Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 2 July 2020

Kings and queens of their castles: Meet the people who live in real-life fortresses

From the UK to the Czech Republic, here are a few characters who actually reside among armouries and dungeons

Bamburgh Castle is in Northumberland, England. Courtesy Francis Watson-Armstrong
Bamburgh Castle is in Northumberland, England. Courtesy Francis Watson-Armstrong

Most of us will have visited an ancient castle or two on our holidays or ogled at the majestic fortresses on hit shows such as Game of Thrones, but what is it like to spend every day living behind the battlements in real life?

Enter Northumberland’s Bamburgh Castle

Francis Watson-Armstrong, 55, knows a little something about castle life, as he owns a 1,400-year-old mighty brick edifice and has lived among its spiral staircases, sweeping stone throne room and sprawling grounds since childhood. Even now he still stumbles upon a new room he’s never seen before.

His home, Bamburgh Castle, sits on the cliffs of England’s Northumberland coast and dates back to the Norman Conquest of 1066, though the earliest structure is thought to have been built in 547 AD.

Past regal residents include British kings such as Henry VI and James I, and the castle has a rich history, having been fought over for centuries.

That's how, by 1894, when Watson-Armstrong’s great-great-great-uncle bought the property, it came to be dilapidated. The industrialist spent £1 million (about Dh376 million today) turning the fortress into a family home.

Take a look through the photo gallery below to see the castle in all its glory today:

Watson-Armstrong’s childhood years were filled with mischief. He remembers pelting guests with slingshot-fired potatoes, playing hide-and-seek behind suits of armour and sheltering under his bed from the castle ‘ghosts’. “There was a world-famous archaeologist called Brian Hope-Taylor and he was doing digs in the west ward,” he recalls. “They had a caravan there and me and my friends made a bomb and blew it up.

“We completely decimated it. It was in bits. If my father could have done he’d have thrown me off the top of the cliff. He was furious, and understandably so.”

By the time Watson-Armstrong turned 23, however, he had to get more serious, as he took over the running of the castle and managing more than 20 staff members.

My blood is in this castle. It’s part of my life and my heritage and it’s important it stays that way

Francis Watson-Armstrong

Now, nearly 33 years on, he lives on a nearby farm, but his daily duties often keep him behind the castle’s walls. The building’s upkeep costs hundreds of thousands of pounds each year and it is entirely dependent on visitors, weddings, events and self-catering accommodation within the estate. Ten private apartments are also rented out to long-term residents, with another let as a holiday home.

The castle also houses an armoury, a King’s Hall and the original castle keep. Watson-Armstrong admits he has “no idea” how many rooms there are in total.

He’s incredibly modest about his property, though. “I wouldn’t go around saying, ‘Hey, I own a castle', even though I suppose I technically do,” he says with a laugh. “I just think it’s a privilege. The massive history of the place is under my wing and it is in reasonably good condition even though it costs a fortune to keep it standing. But I’m very lucky to have what I have and I’m not complaining.”

Watson-Armstrong’s son, William, 30, is also heavily involved in its running. “My blood is in this castle,” says Watson-Armstrong. “It’s part of my life and my heritage and it’s important it stays that way.”

It’s been undoubtedly tough in recent times, however, because of the coronavirus pandemic. During the UK’s lockdown, the castle’s residents have bunkered down behind the castle walls. This includes maintenance man Andrew Heeley, 56, who’s keeping his spirits high.

“Frankie says that he’s the emperor and I’m the king,” says Heeley, who lives there with his wife Jo and daughter Tilly, 19. “I’ve been looking after the place for two years and it’s amazing. There’s nowhere you feel safer than behind a castle’s walls.

“It’s been surreal during lockdown and it’s going to be strange when people start invading my patch again,” he jokes. “I’ll be chasing them around with a pitchfork picking up their litter.”

Inside Cesky Sternberk in the Czech Republic

Elsewhere, in the Czech Republic, Count Zdenek Sternberk, 97, has also been spending lockdown in his childhood home, Cesky Sternberk, a former medieval fortress founded in 1241.

The castle owner and resident has lived there since he was one-week-old, though he and his wife, Alzbeta, 91, are only two of the notable characters who have called it home.

“My direct and distant relatives held the posts of deputies [to the] Czech king, the highest royal judges, generals, priests, lawyers and large landowners,” says Zdenek. “There’s been so many interesting people.”

The castle has been in the Sternberk family for 23 generations, and Zdenek views his duties today as a commitment to his ancestors. That’s why, under usual circumstances, the castle is open to the public as a tourist destination.

Take a look through the photo gallery below to see more of the castle and the family members who have lived there:

“For me, living in a castle feels quite usual,” he says with a smile. “Although around 80,000 visitors per year go past my study. Once I entered my study and three strangers were sitting on the sofa saying 'Buongiorno, signore!' Obviously, some Italian tourists left the tour and took a rest in my study room.”

There are currently 10 staff members who run the castle, but it hasn’t always been a picture of domestic bliss. In 1467 the castle was stormed and captured by royal troops, and for more than 40 years was under state administration.

Nowadays, living in a castle is quite comfortable ... there's nowhere we'd rather be

Count Zdenek Sternberk

“From 1949 until the 1960s my father worked in Cesky Sternberk as a guide,” recalls Zdenek. “It was the only way to stay in the castle and look after it.”

In 1992, the 55-room castle was restored to the Sternberk family and became a private residence once again.

Like Bamburgh Castle, Cesky Sternberk is currently closed to the public because of the pandemic, but, thankfully, Zdenek feels there is no safer place than his lifelong home. “Nowadays, living in a castle is quite comfortable. Since 1911 the electricity is working, there is a central heating and water piping,” he says.

“My wife and I are missing the contact with the others, but there’s nowhere we’d rather be.”

Over to County Tipperary, Ireland

Owning a castle isn’t just for counts and lords. Toy sculptor Dave Kid, 42, and wife Susana, 37, bought and renovated their very own 17th-century castle almost three years ago.

The couple fell in love with the 12-metre-high tower and surrounding house in County Tipperary, Ireland, after taking a virtual tour from their home in Oxford, England.

The best thing about living here is the space

Dave Kid

After two years of extensive restorations, they now rent a private wing out to guests on Airbnb, which includes a games vault featuring hundreds of board games and access to the looming tower.

“We are big Game of Thrones fans, and fantasy fans in general,” explains Dave. “When we got married in 2016, we hired a small castle in Galway for the ceremony and party afterwards. But I don't think we had any idea that a year later we would be moving into one of our very own.”

Take a look through the gallery below to see old and new photos of the castle:

According to the Kids, you don’t need to have a king’s budget to live like royalty. “Originally the property was listed for about €450,000 (Dhs1.8 million), which included a sizeable plot of farm land, but when we came across the listing they had decided to sell the land and house separately, with the asking price for the house alone dropping to half of that,” he says.

The castle is thought to have been built in 1640 as a family home, before being used as a barracks and a dungeon by the Royal Constabulary and during the early 20th-century Irish civil war.

Over the years, its various residents have made their mark on the property. Dave and Susana are no exception. However, as welcoming strangers into their castle remains on hold for now, the pair have been able to reflect on what it’s really like to call a castle home.

“The best thing about living here is the space,” Dave says. “It is so relaxing. The view from the tower is pretty spectacular, too.”

Updated: June 21, 2020 02:23 PM

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