Category Archives: Castles & Palaces

Castles & Palaces

Exploring Strawberry Hill House

Imagine you’re 32, the year is 1749, and you don’t have any kids – so what do you blow your money on? A plot of land overlooking the Thames to create an avant-garde Gothic Revival-inspired mansion to host your friends, store your book collection and impress other people of course! That’s what Horace Walpole (writer, antiquarian and son of Britain’s first Prime Minister) did. And we’re lucky enough to be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

And what a treat it is! Every corner, from the entrance hall to the china room and the chapel is filled with intricate details. We’re talking a breakfast room with a tented Turkish boudoir velvet ceiling, a gallery with golden papier mâché Rococo ceilings and a library with pinnacled pillar bookcases. Nothing about this place is basic.

Upon Walepole’s death, the house was passed to his cousin’s unmarried daughter and then to the Waldegraves and the contents auctioned. Lady Waldegrave did the place up and added a wing – you can spot her in a grand painting showing off her social circle.

With the help of his letters, paintings and a detailed document called ‘A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole’ the place was restored, and they were able to replicate a lot of the furniture and paintings, plus even the bookcases are filled with the same books that were collected by Walpole.

It would have taken your coach two hours, but nowadays it’s a mere 30 minute train ride to Strawberry Hill Station and from there a 10 minute walk.

Castles & Palaces

Exploring Hever Castle & Gardens

When it comes to castles and palaces I had always thought bigger was better. But a recent visit to Hever Castle sure proved me wrong! Compact can actually be as cute, charming and impressive…as long as you know what to do with it.

Once you walk over the drawbridge (yes! It comes with a drawbridge and not just one, but two moats!) through the courtyard and into the castle you’ll follow a route from room to room where you can explore how the Boleyns (you might know them from the Anne Boleyn tragedy) lived there in Tudor times and then the Astors in the early 1900s. Though it’s a short route, it’s far from boring: everything from family portraits and a secret chapel to instruments of torture will keep you immersed in medieval and modern history. And for your inner child there is a little ‘can you spot it’ game in each room and let me tell you…it was hard sometimes. Sadly there’s no rooftop access, so I wasn’t able to brace the winds and let my hair blow majestically atop the battlements (so back to Dover I must go!)

 One the grounds you can explore several ornate Italian-style gardens, get lost in the maze, check out the miniatures museum or escape the crowds and take a peaceful stroll around the lake, which has a little Japanese-style teahouse perched on its banks. Taking in the nature alongside the calm waters all at my own pace was one of the favourite things I’ve done recently. I also enjoyed the mini pier where I got to recreate my own Dawson’s Creek moment (though it should have been called Pacey’s Creek in my opinion…).

The main target audience is families and people with dogs so you’ll see a lot of those. There is also a huge and enviable playground area with a mini castle for kids, which I didn’t get a chance to test as that would just be frowned upon. Also chances are that you will probably wait longer for an ice-cream than you might spend walking around the castle, but I can tell you that the salted caramel is definitely worth it.

The best bit? Hever Castle is only 1 hour train from central London and a 20 minute walk to the castle grounds so it’s perfect for a fun day out to escape from the city!

And even better? You can book a room in the Tudor Village that the Astors built and actually let your inner princess out. I loved parading around in my favourite dress through the grounds once they were closed for the public…but more on that later.

Have you ever stayed in a castle?

Castles & Palaces

Exploring Dover Castle

What do you think of when you hear about Dover?

Well, it’s not just a place to escape from England in your car over the sea to the wonders of France, Europe and beyond! On my recent trip I discovered there’s a lot more to the area than meets the eye. Plus, combined with the hourly high-speed train that whisks you from King’s Cross to Dover in under an hour, it makes it a great destination for a day (or a weekend) trip from London.

First thing that should be on your schedule: Dover Castle. Sitting atop the White Cliffs of Dover, it’s an amazing site where you can easily spend 3-4 hours walking around on the grounds and exploring the medieval tunnels, the Great Tower, taking a tour of the underground hospital and the World War II tunnel complex.

The medieval tunnels, which you can explore on your own, were great to transport you back to medieval times. As I ventured beneath the castle I imagined how hard it must have been to run around in the freezing winter with armour and weapons and walking up the tall stone staircases. Brrrr. You might have spotted them in Avengers: Age of Ultron where it was used as part of the interior for the Hydra Outpost in the Sovokia. Sadly I didn’t spot Iron Man, Captain America, or even a sighting of Thor’s mighty hammer…but there’s always next time (Avengers 3?)

My favourite bit had to be the Great Tower where English Heritage transformed the interior as if Henry II and his court was residing at the castle. I felt a bit like a presenter on MTV Cribs: Medieval King Edition. From the traditional kitchen to the dining hall and the bedrooms: the interiors give you an idea of how the castle looked and an insight of how lives were when it was used as a royal palace, but left enough room for fantasy and your imagination to weave your own tales.

For those who won’t be seen exploring anything that’s 200+ years old, there’s plenty for you too. There are two tunnel tours for you to embark on.

The Wartime Tunnel Tour takes you deep under the cliffs to the cavernous complex, which has been used for hundreds of years. Originally constructed to fend off Napoleon, they were later used as a base for WW2 – focusing on Dunkirk, and also secret operations hub during the Cold War until 1984. The network of dark cavernous corridors was gargantuan, and I couldn’t believe how much rock had been moved to create the place – I think there were 4 miles of tunnels in total – you get to explore a small section of this, and it takes around 45 minutes.

If you want a bit more of a personal story, the Underground Hospital tour is your best bet and is around 20 minutes. Here you get to hear the insights and experience the sights, sounds and smells of the underground hospital, told through the story of an injured pilot getting treated during WW2. They don’t allow taking photos on the tours, but you can take photos on the rest of the site.

A bit away from the main castle area lies The Saxon Church that’s still in use, and a still standing Roman lighthouse where you realise how far back in history the place goes. I’d recommend checking out a map of the place before you get started, as there’s a lot of routes you can take within the walls, but don’t worry there’s lots of signposts and useful information boards explaining the what/when/where of each building.

The opening hours vary, depending on the season, so do make sure to check out the website before heading to Dover. They also close during extreme weather! During the holidays there are also period displays with actors and other activities.