Hever, Kent: Hever Castle

I promised more Halloween posts, and at first glance, Hever Castle might not seem to fit that category, but hear me out. First of all, it bills itself as the “childhood home of Anne Boleyn” and we all know what happened to Anne Boleyn, as well as various other members of the Boleyn clan, so it has a very high potential for being haunted (if ghosts were real, of course). Secondly, it is also home to “700 years of history,” including a room full of torture implements (I suspect they’re not original to the house, but still, they might have souls attached to them or something), so lots more opportunities for ghosts there. Finally, every year during October half-term (it’s just a week-long break from school, but because pretty much all schools do it, it’s like an actual thing here that even people without kids (like me) notice on account of the resulting lack of traffic which means I can catch the bus to work twenty minutes later than normal that week), they do a special Halloween event, and I braved the hordes of children (and their parents) this year to check it out.

  

This was actually more of an undertaking than just dealing with crowds, as we had to rent a car to get down there, and then pay £15.90 each to get inside (we saved a whole measly pound by booking online the night before), but I was a woman on a mission. You see, I went to Hever Castle some years ago, well before I had this blog, and while we were sitting in the tearoom, having just enjoyed a slice of cake, a man emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of ghost cupcakes, which he grandly set down on the cake table. I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t end up with a ghost cupcake that day (certainly not because I’d already had cake – there’s always room for more cake!); I think at the time the cafe may have been cash only, and we’d spent all we had on the non-ghost cake and tea. At any rate, the memory of the ghost cupcake that got away has haunted me (ha) through the intervening years, and I reckoned that visiting during Halloween half-term was the best chance I had of putting it right.

  

I could leave you in suspense until the end of the post, but I’m telling this visit like it was, and the truth is that I made a beeline for the cafe as soon as we got inside the grounds. And was rewarded, as you can probably see, with not only a ghost cupcake, but a tombstone one as well. Unfortunately, it was very much not worth the wait. The cake was a bit heavy, and the stuff underneath the fondant ghost was not frosting, as I’d assumed (and hoped), but a marshmallow!  I’m not keen on marshmallow at the best of times, and certainly not when I was anticipating frosting. I mean, I ate it, because I pretty much had to after making such a stink about the damn ghost cupcakes, but it was cloyingly sweet (even for me), and would have greatly benefited from actual buttercream and maybe some jam to cut the sweetness (I guess they were intended for children, but I honestly think I was looking forward to that ghost cupcake way more than any child was). I probably should have gone for the tombstone one, as Marcus tells me the tombstone was an After Eight.  Anyway, with that disappointment out of the way early, we headed off to explore the gardens.

  

The gardens were not as disappointing as the ghost cupcakes, at least not the Italianate one, which was bestrewn with Halloween decorations (lame, half-assed British ones, but still), but there was still some measure of disappointment because there was some kind of scavenger hunt for children where if they spotted all the terracotta pumpkins, they could collect candy at the end, and of course there was no equivalent scavenger hunt for adults. Frankly, they didn’t even have to give me candy or anything, I just would have enjoyed the hunt, though if one of the terracotta pumpkins was on offer as a prize, I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down. (I was upset that the terracotta pumpkins weren’t even for sale in any of the many, many gift shops, as I was quite taken with them.)

  

I guess now is a good time to cantankerously say a word about the way the British celebrate Halloween, which I still find perplexing after living here for the best part of a decade. Halloween is becoming more of a thing here, which is good, because it was still pretty low-key when I first moved here, but I have to say that in my opinion, something just ain’t right with Halloween in England. It is really strange to me that children get dressed up to go wander around a stately home – where I come from, your costume was special – something you spent months planning and really put some effort into (admittedly, I was a vampire like three years in a row because I REALLY liked vampires, but I had a different vampire look each year, and I did genuinely stress about picking a costume. I’d have nightmares where it was Halloween night, and I didn’t have a costume, so I couldn’t go trick or treating), and you pretty much saved it just for Halloween itself, unless you got invited to a costume party or something. Here, it seems like people slap on “fancy dress,” as they call it (confusingly), for any old occasion, and there’s a complete lack of effort with their Halloween costumes. Every kid just wears these awful generic costumes that came direct from Tesco or something, and there’s no creativity on show at all.  And the most annoying thing is that aside from Halloween dance parties at clubs (big old nope from me) and a few late night events at museums (and that very unspooky pet cemetery walk), pretty much everything is aimed at children, which is why I had to awkwardly show up to Hever Castle during half-term when we were basically the only childless couple there aside from a couple of groups of foreign tourists. Trick or treating may just be for children (though I actually do quite like passing out candy, not that I’ve gotten to do it in years), but Halloween is for everyone, and I wish Halloween events in Britain would reflect that.

