Today was a family day out with my five miniature archaeologists and mother-in-law in rural Shropshire. Despite it being a summer Saturday, at every historic site we visited we were the only explorers for much of the time we were there. Crucially, all the sites we visited were FREE and child-friendly in terms of access.
First up was Whittington Castle near Oswestry. You can read about the importance of this castle and details regarding its history and archaeology on their own website but I should note the multiple phases of development from the twelfth to the fourteenth century for this prominent Marcher castle, including evidence that the outer defences were reworked as pleasure gardens.
In terms of the visitor experience, it was accessible, FREE and friendly. Restoration of the castle has created a distinctive non-English Heritage experience: Whittington Castle is run by the community, and in my view it is run very well indeed. The best part of the visit was seeing cygnets!
Cantlop Bridge was our second stop, just south of Shrewsbury this is a rare surviving early nineteenth-century single-span cast-iron bridge designed by a certain Thomas Telford, himself famously named after the historic town. The bridge is no longer in use, by-passed by a far more pleasing-to-the-eye concrete construction of the 1970s. There is a lay-by, picnic bench and it is a serene spot.
Acton Burnell Castle
Next, we went to Acton Burnell Castle. Another FREE to enter site with a church worth looking into next door. Once more, I won’t summarise the importance of the archaeology and history of this site here, but it is a striking ruin and a great example of a fortified manor house.
If you are looking for a stop-off at a completely toddler-friendly castle, this is it. Yes, there are bits of low walling that an adventurous two-year-old can clamber up. Yes, there are windows that an able three year-old can jump through. But there are no expanses of water for them to drown in or precipices to fall off. Perhaps it is the safest and most child-friendly castle in Britain?
Finally, close to Acton Burnell, we visited Langley Chapel, another English Heritage site that is FREE to enter. This fourteenth-century chapel contains a striking collection of austere Anglican early seventeenth-century fittings. The box pews and pulpit are fabulous and the modest altar looks little more than a IKEA side-table. Again, no other visitors.
What can we conclude from this experience? All free, all child-friendly, all open and all interesting. All had notable wildlife, things for kids to clamber up and in and out of (i.e. ruins and pews). No dogs, no other people, no hassle.