Berkeley Castle, just to the north of Bristol is a fantastic attraction for groups to visit but the family connections spread much further than just a small village in Gloucestershire. The team at Visit Bristol have come up with a one-day Berkeley-themed itinerary aimed at groups, with a little bit of Wolf Hall thrown in for good measure!

Morning:

If you have not visited Berkeley Castle before, this building will come as a revelation. Although a medieval fortress, it is still a real home, lived in by the Berkeley family for nearly 900 years and comfortably furnished in the styles of many centuries.

Guided Tours of the Castle lasting approximately 60 minutes are included as part of your admission fee and are hosted by informative and friendly guides. Learn about the murder of King Edward II, how the family did a deal with Oliver Cromwell’s Roundhead army and how the demands of a new wife ensured the castle was updated for modern living 100 years ago. From the family silver to family scandal, this castle is a treasure trove of interest.

For a special treat you can book a private tour conducted by Charles Berkeley, imparting tales of growing up in the Castle (including anecdotes such as a youthful John F Kennedy getting told off for climbing on the cannons) as well as all the factual and historical information you can handle. Private tours with Mr Berkeley are subject to availability and incur additional cost.

The terraced gardens have stunning views over the River Severn and contain many rare and unusual trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Time should be allowed to walk along the terraces to the Lily Pool and fountain to enjoy the sights and the scents.

St Mary’s parish church adjoins the Castle grounds.  Thought to be the site of a former Saxon Minster, visitors can see wonderful medieval wall paintings, bullet holes from the seventeenth century Civil War and the tomb of Dr Edward Jenner.  Dicky Pearce, the last Court Jester in England, is also buried in the churchyard.

Dr Jenner’s House is a separate visitor attraction next to the Castle. You can explore the life and work of Dr Edward Jenner, pioneer of smallpox vaccination, hot-air balloonist and natural historian.

Lunch:

There are several options, such as the Yurt restaurant at Berkeley Castle (discount voucher available for coach drivers) and the café at Bristol Cathedral (visitors are even welcome to bring their own lunch and enjoy it in the cathedral gardens), but if your group is after a treat, then Thornbury Castle can offer an afternoon tea for groups. Just a few minutes’ drive from Berkeley Castle, this hotel is no longer a family home (and in fact, has no connection to the Berkeleys, but is connected with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, more later). Another group-friendly option nearby is Almondsbury Garden Centre.

Afternoon:

Travel into the city centre where your coach can drop you at the back of Bristol Cathedral on Anchor Road. The Cathedral is the seat of the bishop of Bristol and the heart of a diocese which, today, includes Bristol, and much of south Gloucestershire and northern Wiltshire, including Swindon. It stands on a site which has been sacred for a thousand years or more.

The cathedral originated as an abbey on the edge of what was, in the twelfth century, a prosperous and growing merchant town. The monastery was founded by Robert Fitzharding, a significant figure in twelfth century Bristol. A merchant, landlord and financier of increasingly aristocratic wealth, Fitzharding was eventually rewarded with a substantial estate, running from the edge of the city north into central Gloucestershire, and the title of Lord Berkeley. Fitzharding’s abbey was located at the nearest edge of his lands to the growing merchant town itself. He himself took holy orders at the end of his life and was buried in the church, though his tomb is lost.

For the ensuing four hundred years, the abbey appears to have been intimately caught up with the Berkeleys, acting as the burial place of all of Fitzharding’s successors bar one between his death in 1170 and 1368. Even when burial ceases the Berkeley crest and Berkeley history were a major concern of the canons, as its prominence in the late medieval decoration of the abbey and the text of the document known as Abbot Newland’s Roll, held at Berkeley castle and the most important source for the abbey’s medieval city, attests.

Apart from its remarkable aesthetic qualities, the east end of the Cathedral is a remarkable insight into medieval culture, being apparently designed to evoke the abbey’s role as a kind of mausoleum and prayer factory for the souls of the Lords Berkeley. The Berkeley effigies preserved in the church today all relate to the period when the east end was being rebuilt, a time when figures such as Thomas (d. 1321) and Maurice (d. 1326) were deeply implicated in the rebellion against Edward II.

Bristol Cathedral is free to visitors but it is well worth booking a tour for your group. As well as more detail regarding the Berkeley links, the knowledgeable Cathedral guides can tell you all the best stories; from when a local mob tried to pull down the Chapter House and set the place on fire, to the strange discovery of a carving under an old floor. End the day by hearing the acclaimed choir sing Choral Evensong. This beautiful service has been sung at the Cathedral for hundreds of years, so you really are witnessing a piece of history (5.15pm weekdays (not Thursday), 3.30pm weekends).

For those with a little more time, there are more Berkeley and Fitzharding connections at St Mary Redcliffe church near Bristol Temple Meads station. This parish church, which sometimes gets mistaken for a cathedral, is a fantastic structure which was described by Queen Elizabeth I as “the fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England”.

Overnight:

St Mary Redcliffe church is sandwiched by two of the largest hotels in the city, perfect for groups: Mercure Holland House and DoubleTree by Hilton Bristol City Centre. Other options nearby are Hilton Garden Inn and Novotel.

Other Connections:

Wolf Hall

Filming for the BBC series took place across the south west, with Berkeley Castle and Bristol Cathedral both used as locations. The historical drama, based on the award-winning books by Hilary Mantel, chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a humble blacksmith who became King Henry VIII's chief minister. Bristol Cathedral played the part of several different locations and appeared in 5 of the 6 episodes. Notable scenes include the Nave of Cathedral playing the role of Westminster Abbey for the coronation of Anne Boleyn. The Chapter House became the office of the Duke of Norfolk and major confrontation scenes were filmed in both the Eastern Lady Chapel and the Quire. A map taking you around the sights is available on request at the Cathedral entrance.

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