A medieval outing fit for a king

(Lylah M. Alphonse for The Boston Globe)
By Lylah M. Alphonse
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2011

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Knights and princesses are popular at our house right now, and so my kids were thrilled with the idea of visiting an actual castle. We invited some friends along for the hour-plus ride to Gloucester, and when we pulled into the parking lot, we were all in awe.

Though built between 1926 and 1929, Hammond Castle looks like a medieval masterpiece, surrounded by gorgeous gardens and looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. The view through a series of stone arches was breathtaking, but since we arrived close to closing time, we darted into the gift shop to get our tickets ($10 for adults, $8 for kids age 6 to 11, kids younger than 6 are free), and set off to explore the castle first.

Hammond Castle was home to inventor John Hays Hammond Jr., who shared it with his wife and their impressive collection of artifacts from the medieval and Renaissance ages. The castle was also home to the Hammond Research Corporation (Hammond held more than 400 patents, but is most famous for his work with radio waves and for inventing the remote control). One part of the museum showcases some of Hammond’s many inventions; the kids were fascinated by a hulking panel of metal, knobs, and labels built into the wall next to an enormous turntable - a prototype of an early stereo system Hammond had created.

Walking through the dark, stone rooms and peeking out of windows covered in wrought-iron scrollwork, it’s easy to forget that people once lived here. The cavernous Great Hall looks fit for a king’s court; a 1,000-pipe organ sits at one end, and colorful banners hang from the walls. Your steps echo over stone floors, and the stone walls are inset with shield-shaped tiles. A rose window glows high above the organ, a stained-glass depiction of angels playing music; alcoves hung with heavy red curtains are filled with what my 4-year-old son insisted must be “dragon’s treasure.’’

The Great Hall opens out into a sunny courtyard with a reflecting pool in the center. The interior walls of the courtyard are made out of facades found during the Hammonds’ travels through Europe; the carvings in the dark wood around one doorway came from an ancient meat market, and the level above it had once been part of a wine merchant’s shop. Step through the door and a small corridor takes you to a Renaissance-style dining room with a narrow table, colorful floor tiles, and an amazing ocean view.

Narrow, winding stairs snake up the towers; climb them (single file) and you’ll find artfully gloomy dungeon rooms, paintings and prints of knights and princesses, display cases of swords and other weapons, and a medieval chapel complete with altar and religious paintings. Other narrow staircases lead to tiny bedrooms, some filled with ‘50s-era furnishings, some outfitted with medieval bedstands and fur throws, all filled with more items from Hammond’s collections. The kids squealed when they saw the canopy beds and the little step-stools required to climb into them. “This must have been the princess’s room!’’ My daughter exclaimed, as her friend rushed into an adjoining bedroom and declared that it had belonged to the king.

The museum is open May 14 through Sept. 5, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the week (it’s closed on Mondays). The last tickets for the self-guiding tours are sold at 3:30 p.m., and they lock the castle up promptly at 4. Keep your kids close - it’s easy to get lost in the dark, twisting hallways and steep staircases.

When we came out of the castle, my daughter gasped. There, in an archway, was a bride in a flowing white gown and a sparkly tiara. Photographers were taking pictures of her and her wedding party, and my girl was charmed: She got to see a princess after all.

Hammond Castle, 80 Hesperus Ave., Gloucester; 978-283-2080;

WHO: Lylah M. Alphonse, two of her five kids (ages 6 and 4), and their friends

WHAT: Exploring a modern version of a medieval castle

WHERE: Hammond Castle, Gloucester