West Derby Castle

Liverpool and its Norman West Derby Castle

3,500-Mile Hike, Normans

The BBC presenter’s dapper appearance was the antithesis of mine. I was clad in battered hiking boots, trousers with holes in the hems and was fighting with my hiking buggy.

“Let me just get this buggy out,” I said to him as I hauled it from the car boot. “I couldn’t walk here this morning as I would have had to set off at about 4am,” I rationalised, “but I’ll walk back.”

“Hi, I’m Stuart Flinders,” he said, smiling and outstretching his hand. I hadn’t even introduced myself, instead I’d launched into a whittering monologue. I’d not engaged in formal social contexts for so long due to my solo hike for the past five months, I’d forgotten even the most basic manners. I internally chastised myself for being so impolite.

West derby castle
West Derby village
A Lost Liverpool Castle

“So is this where the Norman West Derby castle was?” Stuart asked after I finally shook his hand.
“Yes, round the corner in the park,” I answered.

I’d reached my home city of Liverpool, in the district of West Derby, on my 3,500-mile hike through British history. I was talking about its Norman past and the motte and bailey castle that once stood there. As with all conquests, those close to the new ruler became rich landowners. So was the case with Roger de Poitou, whose father had helped William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings in 1066.

Poitou had been given much of the land in the north west of England, where he built several castles. Liverpool itself was home to a couple of fishermen at the time of the Domesday book, and wasn’t even recorded in it, but many suburbs of the modern-day city were much larger, including West Derby. The village became a large and important administrative centre, and was made the manor of the hundred. This was a reference to how land was divided up during the Normans and the manor oversaw the area. In order to protect the village and house Poitou’s soilders, West Derby castle was built around 1100 with a moat and a drawbridge.

In the locality of where West Derby Castle once stood.

“You can see all the street names are reminiscent of its past,” I said as the buggy and I wiggled along West Derby’s Castle Street, Castle Keep and The Armoury. “But you can’t really see anything else of its forgotten Norman history. Not many people know about it.”

To watch the BBC video, click here (best to be logged into Facebook for correct screen size).

As with all Norman castles, the motte was the upper fort, built from wood, and situated on a mound. The bailey was located lower down and was where the townspeople, or peasants, lived in a courtyard. It was an expensive upkeep with period records stating that £170 was spent on the West Derby castle in 1213 for repairs alone.

A century after West Derby castle was built, King John (of Robin Hood fame) realised the strategic importance of a tiny place called Liuerpul on the Mersey estuary. Some five miles from West Derby, it was the ideal base from which to invade Ireland. As Liuerpul grew from a fishing village to a small town, the township of West Derby started to fizzle out, especially as plots of land were available for those moving to Liuerpul.

A castle was built in Liuerpul circa 1235 (the exact year is unknown), and was located in what is now Liverpool Crown Court with the main entrance facing Castle Street. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was still in the Norman period on my hike.

A 1.5-minute video about Liverpool and West Derby castle, featuring the buggy at Anfield. 

I’d walked from Tadcaster in Yorkshire via Skipton and Lancaster and down to Liverpool, all on the trail of the Normans whose rule lasted under a century, from 1066 to 1154. Motte and baileys, or at least the mound that formed the motte, are still very visible throughout England and Wales today. When King Harold, exhausted from his fight at Stamford Bridge against the Vikings, was killed in the battle of Hastings, the course of the island’s history changed again.

Norman Rule

With William’s Norman invasion in 1066, battle tactics altered and castles were positioned throughout the land, several with imposing stone towers. Despite these fortresses, the Normans had a code of conduct on the battlefield known as chivalry, yet they ravaged war in Northumbria against Edgar the Atheling burning towns and killing civilians.

Despite their harrying of the north, they took religion seriously. All of England’s 15 cathedrals were rebuilt by the Normans with grandiose designs, embracing the popular Romanesque style. Daily life also altered; slavery was reduced in the country according the Domesday book, which was, of course, a Norman introduction. And their language bequeathed more than 10,000 French words into English to name just a few changes.


Lancaster Norman castle
Lancaster Castle

Prior to West Derby, I’d visited Lancaster Castle, which has its roots in Roman Britain. Yet its earliest remaining section today is its stone Norman keep. Again, Lancaster was in Roger de Poitou’s jurisdiction, but the remaining Norman inner tower was built after his death.

A Long Sentence

“Please don’t take any photos unless I say so,” the guide warned us inside Lancaster Castle, “it’s still used as a court and it is illegal to take or post any photos.” I looked up with huge eyes, I’d just taken one of the Norman keep. With my finger poised on the delete button, I piped up, “Can I take one of that? Or am I about to be carted away?”

“That’s fine. But otherwise, you’ll be spending time in one of our cells!” he smiled. “It might be a bit warmer than my tent,” I muttered to myself. Lancaster Castle was Britain’s longest running prison from the 12th century until 2011. The most notorious of all cases was the Pendle Witches Trial of 1612, in which 10 of the accused people were hanged on the Lancashire Moors for being witches. With no defence nor witnesses in their favour allowed, they were doomed from day one.

Back in Liverpool, the buggy was about to get its one minute of fame on the BBC Northwest’s video. And I was about to remember my manners and say goodbye to the journalist.

Norman castle
Skipton Castle, Yorkshire

Jane Batchelor hiked 3,500 miles through Britain, looking at the history of the country in chronological order. For more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.

For more history posts from Jane’s journey, click below:

The Mysteries of Shetland’s Past
Tunnels, Tombs and Treasure in Orkney
Perilous St Kilda – Scotland’s Last Outpost 
Forget Silver and Gold, Bronze Rocks in Kilmartin
Roman Britain – Ruins & Barbarian Resistance
Sexist Saints and Glass Bedes in Anglo-Saxon England
Not So Vicious Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge


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