Orford Castle is a Grade I listed, 12th century keep on the east coast of England in the county of Suffolk, which was described by historian R. Allen Brown as “one of the most remarkable keeps in England” in his 1962 book on Orford Castle. Certainly, the keep has a unique design for buildings of the period. Still in an excellent condition, the keep is now managed by English Heritage.
Standing tall at the top of Castle Hill in the very pretty village of Orford, the keep has dominated the area since it was completed in 1173. The town of Orford was started in 1100 by Norman nobleman, Robert Malet, who took advantage of the natural harbour in the area, and it soon became a bustling port. The land changed hands and became part of ‘The Honour of Eye’; a huge estate that comprised parishes, lands and manor houses across eight counties.
In 1159, King Henry II gave The Honour of Eye to his chancellor and friend, Thomas Becket. Making Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury in the hope that he would help Henry control the power of the church, the two fell out when Becket instead sought to increase the powers of the Church. Becket fled in 1164 and Henry II took control of the lands in The Honour of the Eye, building Orford Castle.
The castle stayed under royal ownership until the 14th century, when Edward III gave the castle to the future Earl of Suffolk as a reward for loyalty. The castle then remained in private hands, passing down through inheritance and marriage until 1872. In 1928, it was given to the Orford Town Trust and to English Heritage in 1962.
From the 16th century, the castle had started to fall into disrepair, with the outer walls removed, the port silting up and the town decreasing in size. Today, all that remains of the castle is the keep and earthworks. The keep is 90 foot high, built of septaria, limestone, mudstone and Coralline Crag. Its design is unusual, a cross between the squared buttresses of Norman design with the circular keeps of later designs.
The keep today is the bare bones of the building, with some information panels and activities for kids to keep them informed and occupied. The visit starts in the Lower Hall, with a huge stone fireplace, tall windows to let in the light and a stone bench running around the wall. This room was used for feasting as well as holding local court sessions. Today it has a model of the castle, which highlights the unusual structure of the keep, and visitors can pick up an audio guide to hear more about the castle. Chambers lead off the Lower Hall, and kids can explore the kitchen and guardsman bedrooms.
Spiral stone staircases lead up to other rooms, such as the chapel with the remains of a stone altar, cupboards for storing the altar plate, a stone sink used for washing communion vessels, and even some traces of the paintwork which once adorned the walls. The presence of a latrine in the chambers nearby suggests that the priest had his own rooms with an early en suite.
A bakery in the keep has the remains of an oven, lined with roof and floor tiles, which are among the earliest examples of their kind in England. Bread was served at all meals, white for the elite and brown for the rest of them.
The Upper Hall and chambers were originally intended for use by the King. Today, it houses the Orford Museum, which has a variety of objects of significance to Orford. Displays show that the area has been occupied since the Neolithic, with a stone axe head dating from 1500 BC, Bronze Age pottery, Roman coins, clay pipes and more.
It is possible to climb right to the top of the keep and stand on the parapet to admire the views. With blustery winds blowing us all around as we stood up there, there were shrieks of delight from the kids, and tickets and receipts being blown out of pockets, whirling in the wind around us. The keep was used as a radar station during World War II, being in a prime position on the coast and elevated above everything else, but all traces of this and the Nissan huts around it have since been dismantled.
At the very bottom of the castle is the basement, where food and supplies were stored. A well in the centre of the room provided a source of water, and a stone sink and smoke vent show that food preparation may well have taken place here. There is also a prison cell, which has its own latrine. It is here that we learn about the ‘Wild Man of Orford’, chronicled by Ralph of Coggeshall in 1207, who describes a naked man, covered in hair, who was caught in fishing nets in 1167. He was imprisoned in the castle and tortured until he eventually managed to escape, returning to the sea.
The castle is enjoyable for kids as English Heritage have added activities in some of the rooms to keep them entertained; although running around and exploring the various nooks and crannies they will probably enjoy more. Certainly it was the thick stone walls, high windows, rooms appearing around corners and the slight terror induced by the spiral staircase that seemed to keep the children entertained while we there. As well as trying to stand upright in the wind in the parapets of course.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the part of the castle that my son enjoyed the most was the earthworks outside. Created from not just the walls which were removed but also from all of the quarrying of the stones which took place in later years, now they are soft, grassy mounds; perfect for kids to run up and roll down in the sunshine, which plenty of them were doing.
VISITING ORFORD CASTLE
Summer Season: Daily 10am – 6pm
Winter season: Weekends only 10am – 4pm
Children (under 17) £4.70
Free for English Heritage Members