Isle of Albion
A quirky ruin on a quiet little island.
Photographed: Tuesday 15th July 2014
Other Names: Fouldry Castle, Pile of Fouldray
Site rating:  

Piel Castle dates back to around 1327AD when it was built by Furness Abbey to guard the approach to the deep water port of Piel Harbour, and thus the abbey's trade with their estates in Ireland and the Isle of Man. The castle is located on south-east tip of Piel Island, just off the end of the Furness Peninsula and was built entirely from stone foraged from the island's beaches.

In 1403AD, the castle was seized by the crown and the abbey accused neglecting its maintenance. Barrow-in-Furness was one of the most important ports in the north-west of England at this point, and its defence presumably of importance to the crown. It was returned to the abbey in 1411AD and rebuilding work was subsequently undertaken.

In 1487AD, Lambert Simnel, a pretender to the English throne, occupied Piel Castle with an army of mercenaries raised in Ireland. From there, he marched on London, but was defeated at the Battle of Stoke Field. Lambert Simnel was around 10 years old at this time, so it can easily be surmised that he was a tool for the ambitions of others. In this light, it's perhaps unsurprising that he was pardoned by Henry VII and put to work for a while in the kitchens of the king's palace where he turned the spits over the fires.

By 1534AD, the castle was falling into ruin. Its exposed location and the use of low quality materials must have made it extremely vulnerable to erosion. A report at this time described the castle as "sore decayed". In 1537AD, Furness Abbey was dissolved, and the castle became crown property. No further record exists of the castle being used for any military or defensive reason, and it is most likely that it was abandoned at this time.

Between 1877 and 1878AD, Walter Scott, the Duke of Buccleuch, carried out extensive restoration and preservation work at the castle. Unfortunately, his efforts also led to the destruction of significant archaeology relating to the castle's earlier occupation. In 1919AD the Scott family gifted the island to the local council as a memorial to those who'd lost their lives during the First World War.

Today, Piel Castle is in the care of English Heritage, while the island is legally owned by the people of Barrow-in-Furness. The borough council has the duty of appointing the "King of Piel" - a title originating with the landing of Lambert Simnel, and now traditionally granted to the landlord of the island's only pub (which is also owned by the local council). The landlord and his family are amongst only a handful of permanent residents on the island, with the only other residences being a terrace of Victorian pilots' cottages.

Piel Island is a fantastically quirky corner of England. Public access is only available via a small ferry launch from Roa Island (not an actual island, to avoid confusion, and itself a strange and desolate little village at the end of a road to nowhere) during the summer months. Tourist traffic to the island is low, and you're unlikely to be bothered by crowds of people. There were only a smattering of visitors when I was there in July. The pub was left wide open and empty, and it was necessary to go hunting for someone to pull a pint.

Piel Castle itself is an odd ruin. Its unclear to what extent it served as a summer residence of the abbots of Furness, a trading warehouse, or a garrison. Probably a combination of all three. The abbey was also involved in smuggling, so it's likely that goods were stored at the castle to avoid taxation.

The stone used to build the castle gives it a very unique look - almost like a Victorian folly. It's a pleasure to explore, and on a calm, sunny day, the views are beautiful and the atmosphere calm and serene. Although the keep is closed off and it's evident where the Victorian restorations have been less than ideal, there's still plenty to see here. There's nowhere else quite like it.