Who doesn't love a castle? All towering turrets and stunning moats, dripping in regal or military history. Due to its location close to the continent, Kent has plenty of castles, mainly built for defence purposes. These days though, you're more likely to see a tourist with an ice cream than a knight with a sword. From Leeds Castle to Hever Castle, these are some of our favourite castles in Kent.
Hever Castle, near Edenbridge
The childhood home of Anne Boleyn is open to the public, and is definitely one for history geeks. See into rooms including Anne Boleyn's bedroom and King Henry VIII's bed chamber, where he stayed during their courtship, as well as the impressive dining room and great hall. Outside of the castle, the mazes are a big attraction for kids, while the lake — complete with Japanese tea house — is a more peaceful way to wile the afternoon away.
There's even accommodation and a golf course on site, if you want to make a weekend of it on the Kent/East Sussex border. Pre-lockdown you could also visit the military museum... and a museum dedicated to miniature model houses.
Read our Hever Castle article for further information about this Kentish treasure.
Hever Castle, Hever Road, TN8 7NG
Leeds Castle, near Maidstone
If you asked a child to draw a castle, the result would be something like Leeds Castle. Turrets, battlements and gorgeous brickwork are all reflected in that gorgeous lake. The tagline is “the loveliest castle in the world” and we can't disagree. It's been around since Norman times, and has been owned by six monarchs, but today it's best known for its looks.
The castle itself is just a small part of a day out here. The Gatehouse Exhibition (where you can learn about the history of the castle), and Dog Collar Museum (which is exactly what it sounds like — pooches, not priests) offer plenty to ogle, and the maze and punting facilities will keep outdoorsy types happy. There are also two playgrounds, a Bird of Prey Centre and golf course, and if it's a peaceful day out you're after, there are plenty of gardens to explore.
Heck, you can even sleep over at the castle in several different types of accommodation, from holiday cottages to — our favourite — knight's glamping.
Leeds Castle, Maidstone, ME17 1PL
Tonbridge Castle, Tonbridge
For a town of its size, Tonbridge punches well above its weight for things to do. Highlight is the motte and bailey castle, perched high above the river and high street. You can enter the castle lawn (great picnic spot), wander through the gatehouse and climb to the top of the motte for free. A word of warning: there is a footpath up the side of the motte, but it's pretty steep. For the best views, head up there when the trees aren't in full leaf.
If you want to get inside the Gatehouse, you can take an audio tour (group tours available for larger groups). They last around 45 minutes, showing you the main features of the castle, which dates back to medieval times.
Dover Castle, Dover
Another well-known one that attracts visitors from miles around, Dover Castle now belongs to English Heritage, which means it's well-equipped for visitors of all ages, with family-friendly events at weekends and throughout school holidays.
It's an impressive building in its own right, a great medieval tower built in the 1180s at a strategic point on those famous white cliffs, overlooking the narrowest part of the Channel between England and France, and today recreated as a medieval palace.
Even more is what's going on underground, within those cliffs. The medieval tunnels were built around the time of a siege in 1216, and were added to in Napoleonic times, when they were used as a barracks. They were used to house a naval command centre in the second world war, and also as a military hospital... all beneath the castle itself.
Dover Castle, Castle Hill Road, Dover, CT16 IHU.
Lullingstone Castle, Eynsford
Go for the castle, stay for the garden at Lullingstone. The whole estate has been owned by the same family since the 15th century, and although the castle is more of a manor house (and only open to the public at certain times), its gatehouse has some satisfactorily castle-y battlements.
That garden though. The World Garden is a relatively recent addition, opening in 2005 after Tom Hart Dyke — heir to the castle (and cousin to comedian Miranda Hart) — literally risked life and limb in pursuit of wild plants for his planned garden. He was kidnapped between Panama and Colombia while hunting for rare orchids and held captive for nine months. Today, rare and important botanicals from all over the world can be seen in this garden on the London-Kent border. More of a genteel day out than a full-on family fun day.
