With beautiful red brick walls, a huge drawbridge, fairytale turrets and towering battlements, Herstmonceux Castle is a stunner.
Sitting firmly on a remote patch of Sussex countryside, its elegant features are reflected in its shimmering moat, with sheep grazing at its feet — but for all its beauty, the castle isn't what most visitors come to see.
The fortress was built in the 15th century, for then-Treasurer Sir Roger Fiennes, and despite its battlements and arrow slit bravado, it's never seen a skirmish. It was constructed as a stately home rather than a defence structure, though it fell into disrepair a couple of centuries later, and remained so until a 1930s restoration.
These days, it's owned by Queen's University Canada as a Hogwarts-esque international study centre, so the building is largely off-limits to the public, which brings us onto the main reason people visit: the stunning gardens and sprawling grounds.
Normally, visitors access the gardens via a path around the side of the castle building, but the current one-way system (and lack of international students) means we make our grand entrance via the drawbridge and through the courtyard, and the experience is all the better for it.
The arched door gives way to the satisfyingly symmetrical Elizabethan Garden, two rows of hedge forming an arboreal guard of honour down the middle, and directing the eye towards the sundial in the Rose Garden beyond.
Don't be lured in though — there's a richer experience to be had by wandering the edges of the lawn, where a rainbow of flowers forms a visual feast, different shades and textures vying for your attention, all hemmed in by English country garden brick walls.
Keep an eye out for Lizzie, one of three robotic lawn mowers on-site which are programmed to keep the grass in check, freeing up the gardening team for more pressing tasks around the sprawling estate.
From the lawn, head up the stone steps to the Rose Garden, at its best in June, for colourful blooms, wonderful scents, and that sizeable sundial, donated by the Royal Observatory Greenwich and requiring adjusting by hand twice a year to stay aligned with GMT, so we're told.
Beyond that, the Shakespeare Garden sits on what was once an outdoor swimming pool. The stone steps remain in situ at one end, but the water lilies have been replaced with land-dwelling plants, chosen by the academics of Queen's University Canada because they're all referenced in the works of Shakespeare. A sign accompanies each plant with the name of the play, and the quote where it appears.
As with all gardens, it would be easy to miss things — tiny secret corners off the Shady Garden used to be changing rooms for the aforementioned pool. These days, a bench makes it an extremely private place to eat your lunch. The Magic Garden too is worth seeking out. Wooden toadstools and a beautifully carved bench make it a real treat, especially for curious children in search of a secret den.
Beyond the seven formal gardens, nature is not only allowed, it's encouraged, and that's not by accident. In recent years, the gardening team, led by estate manager Guy Lucas, have moved away from formal planting, and are putting all efforts into restoring the natural balance of native Sussex species.
This is most obvious in the wildflower meadow, located a short but steep climb away from the castle building. It's been established for a few years now, and at the end of each season, the seeds are spread around other parts of the grounds to establish further meadows. Meandering paths are cut through the knee-high grasses and plants to allow visitors to immerse themselves in nature in this pure form, but butterflies rule the roost around here.
While you're in the meadow, look north-west far beyond the estate boundary to a red-brick building on the hillside opposite. Now carved up into luxury apartments, Herstmonceux Place was constructed from bricks taken from the interior of the castle when it fell into ruin. That may not be accessible to visitors today, but one building which you can — and absolutely should — enter is the Folly.
A petite but beautiful building, the Folly is situated out on its own, at the far end of the water meadow, where many visitors miss it entirely. From afar, the dolls' house-style building wouldn't look amiss in a Jane Austen period drama, with pink roses flanking its pillared front door, and curtains lining the sash windows, as if the owner has just popped out for half an hour.
Close up it's a different story, one of peeling paint, spreading moss and broken window frames, yet it pulls off the shabby chic look with aplomb. Don't be shy — the door is left unlocked for visitors to wander through its single ground floor room and out to what we consider the highlight of the entire Herstmonceux estate:
A small but stunning secret garden, complete with rose pagoda walkway, and several colourful species of plant, enclosed by a brick wall. Petite it is, but it's also very, very private, somewhere you could spend hours without a soul bothering you.
Back towards the castle, the maze too reflects Herstmonceux's native ethos. Rather than importing yew hedges, the tricky footpaths and dead-ends are laid out using knee-high wildflower grasses (but don't be fooled — the lower height doesn't make cheating any easier). The posts are made from chestnut trees from the site, and the rope was bought from nearby Hailsham, a town built on the rope-making industry.
Chances are that a rather alarming squawking sound has accompanied you around the grounds. That's the resident peacock, who has free reign of the place, and likes to make himself known to unsuspecting visitors, popping up behind hedges and over walls and voicing his opinions.
The estate also houses several peahens, wild rabbits and hares, roe and fallow deer (but they're crepuscular so rarely seen by day time visitors), guinea fowl, and dormice, as well as Herdwick sheep, who were brought to the estate to help keep the grass under control, and can often be seen munching the greenery out the front of the castle, within the moat.
Even more impressive are the team's plans to introduce water buffalo and Exmoor ponies in the coming years, to graze by the ponds as a further method of natural vegetation management. As more species of wildflower take up residence, it's hoped that butterflies, bees and other pollinators will also become more prevalent.
Beyond this all, the castle forms a handsome, omnipresent backdrop to the seasonal comings and goings in the gardens. On a June weekday, we have the gardens (and all-important tea room) almost entirely to ourselves, although of course, this may not be the case once the Canadian students return. Either way, this little slice of Sussex countryside has all the trappings of an enchanting day out; fairytale castle, wide open space, gorgeous flowers, secret gardens, charming folly and plenty of wildlife to boot.
Herstmonceux Castle, Wartling Road, Hailsham, East Sussex, BN27 1RN. The gardens, grounds and Chestnut Tearoom are open daily until October, booking recommended. The castle building is currently closed to visitors — keep an eye on the website for details of when tours resume.
The Observatory Science Centre is located next door to the castle within its grounds, ideal for combining the two attractions in a single day out.