Somerset conjures images of idyllic rolling hills, quaintly peaceful villages and gorgeous market towns, but delve deep and you’ll uncover a feudal past too. This was a time when castles and fortresses ruled the land, protecting the county from attack, whether from errant Vikings, emboldened Yorkists during the War of the Roses, or the Royalists during the English Civil War.
Whether they’re crowning hills or in the heart of a bustling town, a ghostly ruin or a wealthy man’s whim, Somerset has a fascinating and eclectic collection of castles waiting to be explored during your day out, many of them are free to visit too.
Ready to step back in time? Take a look at our top choice of castles to explore in Somerset for the ultimate holiday wanderlist.
Dunster Castle, near Minehead
Set dramatically on a wooded hill with magnificent views across Exmoor National Park, Dunster Castle dates back to the Norman times and comes complete with the most gorgeous gardens to explore too. Home to the Luttrell family, who lived here for over 600 years, it’s a mish-mash of a medieval castle, Jacobean mansion, and Victorian family home – offering a fascinating glimpse of history through the ages. Managed these days by the National Trust, the castle is brimming with fascinating antiques and artefacts, most notably the rare leather wall hangings depicting the love story of Antony and Cleopatra, the only example of that type in the whole of Britain.
Other buildings of note include the grand stables, built in the 17th century, which once held the huge warhorses needed for battle, and the Victorian watermill, where you can see the traditional machinery at work through demonstrations. The beautiful terraced garden has a wonderful display of Mediterranean and subtropical plants, including a riverside wooded garden, bowling green, and an unusual underground Victorian reservoir that’s built into the hill and served to supply the castle with water.
At the top of the gardens, the views are breathtaking and you can see as far as the coast. Little ones will love the natural play area, where they can let off steam, while there’s a tearoom, pop-up café, second-hand bookshop and a shop set up within the stables. After you’ve explored the castle and grounds, take a stroll into the pretty medieval village of Dunster with its numerous shops, places to eat and wealth of listed buildings (over 200 of them) including the Old Yarn Market, which lies in the middle of the high street.
Nunney Castle, near Frome
Dating from the 1370s, Nunney Castle is a romantic ruin these days, but was originally the project of a local knight named Sir John de la Mare. Celebrating his recent favour with the king, Sir John wanted a moted fortification to call his own so set about building an imposing castle that could withstand attack if need be. Set in leafy, lush surroundings, the moated castle was modernised in the late 16th century but was later damaged by the Parliamentarians in 1645 during the English Civil War. Sadly left to ruin, Nunney Castle today still maintains its awe-inspiring hold on the surrounding area with its great tower standing proudly within the castle walls, corner towers, and moat.
A wonderful place for young ones (and the young at heart) to play, where knights, princesses, and the occasional dragon can be brought to life within the old ruins, it’s a fascinating glimpse back into the days of medieval chivalry. Managed by English Heritage, entry to the castle is free and there’s also a free car park nearby. The castle isn’t far from Frome, a fantastic town that has lots of independent shops, a famous market, and plenty of places to eat and drink.
Farleigh Hungerford Castle, near Bath
This impressive fortified mansion dates from the 14th century and lies just 9 miles from Bath. Set in the lush valley of the River Frome, Farleigh Hungerford Castle was home to the Hungerford family for over 300 years and saw its fair share of scandals and shenanigans. From battling alongside Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt and serving as the Treasurer of England, the 1st Lord Hungerford was definitely the family’s most impressive member, and at his death he owned more than 100 manors and estates in the west of England.
Unfortunately the family fell out of favour during the War of the Roses with the last Lord Hungerford and his eldest son executed for their loyalty to the Lancastrian cause. In the years that followed, the castle witnessed lots of murder and misfortune – Agnes Hungerford murdered her husband and burnt the body in the kitchen furnace, while Sir Walter Hungerford III imprisoned and tried to poison his wife (who fortunately survived), before being executed for witchcraft and treason alongside Cromwell.
The family’s fortune experienced a series of ups and downs until the castle was sold in 1705 when much of it was levelled. The castle became something of a tourist spot in the 19th century for those who loved the romanticism of medieval chivalry - the future Emperor of France, Napoleon III, is said to have visited amongst other notable people who looked to wander through the ruins. Today, the castle is managed by English Heritage and offers a fascinating day out, with highlights including the chapel with rare medieval wall paintings, the Priest’s house, and the largest collection of human-shaped lead coffins in Britain – definitely one for the macabre-minded! The castle is open at the weekend, with parking nearby and a shop selling English Heritage gifts.
Taunton Castle, Taunton
Sitting in the heart of Somerset’s county town, Taunton Castle was once part of a grand estate owned by the bishops of Winchester, which reached all the way to the banks of the River Thames. There’s evidence that a residence and church existed all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon times, but it was mainly built in the 12th century by the grandson of William the Conqueror when it became a wealthy administrative hub that welcomed King John and his son Henry III.
The castle also witnessed its fair share of warfare during the Battle of the Roses and the Civil War, when it was defended for Parliament, and it was also the setting for the Bloody Assizes in 1685, presided over by the formidable Judge Jeffries who sentenced 144 rebels from the Monmouth Rebellion to be hung, drawn, and quartered. The following years saw the castle serve as a law court before falling into disrepair, and was bought in 1874 by the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society who restored the castle and turned it into a museum, which still remains there to this day.
Entry to Taunton’s museum and castle is free (although a donation is much appreciated), where you can soak up the castle’s atmosphere while at the same time delving into 400 million years of Somerset’s history. The castle is also home to the Somerset Military Museum, which showcases the history of the regiments of Somerset during times of peace and war. Open Tuesday to Saturday (and Bank Holiday Mondays), there’s a courtyard café and a museum shop for those essential mementos of your visit.
Daws Castle, Watchet
Set on a high, exposed cliff overlooking the pretty harbour town of Watchet lies the Saxon fortification of Daws Castle. Founded in the 9th century by King Alfred the Great to protect the town from marauding Viking raiders, it was one of several fortifications that protected the area. A place of high status, Daws Castle had its own mint, producing coins as far back as 978AD. By medieval times, the castle had been abandoned and was only rediscovered in the 19th century when building lime kilns in the area.
Today the only remnants of the castle to be seen are the earthworks spread over approximately five acres. The ruins are tucked away but well worth the walk for the incredible views along the coast. You’ll need to park in Watchet and take the route from Mill Street (the coastal path at Cleeve Hill that also passes Daws Castle is currently closed due to safety reasons).
Sham Castle, Bath
As the name suggests, Sham Castle isn’t actually a castle as such, but rather a humorous folly with spectacular views. Set on Claverton Down overlooking the city of Bath and near the golf course, it’s a screen wall in the shape of a castle with two circular turrets, two square towers, and a central archway.
Commissioned by Ralph Allen (famed for quarrying Bath stone), it was built in 1762 to improve his view from his family home in the city. Today, a visit to Sham Castle means a picturesque woodland walk up to the summit – it is steep, but well worth it for the spectacular views, especially at sunset, and made even nicer if you take a picnic with you. If you’re up for a longer walk, you can combine a visit to the ‘castle’ on the Bath Circular Walk, which is about 5 miles long and explores the city and surrounding countryside.
Ready to take a deep delve into this county’s colourful history? Take a peek at our beautiful holiday cottages in Somerset and start planning your visit to this historic and beautiful corner of the West Country.