Category Archives: Castles & Palaces

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 - London

Exploring Hampton Court Palace

If you are not a local you probably know of Windsor or Buckingham Palace, but there is a little place called Hampton Court Palace. While the queen doesn’t keep her toothbrush there this doesn’t mean you should skip it.

Though the level of freedom to explore wasn’t as good as at Dover Castle, there is a lot to see and do. I’ll spare you the history (there’s lots to read and a audio tour), but let’s just say a lot of stuff happened in the last 500 years, even more that you saw in Wolf Hall, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors.

Follow me today and explore the best spots to explore at Hampton Court Palace.
Henry VIII’s Palace
Loved seeing where Henry VIII and his wives hung out. The Great Hall was a spectacle and I enjoyed the table setting with the history of the dishes, but it didn’t beat the one in Oxford (Potter for life). The Chapel Royal was a peaceful hideaway … but for me it was the ‘entertainment’ room with lounge pillows all over the place, board games and a stained glass window that hit the spot.
Willem III Apartments
My Dutch homeboy and his wife Mary hung out here for a bit in the 1690s and asked the guy who designed St. Paul’s to pimp up the place and dazzle them with new ceiling paintings. The group of French school kids I saw were definitely impressed, but I really loved the fact that one of them was geeking out on history but trying to play it cool.
I had heard so many stories about the kitchens but they were sadly closed for refurbishment. The kitchen gift shop it still open though. The wine cellar was #goals and would the centrepiece on my vision board if I had one.
The Gardens and Grounds
The Privy Garden was where I imagine Henry would impress his visitors, courtiers and mistresses and now obviously commoners like us. I loved seeing the adults walking around in awe while the younger kids were having much more fun playing with pebbles. The most entertaining bit was spotting a swan trying to follow his friend through a fence in the canal and not quite managing it. It seemed really embarrassed about this … it seems even the most elegant of us all can fail at something sometimes.
Public Park and Maze (!!!)
For somewhere that you can enter for free the public park section (the Wilderness and surroundings) is very pretty and well kept. But most importantly let’s talk MAAAZE!
The amount of times I’ve rushed to a garden ‘maze’ to be confronted by child- friendly bushes only a metre tall is sadly far too many than I’d like to admit. But Hampton Court Palace’s maze stands a mighty 3 meters, so not cheating for you! I got lost and loved it, plus it’s a great secret photo spot too.

You can get to Hampton Court Palace on the train from Waterloo station. The journey takes around 35 minutes and the train station is a short walk to the palace. If you want to take it to the next level, arrive at the palace by riverboat to channel your inner Henry or Anne. Just remember the boat takes around 3 hours from Westminster pier.


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.

Castles & Palaces

Eltham Palace: Art Deco Adventure

Art Deco at Eltham Palace (6)

Yesterday I hopped on the train to Eltham and instead of being taken through a painful commute to my place of office (as is my usual trip on a train!), I was transported back to what must have been the closest thing to the British version of the Great Gatsby, with a touch of A Knight’s Tale, at Eltham Palace & Gardens.

Art Deco at Eltham Palace (1)

Way way back in the 14th century the Palace was the place to be if you weren’t a starving, smelly and poor peasant, and if you could get past its moat and drawbridge you’d find an impressive royal residence, even with its own jousting courtyard. Sadly the English Civil War put a stop to all the fun (yep, England had a civil war – who knew!?) and it fell into disrepair and ruins until it was kinda saved via a 1930s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition – but instead of Ty Pennington it was all looked over by the new owners Stephen and Virginia Courtauld who put a definite Art Deco spin on their new digs. The couple were the ‘talk of the town’ at the time, the celebs you wanted to get to know, and if you were lucky enough be invited to one of their famed extravagant parties. Though it opened to the public in 1999, the most complete renovation was finished in April this year, allowing you to pretty much explore every room in the palace.

Before I spill all, I just wanted to say how nice the staff all were – I arrived a bit early so was a bit lost at one of the wrong entrance gates when a member of the staff came through unlocked the entrance and took me through to the right entrance and who showed me where to buy my tickets (all before it was officially meant to open).

Art Deco at Eltham Palace (2) Art Deco at Eltham Palace (6) Art Deco at Eltham Palace (3) Art Deco at Eltham Palace (4)

When you enter the palace proper you’re handed your own invitation – giving you a ‘persona’ or character to experience the trip through – so you can be that famous actress, or fighter pilot attending one of their famed parties – each character with their own personalised interactive guide. Every tour has been offering up ‘digital guides’ for ages now – but the iPhone/iPad + headphones kit with the many different perspectives to try from the various characters at the palace which was a bit more enjoyable. The main entrance hall is something else, just beautiful to look at and I don’t usually get too excited by architecture, and beyond that there’s a surprising amount to see, and all the rooms have books, diaries and personal touches to feel like you’re looking at a living, breathing house, rather than a stuffy, cold exhibit.

Art Deco at Eltham Palace (5)

If you’ve had a bit too much Art Deco for one day – the Great Hall with the hammer-beam roof (English Gothic architecture fans will know) is the one of the highlights and a Medieval gem where you can imagine a roaring 100 course feast, hopefully where you’re the king, queen, lord or lady, not that poor servant who has to sleep on the stone floor, live off scraps from the meals and bow or curtsy a ridiculous amount of times a day.

Art Deco at Eltham Palace (7)

One of the most adorable things I stumbled upon was the dark room on the basement. While not the most photogenic of rooms (pretty grimy and dark – duh) it was here that the couple developed their travels on film – Ginnie was the video grapher and Stephen was the photographer. A full multi media package that any tourism board would be happy to invite on a press trip.

Art Deco at Eltham Palace (8) Art Deco at Eltham Palace (9)

When planning a holiday we get wrapped up in using Google, other blogs, travel magazines and maybe travel guides, but these guys had it all sorted with their own walk in map room where they planned their winter travels to exotic places like Machu Picchu. I love the idea of being able to sit on a sofa, stare up at the walls and let my imagination run wild … Picturing my little plane (Indiana Jones style) transporting me to undiscovered adventures. It’s still under renovation, so there is the excuse to go back once they’ve finished it. 

Who else wants a map room?