Donkeys and death warrants: Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight
It’s been a castle-filled year so far. After getting to dress up as a princess in Warwick, the discovery that Carisbrooke Castle is home to several donkeys sealed the deal for Minnie. Castles are great.
So with the best weather of the long weekend forecast for our first day on the island, we headed straight from our Wightlink ferry in Fishbourne to Carisbrooke, practising our heeee-haaaaaws on the way.
There’s far more to the castle than the four-legged inhabitants. Once a prison for King Charles I, it’s also resisted a siege by the French and seen off the Spanish Armada over the past 900 years.
Dating from around 1100, it’s still surprisingly intact, which means you can wander around the walls – with a mini workout climbing some of the steeper flights of steps, while carrying a toddler. The views from the top are definitely worth it though.
Fortunately there’s also plenty of room to run around on ground level. A large open green, overlooked by cannon just the right size to be climbed upon, and a courtyard and paths leading around to the donkeys’ stables.
Because however much fun the rest of the castle was, this was the undoubted highlight for Minnie. Donkeys have been operating the treadwheel in the Elizabethan wheelhouse for centuries, despite a brief experiment with a Shetland pony which decided it didn’t fancy climbing into the wheel to bring water 49m up a well.
With a maximum of six minutes’ work per day walking around the wheel, usually less, the donkeys can also decide whether they want to take part so there’s no forcing them to perform, thankfully.
All given names starting with the letter J – a tradition started when Charles I was held at the castle, and would sign his letters with the initial – there’s currently four furry inhabitants: Jill, Jigsaw, Jack and Jimbob.
If you time it right, you can watch a demonstration, as well as seeing the donkeys in the stable. Expect to have to squash into the small wheelhouse though as it’s popular even in winter (and with my arms full of toddler, I couldn’t manage to take any photos unfortunately).
For adults, there’s plenty of aristocratic history as well, from the 13th century Lady Isabella to the imprisoned Charles I, and later Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria and Governor of the island. As well as living in the castle after the start of the First World War, she also erected a memorial in the chapel to her executed ancestor.
Outside there’s an Edwardian-style garden inspired by the princess, with plants in the colours of the royal arms – although obviously February isn’t the time to see that.
There are a few other nice touches for children as well, including a dressing-up box in the gate house, where a video (narrated by a talking donkey) gives a brief overview of the castle’s history.
And in the museum, keep an eye out for the activity suggestions in the folders at the back, including different textures to hold and finger puppets for littler ones. There are a few interactive exhibits too, including a psaltery you can pluck, plus a model of the castle and a variety of objects from its history.
Upstairs was a slightly more random collection, including some retro games and old-fashioned children’s toys – plus a stuffed panda which you’re encouraged to cuddle.
The acid test? Despite being tired (having missed her nap in all the excitement), hungry (but refusing food in stubborn toddler fashion) and slightly cold (castles are not renowned for being hot), Minnie and I spent several very fun hours exploring.
In the end I could only tempt her away by suggesting we go and look at the toy donkeys in the shop…
Need to know
Adult tickets cost £8.80, children aged five to 15 cost £5.30. There are also family tickets available and it’s free to members of English Heritage. Restricted opening hours during the winter. Cafe open April to October only.
There’s free parking for around 100 cars a short walk from the entrance. If this gets full, there’s extra parking in Carisbrooke, but you’ll have to walk up the castle hill.
Disclosure: My trip to the Isle of Wight was courtesy of Wighlink Ferries, entry to the castle was courtesy of Isle of Wight Tourism and English Heritage.
Images copyright MummyTravels