Although very close to the town of the same name, Okehampton Castle has a rural setting, with views only of the steep sides of the valley of the West Okemont River - the fortification is built on a small ridge about a hundred feet above the valley floor, on the north side, below wooded slopes that rise quite high above, especially to the south. The location is one mile southwest of the town centre, just inside the northern edge of Dartmoor National Park, reached by a narrow side road. A 24 mile path, the Two Castles Walk, crosses the river on the footbridge and follows the valley upstream, later winding through moorland and farmland to the only other ancient castle in the park, at Lydford, and there are also some short trails across the surrounding woodland and fields, filled with wildflowers in spring and summer.
The castle at Okehampton was established about 1069 as a motte and bailey structure, and despite some improvements remained small until acquired, by marriage, by the de Courtenay family in the mid 12th century. For nearly 400 years the place was gradually enlarged and improved, as its purpose changed from defensive to residential, before a gradual decay after abandonment in the mid-16th century.
The approach is from the northeast, through the remains of a gatehouse, then along a path that climbs to a narrow, grassy courtyard (the bailey) lined by two rows of ruined buildings including the great hall, kitchen and chapel. Beyond, higher still, is the original motte, topped by the walls of the keep, still tall and imposing despite being split in some places right down to ground level. Most of the structures survive to a good height, and although all parts are ruined there is much of interest to see, and the site is made even more memorable by the dramatic setting.
Okehampton Castle, the largest castle in the county, is managed by English Heritage; it is a staffed attraction, open daily between April and October.
Although there is some evidence that the rocky spur above the Okemont River had previously been used for defensive purposes, possibly as early as Roman times, the castle, the oldest known structure, was begun soon after the Norman conquest, under the command of Baldwin FitzGilbert (died 1090; also known as Baldwin de Meulles), a second cousin of William the Conqueror. A naturally occurring granite knoll was enlarged to form the motte, with the fort on top, and two protected baileys to the west and east. Baldwin also created a new settlement just downriver, now the town of Okehampton, which soon became more important than the pre-existing Saxon village, close by to the south, on the slopes above the far side of the river. Ownership of the castle passed to the Courtenay family after the marriage of Reginald de Courtenay (died 1164) to Maude FitzEdith, she a great granddaughter of Baldwin and heir of the Barony of Okehampton. The west bailey was not developed, but the eastern area was gradually enclosed between two rows of buildings, forming the main occupied area of the castle. Most of the work was carried out at the start of the 14th century by Hugh de Courtenay, 4th in descent from Reginald. Construction was accompanied by acquisition of land to the south, used as a hunting ground, especially for deer; as a result of this the old Saxon settlement was abandoned, though its position is evident from some low walls. Residency of the Courtenay family came to an abrupt end in 1539, when Henry, the 1st Marquis of Exeter, was executed by Henry VIII, (his first cousin) because of his supposed though unproven desire to replace Henry as king. The castle was confiscated, and despite the relatively luxurious and extensive accommodations, it seems that the place was never again occupied. Some of the stones were removed by the townspeople for use in other projects and all rooms gradually became ruinous. Hunting in the deer park on the south side of the river continued until the 18th century, after which the land was returned to general pasture. Limited restorations of the castle have been carried out on several occasions in recent years, starting in the 19th century.
The castle has the layout established in the early 14th century during the major building program of Hugh de Courtenay. Entry is off Castle Lane, just west of a small carpark; through a gate, past the English Heritage kiosk to a tree-lined area, originally the barbican (outermost fortification), beside the gatehouse, which now consists of the lower section of a square-based tower and an adjacent room. An unusually long (110 foot), formerly walled passageway leads uphill along a ridge to a second square tower, guarding the entrance to the bailey, which is also built on sloping ground and backs onto the motte and keep, higher up to the west. Buildings to the north/west comprise the great hall, buttery, kitchen and solar (living room, above the buttery), while to the south/east are a chapel, priest's lodging, guest accommodation and servants' quarters, all these built against an outer wall that served as the main exterior defence of the castle. The more heavily fortified north side was protected by a free-standing curtain wall, now mostly missing. Above a ditch and earthworks around the motte is the thick-walled keep, formed of two components, a rectangular rear section and a square tower at the front. The keep originally had an upper storey, accessed by a staircase in a turret on the northeast side. The turret has separated from both walls and leans at a slight angle, now forming the centerpiece of most the iconic view of the site, from the northeast; angular walls rising well above the substantial ruins below.