It’s Not Another Victorian Mock Castle (It’s a Regency One)

Eastnor Castle looks like the perfect medieval fantasy castle. Upon a first glimpse, you may even wonder if you are on your way to visit an amusement park, but this is just another great example of the Victorian obsession with building mock castles. It is one of the earliest examples and to be honest, in this case, it is not even Victorian, but a Regency mock castle. 

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The estate at Eastnor has been owned by the Cocks family since the 16th century and a small Georgian mansion was built in it (the remains of that house are now underwater in the middle of the manmade lake). The current castle was constructed between 1810-1820 by Lord John Somers Cocks and the price tag was about £5.5 million in today’s value. Eastnor Castle is one of the first structures to use steel beams as part of its construction. The central part of the build happened during the Napoleonic wars and it was impossible to get enough timber beams which were needed for the Royal Navy. The architect was Robert Smirke who is mainly known for designing the British Museum. Like many similar great houses, Eastnor Castle was built as a statement to the wealth and status of Lord Somers. The statement was successful and the 2nd Baron was elevated to an earldom immediately after the castle was built. 

Unfortunately, this massive build left the fresh earl almost entirely out of pocket, meaning that he had to leave the main rooms in the castle empty and it was up to the next generation of second and third earls to finish the interior of the castle. The 3rd Earl was an avid collector of many different types of artefacts, but most notably of suits of armour and today, Eastnor holds the most extensive private collection of armour in the whole of England. 

The Somers earldom ended with the death of the 3rd Earl. The castle was inherited by his eldest daughter Isabella who was extremely religious. Isabella married Henry Somerset, the second son of the 8th Duke of Beaufort, and had a son (his direct descendant became the 11th Duke of Beaufort). 

A few years after the marriage, Isabella discovered that her husband was a homosexual who was having an affair with his 17-year-old servant. During Victorian times, homosexuality was a criminal offence and in most cases, Victorian ladies preferred to turn a blind eye to the actions of their husbands. Isabella was different. She outed her husband by separating from him and going to court demanding custody of their son. Henry had to flee the country (with his servant lover) to avoid arrest. 

Breaking the Victorian code of conduct cost Isabella dearly and she was ostracised from society. As an alternative, religious Isabella focused her efforts on the temperance movement and the fight against alcohol and as part of that, she emptied all the wine from the Eastnor wine cellars into the lake. Isabella spent much of her wealth on the cause and to raise more funds, she opened the house to the public for the first time in 1880.

Like many castles and grand homes, maintaining the house in the 20th century was not easy and during the 1950s, there were even plans to demolish it. The restoration of the castle began in 1989 by a family descendant named James Harvey Bathurst. The house is still owned and lived in by James and his family. 

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The Great Family-Friendly Victorian Fantasy

We went to see Eastnor Castle twice. Our first visit was with our children during an Easter weekend and the next one took place during what one of the guides named a “Mellow Monday” in June. As you can imagine, they were two very different experiences. 

Eastnor Castle is still owned by the members of the family who built it at the beginning of the 19th century. From our own experience, private castles tend to present themselves to visitors on a spectrum between theme parks and historic houses. Our family visit made me feel that Eastnor is probably leaning towards the theme park approach, especially when next to the castle, you can find the “Land Rover Experience”. There were plenty of attractions for the children to explore in the grounds of the castle, starting with a wonderful maze, a climbing frame, adventure trail and much more. Even the inside of the castle felt a bit like a theme park. It reminded me of visiting Warwick Castle with so many armours and medieval weapons on display (but this time in a Regency mock castle). 

 

Our next visit was a bit different. This time we could join a guided tour that took about an hour and covered the staterooms on the ground floor. The tour was focused on the history of the castle and the family who built it and it helped to put things into perspective. The armour collection, for example, was not, in fact, a tourist attraction, but a serious collection of the passionate 3rd Earl Somers and some of the armours had a fascinating story to tell. What I also enjoyed learning about in the tour was the challenge of private families to manage and maintain castles in the 21st century. Sadly, however, the tour was missing some great stories: the 19th-century tinder crash of the 3rd Earl, for example, or the story about his daughter’s ugly outing of her gay husband. So if you are planning on visiting the castle, I would suggest reading them in our stories section first. 

Adding the stories of the conservation battle to the tour was actually a brilliant idea. Compared with medieval castles, Eastnor could not compete with its history, but the struggle to maintain it without massive funds (such as provided by the National Trust) makes it a unique and interesting story. I wonder if a place for an exhibition in one of the outer buildings telling various elements from this “quest” could be found?

Next, we had some time to explore the grounds of the castle. We had already explored all the family-friendly attractions during our first visit and so now we could focus on the grounds themselves. It is easy to say that the main feature is the massive man-made lake. Walking around it is not the shortest trip, but it was very satisfying and enjoyable, especially when the gardens were in bloom. 

To sum things up, Eastnor Castle is a great family-friendly place that can easily offer a fun day out for everyone with various ways to spend it. However, it is not the most accessible place to explore if your focus of the visit is on its history or heritage. If you are visiting during a weekend when guided tours are not on offer and you still looking to explore the actual house and the rooms, then you should probably do some research in advance and try to have a conversation with some of the guides to fill in the gaps. By now you know that I like to use the example of the Michelin Guide to rank castles and Eastnor Castle is definitely worth one star.