An aristocratic tour around Kent!
Kent has more castles and historic houses than any other county, and little wonder: the beautiful Garden of England has been playground and home to royals and aristocrats for centuries. Come and relive the razzle-dazzle of high society, see into the secret worlds of the great and the good. Then be inspired by the present day lords and ladies who keep alive Kent’s rich architectural and cultural heritage.
We begin in magnificent style at Hever Castle, near Edenbridge, is our third destination. This enchanting 13th-century, double-moated castle was made for romance. And it arrived big time in the shape of Tudor King Henry VIII. Hever was the home of the ruthless, upwardly mobile Bullen/Boleyn family, most notably sisters Anne and Mary, who both attracted Henry’s roving eye at court. But it was Lady Anne who won his heart to become his second wife.
Wander the historic rooms and imagine the thrill of the household when the King came with his huge retinue to woo his young love. Many artifacts plot the fateful course of their affair, culminating in the couple’s joint armorial bearings that celebrated their union in 1533. See also the two rare prayer books, inscribed and signed by Anne: one is believed to be the very book she clasped as she stepped to her execution in 1536, having failed to provide Henry with a male heir.
Costumed figures and Tudor portraits tell the notorious story of the King and his six wives, while 125 acres of spectacular gardens delight all year round: Italian, Rose and Tudor gardens, topiary, yew maze and splashing water maze, Anne Boleyn’s Walk and the new Hever Lake Walk. www.hever-castle.co.uk
Continue east through the rural Weald and we come to Penshurst Place, Penshurst, where King Henry VIII would sometimes stay on his way to court Anne at Hever. Since 1552 it has been the seat of the Sidney family and today it’s the much-loved home of Philip Sidney, 2nd Viscount De L’Isle, his wife Isobel and their two children. The mellow sandstone manor, surrounded by ancient parkland, is both medieval masterpiece and vision of friendly charm. Stand at its heart in the Barons Hall beneath the soaring 60-ft high chestnut roof and you’ll have your breath snatched away.
Tour the staterooms through generations of family history, changing fortunes and decorative tastes, furniture, paintings and porcelain. Sidney ancestors – courtly movers, shakers and the occasional black sheep – gaze down from portraits in the Long Gallery: one of Lord De L’Isle’s favourite rooms, where he recalls moonlit ghost hunting as a child with his sisters. Most charismatic of all his forebears was 16th-century Sir Philip, poet, soldier and the epitome of aristocratic chivalry and honour. Find out why he was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, another visitor who liked to come here to enjoy dancing and entertainment.
Then relax in the beautiful 11-acre formal garden, a rare surviving example of Elizabethan design crowned by the Italian Garden. Records of Penshurst’s garden date right back to 1346 but it constantly evolves – Lord and Lady De L’Isle believe in horticultural change to keep everything fresh and surprising. www.penshurstplace.com
We head south now for nearby Royal Tunbridge Wells. Dudley, Lord North put the town on the map after he discovered the Chalybeate Spring in 1606 and told all his friends how he had been rejuvenated by its cool, iron-rich water. The great and the good soon flocked here to disport themselves: Queen Henrietta Maria, Queen Anne and Princess (later Queen) Victoria, diarist Samuel Pepys and famous dandy Beau Nash, while King Edward VII added ‘Royal’ to the town’s name in 1909.
Lovers of the finer things in life can still enjoy them: sample a glass of the spring water served by costumed ‘dippers’ in summer. Or pamper yourself with state-of-the-art treatments in the Royal Day Spa, or while staying at The Spa Hotel and boutique Hotel du Vin. Watch the world go by from cafés, pubs and wine bars along the elegant 17th-century colonnaded Pantiles where Georgian gentry promenaded, to see and be seen. Gourmet restaurants, antiques shops, fine architecture, picturesque countryside, all add up to blissful escape. www.visittunbridgewells.com
Time, now, to strike northeast to Leeds Castle, near Maidstone, a true tableau of fairytale splendour rising from its lake in 500 acres of parkland. Follow its intriguing history from Norman stronghold to royal residence of six medieval queens, palace of Henry VIII to home of illustrious English families. The castle you admire today has been fashioned over 900 years but also owes much to its last private owner, Olive, Lady Baillie, daughter of an English lord and heiress to an American fortune. From 1926, Lady Baillie refurbished the castle with the help of the finest French architects and designers, she created the famous Wood Garden, and indulged her passion for wildlife by establishing a duckery and aviaries. Then she threw the most glamorous house parties, with princes, dukes and ambassadors in attendance.
Lady Baillie bequeathed her beloved castle to the nation in perpetuity under a charitable trust on her death in 1974. And so it is that you can share its lustre and the many dramas that have been played out here, not least the scandalous royal romance that gave rise to the Tudor dynasty and thus changed the course of English history! www.leeds-castle.com
Our penultimate destination is quite a surprise, a tranquil haven hidden away to the east across the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: Goodnestone Park Gardens, near Wingham, Canterbury. The FitzWalter family, who count leading Tudor courtiers and politicians among their ancestors, built their house here in 1704. And over generations they have created one of England’s most alluring country gardens, especially the current Lady FitzWalter, who in the last four decades has restored and expanded it.
Step into the star attraction, the Walled Garden, and enjoy the quintessential English view through mellow brick-walled enclosures to the church tower. Go with the flow of the old-fashioned rose garden, summer garden and kitchen garden. Winding paths lead through the Woodland Garden; parterre, terraces and arboretum entice. The recently completed Gravel Garden strikes a contemporary note and, while you sit here contemplating the house and glimpses of 18th-century parkland, maybe you’ll picture novelist Jane Austen arriving on one of her frequent visits: her brother Edward married a daughter of the house. Following one sojourn, in 1796, she began writing the novel that became Pride and Prejudice.
Round off your trip with welcome refreshments in the tearoom, including delicious cakes made by Cookie the cook, ham cooked by Lady FitzWalter and salad fresh from the garden. www.goodnestoneparkgardens.co.uk
Now to our final location: Walmer Castle and Gardens (EH), built in the 16th century as part of a chain of coastal forts to withstand the wrath of the French and Spanish following Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. Walmer later evolved into the elegant official residence of the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports, an ancient title that originally involved control of the five most important medieval ports on the south coast. The Duke of Wellington, a Lord Warden for 23 years, adored staying – you can still see his many possessions, including a pair of original “Wellington boots”. Another Lord Warden, the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, also enjoyed regular visits and her magnificent garden, given to her on her 95th birthday, is a delightful haven. Admiral the Lord Boyce is the current Lord Warden and Admiral of the Cinque Ports and the Constable of Dover Castle – a second fort worth a jaunt along the coast if you have time. Or tuck into homemade lunch or tea in the Lord Warden’s Tearoom and imagine you’re lord or lady of the castle. www.english-heritage.org.uk/walmer