August Bank Holiday and, remarkably, not a cloud in the sky. We left Liverpool, where tens of thousands were congregating at Mathew Street and Creamfields and arrived at Beeston, where, in the castle grounds, a village church fete was in full swing – families picnicking, acrobats, barbecue, home-made cakes and lemon curd, bookstall, men peering into the innards of vintage cars. All over England, under belated skies of blue, the same gatherings.
The castle occupies a fine position on Beeston crag, part of the sandstone ridge that stretches across the Cheshire plain. There is evidence that the site of Beeston Castle has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The crag was an important site for metalworking in the Bronze Age – a number of bronze objects have been found on the site. Occupation contiinued into the Iron Age, and the banks and ditches of a substantial Iron Age hillfort lie beneath the medieval structures.
The medieval castle was begun in the 1220s by Ranulf, Earl of Chester, one of the greatest barons of Henry III’s England. A defence against his aristocratic rivals and a striking proclamation of Ranulf ‘s power, his fortress is approached via a ruined gatehouse in a multi-towered outer wall, defining a huge outer bailey climbing steadily up the hill.
At its summit is the inner bailey, defended by a deep rock-cut ditch and a mighty double-towered gatehouse. There is a castle well, over 100 metres deep and one of the deepest in any English castle. The best-preserved part of the castle, the inner bailey, commands extensive views across eight counties, from the Welsh Mountains to the west to the Pennines in the east. Today, with clear skies and no heat haze, those views were outstanding.
Beeston Castle experienced a final blaze of glory as an important English Civil War stronghold, which finally surrendered to Parliament in November 1645 after a long and eventful siege. Thereafter it became a ruin – highly valued in the early 19th century as a site of picturesque beauty. As such, it caught the eye of JMW Turner, who painted the scene in 1809.
During the 18th century, quarrying was carried out in the castle grounds, and the gatehouse leading into the outer bailey was demolished to build a track for the stones to be removed from the site. In 1840, the castle was purchased by John Tollemache, at that time the largest landowner in Cheshire, as part of the Peckforton estate. Between 1844 and 1852 he spent a huge amount of money having the mock-medieval Peckforton Castle built on the hilltop across the valley. Tollemache promoted Beeston as a tourist attraction, even stocking its grounds with kangaroos.
Today the castle is owned by English Heritage, and is still a great tourist attraction. In the early 19th century the tradition was established of holding the annual Bunbury Fair in the grounds, attended by thousands of visitors. After 1945 the current Beeston Castle fete was established, held every year on August bank holiday. It was this that we had stumbled upon.
After looking round the castle remains and admiring the views, we followed the woodland walk that circumnavigates the outer bailey. The trail winds through almost 40 acres of woodlands surrounding the castle which have recently been restored in an ambitious woodland management project.
The path provides glimpses of the castle above, and passes animal sculptures created from willow branches, before reaching sandstone caves. Lasting an hour or more, the walk also takes in previously hidden sections of the castle moat and ruined walls.