  

OK, rant over (at least that rant, there may be more). So, despite my displeasure at being excluded from Halloween fun, at least I could enjoy the decorations and all the unintentionally creepy statues that lived in the garden (like Pan there, yikes!). And Hever Castle is also home to a couple mazes. I did not get to go in the water one, which I remembered from my earlier visit, because it was entirely full of children running around while their parents looked on, and I would have felt like a creep going in there (and not in the Halloween sense, but in the weird pervert sense), but I did go in the yew maze, which was just a bit too easy. I wasn’t even sick of wandering around yet when I inadvertently found my way out.

  

The gardens were also home to some children’s activities that looked like a lot of fun (archery aiming at targets with headless knights painted on them and a repel your own vampire kit that involved planting a bulb of garlic in a pot that you then sprinkled with “holy water”) that were yet again a no-go for adults, so I gave up and we made our way over to the castle itself.

  

Though I didn’t remember being particularly impressed by the castle on my first visit, this time it ended up being the best part of the day, mainly on account of the vampire questions and answers that someone had placed in each room of the house. I’m still not sure exactly how vampires relate to Hever Castle (ghosts would have made more sense, for the reasons stated at the start of the post), but I’m not complaining, because these were delightful, and full of lame little jokes and puns that I just loved.

  

I suppose the interiors weren’t half bad either, even without the vampire facts. Though the house was owned by the Boleyn family in the Tudor period, by the early 20th century, it had been purchased by the Astors (of Waldorf Hotel fame), namely William Waldorf Astor, who also owned the splendid Two Temple Place in London, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times. I’d say that the man had taste, except that the rooms he decorated in Hever Castle were my overriding memory of the house on my first visit, and the reason that I wasn’t particularly impressed by it. They would have been fine in an Edwardian mansion, but the style of the Astor rooms just doesn’t seem to fit inside a 13th century castle (with Tudor additions).

  

But I did love the more Tudory rooms, especially the ones that told the story of Anne’s life, illustrated by wax figure tableaux.

   

I dressed up like Anne Boleyn for Halloween some years ago, and I’ve always felt bad for her, because she might have been ambitious or even calculating (though it’s hard to say if she actually was, given the way women were treated at the time, and the slurs thrown at her after her death), but really, once Henry took an interest, what was she supposed to do? She had to essentially choose whether to prostitute herself, or hold out for what seemed like the better option of marriage, and she definitely didn’t deserve to be beheaded. The castle holds a few of Anne’s personal possessions, like a Book of Hours she wrote in, and copies of letters sent between her and Henry, the last letter she ever wrote him being especially sad (she basically offered to sacrifice herself so that her brother’s and friends’ lives would be spared, but of course Henry, being an enormous asshole, executed the lot of them).

  

The room full of torture implements that I mentioned earlier is also depressing, and kind of scary (I like creepy stuff, but the scolds’ masks are a bridge too far even for me. For some reason those freak me out more than actual maiming devices), but never fear, the castle also contains stuff like a random case full of derpy dog figurines to lighten the mood. There’s also a few rooms about the Astor family and their ownership of the house, including the almost obligatory room about life “belowstairs,” which was actually not completely uninteresting, especially, for some reason, the room assignment charts for when the Astors had parties – maybe because I couldn’t imagine having that many house guests every weekend (but then, I’ve never lived in a house that had actual separate wings and I also hate having guests, unless I know them well enough that I don’t have to change out of jimjams).

 

After seeing the inside of the castle, we still weren’t done, because the estate is vast. We wandered past some splendid animal topiaries, and were en route to a regimental museum when I got side-tracked by an ice cream hut (not the first one I’d seen that day, but the first one that was actually open).  After wolfing down a few scoops (much better than the cupcake, though I have to admit that I was surprised that chocolate chip turned out to be chocolate ice cream, because chocolate chip is normally vanilla with chocolate chips in it. I guess that explains why I’ve never had chocolate chip in Britain before) we resumed the search for the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Museum, which is rather well hidden. I didn’t even realise it existed on our first visit, and wouldn’t have this time either if I hadn’t seen it mentioned on the website when we booked the tickets. There are no signs pointing to it once you’re in the grounds, though it is marked on the map they hand you when you walk in, but you really have to be looking for it.

