Hever Castle (Kent): visit for the gardens

Hever Castle

I had recently visited Henry VIII’s childhood home at Eltham Palace.  Now we found ourselves at Anne Boleyn’s childhood home – a bona-fide castle: bleak, moated, jousting, archery, lake, mazes, topiary…

Remember we visited Avington Park earlier in the year?  Avington Park is another house associated with the Bullen family (later twisted into Boleyn by European accents during Anne’s travels).

Reason to visit: for the gardens and summer entertainment – an excellent water maze and live jousting on selected weekends will keep children and Peter Pan-adults alike entertained and inspire them to don a jester’s hat.  This is a corporate-run day out so the restaurants are good, the parking ample and the signage helpful .

The castle (well, the gatehouse and walled bailey) dates to 1270, the license to crenellate to 1340.  However, it’s the Tudor Boleyn connection that is emphasised throughout the castle itself.  Blame Disney, blame capitalism but Hever is not quite the real deal.

The Bullen family bought the castle at the beginning of the 1500s.  They added windows to the keep and built a Tudor dwelling (with steep tiled roofs and mullioned & transomed windows) within the walls, creating the structure and interiors to which Hever has been restored.

Other than a couple of illustrated books of hours owned by Anne Boleyn, I didn’t spot any gems amongst the interior decoration but that may have been because the castle was very busy: we queued for 20 minutes to get in because it was raining heavily & the day’s tourists (who should have been outside watching jousting, trying the archery, renting boats on the lake and meandering around the lovely rose gardens and Italianate terraces stuffed with classical architectural artifacts and statues collected by William Astor (see below) on his travels) were inside the castle.

Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife, also owned Hever at one point and after 1557 the Waldegraves, the Humfreys and the Meade Waldos were amongst the custodian owners of Hever.

Due to these brief but tourist-friendly royal connections, upstairs a long gallery houses some dodgy mannequins dressed up as Henry VIII and his wives, typical of corporate ownership creating a tourist attraction out of a historic building.  I dislike such insensitive use of historic space and threw cold water on Beaulieu when I visited for the same reason.

Centuries of quiet neglect meant Hever entered the 2oth century seeking a savour, which came in 1903 in the form of William Waldorf Astor.  Like the Courtaulds after him at Eltham Palace, Astor recreated an ‘idealised’  interior (albeit with some masterly carving throughout under W. S. Frith).  He also landscaped the surrounding countryside, adding an Italian garden and a 35 acre lake – the Henry Hoare of his day perhaps?  As a result, I’d recommend Hever for the gardens rather than the castle.  There are more authentic examples of castles in Kent.

The rain made my photos quite miserable so perhaps I can take you to the Galloping Gardener’s pictures of the garden here.

Astor certainly saved Hever but he did also commit an architectural crime when he (with the help of his architects, J L and F L Pearson) added a twee collection of buildings to the left of the castle which he called a ‘Tudor Village’.  This may have set the precedent for the collection of gift shops that one encounters after parking across the road, entering through castle gates and meandering down the hill.  Perhaps whoever granted the permission in this location hadn’t thought about nearby Leeds Castle and how the similar approach and vista there is much improved by tucking the ‘corporate’ buildings behind the castle.  The dumping of this block in front of the castle somewhat spoils the setting.

I was very excited to do the yew maze – just to the side of the castle – which was empty as the rain was literally pouring.  If you read my earlier post on My Maze Craze you’ll know that’s just the way I like it!

The water maze (a 10 minute walk into the grounds) was even more fun – built on a lake with tipping slabs forming the path, dead-ends are marked by spurting water which only appears to drench the unwitting when one has stepped that little bit too far onto the slab.  Excellent fun and I imagine even more so in the sunshine (although we were kitted out for getting wet, given the weather).

I liked Hever, not because it was an excellent example of a castle, nor because of the beautiful gardens, and despite the rain, but because of the surprise that met me on the way out.  Tucked to the side of the gift shop is a room housing a magnificent collection of miniature houses.  Fabulous Georgian house:

When visited: 2011
Castle * out of 5: ***
Garden * out of 5: ****
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