There’s something utterly fabulous about castles. Perhaps it’s the unique combination of history, mystery and sheer grandeur. Or perhaps it’s simply the turrets – they always do it for me. So I’m delighted that my children seem to have caught the castle bug.
Until recently, I wasn’t convinced that, aged six and three, my kids were old enough for castle exploration, but my reservations proved ill-founded. The fortress that won them over is one of the most impressive I have ever visited, and trust me, I’ve seen a lot in my time.
Mont Orgueil (AKA Gorey Castle) overlooking Gorey Harbour in the east of Jersey is one of the island's icons: it looks exactly like a castle should. However, I’ve learnt from bitter experience that looks can be deceptive, and some castles do disappoint – fussy stewards stop you from exploring properly, or too many little staircases or exhibits are roped off and unfriendly.
This is quite definitely not the case at Mont Orgueil. It’s fabulous to look at from the outside but a real treasure inside as well – especially after a makeover that has made it fun for all the family. Great features are a room full of dressing-up clothes (my children dressed as knights, pirates, jesters and princesses) and, halfway up the site, a gorgeous wooden playground. There are also wooden soldiers, bows and arrows at the ready, and a life-size sculpture of a medieval knight on a horse. In addition, Jersey Heritage has a Living History team, members of which are on hand and offer daily demonstrations. They include an expert on Tudor military weapons and a fine lady who demonstrates the Tudor pastime of hawking.
These family-friendly additions don’t detract from the castle’s innate appeal; on the contrary, they add to it. And the castle itself is terrific even without them. It’s truly beautiful, with seemingly hundreds of rooms, lots of tiny staircases to explore and the most magnificent view from the very top. Many rooms house fascinating exhibits, from tobacco pipes, discovered over the years, to a splendid 16th-century portrait of Sir Anthony Paulet, Governor of Jersey, from 1588 until his death in 1600. In the newly renovated Great Chamber there is also a remarkable 3D holographic picture of Queen Elizabeth II.
Mont Orgueil was built in the 13th century, originally to defend Jersey from the French (who are just 22km away). Over the years it’s been added to and altered, mainly in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. When suggestions were made to demolish it and use its stone to build a new castle elsewhere on the island, Sir Walter Raleigh, another governor of Jersey, refused. It’s thanks to him that the castle still stands (although a new structure, Elizabeth Castle, was built on the island and did usurp it as Jersey’s main fortress).
There are lots of steps here, so it’s not suitable with buggies or wheelchairs, but there are lots of places to sit down and rest, and there is plenty of well-written information. It’s a wonderful place, and though we spent hours there we could happily have stayed longer.
Read more about family holidays and breaks in the Channel Islands.