By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
My original plan was to visit Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn and where Henry VIII occasionally later courted her, on May 19 — a Friday — on what would have been the 481st anniversary of her execution at the Tower of London.
But being thoroughly familiar with England’s notoriously fickle weather, I also built in enough days on my recent trip — which started in Portugal and ended in London — so that in case it was raining, I could postpone the outing until conditions improved.
I knew there were two Southern Railway routes to Hever Castle, thanks to information on its website. I could go by train from London Bridge Station via Oxted or East Croydon to Edenbridge Town and then take a taxi about three miles to the castle.
Or I could leave from Victoria Station, change trains in East Croydon for Hever and walk about a mile. The castle website provided a map to follow from Hever Station to the castle.
I studied the train schedules for both options and it seemed that leaving from Victoria was a bit faster and more importantly, closer via the tube to my hotel. I was also attracted to idea of a countryside ramble, though I didn’t relish the idea of doing this clutching an open umbrella, sloshing through puddles and trying not to slip in the mud.
Dame Judi Dench, in a “Visit Britain” promotional short that has aired on PBS, may visit Hever Castle with her family “in all weathers,” but touring the expansive gardens, which cover 125 acres, seemed best left for fine weather.
On my last day in London, the skies finally cleared and I set off for Victoria Station, thinking that in under an hour, I’d be close to my destination.
I bought a return ticket to Hever (£12.20, about $15), and the woman at the window indicated that I could take any train to Clapham Junction and transfer for the train to Hever. I thought the change in routing might be due to the fact that this was a Sunday and perhaps trains were running on a limited schedule.
When I got to Clapham Junction, no train was going to Hever. A station worker showed me an information board, where you type in your destination, and it reveals the routing. What I found out is that the woman in Victoria Station should have told me I still had to go through Oxted — and change trains again there.
So off I went to the platform to wait about 30 minutes for the train to Oxted.
Once there, I had another lengthy wait, though I met two men, maybe in their 60s, who had just returned from Macedonia, where they said they had helped set up firefighting equipment and training procedures. We had a pleasant chat and they assured me that once the train pulled out of Oxted, I was only 10-15 minutes from Hever. They also noted that they had planned to leave from London Bridge Station, but that service wasn’t running and they ended up at Victoria Station also.
The extra change and downtime added about an hour to my journey, but was more of an inconvenience rather than something to get annoyed about.
I was heartened to find that once at Hever — a very small unmanned station — the signs pointed the way to the castle and the map became just a backup. Several other passengers were also headed to the footpath.
Gates along the way had red circular plastic markers with a white arrow and the words Hever Castle posted on them, and a yellow marker and black arrow indicating this was a public footpath, so there wasn’t any question I was headed in the right direction.
As I expected, it was a charming walk, and I stopped to take pictures of some of the blooming flowers. What clinched it, however, was the group of black-faced sheep, sitting huddled together under a grove of trees in one of the lush pastures I crossed (keeping an eye out for piles of droppings I certainly didn’t want to step in).
I was barely 30 miles from London, and deep in the rural Kent countryside, but the verdant landscape made it seem like England’s capital was much farther away. I also passed a house with a thick thatched roof, doing business as a bed-and-breakfast, that would have been equally at home in Shakespeare’s time, and a helmeted woman leisurely riding her horse down the quiet road.
On the last stretch, now walking on a narrow street, I got sidetracked into St. Peter’s Church, which had a wooden sign that indicated this was the resting place of Thomas Bullen (aka Boleyn), Anne’s father and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I. So I had a brief look inside.
His massive above-ground tomb is between the chapel and chancel. The brass plate on top of it indicates that he was a knight of the Order of the Garter (founded in 1348 by Edward III. It is Britain’s highest order of chivalry). Boleyn’s investiture was in 1523, during the reign of Henry VIII, whom he served as a diplomat and later as Treasurer of the King’s Household.
Boleyn died on March 12, 1538, not two years after Anne’s death. The brass illustration is of Boleyn in his full robes, his garter around his left knee and the badge on his left breast. The brass plaque notes he was also Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde.
From the stone-and-plaster church, parts of which date to the 13th century, it’s a short walk to the ticket booth and entrance to the castle and grounds. As you approach the castle, you can’t miss the dozens of topiaries, some precisely clipped into whimsical animal shapes.