  

After visiting it, I can kind of see why they don’t publicise it more. It’s not awful, but it’s not particularly impressive, being one long hut where you wind your way through reading posters (or mainly skipping them in my case, as they were overly wordy and not that interesting) with a few display cases. The only real object of note, other than a couple wax figures, was the ceramic figure of the regiment’s desert fox mascot, who is very cute. I do feel bad that no one seems to visit the museum though – at least, we were the only people inside, even though everywhere else on the estate was rammed.

  

After the KSY Museum, we headed over to one of the gift shops that also housed a collection of miniature houses, which I adore. They had Tudor, Stuart, and Georgian houses, as well as a few scenes from a Victorian household at Christmas, and they were all pretty charming, especially the Georgian one, which I would totally live in if it were real. Apparently one of the sons was a redcoat home from fighting those pesky Americans, and you could see him telling his parents all about it in the drawing room (yes, they were that detailed).

  

Aside from some fruitless searching for those terracotta jack o’lanterns in the shops, that was pretty much it for our visit, and we strolled back to the carpark (on the other side of the estate) through the water garden, which was very soothing (especially after having my nerves jangled by children running about and shrieking all day). There wasn’t really anything else Halloweeny of note, though I guess I should be grateful that there was even as much as there was, albeit not even aimed at adults, because the vampire facts + activities (that I couldn’t participate in) + Halloween decorations in the garden + ghost cupcakes is about as festive as England ever gets for Halloween.

  

Hever Castle is undoubtedly really, really expensive, but you do get more or less a full day out for your money, so that’s something. If you’re not bothered about Halloween decorations, I highly recommend coming when it’s not half-term, unless you have kids. The estate itself is pretty nice (and obviously quite photogenic), but I just can’t get over my disappointment at British Halloween events (and I’ll be blogging about another next week), even though I really should know better by now, and Hever Castle admittedly makes more of an effort than most. 3.5/5.

 

 

12 comments

  1. I think that would be an interesting house to visit but i’d avoid it like the plague at Halloween from your description! Halloween was never a huge thing when I was young, though we had our own traditions. I think it’s a shame when they get overlaid by another country’s. Having said that, I imagine a pumpkin is a lot easier to carve than a turnip……

    1. There’s nothing wrong with having your own traditions. I think it’s the bastardisation of American Halloween here that bothers me the most. It’s like those places that call themselves “American style” diners, yet if you go there, there isn’t a decent pancake or milkshake to be found, and everything costs a fortune. I feel like if you want to imitate something, the imitation should be as good or better than the original, otherwise what’s the point? And pumpkins are definitely easier to carve than turnips. Not that I’ve ever tried to carve a turnip, but I carved a pineapple once, and that was a nightmare!

  2. Booooo to lame Halloween events! I’m surprised England isn’t more into it – everything is so old there’s so much potential. Even with all the halloween stuff here in the States I still feel like halloween is way more fun as a kid. I really miss trick or treating. Adult events are all about the “boooooze” and I’m all no, more candy please.

    Anyway, sorry the cupcake was such a disappointment. (I totally know what it’s like to be haunted by dessert. Long story short, a slice of gingerbread man cake has eluded me since kindergarten.) Still sounds like a nice visit though. Those miniature houses look so cool!

    1. There is a lot of potential, but mostly unfulfilled. They do an event called London Month of the Dead every October, but it’s mainly just overpriced lectures, with an occasional good event, like the phantasmagoria show I went to last year. About five or six years ago there was a thing called London Ghost Week, and I actually went on a really good ghost walk with them, but they haven’t had a Ghost Week since then. That’s what I want, I guess. More spooky walks (that are actually spooky) and cemetery tours, and haunted houses, and jack o’lantern festivals. The year we did a road trip of Sleepy Hollow and Salem and all those places was the BEST, because they had all those things! But yeah, candy is way better than booze, and free candy is best of all. I can take or leave alcohol but I will eat all the candy all the time.
      Yeah, this isn’t the first dessert I’ve been haunted by, but I’m glad you understand! I’m kind of curious about this gingerbread man cake now! Was it made of gingerbread, or just shaped like a gingerbread man?

      1. Here in the city there is a ghost tour group called Burroughs of the Dead that offers a nice variety. They do different neighborhoods plus various themes – like a Titanic one on the anniversary of the sinking, a Poe one and so on. London should totally have something like that! I’m sure there’s enough material for several ghost weeks.