Lullingstone Castle, Eynsford, Kent, DA4 0JA (check opening times as it tends to only open Thursday-Sunday, in high season). If you're looking to make a day of it, Lullingstone Roman Villa is just a couple of minutes away, along with the ruined Eynsford Castle.
Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst
Teetering on the Kent/East Sussex border, National Trust-run Scotney Castle feels more like a country house than a castle, but it has a turret-style tower and a moat, so we'll allow it.
These days, it's the House at Scotney Castle that attracts visitors. Built in the 14th century, and in the private hands on the Hussey family from 1778-1970, plenty of family treasures are on display — and more are being found all the time by conservation volunteers.
It's surrounded by a 780 acre woodland estate, so there's plenty of space for picnics, dog-walking and generally letting off steam before you drive back to the capital.
Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst, Tunbridge Wells, TN3 8JN.
Deal Castle is best seen from the air, from where its elaborate flower shape can be admired (a shape chosen for its strategic benefits rather than an aesthetic niceties). For those of us without a helicopter, the English Heritage-owned Tudor artillery castle is open to visitors on the ground.
Henry VIII — who gave the orders for the castle's construction — can often be seen about the place in the form of costumed actors, and a special exhibition focuses on the portly monarch's safety fears which led to the castle's existence. Elsewhere, peek inside the store rooms, captain's residence, and other rooms.
Deal Castle, Marine Road, Deal, CT14 7BA.
Rochester Castle is a sibling of the Tower of London — both were designed and built by Norman monk Gundulf of Rochester. He was also responsible for St Leonard's Tower in East Malling, among others.
Rochester Castle, now under English Heritage, sits at a vantage point above the River Medway, built there originally to guard it, and was used as a fortress until the 16th century. Today, you can visit the Castle Gardens for free and get a closer look at the battlements, or for a fee, you can get inside the Keep, which is the main part of the building that's still standing, and take an audio tour.
Rochester Castle, Rochester, ME1 1SW
Walmer Castle, Deal
English Heritage, it seems, really love a castle. Walmer Castle also falls under the conservation charity's remit. No surprise, as it's got one heck of a history, with the Duke of Wellington and the Queen Mother both residing here at some point. The Duke of Wellington's famous boots are even on display in the Wellington Room, as is the armchair where he died.
If that's a bit morbid for you, head outside where the gardens are as much of an attraction as the castle itself, with play trails, a kitchen garden, and an area dedicated to the Queen Mother. They're very well-kept by the team of gardeners, making it hard to imagine a time when the castle was constructed as a fierce Tudor fortress.
Walmer Castle, Kingsdown Road, Deal, CT14 7LJ.
Other notable mentions
- Chiddingstone Castle is Hever Castle's lesser-known neighbour. It's actually a historic house with Tudor origins, but it's so bucolic that we're not going to argue over the name. Look our for special events, including the literary festival each May. While you're there, visit the magnificent Chiddingstone Village, just through the trees from the castle.
- Sissinghurst Castle Gardens: focus is on the gardens rather than the castle building itself. The grounds are split into 10 smaller garden 'rooms' and have a tendency to get very busy, so avoid peak times.
- Canterbury Castle: There's not all that much left of Canterbury castle, the remains of which can be found on a quiet residential street. Information boards offer an insight into the pieces that remain, and the shell of the inside can be accessed.
- Eynsford Castle: If you thought Canterbury Castle was derelict, wait until you see Eynsford. The Norman structure was abandoned in the 1300s, with just parts of the curtain wall left today. Don't go out of your way to see it, but if you happen to be in the village...
- Chilham Castle: a private country house and gardens on the site of a former castle. Not generally open to the public but look out for special events, history tours and garden open days — or hire it for your wedding.
- Upnor Castle: Just a spit up the River Medway from Rochester Castle is Upnor Castle, an Elizabethan artillery fort built to protect the warships at nearby Chatham Dockyard.