Wanderer at Large: Gloucestershire, Somerset & Wiltshire – Berkeley Castle

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area of England that includes the counties of Gloucestershire, Somerset & Wiltshire.

Berkeley Castle by Lamerie CC license BY-NC 2.0

Berkeley Castle

Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire is the oldest family home in England and has been privately owned by the Berkeley family stretching back through 23 generations.

As a defensive fortress it is the real McCoy, built to keep out Welsh tribes. However, it’s main claim to fame rests in the 14th century when it became the location of a medieval regicide.

Edward II (r1307-27) was born in Wales in 1284. He married Isabella of France (1295-1358) and had three children. His early reign was disastrous and he ‘lost’ Scotland, which his father Edward I had conquered. Edward II’s forces were humiliatingly defeated at Bannockburn by Robert the Bruce.

Edward was bisexual, and his favourite male partners, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, invited much antagonism from the barons at court and, indeed his own wife Isabella. While Isabella was in Paris, sent as bargaining chip to the French King, she had an affair with a rebel baron in exile. Roger Mortimer.

Together they plotted against the king and seized power taking him captive. On September 21st, 1327, Edward was horribly murdered at Berkeley Castle. Let’s not go into the grisly details, suffice to say the implements of death are said to have included a trumpet and a red-hot poker! Edward was subsequently buried in Gloucester Cathedral while the despots Isabella & Mortimer ruled the country as ‘regents’. Isabella has subsequently become known as the ‘She Wolf’ of English history.

Despite the dramatic backstory, William Shakespeare never based a play on this royal saga. However his rival Christopher Marlowe did, and the castle is the setting for the penultimate scene in his Edward II, or to give it the snappy full title: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer, known as Edward II.

Yet there is still a strong connection with William Shakespeare here. Because A Midsummer Night’s Dream was commissioned and written for the Berkeley family. Yes, one of the most successful plays in theatre history was performed for the very first time at Berkeley Castle for the wedding between Thomas Berkeley and Elizabeth Carey on February 19th, 1596.

In the 17th century, the castle returned to military matters during the Civil War, after which, a law stipulated that the damage wrought on this Royalist stronghold by Oliver Cromwell’s guns was not to be repaired.

There are many American Berkeley connections. In the 18th century, the owner was blamed for the loss of the American colonies. It was here that John Stafford Smith wrote the music for the song which would become the American national anthem, Star Spangled Banner. The successful defence of Baltimore inspired new lyrics which were adopted by the United States. George Berkeley was an 18th century Anglo-Irish minister and philosopher descended from Berkeley nobles. The California university is named after him.

Highlights of a tour include the Great Hall, with its architectural arch, a motif exclusive to the family, and under which the West Country barons met before the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215. Also, the King’s Gallery. Ask to be shown the part of the floor which serves as drop into the dungeon where prisoners would be thrown onto rotting animals. Nice.

Other things to look out for: the story of how Francis Drake, the Tudor sailor and hero of the Spanish Armada saga, who came to stay as a guest in the 16th century; the famous Berkeley silver collection; portraits by Stubbs, Lely and Kneller; and the story of the last Vivaldi arias which were found in the library. The gardens too, are of a rarely seen style.

Lunch can be found onsite or in the village of Berkeley. Try the local cheese, Double Gloucester, which is made in Berkeley Vale. It is matured late season and has a reddish colour.

Berkeley Castle: It’s interesting. Very interesting!

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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