Overlooking the Thames in Essex are the ruins of an ill-fated castle that was once a royal residence and was later immortalised by John Constable.
Perched high up on a steep hill overlooking the Thames it’s a windswept landscape with, in places, steep slopes around the sides that all add to an at times unnerving experience to wander around. And that’s largely a lot of the fun of the place, to ramble around a ruined castle with the wind blowing on a cold autumn day.
The first Hadleigh Castle was built around 1215-30 by Hubert de Burgh, the 1st Earl of Kent, a strong supporter of King John, but he lost it just a few years later when he fell out of favour with King Henry III.
Built high up on a steep mound close to the Thames, it was a commanding location, and the shallow flats below allowed boats to come right up to the castle hill. However, the tall hill the castle sat on turned out to be rather soft, and the castle suffered from subsidence and collapses almost as soon as it was built.
That didn’t stop a lot of work on it over the centuries to repair and expand the castle, and it was often gifted to the incumbent Queen as her retreat from London, and a number of Kings also used it as a royal residence, particularly Edward II and Edward III.
By the 16th-century though it had fallen out of royal favour, was sold to Lord Richard Rich who promptly sold most of the stone off for buildings elsewhere, leaving the castle in ruins. It continued to be picked away at or variously fall over, and in 1814 it attracted the attention of John Constable who painted one of his most famous paintings, of a romantically ruined castle under turbulent skies.
Its last private owner was William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army who used the lands around it as a training farm. They gave it to the government in 1948, and it’s now owned by English Heritage.
There’s a number of modern interpretation signs dotted around the ruins, and if you look around you might also spy old bronze signs from the former Ministry of Works who predate English Heritage.
The surviving castle walls around the northern side are still largely intact but have been utterly lost to subsidence on the south side in 1923. A number of towers still remain, although fewer than the castle used to have after one collapsed in the 1950s.
One survivor is the leaning tower of Hadleigh, but most impressive is a three-storey high tower on the far corner, which you can climb up and into for a good look around. Do notice the very fine stonework in the windows which are of unusual quality and an indicator of the wealth that comes from royal ownership.
Apart from the castle itself, the views are expansive, reaching far across the Thames. Ok, it’s not a dramatic countryside view, with a large natural gas store on the Isle of Grain and the tall cranes of DP World freight port clearly visible, but it’s still a grand sight, and the industrial insertions add a certain flourish to the flat Thames estuary with its boats and in the very far distance, the turbines of the Thanet Wind Farm.
Getting to Hadleigh Castle
Owned by English Heritage, the castle is free to visit, and you just turn up and wander around freely.
If driving, there’s a car park not too far from the castle.
If coming by public transport, then the castle is between Benfleet and Leigh-on-Sea, and my recommendation for a nice few hours would be to catch a C2C train to Benfleet, then a pleasing walk through the Hadley Park/Benfleet Downs nature reserve which runs alongside the railway until you get just to the south of the castle.
A steep walk up the hill to the castle, then on the northeast side of the castle is the gentle slope down towards Leigh-on-Sea where you can catch the train back home (return tickets to Leigh-on-Sea allow you to get off at Benfleet).
Leigh-on-Sea is postcard pretty with loads of cafes in the town centre, and some pubs and a small museum down by the river, so ideal for a late lunch before heading home.