The ruined castle at Baconsthorpe in north Norfolk can hardly be described as ‘hidden’ but it does lie nicely tucked away from the limelight, located at the end of a dusty farm track at some distance from the main road. Strictly speaking, it is not really a castle, more a fortified manor house, but with a large moat, thick flint walls and a no-nonsense gatehouse, unlawful entry by unwelcome visitors would certainly not have been easy.
To reach Baconsthorpe Castle you can drive right up to the door from the village of the same name. The site is managed by English Heritage and there is no charge for car park or entry. Better still, you could walk from Bodham, the village to the north that straddles the busy Holt to Cromer road. Certainly, to follow the footpath up and down the shallow valley before skirting Baconsthorpe Wood, makes arrival here a little more special. With luck, as the castle comes into view after leaving the wood you will be greeted by some of the sleek chestnut horses that graze in the meadow beside it.
Next door to the gatehouse stands a group of old farm buildings that have seen better days — no doubt a bustling, energetic place before the middle of the last century, now their only role appears to be that of the storage of farm machinery. Within the gate there’s a compound and a bridge across to the inner court. Here, to the east, the moat widens to become a large pond – known as a ‘mere’ in these parts – which provides luxury accommodation for the ducks that thrive on the sandwich crumbs left by picnicking visitors. Swallows swoop low and fast over the water to grab unsuspecting flies but there’s little sound other than a summery rustle of leaves, the narcotic coo of pigeons and, during school holidays, the gleeful cries of children here with their parents.
What is of particular interest here is not so much what remains of the castle but what has happened to those parts that are absent. Certainly, it is not just the effect of the elements. Built as a 15th-century manor house by the locally powerful Heydon family, the inner gatehouse and fortified house were added at the time of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the buildings were converted into a textile factory at the height of Norfolk’s profitable wool trade in the Tudor years. The outer gateway came in the Elizabethan period.
The English Civil War brought an economic downturn to the Heydon family fortune (Sir John Heydon commanded Charles I’s artillery, which did not endear him to the Parliamentarians). The castle was seized by Roundheads and occupied for a while before eventually being sold back to the Heydon family. Encumbered by accumulated debt, Sir John Heydon was obliged to demolish many of the buildings to sell as architectural salvage. Many of the stones reportedly found new purpose in the walls of nearby Felbrigg Hall. The stained glass with the Heydon family crests were removed and installed in Baconsthorpe’s St Mary’s Church.
The voices of wealthy landowners, shepherds, textile workers and Roundhead soldiers would all once have echoed here within the castle’s sturdy walls. Now, apart from the subdued utterances of occasional visitors, they stand silent: mute witnesses to history; flint and brick repositories of the past.