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Posts Tagged ‘Hever Castle’


My home county of Kent has long worn the accolade of the “Garden of England” lightly but it also boasts an enviable heritage, including many fine castles. Below are photographs and brief descriptions of some of the most celebrated.

There is only place to start – with the great twelfth century Norman keep in my home town of Rochester, beloved of Charles Dickens. Standing on the east bank of the River Medway, it was besieged four times during its first three hundred years, but has survived, if much changed and as a magnificent ruin, ever since. Open to the public all year round, its pigeon poop encrusted turrets offer outstanding views of the river and beyond.

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Romantic Leeds Castle, described by the historian Lord Conway as the “loveliest castle in the world”, is approaching its nine hundreth anniversary, though the modern structure dates largely from the nineteenth century. More than half a million people visited the castle and its maze, aviary, grotto and golf course in 2010. As the third picture illustrates, all the public rooms are beautifully decorated for Christmas.

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Tonbridge Castle, with its magnificent twin towered gatehouse, is another product of the Norman invasion, and whilst it might not attract the volume of visitors enjoyed by Leeds, it occupies a prominent position alongside the River Medway towards the northern end of the high street, and locals and tourists alike enjoy the attached public park .

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The principal attractions of Sissinghurst  Castle are the stunning gardens created by novelist Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, in the nineteen thirties.  The adjoining buildings may not resemble everyone’s idea of the traditional castle (it was originally a mansion set within a working farm), but, along with the imposing prospect tower, the beautiful brickwork and hanging foliage are  a delight. 

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My personal favourite is achingly beautiful Scotney Old Castle, whose ruins are the very essence of the dreamy fairytale English castle. Technically, Scotney Castle is the name of the “modern” house at the top of the gardens, but it is the older, smaller version,   complete with lily pad decorated moat, that entrances visitors.

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These are but a few of the beautiful castles and manor houses that are dotted around the Kent countryside. I am conscious that, on this occasion, I have omitted the mighty “Gateway to England” at Dover, Anne Boleyn’s home at Hever and the neighbour on the coast at Deal and Walmer. And I haven’t started on Knole, Chartwell, Groombridge Place and Ightham Mote.

I can see this becoming a series in its own right.

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It is November 21st and the preparations for Christmas are in full swing. Supermarket special offers vie with insurance companies for predominance in TV commercials.  Small children walking to nursery with their mothers can be heard singing “Jingle Bells” or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” under their breath, though just loud enough to act, they think, as a subtle reminder to Mum.  The cable TV channel Movies 24, renamed Christmas 24 for the duration, is showing festive films throughout the day and night – with a two hour break between 6am and 8am for………….teleshopping! Christmas trees are also beginning to peer from behind curtains.

Much as I enjoy Christmas I have always tried to keep it at arms’ length, at least until the second week in December.  But the date upon which I am sucked into its tentacles has got earlier and earlier. I suppose Halloween now acts as the catalyst for a full scale assault on the holiday season, though the retail world, more desperate than ever to eke every penny out of customers grudgingly trying to resist such attempts, has been playing Christmas carols, Dean Martin, The Pogues and Kirsty McColl, not to mention that infernal Slade song, since mid-October.

So here I am – still a week of November to go and I am already wrapped up in Christmas (unlike the presents I haven’t even started to buy).

Unless we are devout Christians, and I certainly do not claim to be one, I suspect that our perceptions of the occasion vary over our lives.

My childhood Christmas mornings were spent opening the bulging sack of presents that my father, whom, out of loyalty, I had never exposed until now for his obvious mugging and impersonation of Santa, had lain at the bottom of my bed at between 1.30 and 2.00am (how do I know that when I was so obviously asleep at the time?).  At least I had the decency not to disturb my parents before 5am with the revelation of its contents.

After visiting several friends for drinks, we would walk to my paternal grandparents’ house for the traditional Christmas dinner, surrounded by assorted cousins, aunts and uncles, followed by party games, a “good old sing-song” and an elaborate tea comprising such Dickensian delicacies as pork pie and piccalilli.  Once the organisation of such a large event had become too much for them, their children rotated responsibility for accommodating fifteen, sometimes more, celebrants for three nights.  The women and children slept in the beds upstairs and the men sank onto any available floor space downstairs, where the evening’s drinking would be rounded off by the annual world farting championship (which a certain uncle won every year).  Joining the menfolk in this charming ritual became a rite of passage for the boys in the family.

Since leaving University thirty five years ago, the holiday season has, with the exceptions of one New Year in New York and a couple of years where bad weather grounded us, entailed a near six hundred mile round trip between the two events to ensure that both my and my girlfriend’s / wife’s parents were neither offended nor disappointed.  Inevitably, therefore, Christmases and New Years have taken on a familiar and staid pattern.  “Christmas is really for the kids” may be a cliché, but the presence of each succeeding generation of children does enliven the occasion and bring back warm memories of one’s own childhood.

But, in recent years, I have developed a growing affection for Christmas.  For a long time it was an enjoyable if routine experience, which the travelling did little to mollify.  Especially since my disenchantment with football, around which my Christmas diary had revolved, took hold, the lead up to the holiday season has become one long round of social events.

