Haddon Hall stands on a bluff overlooking the River Wye, two miles southeast of Bakewell. The situation and the embattled outline give an impression of strength from a distance, but as a castle Haddon is something of a mystery. Its complex building history suggests a manor house, which developed defenses but has been effectively de-fortified since.
The story goes back to Richard de Vernon, who obtained a peculiar license in 1195. It allowed him to enclose his house within a wall, but the wall was not to exceed twelve feet in height and was not to be crenellated. Some of the wall and part of the chapel survive from that time.
What stands today is a rectangular enclosure of the fourteenth century with ranges of buildings on each side. The outer wall is certainly thick enough to qualify as a curtain except on the north side, where the range is a late medieval rebuilding. On the west the curtain remains defensive with a square bastion projecting from the middle. The terrain is strongest here but the insertion of Elizabethan bay windows elsewhere has transformed the appearance of the mansion. The only other towers are the tall gate towers at each end. An unaccountable weakness is the chapel that projects from the southwest corner of the enclosure.
The hall lies across the middle of the enclosure, dividing it into two courtyards. This arrangement allowed the hall to be lit by large windows on either side without weakening the curtain. A fine porch leads from the lower courtyard into the old screens passage. The original wooden screen still exists, though the hall roof is a modern reconstruction. To the north are the kitchen and a row of domestic offices. To the south is a first-floor solar, the former parlor beneath it preserving a painted ceiling from about 1500.
The village of Castle Hedingham is dominated by one of the finest keeps. Faced with ashlar masonry brought all the way from Barnack, it is almost perfectly preserved, lacking only its battlements. The sloping plinth and pilaster buttresses are typical Norman motifs but the turrets rising at two opposite corners are a distinctive feature. From outside, the keep is seen to have five stages.
This translates to four stories within because the hall – as usual in the larger Norman keeps – is twice the height of the other rooms and its upper windows are at gallery level. The top floor, or solar, is just below the parapet, so there is no blank space to protect a steeply pitched roof as in many Norman keeps. It is interesting to see how the windows graduate from narrow slits at ground level to larger and more elaborate openings above, though being Norman, they are relatively small. Note the even rows of putlog holes used in the construction.
A fore building preceded by a flight of steps guarded the way in. This has been allowed to decay into a ruinous stump, but the first floor entrance, with chevron ornament and portcullis groove, is still in use. The room within is bisected by a wide archway, which prepares us for the loftier, molded arch at hall level. These cross arches are a unique feature. They helped support the wooden floors without dividing the keep into smaller rooms as a cross wall would have done.
A mural gallery runs all the way around the keep at the upper level of the hall. Frequent window recesses pierce it so the hall benefits from light at two levels. The present floors and roof are modern, the older ones having been consumed by a fire in 1918. .