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It was a lovely morning in Brighton. Overcast and cool, but I liked it. No glare, no awful, choking humidity, just salt and gulls and polished stone on the coast. We broke fast in the hotel - a great brick building from 1890 with crown molding to spare. Fried toast, fried eggs, fried hash browns, and a bit of black pudding, just to get a taste. Undeniably British.
After breakfast McCrae and I wandered down to the shore. Gulls laughed and fought and fished in the grey-blue water that could have reached forever. The beach wasn’t crowded in the early morning. There were a few active people on the pavement playing soccer and volleyball and running sprints, and among the rocks where the waves lapped there were a few individuals toting metal detectors and shovels, carefully listening in their headsets for the click-click-click of treasure.
We boarded the train to Arundel just after rush hour when the carriage was blissfully empty as we cruised past butterfly bushes, morning glories, and other English wildflowers creeping behind row houses and apartments. Shorehom-by-the-Sea. Portsmouth. Southwick. It was strange seeing these names I somehow recognized but couldn’t place. A deja vu kind of familiar, names I’ve read in books maybe, places referred to by names all Britons know, but for a little girl in America they could as well have been fictional towns just like my beloved fictional characters.
A child shouted in the schoolyard as the train rambled by. Uniforms. I remember thinking to myself, “they really do wear uniforms!” and feeling a little silly at the thought. Pleated skirt, sky blue blouse, and a girl trying to pull her hair into a ponytail mid-sprint across the court. I don’t know what she was playing. It was just the jumble and disorder of the young at play.
Worthing. A busier station with painted railings stained and chipped from sea salt.
The castle loomed large in the train window even from a distance. Sitting on a hill nestled by its quaint town it was an imposing place. A castle! A real life royalty-and-feudalism sort of castle with a bloody medieval history and a deep well under a rusty grate and a garderobe and coats of arms and rough-hewn stone and at least nine Van Dycks, all portraits of the castle’s noble family members. A castle with its own medieval chapel and an armory room with a Medici table and Queen Victoria’s coronation homage chair and a Casali and at least three Gainsboroughs and an execution order signed by Queen Elizabeth I for Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk to be hanged, drawn, quartered, disemboweled, beheaded, and his bowels burned and loads of other awful things that really makes you hope the guy died at the hanging stage.
Oh, but the castle and its thousands of fantastic little reading nooks and the ancient passage that smells like age and history and rot and stone and blood and ramparts and plate armor and the dank and decay of what is past and buried for a thousand years! And the Van Dycks! And the gorgeous crystal ink bottles on Louis IV writing desks and the faded tapestries and the photos of dukes and duchesses with popes (multiple popes!), and the grand marble staircase with the tall lance stained glass windows with the antique Chinese urns that were almost as tall as me with the ancient keep visible through the stained glass and wrought iron panes. And the Barons’ Hall with the wide plank flooring aged and worn to perfection and the giant hearths - similar but not a perfect pair - with a lion’s pelt and a lioness’s too (hopefully from an era before dwindling lion populations) - and the vaulted ceilings and the space space space! and the grounds that we hardly covered because it was all so splendid and captivating that one couldn’t possibly see it in just a day. Forget the Biltmore Estate - there’s no replacement for millennia of history. And forget the Royal Pavilion! Mad King George IV and his farmhouse and fake Indian and Chinese decor and his drinking and extravagance is nothing compared to the subdued wood and stone. Even Arundel got a laugh at the expense of that king: a placard said King George IV was the favorite person for the duke to “challenge to a drinking game.” But where King George IV piled excess upon a rickety farmhouse the dukes and duchesses of Norfolk built a veritable fortress of taste, tradition, and history, even if that history has a tendency to run all together in eclectic rooms.
There is a strict “no photography” policy inside the castle with men and women standing patiently and pleasantly in the corners of rooms to enforce this, to warn off sticky fingers, to answer questions, and to direct tourists as they shuffle through the rooms. The castle is still occupied and the guides took pride in telling visitors that just the previous weekend the duke’s daughter got married in the family chapel and had her reception in the immense Barons’ Hall.
It’s closed during the winter and since it’s still lived in it might be closed on other days too. Double check hours before you head over. Prices are reasonable considering it’s very expensive to maintain a property that size, so consider that your peasants’ tithing for the upkeep. Take into consideration how much time you’ll need to see the town, the castle, and the grounds. ￡18 per person for a day? Not bad if it’s just you and another person and you’re there bright and early, but late in the afternoon for a pack of people? It’s something to consider. Keep in mind special events are common during the summer and may inflate prices.
The bedrooms cost extra to see, but are certainly worth it. (I mean, who doesn’t want to see the shovel Queen Victoria used to plant a tree on the grounds?? Besides, we’re curious and voyeuristic beings and always want to see how royalty sleep and bathe. Don’t believe me?)
For history buffs the keep is an absolute “can’t-miss” with placards for details on the English Civil Wars, medieval sieges on the castle, and the lives of those in the castle from ladies-in-waiting to the chaplain to the small boy who carried messages through the sally port and through enemy lines during sieges.
If you’re into the history of Christianity, the Fitzalan chapel has tombs from the 1300s that are in surprisingly good condition, the result of being buried in rubble for a couple hundred years after the English Civil Wars. There is a man monitoring the chapel who is very enthusiastic to tell all sorts of stories about the chapel and the town if you look remotely curious. In the town of Arundel there is the Catholic cathedral, built in 1873 and made a cathedral in 1965 when the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton was established. http://www.arundelcathedral.org/
If you love gardens the grounds of Arundel Castle are delightful. The rose garden is small but offers a view of the castle, while paths wind through the park. We didn’t make it to most of the gardens as our time was spent exploring the house (and okay, I might have wasted a lot of time reading all the informational signs and taking pictures).
Get there by taking the train and then it’s a pleasant one mile walk along an easy paved path that skirts pastures lined with wildflowers. The path marches straight up the center of town, past some very enticing cafes, and to the castle entrance. From Brighton, take the train to Barnham, then switch to the train to Arundel. Yes, you’ll backtrack for a minute, that’s not you having deja vu, but the second train switches tracks and takes you up to the Arundel station as it makes it way on towards London Victoria.
Let me know if you've been to Arundel Castle, or if you have plans to visit. And in the mean time, I'll see you out there.
(PS: Yes, Arundel is totally pronounced the same way as the castle in Frozen. 🙌❄️)