After years of visiting Perryhill Orchards Farmshop every autumn to stock up on their russet cloudy apple juice (still not as good as apple cider, but the closest I can manage to find ’round these parts), I thought I had already seen almost every attraction the surrounding area had to offer, but I was wrong. Chiddingstone Castle and Chiddingstone Village were just hiding away, silently chiding me for not visiting (this is a bit of a pun, as you’ll see).
Chiddingstone Castle is located in west Kent, and apparently has been there in some form or another since Tudor times, but the current building is mainly Victorian. It was the home of the Streatfeild family (looks like it’s spelled wrong, but it’s not) until they could no longer afford the property taxes/upkeep, and it was purchased in 1955 by the eccentric Denys Eyre Bower, who was a collector and attempted murderer, but I’ll get to that later on. The house is owned by a trust, since the National Trust didn’t want it (they rejected the museum I work at too – maybe if they weren’t so picky they’d have a more varied portfolio of properties), and costs £9.50 to enter (no Art Pass discount here).
Bower seemingly had a wide range of interests, but most of the pieces he collected were Japanese, Ancient Egyptian, Tudor, or Stuart, and he was a practicing Buddhist (except for the attempted murder bit, which doesn’t feel very in keeping with Buddhist ideals), so also collected some Buddhist objects. The collections are mainly segregated into their own rooms now, though apparently when Bower lived there it was more of a crazy mishmash with stuff everywhere (also very much like the museum I work at – I wonder if the owners knew each other, since they were roughly contemporaries).
We started with the Japanese room, which ended up being one of my favourite sections. I love Japanese armour (and medieval armour for that matter – I think I just like armour!) and the cool demon masks, though I have to say the most interesting and creepiest things here were the fully articulated models of various insects and animals. The dragon and peacock were really cool. The rest creeped me out, especially assuming they moved like their insect counterparts when you picked them up (that centipede – ugh!), but I have to admit that the craftsmanship was absolutely incredible.
The Stuart collection was where some of Denys’s, shall we say, eccentricities started to come through. The reason he was interested in the Stuarts was because he believed he was a reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie (I’ve seen photos, and bonny Bower was not), and so he was obsessed with James II and his spawn. He even had actual relics of James II, including a box that contained a segment of his heart, as well as a locket with some blood and hair.
The Ancient Egyptian collection was probably the most extensive, but I do fear much of it was obtained through unethical means, as was common practice at the time. I can’t deny that it would be cool to have a sarcophagus in one’s home, but it sure wouldn’t feel great morally. However, Bower did get swindled into buying reproduction pieces on some occasions (which the signage pointed out), so I guess there was a small degree of comeuppance.
The house itself was fairly unremarkable in décor, basically your standard Victorian slightly shabby country home, though I sense upkeep wasn’t particularly high on Bower’s list of priorities, especially after he got sent to Wormwood Scrubs. Yes, finally time to talk about the murder! Various interpretation panels scattered throughout the house vaguely alluded to Bower having spent time in prison, but didn’t get down to brass tacks until we were nearly through the house, when we came across a small room devoted solely to Bower and his life and finally learned some of the juicy bits. When Bower was in his fifties, he was dating a woman in her twenties, and he threatened to kill himself if she ever left him (I’ve been in a relationship like that, and it was no picnic). To drive the point home, he brought a gun to her house, where it “accidentally” went off (or so he claimed) and shot his girlfriend, who was luckily only injured, and he then tried to kill himself but failed at that too. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and attempted suicide, but an influential lawyer took on his case and got him released after he served only five years, and I have to say that even when he was in prison, he seemed to have a fairly cushy time of it, as he was able to expand his book collection by a couple hundred volumes sent directly to him in prison.
I could have dealt with his other eccentricities (the reincarnation thing is harmless enough), but hearing the story of his attempted murder put me right off him. He absolutely sounds like an abusive creep. He was also married twice (before the whole murder thing) and there were photos of his wives in the museum (above the previous paragraph). I have to say they both looked much too good for him – very pretty and much younger than he was from the looks of it – so I’m glad they eventually wised up and left him. Even though I have taken strongly against Bower the man, I do admit that I definitely liked elements of his collection and the house, particularly the women’s toilet, which had a lovely wide wooden seated Victorian pullchain model that made me feel like I was sitting on a throne. I love a good toilet.
On the day we visited (which also happened to be one of their last open days this year. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until spring if you want to visit), they were closing early for a wedding, so we had to give the café a miss, even though I was most enticed by the toasted crumpets with honey. Love tea and crumpets. However, we did give ourselves enough time to explore the “Fields of Eternity” Ancient Egyptian grass maze, which I absolutely loved the sound of, but it was sadly underwhelming. The description made it sound like a maze that would lead you through various parts of a pyramid and the Egyptian underworld, but all it turned out to be was some overgrown grass that was so mashed down it didn’t look like much of anything. It was essentially just walking through a field with some signs in it. The grounds as a whole are nothing spectacular; there’s a wooded bit, and a grassy bit, but no formal gardens to speak of. There is an orangery, but we couldn’t go in it as it was full of people standing around the edges blocking the entrances who just stared at us when we attempted to approach, so we gave up. For the price, I do think the house is worth seeing, because I really liked the Japanese and Stuart collections and Bower was certainly an unusual man, if not a particularly nice one. 3/5.
Very near Chiddingstone Castle (you can walk there if you don’t have to vacate the carpark for an event like we did) is Chiddingstone Village, home to a Tudor shopping street with what claims to be the oldest working shop in Britain (est. 1453, but I have seen other places attempt to claim that title, so I don’t know if it’s actually the oldest). The whole street is owned by the National Trust (apparently that was good enough for them but not the castle), who I presume rent out the buildings to other businesses, as the café certainly wasn’t National Trust. Because we didn’t have time to have tea at the castle, and because it had started pissing it down, we decided to have tea here, but it was a bit of an experience. They were quite busy, so just ignored us for a while when we walked in before telling us to sit anywhere. There wasn’t room inside, so we went out to the covered patio, but every open table was absolutely covered in other people’s dishes and food detritus. I’m not just talking cups, but actual gross bits of food and liquid spilt everywhere. Staff members came out at various times to grab chairs or see to the other tables, but no one ever came to bus our table, so we ended up just moving everything ourselves and wiping it off as best we could with a Kleenex I found in my purse, which wasn’t ideal. I have to say that the cake was actually delicious (though I was disappointed they only had coffee and walnut (blech) and Victoria sponge (acceptable, but certainly not my first choice) after seeing the large variety advertised on their website) and they had cute crockery, but the service definitely left something to be desired.
We also popped in the oldest shop to buy beer from a local brewery and homemade fudge (because that’s what we do) and the woman complimented my coat, so she was OK by me. I loved the house next to the shop that was all decked out for Halloween, and the Georgian angel tombstones in the churchyard. Finally, we had to check out the “chiding stone”, which is meant to be how the village got its name. It is just a big stone where, according to legend, men would gather to “chide” their errant wives. It’s kind of a gross patriarchal legend, but I do love folklore, so I found it pretty interesting. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend popping down to check out the village, since it is quite cute and the churchyard has some good stones, but I would maybe advise getting your tea as a takeaway unless you like sitting at dirty tables.