There are certain areas of England where you can't swing a sword without hitting several pieces of Tudor history. The west Kent countryside is one such place — Hever Castle was Anne Boleyn's childhood home, Chiddingstone Village still has the shop where her father once worked... and Penshurst Place was the hunting ground and holiday home of the most famous Tudor of all, King Henry VIII.
Yet for all its royal links, ownership of the impressive manor house and surrounding 2,500-acre parkland has been passed back and forth between royalty and mere nobility for its seven centuries of existence, spending more time in private hands than royal ones. In his own inimitable style, Henry VIII had then-owner the 3rd Duke of Buckingham executed in 1521, before claiming the property as his own private hunting lodge.
Various branches of the Sidney family have had the consistent honour of owning Penshurst Place since 1552 and they still reside there today, but that doesn't mean you can't have a nose around. You might even recognise it from its appearances in films and TV shows including The Other Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, Anne of the Thousand Days... all the Tudor classics, basically. There's definitely a theme here.
Penshurst Place gardens were first opened to the public as far back as 1947, and these days, are a gardener's — and photographer's — dream. The formal gardens are at their best in June, when the ample roses are in full bloom and scent, lavender adding a purple splash to the proceedings.
Pastel pink and pale yellow buds curl around picture perfect glass windows, while deeper red specimens climb the aged redbrick walls of the Italian Garden, the mismatched rear of the magnificent house watching over it all.
The Flag Garden, with a raised vantage point to showcase the Union Jack shaped flowerbeds, seems a novel idea, perhaps something to entice the Instagram generation, until you learn it was reinstated in 1984, having initially been a 19th century feature.
Though small, the formal gardens are very well laid out, and it's easy to pass a couple of hours wandering on a summer's day, the manor house offering something of a fairytale backdrop.
For a single building, albeit one extended and altered over several centuries, it has more chimneys, turrets, battlements, towers, flagpoles and general architectural paraphernalia than your average town, making for an interesting skyline. The size of the building can't really be appreciated from within the gardens, but take a walk around the wider grounds (details below) to get an idea of the scale.
It may be sounding like the house itself is irrelevant at this point, but a very small selection of the many rooms are open to the public, and are worth a visit. Photography isn't allowed inside, but take our word for the fact that the rooms are packed full of rich artworks, antique furniture, and valuable china.
Tales of royalty are woven throughout like gold thread, from the Tudors up to Queen Victoria. Even the late Queen Mother appears in an image of a function taking place in the Baron's Hall.
The room where Elizabeth I received visitors when she was in residence contains a rare Baroque daybed which was loaned to the V&A Museum for a special exhibition in 2010, and the velvet stool on which Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India can be seen in the Pages' Room.
A painting of Nell Gwynn in the Panelled Room was loaned to Hampton Court Palace for a 2012 exhibition, proving that for its old-world countryside credentials (and lack of tube station), Penshurst Place can carry its weight in terms of cultural significance as well as any London institution.
The Long Gallery contains a very impressive art collection, consisting mainly of portraits of the Sidney family. Like us, you may find yourself cringing as you tread on precisely the wrong floorboard and emit a deafening creaking sound into an otherwise silent room, but that sound you hear is cinematic magic. Those floorboard creaks were recorded by sound technicians working on the Harry Potter films and used as special sound effects.
From the Rose Garden, you may have noticed the spires of St John the Baptist Church peeping playfully over the trees. If you've time after your visit, wander back along the drive to the picturesque village of Penshurst. As you go under the entrance archway, stay right and look out for the small but impossibly quaint courtyard, surrounded by a handful of historic houses. This is the original Leicester Square, predating the London one, but with the same etymological origins.
Head beyond the square to the churchyard to see St John the Baptist in all its glory, including one of only three surviving dole tables in the UK. If you follow the footpath around the side of the church, you'll find yourself back in the grounds of Penshurst Place, via a public footpath.
It's from a little way along here that you'll get the best view of the well-hidden front façade, from which the patchwork pieces of the building added throughout the centuries become obvious, a blend of different materials and shades of brickwork.
The footpath can be followed for a hilly walk around the extensive grounds, with excellent views across Kent from the top — or you can turn and head back through the churchyard into the village.
Oh, and you may well be wondering about the porcupines. The spiked animal is in the Sidney family's crest and coat of arms, so is featured throughout the property, in statues, carvings and topiary, and the cafe by the car park is called the Porcupine Pantry (excellent hot chocolate, by the way).
Penshurst Place and Gardens, Penshurst, Tonbridge, Kent, TN11 8DG. There's an entry fee for the house and formal gardens, though areas of the wider grounds can be accessed for free via public footpaths.
Make a day of it with these other things to see and do in Kent, including nearby Hever Castle, Chiddingstone, Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells.