King for a day: castles near London
When people think of England – especially those visiting from overseas – images of palaces and castles often come to mind, complete with gentlemen in morning suits and ladies in elaborate hats.
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 hats 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? Some of these stately residences are within easy reach of the capital, so you can be there and back in a jiffy.
The childhood home of Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife, and just one in a long list of Henry’s famously unfortunate spouses) Hever Castle is located a short distance from London, in the county of Kent. A 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. The great renaissance garden tradition of mazes is 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 inside Catherine of Aragon’s bedroom and see for yourself. Dating back to Norman times, this large castle was used by Henry VIII and his first wife, and evidence of the Tudor era can still be seen inside. The castle experience starts with a walk through the glorious Wood Garden, along the River Len. Once inside the castle grounds, there’s a maze, an aviary, a grotto, and a whopping 250 acres to explore. 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 residence (if the flag’s raised it means she’s at home!) 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 away from London (around an hour and a half by train from London Victoria), 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 owned by Mary, Queen of Scots.
Written by Victoria Godden