When people think of England – especially those visiting from overseas – images of palaces and castles near London often come to mind, complete with gentlemen in morning suits drinking tea, ladies in fascinators and perhaps, more recently, a certain royal wedding.
Unlike many location-based daydreams of this kind, what’s so amazing about England (and the UK generally) is that far from being confined to a “time gone by”, there is still some reality to it all. There really is a queen, princes and princesses; tea and fascinators are still drunk and donned (the latter mostly at Ascot Races we’ll admit) and there are lots, and lots, of castles. They may not be in the kind of shape they were in when royalty walked their corridors, but they’re there nevertheless. And the best part? You can easily play at being king or queen for a day, with some stately examples of England’s rich heritage just an hour or so from London.
The childhood home of Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife and just one in a long list of Henry’s famously unfortunate spouses) in Hever, Kent, is a hugely romantic double-moated castle dating back to the 13th Century and set within 125 acres of award-winning gardens. Inside, you’ll find 16th Century portraits, armour, tapestries and the very special Anne Boleyn Book of Hours – the queen’s personal prayer book which contains a somewhat foreboding inscription”¦ The great renaissance garden tradition of mazes is very well covered here too, with an 80ft2 Yew Maze and a Water Maze constructed with stepping-stones over the lake.
Have you ever wondered what a Queen’s bedroom really looks like? Well, at Leeds Castle near Maidstone in Kent, you can actually step into Catherine of Aragon’s room and see for yourself. This extensive castle, (which dates back to Norman times), was used by Henry VIII and his first wife, and evidence of the Tudor era can still be witnessed inside. The castle experience starts with a walk through the glorious Wood Garden along the River Len, and once in the grounds, there’s a maze, an aviary, a grotto, and a whopping 250 acres to explore. Also, once you buy a ticket to Leeds Castle it’s valid for an entire year, so you can indulge your royal fantasies as many times as you like.
Living proof that some things really never change in England, Windsor Castle is still a royal residence to this day – and what’s more, it’s the largest and oldest inhabited castle in the world. The Queen’s favourite weekend home (if the flag’s raised it means she’s there!) has a list of royal residents too large to delve into, and St George’s Chapel within the Castle Precincts is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter. As well as the State Apartments and Queen Mary’s Dolls House, Windsor Castle offers some of the most revealing “˜behind-the-ropes’ tours”¦.
Although slightly further out (around an hour and a half’s journey from London) than the others, Arundel Castle in West Sussex is most definitely worth the trip. Once the home of the Fitzalans, the Howards, and also the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk and their ancestors for over 850 years, Arundel has a rich and varied history. Thanks to a “˜collector’ earl in the family back in the 17th Century, Arundel Castle is packed with treasures, including priceless works of art and personal possessions of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Which is your favourite English castle? Tell us in the comments below.