In the run-up to our stay at Shute Gatehouse, a Landmark Trust property near Axminster in Dorset, I was wary of over-exciting my two sons, aged seven and 10. Mention the words ‘staying in a castle’ and you’d be advised to stand well back until the tsunami of noisy hysteria has died down. So I played down details of the Elizabethan gatehouse, built in 1560, with its corner turrets and symmetrical ramparts that look just as though a child has drawn a castle. In any case, I wasn’t sure exactly how ‘castley’ it would feel when we got there since the only remaining part is the gatehouse and its front walls. But I needn’t have worried. To the boys, it might as well have been Balmoral. It was a castle fair and square and they were up and down its stone spiral staircase, exploring their new kingdom, before we had managed to unload our bags and their one-year-old sister. They were particularly delighted to see lots of visitors hanging around, admiring the Gatehouse and its surrounding lawn. ‘I bet they wish they were staying here overnight like us,’ my younger son whispered.
As darkness fell, the car park emptied, peace descended, and it was exactly what we were all thinking. We felt very lucky to be staying overnight in such historic and unusual living quarters. Fortunately, the interiors felt anything but medieval. The warm and cosy living room was home to a big wooden table, an adjoining kitchen and lots of comfy sofas and armchairs. There was a wood-burner, a dresser full of board games and in all the excitement, the absence of a telly was barely noticed.
We loved the way the living space was upstairs with views from both sides, making you feel as though you were staying in 'proper fortifications' – as my eldest put it – and could easily defend the place. Pouring boiling oil out of one of the narrow rectangular windows was one idea, should we need to deal with invaders. There were other suggestions about ways to dispatch enemy troops, thrown into conversation throughout our time at Shute, becoming increasingly barbaric. In the evening, after day-time visits to nearby market town Bridport and walks along the beach at Charmouth, much time was spent playing hide and seek, with one eye on our one-year-old and her hair-raising attempts to descend the steep staircase solo. On that note, it’s definitely a property suited best to older children. Our boys were the perfect age to enjoy their turret bedroom with its bunk bed and spartan vibe. They relished the frisson of independence that came with having a room you can only get to by going outside and walking along the castle ramparts in the dark. With lots of blankets hauled onto their beds each night, they slept like logs and didn’t disturb us until the next morning when they set out to ransack the castle in search of cornflakes.
On the last morning, keen for a stretch-leg before our long journey back to London, we walked in hazy sunshine down the path behind the Gatehouse that weaves its way past a church and through ancient woodland. With my limited tree knowledge (‘What’s that one, Mummy?’ ‘Er, maybe we can find it on Google later’) we talked about the gnarly giants looming over us and what they might have witnessed over the centuries. Certainly marauding hordes, we concluded. Maybe even the boiling oil trick, if our ancestors were anything like as brutal as my lot.
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