes, I used to get sucked into watching that show when I was back home, because American TV is uniformly awful, with the exception of reruns of Seinfeld). Cute donkeys though.
Let’s see, the other main attractions involved walking up a crapload of uneven stairs to the top of the castle walls and the well, (which proved to be gratifyingly deep when I dropped a penny down it), or heading down to the Bowling Green, where Charles may have been allowed to exercise. The top of the castle offers views of most of the Isle of Wight, and a garderobe, sans functional hole. The Bowling Green was basically just a field, with cannons perched around the edges, and some hills that looked perfect for rolling down, but I didn’t want to ruin my dress, so I’ll never know.
I shouldn’t neglect Beatrice’s garden, which was an Edwardian walled garden full of bees, and some butterflies, much to my dismay (damn stupid phobia). The final part of the castle worth noting was the keep, which now contains a few replica weapons, like a crank-operated crossbow (you can turn it to your heart’s content, but obviously nothing is going to happen) and a cannon that “fires” when you touch the fuse to it (loud noise +flash of light).
Ultimately, I think Carisbrooke Castle was middling at best. At the end of the day, it was just a castle, and not substantially different from others I’ve seen; Charles I being kept prisoner was clearly the most exciting thing that’s ever happened here. 3/5; worth seeing if you’re interested in the Stuarts, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. And be sensible; drive or take a bus, because the walk is not especially pleasant. They do sell chocolate “rat droppings” in the gift shop though, which I guess counts for something!