The structure itself predates the Boleyn family, with original construction taking place around 1270; the crenellated features were added over a period of years. Two centuries later, around 1459, Thomas Boleyn’s grandfather, a former lord mayor of London, bought the property and added two wings.
Among Thomas Boleyn’s 16th-century improvements was the addition of the Long Gallery, which spans the width of the castle. Today it’s a sparsely furnished room that showcases several costumed figures meant to illustrate three periods of Anne Boleyn’s life.
Anne Boleyn lived here only about nine years, from about age 3 to 12, and a brief period as an adult around 1523 when she was exiled from court, where she was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife.
A room that was believed to have been Anne’s bedroom is rather compact, features a window, half-domed ceiling and a carved headboard, but it is not set up as if she occupied it.
Among the prized possessions on display are two of Anne’s prayerbooks, known as a “Book of Hours.” These books would have been read from eight times a day at specific hours, thus the name. The castle website said that on May 19, 2016, both were opened to the pages where her signature and writing appear.
The illuminated version dates to 1410-1450; the printed one to 1528.
After Thomas Boleyn’s death, the Crown took over the castle property. By then, Henry was on to wife No. 4, Anne of Cleves, a German noblewoman, whom he took an instant dislike to at their first meeting. Among other things, he railed about her not looking at all like the attractive person in the portrait by court painter Hans Holbein, and she spoke no English, French or Latin.
The marriage was never consummated. Henry was already smitten with Catherine Howard, and eager to have the six-month union with the German annulled. Hever Castle was among the properties granted to Anne of Cleves at the time of the divorce. When she died in 1557, the property returned to the Crown.
Over the centuries, ownership passed through several families and the castle fell into disrepair. When American financier William Waldorf Astor purchased it in 1903, he employed more than 700 skilled artisans and craftsmen to restore the castle using 16th-century techniques, and 800 more to dig the 38-acre lake. Astor is responsible for the addition of the gardens, which took several years to plant and cultivate.
The resulting renovation is a combination of Tudor-era decoration crossed with 20th century Astor sensibilities.
In truth, aside from the prayerbooks, a collection of Tudor-era portraits, including all six of Henry’s wives, and period tapestries, there isn’t much in the way of personal items to connect Anne to the castle, even if you count the richly paneled bedchamber and massive four-poster bed, purported to be where Henry VIII slept when the love-sick king was pursing Anne.
That said, a tour of the castle and a leisurely stroll around the lake and through the meticulously maintained gardens can take up the better part of a day. You can bring a picnic (or eat at one of the restaurants or snack stands) and your dog (as long as it is leashed), and set out your blanket on the luxuriant green lawn and soak up the sun.
The Tudor gardens feature yew trees fashioned into the shapes of period chess pieces, more than 4,000 plants comprise the rose garden (they hadn’t bloomed yet this spring), and a towering yew maze lets you to test your problem-solving and direction-finding skills.
Several kid-friendly attractions include a water maze, an adventure playground, miniature model houses and lots of ducks and swans to feed.
On school holidays and weekends, rowboats, canoes and pedal boats can be rented for a spin around the lake, kids and adults can try their hand at archery, and your young knight or aspiring lady can paint a shield or crown.
If you really want to feel like royalty, consider staging your wedding here or staying at the B&B or holiday cottage. There are also 27 holes of golf.
I also had a brief look at the KSY Military Museum, a tribute to the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry. It tells the story of soldiers from 1794 to the present in a museum that opened in 2015. (The collection was previously in the keep of the castle.) I would have liked to have had more time here, but it was already close to closing time.
I’m happy to report that the return trip to London went more smoothly. I retraced my steps on the footpath but was disappointed not to get another look at the sheep as they had moved from their shady spot.
The wait time at Oxted was shorter than in the morning, and I didn’t have to make a second change, so I was back at Victoria Station in under an hour.
Quick reference: Hever Castle and Gardens, open daily. Grounds open at 10:30 a.m., castle opens at noon. Tickets available for the gardens only, or castle and gardens. Discount for seniors, age 60 and up. You can save a little by purchasing in advance online, but beware that tickets can’t be exchanged, transferred to another date or refunded. Some of the extras like boating and archery have an additional fee. http://www.hevercastle.co.uk