You may remember that when we lived in the UK Mama was a big fan of the National Trust. But the fact of the matter is that while we had membership Mama was very reluctant to go to any heritage sites which were not Trust properties on the grounds that this would involve shelling out extra money. And then for what reason had we got the multi pass, hmmmmm?
This was very frustrating for her because, of course, no sooner did she articulate this rule to herself than all sorts of interesting properties popped on to her radar which she realised she would NEVER BE ABLE TO VISIT. Nothing like banning something to make it more attractive.
Hever Castle and Gardens in Kent is one such property. So Mama was quietly quite chuffed when a visiting American Friend suggested it as an alternative to more sightseeing in London during our annual stay in the UK this year. Of course, Mama could quite happily have spent time pretty much anywhere with the increasingly innacurately named Internet Weirdo Friend Posse, but doing that in interesting surroundings can only be a bonus.
Plus, Other Friend’s Child Who Is Clearly Also Used To Being Dragged Round Cultural Attractions And Making The Best Of It had brought a football. We were impressed.
Hever Castle is a wonderfully liveable-in castle whose major claim to fame is that it was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, she who married King Henry VIII, gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I, and eventually got her head cut off in a martial dispute over whether or not Henry should get to be a complete and utter total arsehole (Mama says he won). Princessing is looking less attractive every day (except for the housing. I could totes go for the housing).
The gatehouse is part of the original fortification from the 13th Century, and it leads to a Tudor manor house you can look round and even stay the night in.
Inside, you can see the room where Anne Boleyn (probably) slept and where she strolled up and down the inevitable picture gallery. There are recreated scenes from her courtship by Henry VIII told through the medium of interpretive waxworks! With, when we were there, someone playing Greensleeves on a lute. Live!
But the house and gardens were also extensively remodelled and added to by William Waldorf Astor, (rich, American), who bought Hever Castle at the beginning of the 20th Century. So many of the rooms are much more modern in style and decoration.
Definitely worth having a gander at in fact, not least because as well as a room full of medieval torture implements (thank you Henry Tudor) it has a scavenger trail for kids that pays more than just lip service to trying to keep us entertained. We had to actually look quite hard at things, people! And hunt! And eliminate items from our search!
Of course, it helps that there was the added competitive element of having a child who was not a blood relation to race against. The great thing about this, from Mama’s point of view, was not the keeness with which we sprang into action, but that when we lost, when any of us children lost, rudimentary politeness towards a new acquaintance meant that we did not indulge in the usual bickering that happens if we just have each other to fight with. How the Mamas managed not to exchange smug glances all the way round I have no idea.
That said, it’s probably the grounds that are the main attraction at Hever Castle.
At first, our visit ran much as they always do when we go to a stately home. The adults were pleased with the gardens, which at Hever Castle in July are particularly fabulously in bloom, and we children were pleased with the naked statues (bottoms!) and grape vines.
We ate a grape, despite warnings that they would be sour and nasty (because of warnings that they would be sour and nasty), and the grape was sour and nasty.
But then we rounded the corner and began to get an inkling of exactly why we had just paid almost half the price of an annual National Trust membership to get in.
Young men whacking at each other with swords. Now that’s what I call a summer job, huh?
But this was nothing to my Monomaniac Big Brother’s delight when they brought out the falconers. He refused food in favour of standing enthralled next to the enclosure!
Mama and London Friend seemed to think the baby owl being put through its cutely inept paces was the last word in totally fabulous. We preferred the swoopy bird or prey, particularly after I narrowly missed being carried off by it as it made a pass straight over our heads. Very cool, and there is a tent next door where the birds hang out when not doing their flying thing, and you can go and chat to the people in charge about your love of all things animal. Or sulk because they prefer your Monomanic Big Brother’s suggestion for the baby owl’s name to yours.
And then sulk a bit more because Mama refuses to buy overpriced Tudor tat from the shopping marquee next door.
Round the corner were some re-enactors demonstrating aspects of life from the late medieval period. There were some people cooking, a man shaping red-hot iron with a hammer and a woman weaving.
There was also a maze, which we had a lot of fun dashing around and getting thoroughly lost in. Apparently we missed the one by the giant lake (no, we are NOT going boating, said both the Mamas. Repeatedly) which squirts water at you as you try to make it to the centre without getting wet. I cannot imagine how that happened.
