8 Charming And Historic Castles To Visit In Sussex

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 7 months ago
8 Charming And Historic Castles To Visit In Sussex
Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, on a day trip from London
Bodiam Castle. Photo: National Trust

We've combined the counties of East Sussex and West Sussex to bring you some of the finest fortresses on the south coast. If castles really get your cannons rumbling, check out these beautiful castles in the neighbouring county of Kent.

Ypres Tower and Rye Castle Museum

Ypres Tower and Rye Castle Museum in East Sussex, on a day trip from London
Ypres Tower. Image: Google Maps

That castle-like building at the foot of the town of Rye is the Ypres Tower, looking out over the River Rother and beyond. Despite its name, for all intents and purposes it is a castle, having been built as part of the town's defences in the 14th century, and subsequently used as prison and mortuary.

These days, it functions as Rye's town museum. A spiral staircase takes visitors up to the first floor (a virtual tour is available for those who can't manage the stairs), and a balcony overlooking a recreation of a medieval herb garden.

Items on display within the castle's walls including a relief model of the town, showing how the nearby coastline has changed over 1,000 years, a map of shipwrecks along the Sussex and Kent coast and a rare smuggler's lamp. Well worth an hour of your time if you're in the area.

Camber Castle, near Winchelsea

Camber Castle in East Sussex, on a day trip from London
Camber Castle. Image: English Heritage

It's rare that you'll see inside Camber Castle, given that the English Heritage property is only open for occasional guided tours. Its situation is an unusual one — located on a coastal nature reserve between Rye and Winchelsea, with no roads nearby, it's quite literally hidden in plain sight. It was built in Henry VIII's time as an artillery fort, and still maintains its original outline — although now its predominant foot soldiers are the resident sheep. Wouldn't want to meet them in baa-ttle.

Hastings Castle

Hastings Castle in East Sussex, on a day trip from London
Hastings Castle. Photo: Kreepin Deth under a Creative Commons license

Sticking with the East Sussex coastline (for many castles around these parts were built as coastal defences), we find ourselves in the seaside town of Hastings. The eponymous fortress, Hastings Castle, sits atop the cliffs — or at least, what's left of it does. The south wall and keep are long gone, and the ruins that remain don't do justice to its history as the first Norman motte and bailey castle built in England.

These days it's run as a tourist attraction, retelling the 1066 story which this part of the world is known for, as part of the Smuggler's Adventure package. The views over Hastings town centre and out to sea are a rather glorious bonus, too. The easiest way to access the castle is via the West Cliff Lift, a funicular which ferries passengers up the cliff from the seafront.

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, on a day trip from London
Bodiam Castle. Photo: National Trust

Sitting right on the Kent-East Sussex border, Bodiam Castle is a beauty of a building. Its towering battlements may be crumbling slightly, but it still cuts an imposing figure,  a satisfyingly symmetrical structure reflected in its vast moat. Wander across the wooden drawbridge and join a free guided tour inside the courtyard. Alas, much of the castle's interior is in ruins now, but it's still worth climbing the spiral staircase to the top of the towers for the views over the River Rother valley, and descending down to the well room, where the castle kitchens would have got their water from.

Bodiam Castle's most special element is that it's home to what is thought to be the largest bat roost in south-east England, looked after by a team of volunteers.

Being a National Trust property, Bodiam Castle has a tea room and gift shop on site, and regular events — they're big on archery around these parts, with talks and have-a-go sessions throughout the year.

Hertsmonceux Castle, near Hailsham

Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, on a day trip from London
Image: Herstmonceux Castle

The village of Herstmonceux (pronounced 'Hirst-mon-zoo') punches well above its weight in terms of day trip potential, with a sprawling castle to explore and a science centre in its grounds.

Herstmonceux Castle is a 15th century red brick castle, fairytale-esque in appearance and surrounded by a moat. It was originally built as a private family home, and underwent extensive restoration in the 20th century. The castle itself isn't open to the public, as the building is home to an international study centre, and hosts weddings and conferences, but it is possible to book on limited guided tours.

For our money though, Herstmonceux Castle is best viewed from the outside as you wander through the 300 acres of grounds. Split into several themed and formal gardens, plus a sprawling woodland, it makes for a stunning countryside walk at any time of year, from the first snowdrops to the turning of the leaves in autumn. Dogs are welcome, and the Chestnut Tea Rooms in the grounds serves drinks and light refreshments. Read more about our visit to Herstmonceux Castle, including a secret folly and stunning wildflower meadows.

Pevensey Castle, near Eastbourne

Pevensey Castle in Sussex, on a day trip from London
Pevensey Castle. Photo: English Heritage

Our sole experience of Pevensey Castle is a primary school class trip in the p*ssing rain — but don't let that put you off. Clearly the weather was good enough on that fateful day in 1066 when William the Conqueror's army landed nearby, to convince them to stay in the country (the castle itself probably had fewer loitering school kids, and a lower entry fee back then, too).

It originated as a Roman 'Saxon Shore' fort — a series of defences along the south coast — but was extended in the century following the Conquest into the building which partly remains today. It's now in the care of English Heritage, and visitors can walk across the drawbridge, head down into the dungeon, and visit a new museum showcasing weapons, jewellery and other objects found on the site.

Lewes Castle, near Brighton

Lewes Castle in East Sussex, on a day trip from London
Lewes Castle. Image: Shutterstock

The dilapidated Lewes Castle is worth visiting as much for the views as the building and history. Dating from Norman times, it sits atop the hilly East Sussex town of Lewes, and just when you think you've climbed high enough, there's a whole other tower which takes you even higher.

The Museum of Sussex Archaeology is located right next door, revealing the history of the local area through a selection of exhibits and a short film in the mini-cinema.

Arundel Castle, near Chichester

Arundel Castle in West Sussex, on a day trip from London
Photo: Arundel Castle

Arundel Castle is by far the most picturesque thing you'll see on the A27 (eyes left between Chichester and Worthing), and it's not uncommon to see day trippers emerging from the station and making a beeline for the sprawling fortress. It sits atop the quaint town of Arundel, its stone walls showing tourists the way, and puts us in mind of the castle looming over the village in Beauty and the Beast.

It's in remarkably good condition, considering parts of it have got almost a millennium of history to boast of. These days, the Keep, State Rooms, Bedrooms and Gardens are open to the public, with different levels of ticketing available depending how much you want to see. The Keep is part of the original Norman building, and therefore worth seeing, while the house was built in the 1870s and boasts artworks by the likes of Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Canaletto on its walls.

Last Updated 21 March 2023

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