Castles live in our heads as much as they linger in our landscape, and Bodiam has enough portcullises, turrets and winding staircases to last a child's lifetime: our three-year-old son absolutely loved it. And so did every other small person I saw running, exploring, climbing, gazing, playing, thinking and stumbling round this 14th-century moated palace. Bring your kids and they'll be in seventh heaven for two hours. Bring a picnic and a frisbee, and you've got a day taken care of.
I have to say, though, I did wonder as we approached it, why the land just 500 metres to the north was as high as the castle's highest turrets. Odd, I thought, as I imagined mediaeval Trebuchets (yes I am a history geek) stood on these hills launching rocks, burning oil and oh yes, severed heads down into castle grounds. *Explanation down the page
At the gate we were greeted by a huge purple easter egg. Yes, the Cadburys/National Trust Easter-gate is happening right here. In case you've missed it, it seems the Prime Minister believes it 'ridiculous' that 'Easter' isn't mentioned in the National Trust literature with regard to its egg hunts.
Face it, Teresa May: Easter is a time for mythical creatures. That's why it seems perfectly normal to have a dragon-themed egg hunt spread out across the castle grounds. It's very easy: you get a map and a pencil, and once you – sorry, your children – have marked down where the imaginatively named creatures have laid one out, you get a Cadbury's bunny to take home.
But visit at any time and there's more for kids than just some old ruins. Bodiam castle has an awful lot of ducks, which your little ones can gently chase for hours. The moat may look calm, but underneath the surface glide hundreds of giant carp, or something similarly menacing, which I'm sure would eat my son without a thought. They were after all almost as big as him. When we went, there was also archery on offer for £3 (for five arrows) or £5 (for ten), and have-a-go hawking for £5. A cafe with adjacent activity room offered free drawing and dragon-picture colouring, plus egg-cup decorating (£1.50) and 'dragon egg' painting (£2).
And then, there's the castle. If you're one an organised type who uses reins on your toddlers, you may wish to employ them to stop them bolting across the bridge. If not, just grab any bit of clothing you can get hold of. Our little one could not be contained (see video).
Once you get under the portcullis and hand over your entry token to a lovely lady dressed up as a servant who will tell you all about life here (go on, ask her!), you're free to roam around as you will. There are winding staircases, privies, bats roosting in the ceilings, reconstructions, information boards, kitchens with chimneys you can see the sky through, lots of gaps in the walls for little ones to squeeze through or hide in, mock thrones in the Great Hall, a beautiful well at the bottom of one of the turrets, chapels, bedrooms, and of course, the battlements.
*The history bit: The castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a knight of Edward III. He was a younger son and so, missing out on an inheritance, was forced to accrue wealth by other means. In 1367 he left for France, 30 years into the Hundred Years War, to join the 'Free Companies' – groups fighting as mercenaries and plundering French towns during the conflict. After a decade of this, he returned a rich man and, in 1385, with a French fleet gathering across the English Channel, got permission from Richard II to 'crenellate' (build a castle) to help defend his shores. Back then, the river was navigable past Bodiam and so was a possible landing spot for an invasion force looking to rob from wealthy figures such as Sir Edward and then consolidate their power base in the area, just as the English had been doing in France. The invasion never happened, but we were left with what the National Trust rightly describes as an 'archetypal 14-century moated castle'.
The views from the top of the castle are stunning, taking in the river, railway line, and hills on either side of you. Yes, those hills. To explain its rather weak position topographically, it seems that the castle was built much more for show, practicality and for its views than for defensive purposes. But it's quite something to stand up on the south-facing towers and imagine ships coming up the now-tiny Rother to deliver supplies for the castle – or lay siege to it, as Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, seems to have done in 1483 when the castle's then-owner, Sir Thomas Lewknor, was accused of treason by Richard III. No need for boiling oil or rocks: one look at those fish would have sent them packing.
Entry costs £9.30 per adult and £4.65 for children or a family ticket for £23.25. You can become a member of the National Trust for £64.30 or £116.80 for a family per year and get free entry to all their properties. Well worth it if you make more than a couple of trips a year. The car park is pay and display so that will also set you back a few quid.
We drove to Bodiam, but a popular option is to get the Kent & East Sussex Railway's steam train from Tenterden, which will cost you £38 for a family of three or four, or £18 per adult.