Nestled in the beautiful Kentish countryside is Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the second wife (of six) of Henry VIII. An easy hour drive from south London, Hever is a favourite with my children, not least because it has an amazing water feature.
They also love the fact (as do I) that Anne and Henry are there, strolling around. Recently, the English papers have lamented what they call the “disneyfication” of their heritage sites, including the increase in historical characters such as these. Unless done very badly, I could not disagree more. When history literally comes alive for children they are not only more likely to remember it, but it takes on meaning otherwise impossible in a simple historical reference. At a place like Hever this is even more important as the moment in history captured is fleeting indeed. Henry is still in love and he doesn’t yet know how his body is going to fail him.
Hever Castle History
If you know nothing of Tudor history, here is a very brief explanation. After more than 20 years of marriage to his brother’s widow Katherine of Aragon, and only a girl for an heir, Henry VIII fell passionately in love with Anne Boleyn. In order to make her his Queen he broke with Rome, put himself at the head of the Church creating the Church of England (Anglican Church in the US), divorced Katherine and married Anne.
Unfortunately, Anne did not give him the boy he so desperately wanted, but another princess, Elizabeth. Henry grew tired of Anne and was ultimately persuaded by her many detractors that she was a traitor, and she lost her head. Henry went on to marry four more times and died a bitter man in an obese, disease-ridden body. But at Hever today, all is still well. It is a glimpse of a life together that has become famous more for its death than even the child they produced (Elizabeth I).
Meet The Tudors
My Katherine particularly likes Anne Boleyn, and so when, on a recent visit, Anne herself nodded at Katherine and said “good day young miss” Katherine blushed red with delight. As Henry was injured (jousting accident) he didn’t go out to ride, but organized an archery display instead, encouraging the young (and not so young) visitors to have a go at shooting at a wooden deer or bear. Archery is a tricky sport, and it turned out that my young Stephen was the best of my lot, producing a “well done young sir,” from one of the noblemen.
Visiting the Castle
The castle itself is magnificent, but gets crowded quickly. Happily, because we were going into HER castle to see HER things, the wait to get in was endured without fuss (oh the power of those actors!). Admission to the castle is later than the grounds, and as the day goes on the line gets longer and longer; try to go soon after it opens. Once inside the flow of the crowd does tend to move you along quickly. This works well for children as lingering is almost impossible. Less good for anyone who wants to study an object for more than a minute.
Many of the rooms have been carefully restored to their Tudor splendour, including a sumptuous hall and Anne’s bedroom. Also on display are two of Anne’s prayer books with her own writing in them. Stunning as they are, seeing her own hand, and knowing she had no idea of her fate, did make me feel odd.
All the restoration work was done by William Astor, of the British branch of the Astor family, at the beginning of the 20th century. The Astor family owned and lived in the castle (and grounds) from 1903 until 1981; family photos and mementoes are still on display in the upstairs rooms.
Hever Castle Grounds and Gardens
The grounds are magnificent, and well deserving of the many prizes received over the years. Local residents clearly use the grounds as a neighbourhood park, with lots of soccer balls being kicked around. The adventure playground includes a zip wire, an enormous saucer swing and a castle-shaped structure to run around in and climb.
The award-winning gardens are stunning, especially the Italian Garden which was designed to display William Astor’s collection of Italian sculpture. Beyond the Italian Gardens is the Loggia (fantastic backdrop for a family photo!) and the lake. Row boats can be hired, something we always leave too late, but it does look fun (even romantic, for those without an entourage of children). The Yew Maze is surprisingly tricky until you realize the key (won’t spoil it) — but even then it entertains as children are always convinced there is an even better way to reach the centre. Recently, an hour long walk along the lake opened. I am sure it is lovely, but as it begins at the Water Maze, the highlight of Hever Castle according to my children, I doubt I will ever experience it.
The Water Maze is fantastic. Just be ready to get wet. Some children come prepared with swimsuits, the rest have very soggy clothes … so unless is it a blazing hot day you might need to save it to the end. The stated object of the maze is to make it along the path WITHOUT getting wet. Ha Ha, who wants that?
The true object is to soak oneself and all those around you, as thoroughly as possible. I did feel (briefly) sorry for the well dressed adults who dared to try — but really, just leave it to the kids and let them have a great time! It is the perfect way to end a day filled with history, action and beauty.
Hever Castle is open daily March-October and Wed-Sun from November-December. Like many castles in England, Hever Castle offers seasonal ghost tours and special Christmas events. Parking is free.
Photos courtesy of Anne Aboucher