Hever Castle is one of those places I have been wanting to visit for years. And last week the Fates conspired that I finally had a day off from the day job, my beloved Dark Sky weather app forecast glorious sunshine in Kent and I was feeling adventurous. So, off I went.
Lately I have been feeling very stuck, hemmed in, struggling to see a way out. I’m bored and stifled by my day job, increasingly stressed by noisy neighbours, growing tired of the London rat race and getting pissed off with myself for procrastinating about doing things I profess to love. I have a burning yearning for a big change; a new career, a new home, a new dress size, a new zest for life. But currently none of these things are forthcoming. No matter how much I brainstorm, how hard I visualise, how many salads I eat. And then I lose faith, I beat myself up and I feel even more stuck. With myself. The most vicious of circles. Ugh.
I know small steps are the only way to make big changes. Tentative footsteps on the right path in the chosen direction. Yada, yada. Slow and steady, she goes. Slowly, slowly catchy monkey etc. We all love a cliche! But cliches are cliches for a reason: because they do contain a tiny grain of truth. Last week I was pondering upon another favourite cliche – “fake it till you make it”- and had a small lightbulb moment – if I want to move to the countryside and develop a more creative career, then I need to spend some time being in the country, feeling inspired and creative. Live the dream. Simple, right?
Armed with my camera and a sketchbook, I hopped on the train at Clapham Junction, changed at East Croydon and within ten minutes from there the green, tree-dotted, slopes of Kent appeared. So much green. Proper English countryside. Gently undulating grassy fields as far as the eye could see. Some empty, some dotted with ambling, grass-chomping livestock and criss-crossed by dense hedgerows. And on the horizons, tall ancient Scots pines stood out, towering like supermodels over their shorter, more fulsome, deciduous friends. For someone who grew up in the flatlands of East Anglia and has lived for over twenty years in cramped Central London all these slopes and summits, albeit small, were a feast for my very hungry eyes.
The one-mile walk from Hever Station to the castle proved another delight. I took a slightly circuitous route following the narrow lane around the outside of the village past farms, pretty cottages and peaceful paddocks of sheep. The air was warm and the only sounds were birdsong and a distant tractor. I walked slowly, breathing deeply of the life I long to live, once again.
Hever Castle is announced by turning the corner past the quaint King Henry VIII pub and seeing a man in a hi viz vest directing a coach load of schoolchildren. It is 11am and I notice there are very few cars in the car park as I walk towards the high red brick arch towards the ticket office. A big sigh of relief.
Hever is a proper British fairytale castle. It oozes romance. A small, pretty, castellated square with arrowslits, diamond-paned windows and a moat. I envy anyone who has a moat. For a misanthropic loner like myself the idea of a moat and drawbridge is magical. Splendid isolation. Security. Feeling part of the world but necessarily separate. And spending all day gazing out one’s windows at waterlilies and fish. What’s not to love?
The childhood home of Anne Boleyn really is delightful. There are many rooms open to the public which include Anne’s bedroom, a banqueting hall, the room where Henry VIII stayed when he visited and a room containing Anne’s personal bibles. All the have the most incredible, intricate wood panelling and some wonderful antique furnishings. It’s all beautifully maintained with plenty of information displayed and knowledgeable guides available for visitors.
But it was the gardens that took my breath away. So many styles juxtaposed with one another. And it’s unsurprising given the history of the place. When it was bought by an American, William Waldorf Astor, in 1903 all the original Tudor gardens had long since disappeared. The new gardens were laid out by Joseph Cheal who was sent by Astor to visit many of the old historic gardens of Italy for inspiration (nice job!). For four years, over 1000 men worked on the garden and the 125 hectares of rough meadows and marshland were landscaped into classical gardens and planted. The rose garden alone contains a staggering four thousand rose bushes!
Lord Astor had previously been the American Ambassador to Italy and an avid collector of antiquities and artefacts. Some of these are over 2000 years old and other pieces date from the Italian Renaissance. The four acre Italian Garden is an incredible showcase for all these treasures he brought with him from his home in Sorrento. On its north side, the sunny Pompeiian Wall, are miniature gardens; vignettes of ruin after the eruption of Vesuvius, containing columns, busts and carvings galore underplanted with succulents, thymes and rosemary. On the south side there is a vine-draped pergola with a waterfall and grottoes of shade-loving plants. And at the lake end of the garden the imposing loggia with its balustrades and arches makes the perfect frame through which to view the beauty of the lake (which took 800 men two years to hand dig) and admire wooded views as far as the eye can see.
There are many more classical features to the garden; a yew maze, a topiary chess set, a water maze, the wonderful ‘Topiary Walk’ approach to the castle with its mix of traditional forms of yew topiary and more modern interpretations of a dalek, bunny, pig and snail which clearly delighted the younger visitors. There is also a beautiful Tudor herb garden and a rockery known as ‘Blue Corner’, full of blue hydrangea, ceanothus and heliotrope. My favourite part was the area known as ‘Sunday Walk’ which runs informally alongside the stream and is the route the Astor family used to walk to Hever Church every Sunday. A stone path is flanked by a tall bank planted with various rhododendrons, gunnera, billowing hydrangeas and ferns of all sizes and shapes. Its like taking a stroll through a beautifully curated, lushly wooded, ravine. And, because I got there early, I had the entire area to myself.
After walking the length and breadth of the garden, around the lake and back again, I finally sat down to enjoy a delicious Kentish honey and honeycomb ice cream in the glorious autumnal sunshine with the castle as a backdrop. The most idyllic setting. I also popped into the plant shop to buy a couple of ferns to add to my growing collection.
On my return to the station, I chose to walk the well-marked footpaths across those undulating fields full of sheep. Dragonflies and butterflies were flitting about in the last warm rays of autumnal sun and the insanely picturesque views across the countryside and the craving to be part of it brought a small joyous tear to my eye. And then a very welcoming, curious, black-faced sheep wandered towards me, allowed me to stroke her and proceeded to follow me across the field to the gate. That memory still makes me melt.
I returned to London feeling calmer, inspired and more energised than I have felt in a very long time.
And I definitely feel that I’ve left a piece of my heart in Kent. (Not just with the sheep!) Hopefully it won’t be too long until the rest of me can follow it there…
For details of Hever Castle and its beautiful grounds please click here