Would you like a castle? Perhaps one started in the time of William the Conqueror on a fresh hillock now grown old, surrounded by oak trees and docile brown and white cattle. Would you like it if each generation of occupants had added a room or a wing depending on their fates and resources? And while you're at it, can your imagination accommodate a distant view of the sea? If this is the vision you have, your mind's eye has been gazing on Arundel Castle in West Sussex.
Ancient fields roll right up to the castle walls, the pond has swans, fence lines and hedge rows seem to be designed as sets for Peter Cottontail and Watership Down. The main street of the little town slopes up towards the castle as it always has, and side streets are stacked with well kept row houses.
Nothing could look more innocent and typical of English rural peace than Arundel, the town and the surrounding pastoral countryside as it appears today.
The castle dominates it all. It looks as if it has leapt fully formed form a romantic imagination, and in many ways it has. The castle has been where it is for 929 years, but the face it now presents to the world is a Victorian creation.
Arundel has been forming and reforming for all of its 929 years and every twist and turn of the families who have owned and occupied Arundel is reflected in the architecture they left behind. In 1067, William the Conqueror gave the site , and a third of Sussex, to his friend Roger de Montgomery as a way to say thanks for looking after Normandy while he, William, was busy conquering England. Roger's stone keep still stands in the castle's central courtyard. It is midway between the Duke's parking space and the Earl's tennis court.
A few centuries after Roger there was Edmund, 2nd Earl of Arundel. He had time to build the barbican by the gate house, also still standing, before he was executed in 1326 by Queen Isabella's lover for being caught on the wrong side of palace intrigue. After that, Arundel was given to the Earl of Kent, but he lost his head in 1330 and the estate went back to Edmund's son, Richard.
Richard's son, the 4th earl, was important enough to carry the crown at Richard II's coronation. The 4th earl fell from favour and was beheaded too, but before he went to the block he built the Church of St. Nicholas on the castle grounds.
By the time of Henry VIII, the owners of Arundel had moved up a notch in the aristocratic pecking order and had become dukes. The 3rd Duke of Norfolk procured his two lovely nieces as brides for Henry VIII and stood by as Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard were beheaded.
The treacherous 3rd duke also had his daughter married to the illegitimate son of the king, but even that did not stop his eventual fall from grace. The duke escaped the block only because Henry VIII died the day before the sentence could be carried out. There is a portrait of the 3rd Duke in the castle's Long Gallery, and even without any knowledge of his life, you somehow know that this is not a man you'd like to meet in the dark.
In 1613 Arundel was sacked by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. They mounted guns on the roof of the 4th duke's church and fired over the walls. The castle lay an empty ruin for 75 years.
The largest and most impressive part of Arundel Castle was built after 1787 by the 11th duke who was an amateur architect. Queen Victoria visited in 1846 on her great tour of the realm, causing the road through the town to be widened and the grade made gentler to accommodate her carriage - a mark which the street still bears.
The "Victoria Room" is still intact at Arundel, still furnished with Victorian imitations of Elizabethan furniture specifically commissioned to please Victoria & Albert. Arundel Castle is one of the original places to make a fuss over the fact that "Queen Victoria Slept Here".
These days the town of Arundel and its castle exude the sort of calm they must have had in the periods of the past then the duke was not in London getting beheaded. The present duke owns much of the town and the land around it. He has prevented the sort of development and urban sprawl which has afflicted the nearby coastal towns.
On a summer's day the castle grounds are clustered with visitors, all of whom seem to have come to enjoy the place in a different way. Some take their time with the "cream teas' and sit in the garden contemplating the town and castle from a safe distance. Others climb the old stone steps on the Norman Keep and feel each of the 929 years of English history which have revolved around this spot. Some, like me, try to read the rambling story that the architecture tells.
At Arundel you can see William the Conqueror passing through on the way from Normandy to London, knights in armour make a great metallic din as they smash into each other on the tilting yard (now the earl's tennis court), and visions of beheaded maidens pass the treacherous duke in the long hallways while are Victoria and Albert bedding down for the night. If you take your imagination to Arundel and don't notice any of these things, the shortcomings will not be Arundel's.