I spent much of my childhood growing up in Great Britain, and my mental picture of the United Kingdom includes about a zillion different images, most of them pretty routine.
For my kids, who are American through-and-through, the United Kingdom means castles — knights and battles, princesses and jewels, even the occasional dragon and wizard.
Now whenever we head to England for a family visit, I make it a point to plan at least one excursion to a family-friendly castle as a reward for good behavior.
And while nearly every castle across the England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales is family-friendly, almost by definition, here are five favorites of my family:
The castle near Warwickshire in the Midlands is authentic — it dates from 1068 — but the experience is completely 21st Century theme park, complete with costumed characters and re-enactments a’plenty.
Anyone whose current career plan includes life as a princess can head for the Princess Tower to see if she feels the pea under the mattresses piled high on a bed.
Towers and ramparts provide the setting for the imagination of young knights, and older kids — at least 10 years old — can get a really good scare down in the dungeon.
Scholars of medieval life and stuffy historic preservationists undoubtedly stifle a sob whenever they drive by Warwick Castle on a busy weekend afternoon.
But as a fun-filled introduction to castle life for children, it’s hard to beat.
This castle traces its history to 1199, and it still boasts a spectacularly beautiful setting on an island near Maidstone, about 90 minutes southeast of the heart of London. (If you take the train, a shuttle runs to the castle from the nearby station at Bearsted.)
If your kids are anything like mine, beautiful landscapes and gorgeous setting don’t count for much. The walking tour of the historic castle will entertain them for an hour, tops.
But there’s a prize. Tucked away on the grounds are adventure playgrounds (including one designed for pre-schoolers), an aviary with falconry shows, a maze — and a Dog Collar Museum, which somehow feels very British.
Admit it: Your idea of “family-friendly” occasionally means someplace that adults can savor while the kids are entertained enough to stay peaceful.
Dromoland Castle north of Limerick in Ireland’s County Clare is one of Ireland’s finest hotels, a profoundly luxurious experience for grownups.
But there’s enough to keep kids busy that it works for a family vacation, too.
Dromoland Castle isn’t all that old — much of it dates from the 19th Century — so the main attraction is the range of activities on the 450-acre estate. Family-friendly activities incude swimming, bicycling and horseback riding.
The hotel’s staff goes far out of its way to welcome young guests with junior-sized robes, cookies and milk at bedtime, special children’s menus and a selection of board games for evening fun.
“Luxury” and “family friendly” seldom are found in the same sentence. Dromoland Castle manages to pull it off.
The history is the thing at Dover Castle, but for kids who are beginning to love history, this castle provides immersive experiences that range over a thousand years of British history.
It’s set above the white cliffs of Dover, about two hours by car southeast of London, and the castle has played a key role in British history since 1066.
The Castle itself — and particularly the palace of its Great Tower — provides a close look at life in Medieval England. A warren of tunnels and below-ground rooms, meanwhile, convey a taste of the anxiety and excitement of World War I and World War II, when Dover stood as the first line of British defense again invasion from Europe.
It’s probably not the best for youngsters who need more entertainment than they’ll get from walk through history, but it will stir the imagination of kids who are a little older. And speaking of walks, a visit to Dover Castle involves a lot of walking. Wear appropriate footwear.
Yeah, this is the real deal — the favorite country home of the Royal Family.
It’s in Berkshire, about 40 minutes west of London and easily accessible by train from Paddington Station. A free multifamily tour available on handsets shares the castle’s magic with kids aged 7-11.
The Castle Precincts still provide plenty of evidence of Windsor’s role as a fortress, and the ever-so-cool changing of the guard occurs most days, Monday through Saturday, at 11 a.m.
But the absolute can’t-miss attraction for many children is Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, which has electricity and running water. It’s filled with thousands of amazing tiny objects created by about 1,500 of the best artists of the day.
And, by the way, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II occasionally takes a stroll around the grounds. Encourage your kids to be extra nice to all older women they may encounter.