We know we shouldn’t have favourites when it comes to something as — let’s be honest — cool as castles, but we do have a soft spot for Hever Castle. It may not be as sprawling as the captivating Leeds Castle, or have the smouldering menace and wartime credentials of its coastal cousin, Dover, but what it does have is history, majesty and beauty.
Hever Castle is the epicentre of Tudor history outside London, a home counties Hampton Court, if you will. It boasts the tagline ‘childhood home of Anne Boleyn’, and Henry VIII visited many times. It was later owned by his fourth, brief wife, Anne of Cleves for the final 17 years of her life, her residence at Hever outliving their six-month marriage many times over.
Though a young Anne Boleyn was roaming these parts in the 16th century, Hever Castle has been in existence since 1270, albeit on a much smaller scale. It first belonged to the Bullen (or Boleyn) family in 1462, with Anne Boleyn's father taking ownership in 1505, and it was the Bullens who created a Tudor residence within the original medieval walls.
The castle went through the hands of several wealthy families, but by the late 19th century, it had fallen into ruin. Enter another rich chap, American William Waldorf Astor, who is largely responsible for making the castle what it is today, in much the same way that the Courtaulds lovingly restored Eltham Palace to its former glory. More recently, Hever Castle has appeared on screen in films including The Princess Bride and Inkheart, and a deleted scene from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
Inside Hever Castle
Astor returned the building to a functioning castle, although not a replica of how it was in Tudor times (for example, the modern reception room would have been the Bullens' Great Kitchen). There are plenty of nods to its most famous residents though — a clock above the mantelpiece in the Inner Hall is a replica of the wedding gift Henry VIII gave Anne Boleyn, and the Boleyn family coat of arms is carved above the fireplace in the Great Hall.
The bedrooms in which it's thought Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII slept are both open for public inspection. If it's suits of armour, four poster beds and portraits of nobility you're after, you're absolutely in the right place.
Plenty of fascinating human stories relating to other past residents are told via the audio guide and signs as you tour the castle. Look out for a hidden passage which leads to a turret in the Drawing Room, designed to obscure a drinks cabinet.
A Priest Hole in the Morning Room, added by the Waldegrave family, allowed the priest to hide during Elizabethan times, when saying Mass was forbidden. This, along with the secret Oratory Chapel hidden off the oak-panelled Waldegrave Room, offers a fascinating insight into the lasting effects of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII's marriage on religious practices in England. Naturally, rumours of the lingering spirit of a priest who died in the Priest Hole abound, for what self-respecting castle doesn't have at least one ghost to its name?
In all, allow about an hour to explore inside the castle, though it's self-guided, so you can take as long as you like. A Grinling Gibbons style ceiling, copied from Hampton Court Palace, letters from Winston Churchill (whose own country residence was close by), and Book of Hours (prayer book) believed to have been taken by Anne Boleyn to her execution at the Tower of London are among the other headline artefacts to scout out.
As castles go, it would be fair to describe the main building as petite, a playful equivalent to the other towering fortresses scattered across our countryside and coastline. Its beauty — tulip moat in the spring, cascade of green and later red leaves in summer and autumn — does a good job of hiding the fact that the castle building façade isn’t symmetrical, most likely due to the many additions and changes throughout the centuries. If you're anything like us, you won't be able to ignore the asymmetry once you’ve spotted it. Sorry about that.
Hever Castle Gardens and Grounds
A day at Hever Castle is much more than a mooch around the castle itself. Visitors could easily spend a day in the gardens and grounds alone — indeed, we did, several times during lockdown when the building was off-limits. Like the castle, much of the gardens are the work of William Waldorf Astor. Before his time, the castle building was surrounded by marshland, whereas these days, there's a lake, formal gardens, Italian garden, a yew maze, a water maze, rose garden, topiary and plenty else to explore.
The 38-acre lake, entirely manmade, was added in 1904, though the modern row boats are named after historical figures with links to the castle, allowing day trippers to take Winston Churchill or any of Henry VIII's wives out for a dip.
It may not be as old as the castle building, but it hides its own secrets, including a Japanese Tea House, a waterfall, and three second world war pillboxes, for those willing to follow the one-hour walking route. Memorial benches to former grounds staff on the veranda of the tea house are a kind touch.
Not up for a walk? The lake can still be viewed, and the best pictures taken, from the Italian Loggia, a Roman-inspired stone terrace overlooking the water. In spring, the surrounding paths are home to some of the gardens' 25,000 tulips, while in summer, it's the 4,000 bushes in the Rose Garden, including the Hever Rose, which steal the show. Come autumn, attention turns to the reddish hues of the multitude of foliage, some trees so mature and upstanding, it's no stretch to imagine that Henry VIII himself once tethered his horse to that very trunk.
A maze created from yew trees, a topiary giant chess set, and a moat filled with fish the size of Jaws are some of the other garden highlights. Not everything worth seeing is highlighted on the map, so do take the time to explore (you'll have no problem getting your 10k daily steps in...). We stumbled across the graves of the Astor family pets near the little-visited paths near the horseshoe lawn, and it's worth climbing the Golden Stairs at the end of Rhododendron Walk for an impressive waterfall, and a fantastic view of the castle through the trees (best visited when the rhododendrons are in bloom).
At time of writing, the adventure playground is still closed due to Covid restrictions, but we've fond childhood memories of it as one of the best playgrounds around, a list we took very seriously at the time.
Intrigued by the historic-looking houses behind the castle? That's the Tudor Village, also known as the Astor Wing, added by Astor, and now only accessible to those staying in the castle accommodation. It does make for some beautiful pictures from afar though, a film set backdrop with the castle as the leading lady.
Hever Castle museums
In addition to the castle itself, the grounds are home to two small museums. The Miniature Model Houses are accessed via the gift shop, so easily missed by many. Five houses, created in exquisite detail at 1/12 scale show how households changed from medieval times to the Victorian age. It's a lot fancier than the Fisher Price dolls' house you had as a child, depicting servants' quarters as well as marbled entrance halls.
Further up the hill towards the main entrance is the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Military Museum — look out for the armoured car and replica Anderson shelter outside, or head inside to ogle uniforms, military equipment and diary extracts. Other than the castle itself, shelter from the elements is limited, so maybe save the museums as somewhere to go if the heavens open during your visit.
Visiting Hever Castle
Even by Kent countryside village standards, Hever is small beyond the castle grounds, consisting of a church, primary school, pub and village hall. If you're looking for other things to do nearby, Chiddingstone Village, Chartwell, and the towns of Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells are all within a few miles. Or, why not check out these other castles in Kent.
Hever Castle, Hever Road, Kent, TN8 7NG. Nearest station is Hever, but that’s a couple of miles away along country roads — best to hop in the car for this one if possible.