Home to the Berkeley family for more than eight hundred years, Berkeley Castle towers above the River Severn, looking out towards the Welsh border which it was built to defend, its flag flying high. Around its walls lie the gardens where nuns lived in Saxon times, where Queen Elizabeth I walked in 1574, and where Edward Jenner pioneered the smallpox vaccine in 1796. Standing on the walls, and looking out across the lawn and meadows, this magical castle tells its own story
Built for Henry II in 1154, the keep surrounds the original mound of the Norman Castle, which in turn was built on the site of a Saxon nunnery. The castle, like all Norman castles, stands on a high point to command the surrounding countryside and facilitate defence. The massive stone edifice rears out of the hillside; as Gertrude Jekyll wrote when she saw it: ‘The giant walls and mighty buttresses look as if they have been carved by wind and weather out of some solid rock-mass, rather than wrought by human handiwork.
When the day is coming to its close, and the light becomes a little dim, and thin mist-films arise from the meadows, it might be an enchanted castle.’ The water meadows below the castle could be flooded at will to protect against potential enemies in dangerous times.Below the castle walls, the gardens fall away in terraces of grass walks with shrubs and climbers on the walls. Gertrude Jekyll helped to plant the terraces at the beginning of the last century, and today the planting specialises in scent, with roses a particular strength, while red valerian springs from the rugged walls. On the first level is the Bowling Alley, where Queen Elizabeth I played, the castle walls rising on one side, and a high yew hedge on the other. Turning back at the end of the alley, there are fine views of the castle.
The ancient yews have been variously clipped into arches in the eighteenth century and later into elephants, but the design is now lost.On the lower terrace below the Bowling Alley is the Lily Pond with a fountain playing, and a stone balustrade entwined with wisteria. Steps descend to the great lawn, and from the top of the steps can be seen the kennels and stables of the Berkeley hunt, and beyond the deer park has herds of red and fallow deer. On the lawn a row of yews are clipped into tall pillars, while two pines said to have been brought back as cones from the battle of Culloden by the fourth Earl,are now tall and stately.
In the walled garden is a glass house which is used as a butterfly farm, warm and humid, where the forty two species of butterflies including some from Japan and Indonesia are free to fly and to rest on the tropical plants.The castle was the place of imprisonment and murder of King Edward II in 1327. It was written about by Shakespeare in Richard II:’How far is it my Lord to Berkeley now? Believe me, noble lord, I am a stranger here in Gloucestershire: These high wild hills and rough uneven ways draws out our miles and makes them wearisome.’ But today it is far from wearisome to visit Berkeley Castle; it is refreshing and rewarding and its long and fascinating history is written into the fabric of the ancient buildings.