However! All of this was a mere side attraction to the main event, and the reason for our being at Hever Castle in the first place, the jousting.
Mama will admit that when American Friend brought the jousting to her attention that she was expecting to be at the back of a large crowd, failing miserably to see very much of two horses galloping carefully towards each other a few times and missing making any kind of connection whatsoever for health and safety reasons. She will freely admit now that she was entirely wrong about practically every aspect of this prediction.
Of course, it helps to be adults trailing helplessly behind children who have no regard for the concept of queuing and just want to get to the front of any given show. Oh deary me, can’t let them watch something like that unsupervised, excuse me, was that your picnic blanket, ooops, coming through, watch fingers! Room for twenty-two more? Yes? Excellent.
But in fact I don’t know if it was because it was the very beginning of the school holidays (for people in the UK. We have been off since the beginning of June) and parents were less desperate to find something to occupy their little darlings in the loooooooooong summer break (Ha! Three months! We get three months!) or perhaps it was the promise of rain, but there was ample space for everyone watching to spread out around the jousting field, sit down, and get a good view.
And what a very very good view it was. As well as some displays of consummate horsemanship involving the knights whirling sharp implements around their heads, tilting at dummies, collecting rings on a lance, picking up severed heads on a spike, waving both hands in the air in triumph and, yes, charging helter skelter at each other with long sticks of wood, which shattered dramatically on impact to order, there was also a proper show. Goodies, baddies, audience participation, Henry VIII as a compere, knights brawling with swords and knights having a strop with a basket on their heads.
Basically I, my Monomanic Big Brother, our New Friend and all the adults were, I am quite confident in saying, enthralled, right from the moment we kids got to march round the jousting field waving large edged weapons to open the tournament.
Mind you, I reckon American Friend was keen because KING HENRY VIII KISSED HER HAND!!!!! Although I’d watch it if I were her. We all know where that leads with Henry.
We didn’t even mind when it started to rain, although it was lucky it didn’t develop into much given that Mama had forgotten to bring a coat AGAIN. You’d think she’d have learnt after the previous day’s downpour.
Still, our top favourite thing about Hever Castle? More exciting than the jousting, the maze, the excellent company, the musicians, the delightfully bijou castlette and outbuildings, the beautiful interiors, the birding, the sour grapes and the flowers?
The large goldfish in the ponds and the moat. We could have stared at them for hours. Every time we got taken away to do something else, we pestered the adults about when we could go back to the fish. You can feed them too if you buy some fishfood from one of the plentiful drinks and snacks stalls. Outstanding! We were the last people out of Hever Castle that day partly because of Mama wanting to put an entire roll of duct tape on the car (don’t ask) and partly because we wouldn’t be moved from the goldfish.
Goldfish. Says Mama.
Only slightly bigger than the ones we mostly ignored in the corner of the room for two years. Says Mama.
Goldfish. Says Mama.
Mama may despair but as King Henry might have said, the heart wants what the heart wants.
All in all, Hever Castle is a really good day out for all the family and it really works hard to make sure that you are going to get a lot more for your entrance fee than just a look round a mouldering old house and a nice scone in the tea shop. Recommended even if you do have heritage membership with another organisation. Go on, splash out! You’ll thank me. There are goldfish!
Address: Hever Castle, Hever Rd, Hever, Edenbridge, Kent TN8 7NG, UK
Opening: In summer (April to November) Hever Castle and Gardens are open daily from 10.30am (the gardens) and 12 noon (the castle). It closes at 6pm. It is a bit more complicated the rest of the year – check the website out for opening times in the colder months. Be warned – it is closed completely in January.
Admission: Adults 16.90 GBP and kids 9.50 GBP. A family ticket is 44.50 GBP. It’s cheaper if you just want to hang out in the gardens and watch the jousting and whatnot (which is included in the ticket price). It’s also cheaper if you book online in advance.
Getting there: There is a free car park and the castle is well signposted from junction 5 and 6 of the M25. You can also reach it from junction 10 of the M23. By rail from London Victoria or London Bridge you can come into Edenbridge Town Station and get a taxi three miles to Hever or get off at Hever Station and walk for one mile. There is a map of the route on the website.
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