I love visiting historical homes. Over the past few years of living in the UK, I’ve nurtured this affection by visiting an array of historical houses, from the minuscule to those made famous by TV shows to the impossibly grand.
There are many reasons why I always make an effort to visit these properties, but the biggest has to be the fact that, for me, these houses represent windows into other lives… and other times. And, in terms of its place in English history, there are few ‘windows’ as important as Hever Castle.
This last bank holiday weekend saw us hopping into the car and making our way over to Hever in Kent. Located just 48km out of London, it’s a perfect spot for an easy day trip out of the city.
There are a few options for visiting Hever Castle; you can buy a combined ticket for the castle and the gardens, or a ticket just for the gardens. Whatever you end up choosing, prepare to do a fair bit of walking!
Before you see the castle, you’ll be passing by some of the most beautiful gardens and plantlife I’ve yet seen in this country. However, as stunning as it is, this is not how the property has always looked.
The very first structure on this site dated back to 1270, which was a medieval castle complete with a gatehouse and walled bailey. Fast forward to the 15th and 16th Centuries, and Hever Castle was in the hands of the soon-to-be-very-important Boleyn family. Thomas Boleyn had inherited the castle and it was here that he lived with his wife, as well as his children: Mary, George and Anne.
I’m sure that by now you’ve guessed that Anne of Hever Castle and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, the former queen and wife of King Henry VIII, are one and the same. And Hever Castle is most famous for the fact that it was the site of this famous couple’s courtship.
King Henry VIII did eventually marry Anne, but their partnership was short-lived, and Anne was executed for treason in 1536.
As most people know, Henry quickly moved on to his next wife, and Hever Castle passed into the hands of many different owners. One of these was Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who received the property as part of their divorce agreement. Sadly, after the passing of many, many years, the house fell into a state of disrepair.
This all changed when William Waldorf Astor acquired Hever Castle in 1903. He spent millions renovating and expanding on the existing castle, as well as designing and planting extensive gardens to surround the main buildings.
While the gardens are gorgeous, the first port of call on a visit to Hever Castle should be the castle itself. If you go on a weekend, especially when the sun is out, Hever Castle can become a busy place and you might have to contend with long queues if you want to have the opportunity to admire the interiors of the castle.
Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed inside Hever Castle. If you’re unsure about whether to pay the extra few pounds for the combined ticket, let me assure you that it’s completely worth it. Astor went to great lengths to restore Hever Castle to its former glory and, inside, we found ourselves exploring one flawless room after the next.
Inside, you’ll find intricately carved wooden ceilings, era-appropriate antique furniture as well as the dark and grand bedroom that King Henry VIII used on his visits to the castle. There are other displays too, which include Anne Boleyn’s prayer books, and more grisly items like medieval torture instruments. While most of the castle interiors look exactly like those belonging to a grand Tudor country home, there are still signs of the building’s early medieval beginnings. On one level, you can find a garderobe, which is a rather fancy term for a medieval toilet.
Astor extended the castle by adding a cluster of Tudor-style cottages, which are collectively referred to as the Astor Wing. Nowadays, some of these are available for hire and the property is, unsurprisingly, a popular venue for weddings and other celebrations.
The rest of our visit to Hever Castle was dedicated to Astor’s biggest contribution to the property: the gardens. Historically, the gardens around the castle were modest in nature. When he bought the place, Astor envisaged a spectacular design, which included several formal gardens as well as a lake. For the latter, it took two years to dig out this vast water feature.
Wandering through the green spaces, each garden feels different from the next. The Italian Gardens feature long walkways lined with pillars, stretches of lawn, elegant courtyards, Roman-inspired statues and vine-covered archways. These conclude with the loggia at the end of the lake; the centrepiece here is a fountain inspired by Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain.
Near the castle, you’ll find an avenue of shrubs, all tweaked to represent forms of wildlife. Deer, birds, snails – I have a feeling that these might change shape every so often. The Tudor Garden nearby is full of herbs and a row of larger-than-life topiary chesspieces.
Other parts of the gardens are less manicured. There are meadows of wildflowers, along with streams and overgrown wisteria blooms. The presence of this wide array of natural landscapes is what I loved most about Hever Castle. Whether they were formal or wild, so much thought and care has gone into each garden area at Hever Castle. You can spend hours trying to discover the entirety of the property and, even though we tried to do this, I have a feeling there were many spots we didn’t manage to get to.
If you’re visiting as a family with kids, there are plenty of activities on the go at Hever Castle over the summer. While we were there, there was archery, boules and other lawn games; you can also hire rowboats to take out on the lake. Apart from the weekend activities, there are other popular summer events, such as jousting and assorted medieval games.
There are two other attractions that will vie for your attention – no matter your age.
Hever Castle is home to two mazes. There’s a traditional Yew maze as well as an ingenious water maze. We, of course, went to both. For the water maze, the object is to get to the central tower of the maze without getting wet. There are several traps along the way, where a wrong step could result in you getting drenched. I’d highly recommend it – although it might be a good idea to hide away expensive gadgets before embarking on the water maze!
For the rest of our afternoon, we made one last meandering round of Hever Castle’s gardens. Even though we had passed through once before, we noticed so many plants, fountains and statues that we had missed on our first wander.
If you’re looking for a memorable day trip from London this summer, make sure that Hever Castle is it. Not only is Hever Castle a fascinating journey back into the UK’s regal past, I guarantee that you’ll struggle to find a more stunning spot for this mode of time travel.
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Driving is the easiest way to get to Hever Castle; however, you can also catch a train to Edenbridge or Hever rail stations and then walk/take a taxi. At the time of writing, combined tickets to the castle and gardens cost £16.50, with a small discount for visitors who buy their tickets online beforehand. Entry is free for Historic Houses Association members.
There are plenty of facilities at Hever Castle, including cafes, shops and a museum of miniatures. To find out more about Hever Castle, check out the official website.
Do you have a favourite day trip out of London? Or have you visited Hever Castle? Let me know in the comments below.
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