This year alone, I have already booked to see Cinderella, the first pantomime in the new Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and English folk singer, Kate Rusby’s Christmas Concert at the Barbican Centre in London.  Both of these have become essential annual events.  In addition, we are attending the Christmas Evening Special at Hever Castle and Rochester’s annual Dickensian Christmas and linked German style Christmas market.  We may also be part of the congregation at the Rochester Cathedral Carol Service.  Several Christmas meals are also planned, and there will be the inevitable procession of  shopping excursions, including a visit to the new Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, close to the Olympic Stadium.

And then there’s the Christmas CDs which have been stuffed away in my wardrobe for the past eleven months.  They will need a dusting before my favourite songs are reloaded once again on my iPod to enable me to create the playlists that act as the soundtrack to the “big day”.

The DVD collection will also get an airing with assorted versions of A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street being essential viewing.  Purporting to have a literary disposition, it might be expected that I would cite It’s A Wonderful Life as the ultimate Christmas movie, but I’m sorry to disappoint you – Bad Santa and Elf take pride of place in my collection!

Which brings me to a question that preoccupies me a lot these days – whether my shifting interests and attitudes on this subject, or any other for that matter, are, in any respect, attributable to the ageing process or not.  I have no idea what the answer is. My political views, musical tastes and sporting allegiances remain broadly the same as when I was younger, although they have been subject to some fine shading with the passage of time.  I dare say this phenomenon has attracted scientists who will have theories for it.  Perhaps it will, one day, be the subject of another blog post.

The connection to the Christian dimension of Christmas is a particularly interesting one.  Although I was brought up as a Church of England Christian, and was presented with a bible for 100% attendance at Sunday School when I was nine, any faith that my parents might have gently encouraged me to adopt, has long disappeared.  And I have never been one, unlike my father, to bellow out a carol or hymn – in fact I was only selected for the school choir and placed in the front row because I was a champion mimer.  But, long after those days in primary school when I would sit cross-legged singing (my talent for miming had not been discovered yet) Away in a Manger and Rocking, I remain genuinely touched by the music in particular.  It has the same emotional impact upon me as listening to a reading of the 400 year old King James version of the Bible. I am sure that I am far from alone in harbouring such contradictions.  

So I’m looking forward to Christmas – the social and theatrical events, my father round for dinner and, yes, the travelling to the in-laws for New Year.

But I will not be able to suppress an irritated groan when I hear that damned Slade record for the first time.

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You may be familiar with Mr Jingle’s assessment of Kent in The Pickwick Papers: “Kent, sir – everybody knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops and women”. Although the abundance of the first three may have been diminished in recent times (being a happily married man I could not possibly comment on the fourth), this still holds true to a great extent.

An alternative definition that I would subscribe to might be “coast, countryside and cricket”.  It is certainly a triumvirate of glories that make me a proud product of its soil. That pride has been rather dented over the summer months with the dismal displays, both on and off the pitch, of the county cricket club. The cradle of the game, home to some of its greatest ever players and with a tradition of playing cavalier cricket in front of large festival crowds in beautiful surroundings, now reduced to a laughing stock in the cricketing world.

Rising debts, the result of a succession of poor financial decisions, a stalled ground redevelopment programme at its Canterbury headquarters, poor communications with its members and supporters and woeful performances on the field leaving the team second bottom in the county championship, all combined to make the season one of the worst in the modern Club’s distinguished 141 year history.

And in the past few days, the coach and two of the senior batsmen have all departed, leaving the team desperately short of both numbers and experience. With doubts remaining too over whether the player of the season will get the new contract that he deserves, that situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

But in the past week, I have sought solace in some of the county’s many other delights – country walks through the full to bursting apple orchards of haunted Pluckley and the beechwoods and meadows of handsome Harrietsham, a stroll among the bookshops in civilised Tunbridge Wells, and Kentish beer and seafood at the Broadstairs Food Festival, overlooking the packed beach of Viking Bay, basking in the baking October heat and looking like a scene out of the nineteen fifities.

Though I currently live in the “compost heap” of the “Garden of England”, I am no more than an hour and a half, by car, bus or train, from any of its attractions – the castles of Hever, Scotney, Leeds and Rochester, the gardens of Sissinghurst and Emmetts, splendid houses like Groombridge Place, Finchcocks and Knole and what J.M.W Turner called the “loveliest skies in Europe” along the Thanet coast. Throw in two world class animal parks dedicated to conservation, the White Cliffs of Dover, otherworldly Romney Marsh, the rolling North Downs and atmospheric Wealden woodland – the list goes on (my apologies to any favourites of yours that I have missed out).

I count myself lucky in having been born, educated and, after a brief but largely loveless affair with other parts of England, lived in this wonderful county. I’ve been equally fortunate to have grown up hearing and reading  of the exploits of Woolley, Ames and Freeman and watching Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood in their pomp.

But whilst the experience of the cricket, at least at the professional level, has sunk in the past couple of years, there are still those other two features, and much more, to fall back on in the coming months.

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