The Royal County of Berkshire in southern England lies along the south bank of the River Thames. Usually regarded as one of the home counties, the prefix ‘Royal’ dates to at least the 19th century, because of the presence of the residence of the majestic Windsor Castle in the county. Berkshire has been the site of many battles throughout history, such as King Alfred the Great’s campaign against the Danes, including the Battle of Englefield, the Battle of Ashdown and the Battle of Reading.
Berkshire is crammed with a number of historic sites to boot. Among the county’s most notable sites is the stunning Highclere Castle, perhaps best known for serving as the location for the television programme Downton Abbey. Another highlight is Runnymede, known as the site of the signing of the Magna Carta.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best historic sites that Berkshire has to offer.
1. Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world – home to over 900 years of royal history. Covering an area of approximately 13 acres, it contains a wide range of interesting features. These include the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s dolls house and the beautiful St George’s Chapel. It is also the burial place of 10 monarchs, including Henry VIII and his beloved wife (the one who gave him a son), Jane Seymour.
The building of Windsor Castle began in the 1070s at the behest of William the Conqueror, with the intent that it was to guard the western approach to London. Since that time, the structure of Windsor Castle has been embellished by many of the monarchs of England and the UK, and has been the home of 39 monarchs. Windsor Castle remains a favourite home of Queen Elizabeth, and she spends most of her weekends there. There was a huge fire at the castle in November 1992 which took 15 hours and 1.5 million gallons of water to extinguish. It began in the Private Chapel and soon spread to affect approximately one fifth of the castle. It took 5 years to restore the castle, and was finished in late 1997.
2. St. George's Chapel
St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle is a castle chapel built in the late medieval Perpendicular Gothic style. Founded in the 14th century by King Edward III and extensively enlarged in the late 15th, the castle has belonged to the monarchy for almost 1000 years and has served as a principal residence for Queen Elizabeth II. In the 19th century, St George’s Chapel superseded the nearby Westminster Abbey as the chosen burial place for the British royal family.
A place of worship today, at least three services take place in the chapel daily, and worshippers are welcome to attend, except on Sundays, when the chapel is closed to visitors.
3. Cliveden House
Cliveden House in Berkshire, UK is a 19th century historic home which operated at the heart of the cultural and political elite of the country. The first construction to be built on the site of Cliveden House was a hunting lodge built by the Duke of Buckingham in 1666. This incarnation survived for over 100 years before being destroyed in a fire in 1795. Rebuilt in 1824, the second building unfortunately saw the same fate, being destroyed in 1849. Two years later a new house was commissioned and this is, for the most part, the Cliveden we see today.
Today Cliveden operates as both a luxury hotel and a National Trust-operated park and gardens. The house itself can be accessed by pre-booked tours and features a collection of fascinating art, from 18th century Brussels tapestries to portraiture of its past inhabitants. The vast parkland also includes a host of beautiful gardens, scenery and even an impressive maze, offering a variety of curiosities from season to season.
4. Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle is a picturesque Jacobean style country house in Hampshire, which in more modern times has become well known as the location of the television series Downton Abbey. The main house that is seen today was built in the mid 19th century though the site itself has a history dating back several centuries and an entry for the location was recorded in the Domesday Book. The architect, Sir Charles Barry, is also known for having designed the Houses of Parliament. The exterior and interior work took decades to complete, and the castle became known for its opulence. Notably, the Saloon now features 17th-century Spanish leather wall coverings collected by the 3rd earl, and the walls of the Music Room are hung with 16th-century Italian embroideries.
In more recent history, Highclere Castle has become the location of Downton Abbey. Visitors can view the castle, the Egyptian Exhibition and the surrounding Grounds and Gardens. Records show the gardens were first developed there during the 13th century. Visitors can explore the original Monks’ Garden, the White Border, the Wood of Goodwill, the Rose Arbour, the Wild Flower Meadow and, nearer the house, the Healing Herb Garden.
5. Dorney Court
Grade I listed Dorney Court was built in the 15th century and has been continuously lived in by the Palmer family for more than 450 years over 13 generations. ‘Dorney’ is an ancient Saxon word for ‘island of bees’, and the estate remains famous for its honey. It was also the site of the first pineapple to be grown in England, which was then presented to Charles II in 1661.
Though much of the building appears medieval, some of it is actually a Victorian reconstruction. Remodelling of the house took place at the end of the nineteenth century, and the original bricks were restored to the front facade of the house. However, the interior is much the same as it was in 1500, with the oldest part, the panelled parlour, containing some exquisite antique furniture pieces. Today, the house and gardens are still in private hands, but are open to the public.
A little downstream from Windsor is Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215. Magna Carta was an attempt by feudal barons to limit the power of the king, and contained clauses to protect the historic privileges the barons had enjoyed. The site of Runnymede was approximately half way between King John and the barons from Staines. The name also suggests that there was a tradition of meeting there, and may have been where the Anglo-Saxon parliament once met.
Today, the picturesque site is home to a collection of memorials that commemorate various struggles for liberty: as well as a monument to Magna Carta, there are memorials to JFK and the Allied Air Forces of the Second World War.
7. Shaw House
Situated in Shaw, outside Newbury in Berkshire, Shaw House is an important example of an early symmetrical H-plan Elizabethan mansion. Built by a wealthy cloth merchant, Thomas Dolman, it was completed in 1581. It is known as being a headquarters during the Second Battle of Newbury, and for Elizabeth I having visited there. Later, it became a school for a long time.
Today, the house is owned and managed by West Berkshire Council as conference centre and public attraction.
8. Basildon Park
Situated outside the village of Goring-on-Thames and Streatley in Berkshire, Basildon Park is a Grade I listed building that was built between 1776 and 1783. It is Palladian in style with neoclassical ‘Adamesque’ interiors. Never fully completed, the house passed through a succession of owners, and in 1914, the then-empty house was requisitioned by the British Government as a convalescent hospital. It was sold again in 1928, and following a failed attempt to dismantle and rebuild the house in the US, in 1929 the house was stripped and effectively abandoned. During World War Two, it was requisitioned and served as a barracks, and later a prisoner of war camp. By 1952, it was entirely derelict.
Today, Basildon Park is known for its mid-twentieth century restoration by Lord and Lady Iliffe, and for its architecture. In 1978, the couple gave the house to the National Trust, who now open the house to the public.
9. Donnington Castle
A ruined medieval castle situated near the small village of Donnington, Donnington Castle was founded by Sir Richard Abberbury the Elder in 1386 and was bought by Thomas Chaucer before the castle was taken under royal control during the Tudor period. During the First English Civil War, the castle was held by royalists and withstood an 18-month siege. Parliament voted to demolish the castle in 1646, and today, only the gatehouse survives.
The site today is a scheduled monument under English Heritage. It is easily accessible.
10. Reading Museum
Reading Museum is a museum that details the history of the town of Reading in Berkshire. It is located within Reading Town Hall and contains galleries containing items such as artefacts discovered during the excavations of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester Roman Town) and a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry. The town hall itself was built in several phases between 1786 and 1897, though the principal facade was created in 1875.
The museum opened in 1883, and first displayed a large, eccentric collection from the late Horatio Bland, a merchant and collector of artefacts from around the world. Today, it is a popular attraction for visitors and locals alike.