Nestled smack in the middle of the Forest of Dean is St Briavels, a small village in Gloucestershire few people has heard of. But like many old British towns, it has quite an intriguing history.
While much of it actually predates the Norman conquest, the village was formed around the Norman castle originally built as a border stronghold against Wales, then garrisoned by Miles FitzWalter, Earl of Hereford, in the early 12th century. Its main sources of income were quarrying and forestry, and naturally enough, the castle is made of locally harvested red sandstone and limestone, which may have given the edifice its grim and robust appearance.
Fast forward a couple centuries: King John would visit and hunt in the Forest every November, always lodging at St Briavels Castle. He allegedly expanded and renovated the former fortress—funded by the taxes he notoriously increased and collected. Some of the surviving rooms and curtain wall are thought to have been built by this villainous monarch.
Some time after John’s death, the castle was turned into a factory for quarrels (crossbow bolts), and soon it became the national center of quarrel manufacture, the resources provided by the iron mines in the Forest of Dean. The castle’s most iconic feature, its magnificent gatehouse, was built around this time by the order of King Edward I.
In the next centuries, the castle slowly began to lose its former splendor. By the 17th century it had become a jailhouse, primarily a debtors’ prison. Prisoners were hardly treated as nicely as the guests of the youth hostel today, and, following the prison reforms in the early 19th century, its function as a prison ceased and the building, especially the court and jury rooms, started to be used as a local school.
After this, the castle became nearly uninhabitable until it was restored in the early 1900s as a family country house, and then finally became a youth hostel in 1948. The castle (along with its curtain wall) has been classed as a Grade I listed building and scheduled monument.
Today, St Briavels Castle is also considered one of the most haunted castles in England, as there have been numerous reports of supernatural activities from the visitors and guests, such as the cries of a baby in King John’s Bedroom, the restless spirits of prisoners in the Hanging Room, a grey lady wandering in the corridor, and unexplained ghostly noises echoing through the halls.
Know Before You Go
As a youth hostel the castle has 9 bedrooms, 2 of which are dormitories, and even if you're not staying at the castle, the site and grounds are open to the public during daytime. Puzzlewood, along with the Clearwell Caves, is located within a range of 10 minutes' drive.