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Upnor Castle

Upnor Castle, an Elizabethan artillery fort, is set in peaceful grounds adjoining the riverside village of Upnor, within the Council of Medway, in South East England. Commanding a picturesque view of the River Medway, it is situated 3 miles away from Rochester, and is backed up by rolling, wooded hills.

History of the Upnor Castle

Upnor Castle started to be built in 1559, and took five years to finish. The sheltered position of the River Medway, so close to London, was the main reason why it was used to build and repair warships, as well as being used as a mooring point, in the 16th century. The order to build Upnor Castle was given by Queen Elizabeth I and her Privy Council. After building a naval dockyard at Chatham, they realized that a fort needed to be built a short way downstream, in order to protect the anchorage, and fill a void in coastal defences. The fortifications were designed by Sir Richard Lee, while the site itself was supervised by Humphrey Locke and Richard Watts. By 1564, it housed twenty-three of the fleet’s largest ships.

During the British Civil War, in 1642, the Castle was surrendered to Parliament, however later during the Royalist rebellion it was briefly captured by the Royalists. The Fort was returned to Parliament following a visit by General Fairfax. The real test of the Castle’s defences came later, in 1667, during what is known as the Second Dutch War. (more)

Today

The Fort has the form of a solid stone keep fronted by a pointed bastion jutting out into the river. In 1599-1600, Upnor Castle was further enlarged with the construction of a wall on the landward side. A large gatehouse and two towers in the north and south of the original keep, were also added. A timber palisade was placed in the river, the water bastion was raised to a greater height, and a wide ditch, 18 feet deep and 32 feet wide, was dug as further protection.

All three towers had embrasures for guns on various levels. The towers were able to give flanking fire along the walls through embrasures on the ground floor. The Fort’s main artillery platform was triangular and it was situated at the bottom of the river front, known as the ‘water bastion’. The angled sides of the water bastion allowed guns there to fire on ships entering the Upper Reach.

A palisade was constructed in 1601 to prevent surprise attacks by troops coming from across the beach. The keep was the central part of the castle. It was three storeys high on the river side and two on the landward side, due to the sharp rising of the ground. Soldiers quartered on the ground floor. The back half of the second floor was roofed over and used as an ammunition store, while the front half sported embrasures for guns to be able to fire out over the river. Two guns were mounted along a stretch of wall between the keep and the northern tower, and one between the keep and the southern tower.

The gatehouse was altered in the 17th century. This can be seen in the change of brickwork half-way up the walls. With the decline of the Fort and its use as an artillery storage space, the change in function meant that a number of alterations had to be made to the existing buildings. These included the removal of the gun platforms, the heightening of the North and South towers, and further modifications to the main buildings. A very intriguing feature used at the time was the spiral staircase inside the keep. This staircase had a hoist inside the stairwell and was used to raise and lower ammunition quickly.

Something to look for when visiting the Castle is the interesting graffiti, thought to have been made around 1700 and discovered in 1949, which shows a ship under sail. This piece of art can be found inside an upper chamber in the gatehouse.

During 1946 the ditch was filled in and a latrine on the southern side of the gatehouse was removed. Some time before this, the main doorway in the Main Block was filled in with stone and chalk, in order to support a beam overhead, as the end of the wall had decayed. During the First World War, a new doorway was cut slightly to the north, and a number of openings on the ground floor and first floor were made for fire fighting purposes. In 1949, the original doorway was unblocked. In 1951, balustrades were fitted to the openings on the east side of the gatehouse. The walls of the barrack buildings in the courtyard were uncovered, the fireplace in the Guard Room of the ground floor of the North Tower was unblocked, and electricity was extended to the North and South Towers.

At present, Upnor Castle is in excellent conditions. The grounds are very well maintained. The location is superb, with wonderful views across the river towards Chatham and the Royal Navy docks. The modifications which were made when the castle was turned into a magazine mean that there is no access to the roofs of the North and South Towers or that of the keep. The wooden walkway around the landward walls is also gone, but apart from these few things, the castle is much in the same condition as it was during the Dutch raid in 1667.

The interested visitor can find a free car-park only approximately 100 yards away from the main entrance. As you enter the gates, you find a reception area and shop on the left, after which you can visit the barracks. Audio guides are available, even though there are informative plaques as one goes around the Fort. Children can amuse themselves dressing up in the medieval clothing and other apparel to be found in a specific area. The Castle is also licensed to host civil wedding ceremonies for up to 80 guests.

Opening Hours 

1 April to 30 September  – 10.00am – 6.00pm
1 October to 31 October  – 10.00am – 4.00pm
1 November  to 24 March  – Closed
 

Times pertaining to other dates will be announced on the official website .

Text: Melisande Aquilina