        A Sleepy Hollow and Salem road trip sounds amazing! I can’t believe I still haven’t been to Sleepy Hollow even though I toured a historic house nearby.

        Free candy is the best! I sort of got to re-live trick or treating this year. I wore a Wonder Woman dress when I was working at an antiques show on Halloween and a lady was so excited to see at least one person in costume that she gave me a piece of chocolate from her purse. And yes, I ate it.

        The gingerbread cake had more the consistency of honey cake and was in the shape of a gingerbread man. And while I’ve had gingerbread cookies, I don’t think I’ve encountered a gingerbread cake since. Anyway, all week at school we would find clues as to where the gingerbread man had been and then one day we returned to our classroom where there was a trail of candy on the floor leading to the gingerbread man cake. Before I knew it, all the other children devoured that candy like vultures while I was still processing what was happening. I didn’t get to finish my piece of cake because I was eating too slowly and it was story time. So unfair!!

      2. That sounds fun! All they have here are lame Jack the Ripper tours aimed at tourists.
        It wasn’t just Sleepy Hollow and Salem – we drove from Cleveland to Sleepy Hollow then through upstate New York into Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and then down to Massachusetts. It was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. My boyfriend probably disagrees because I can’t drive, so he had to do it all!
        I’d eat random purse chocolate too. I don’t blame you!
        And I can understand why you’d be angry still about that gingerbread cake. Why couldn’t they have just let you eat your cake during story time, or take it home or something? It seems like elementary school was full of stupid small injustices like that for almost everybody. I can still remember a handful of beads I’d saved from a craft project in kindergarten getting taken away from me and given to another girl in class who laid claim to them, even though they were my beads! Maybe it’s supposed to prepare you for adulthood, but really it just makes you bitter from a young age.

  3. Oh, I’m really sorry that cupcake wasn’t very good. Given how how long you’d waited for it – and the luck in it still being offered – it should have been better. I myself had high hopes for it based solely on its super adorableness. But I know what you mean about the marshmallow – something kinda chewy is not what you’re looking for when you’re having cake. And I’m doubly sorry you didn’t get one of those toothy terracotta pumpkins.
    But wow, the wax figures and doll houses – yes please! I’d have been one of those people who warranted the “Caution Glass” warning on the doll houses because I’d have tried to put my head inside to see all the neat details.
    I also really liked the sweet Vampire Q&A and the lovely silhouette art accompanying them. I wouldn’t mind one or two of those myself (the silhouettes, not the text.) But I have to admit, the pairing of werewolves with the Vampire fruit question made me laugh- Halloween really is a bit foreign there isn’t it?

    1. Yeah, fondant is already kind of chewy, and the added chewiness of the marshmallow was not great. I think I should have just kept him and preserved him somehow, because he was very cute.
      To be fair, I can kind of see where they were going with the werewolf for the vampire fruit, because a werewolf is a thing that turns into another thing if there’s a full moon, like vampire fruit, and they were probably running out of relevant silhouettes, having already used vampires for some of the other ones. But you’re right about there being a monster comprehension problem in the UK – some of the costumes I saw there made no sense at all. There was a girl dressed as a witch who was carrying a pitchfork, and another dressed as a vampire who had a broom. Get your monsters right, people!

  4. Sometimes I have to wonder at the British when they try to emulate something American. I remember when I would watch British television growing up and every American had a Southern accent. And they were always bad. I am glad to see that they’ve improved in that department, at least.
    And I agree with you that Halloween should be for everyone, not just kids. Halloween is my favorite holiday. I want dark, spooky things with foods that make me fat. The Brits have all of that, so why don’t they capitalize on it? Maybe one day, like the whole Southern accent thing, they’ll figure it out.
    I love the British, so I’m holding out hope that they’ll get there.

    1. Ha! I recently took part in a play (well, a stage reading of a play, it didn’t really involve acting) that was set in America, and guess what one of the British “actors” decided to do? A big old Southern accent! I had to explain to him that as the play was set in California, and his character had a Scandinavian name, that accent probably wasn’t very accurate.
      I don’t know if the British want to figure Halloween out. Older people seem pretty anti-Halloween, and the younger ones don’t really care as long as they get candy out of the deal. The only Brits I know who get it right tend to be those of a gothier persuasion, because goths anywhere like Halloween!

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