Arundel Castle Siege Weekend – review

Head to verdant West Sussex for a day of death, big bangs and vividly living history

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Arundel Castle – a truly spectacular hybrid of still-standing 11th/12th century stone-work and ersatz, but still lovely, 18th century and Victorian extensions – becomes an even more excellent day out when it’s hosting its Castle Siege weekend, as it did over the May Bank Holiday, with three chances to attend a day of historical storytelling and re-enactment.

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We made our way through the typical tailbacks on the A27 from Brighton, through the outskirts of the slow-paced, nook-and-cranny town that is Arundel itself, and then through the good-natured and not too long standing queue to get into the castle. Rock up earlier than 11.30am, when we arrived, to avoid all that – but none of it was arduous.

Tickets in hand, up we went along the curving, tree-lined driveway, beginning to enjoy the 40 acres of verdant grounds before – bam! – round the bend, there’s the immense frontage of the castle itself. Whether by accident or design, the structure’s hard to see in the medium distance: after a long-range, postcard preview as you approach the town the castle’s hidden until it’s right on top of you, and is all the more stunning for it. Conversations stop. Necks crane. Even cranky kids say, “Wow!”

At the top of the hill, it becomes clear that something is going on. Men clank past in armour. Women tend to crude pots full of simmering chicken. Another man is fashioning some kind of arm protector, beating the metal into the right, bent shape. The period-flavour stalls that litter the gardens immediately in front of the castle warm us up nicely for the battle ahead, as does the sign for, and smell of, a hog roast. No time to bite down into a pig, though, as places are filling up on the grass verge next to the battlezone itself, a smallish patch called the American Ground that doesn’t look too impressive quite yet, but will soon be filled dramatically with swords, arrows and cannon smoke.

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Unwisely settling ourselves behind someone else’s carelessly parked pushchair, we sit on our picnic blanket and wait for Arundel Castle to be attacked in 1475. The French have taken the castle! Reinforcements are going to sail over from France, up the Arun (don’t worry, that’s the local river) and make West Sussex a solid French outpost! The English want it back and, after some light bombardment intend to put them to the sword. None of this happened in the 15th century, not here, but it’s the sort of thing that generally went on, apparently.

Our MC, Paul Ullson, is in charge of the historical accuracy of everything we see and very good at that, but with a microphone in his hand prefers more of an am-dram pantomime approach. Missed cues by the English gunners and French defenders are jovially pointed out (“Are you going to fire those guns again? Ah, there we are!”) when nobody would have noticed the tardiness, while the crowd is split in two, one half supporting the English, the other cheering for the French. Not everyone on our side is happy about being French.

None of this spoils the fun; in fact, it offsets the potentially upsetting parts of the fight nicely and helps to make it truly family-friendly. Still, there are dire warnings from our host. The cannons will be loud. Very loud. Anyone who doesn’t like loud noises should cover their ears, because although clearly there’s no shot in the barrels, when the guns go off the noise will be extreme.

Pah, we scoff. How loud can it be? We can see the cannons and they don’t look – BANG! The ground shakes. OK, that was loud. BANG! BANG! BANG! Fair enough. Point taken. The guns are indeed extremely loud. Our pulses have quickened. My six-year-old is delighted and is now standing on tiptoe to see over that pushchair.

On come the British Plate Armour Society and the Raven Tor Living History Group, aka the British and French forces. With showbiz prompting from the master of ceremonies, hand-to-hand combat commences. It’s a good mix of safe and scary. Up this close – people at the back of the crowd aren’t more than 15 yards away – you can see how carefully choreographed each clang of sword on shield is. On the other hand, proceedings do start and end with defenceless prisoners’ throats being cut, and I was never clear on whether the two teams of rival archers were really confident of avoiding injury by simply looking at the floor when the other side’s arrows were raining down. However sturdy their helmets and whatever the arrows were actually made from, it still looked a bit dangerous, which was exactly what I and my children and I were hoping for.

With the funny, exciting, earth-shaking hostilities at an end, the jolly folk from the armies mingle with the crowd to provide plenty of terrific phone-camera souvenir opportunities. While other punters try on armour, feel the weight of authentic weapons, get in line for a hog roast or hang around to see the Distant Trumpets Storyteller spinning yarns about the 1400s, we feel duty-bound to try out the second most important part of any heritage attraction after the car park: the restaurant. No minuses there. Lots of tables, good service, and solid fare; strong on pies, quiches and puddings.

Visiting the cafe means you’re inside the castle itself so, after lunch, it’s time for the tour of the house. I hear that the 18th Duke of Norfolk, whose “seat” this is, has been known to leave his private wing and shuffle round with the tourists, for japes. Printing a colour photo of him before leaving the house could be the way to add an exciting “Spot the Duke” element to your visit. Not having done this, we get on with enjoying looking at the lionskin rugs, enormous chimneys and fabulous bedrooms with en suite rolltops. The cool, pristine chapel is a humbling surprise and the classic long, thin, two-tiered library, with its bound copies of Spenser and The Spectator, is somewhere you’d love to spend an afternoon were the books not all locked away in cages. Quietly humming the theme from Downton Abbey is virtually obligatory in the downstairs quarters.

It takes about 45 minutes to get round the castle, but if you linger on every object of interest, imposing architectural detail or nuggety fact, you could triple that easily without being bored for a second.

Winding our way back down the hill, with my two kids slightly awakened to the wonder of history and very much awakened to the possibility of hitting each other with the foam swords we’ve picked up in the gift shop, we head home to the 21st century, but with a bit of the fun of 1475 going with us.

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Arundel Castle’s Siege Weekend returns in 2015 – see a programme of events here.