They Are Among Us
You expect to find castles in Europe. Here, a local author introduces us to five majestic castles right in the Valley
Photographs by Scott Ian Barry
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Many of our modern impressions of castles come from the dark, brooding chambers and cold, damp ramparts shown in Hollywood films. The heavily romanticized image of Disney World’s “Cinderella Castle” has given us an equally distorted view. Walt Disney based his fairy tale landmark on the sculpted peaks and soaring spires of 19th-century Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. But the truth is that, throughout the centuries, there have been as many different styles of castles as rulers who lived in them.
It was in the 11th century that our stereotypical view of castles really took hold. As William the Conquerer scored ruthless, crushing victories over England’s northern territory, he started constructing substantial castles of stone. These virtually impregnable defenses served to intimidate and control the peasant population of the countryside, and to stave off potential attacks from invading foreign armies.
William’s structures shared several common features. The tall central tower — or “keep” — was made of dense stone and constructed on steep earthen hills called “mottes,” placing his soldiers high above the ground where they could rain down arrows, boulders, and boiling oil on the enemy below. Capping the top of the castle walls (which could be 10 feet thick) and the keep were “battlements,” which produced the up-and-down, zigzag pattern that gives the Norman castle its signature imposing profile. Finally, William’s fortresses contained a “portcullis,” or heavy main gate made of iron or wood, which could be raised or lowered to allow friendly troops in — or keep hostile troops out.
These oversized fortresses have captivated the hearts of architecture buffs and romantics for generations. But what you may not know is that there are more than a dozen castles sprinkled throughout the Hudson Valley — some in plain sight, others more hidden. While most were built in the last 150 years as private homes, that does not diminish their grandeur. Here are stories I collected along the way while exploring some of our region’s own.
First stop: Olana