historic houses

Kent, UK: Walmer Castle

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Before I get into Walmer Castle, I’d like to direct your attention to a guest post I wrote for the Misadventures with Michael blog; it’s my attempt at putting together a little city guide to London.  While you’re there, be sure to check out some of Michael’s other posts; he’s got lots of useful city guides and other travel posts, particularly for people in the US!

Now, regular readers will know I have a bit of a thing for Wellington, well, the young Arthur Wellesley, at any rate.  Not to the extent of my historical crush on young FDR (I finished reading No Ordinary Time last week, and I sobbed through the entirety of the last three chapters.  Is it normal to cry over historical nonfiction?), but enough that I was very keen to visit Walmer Castle, on the Kentish coast near Dover, where Wellington died (and spent much of his time in the latter part of his life).  Fortunately, Walmer Castle is an English Heritage property, so we finally got to put those annual memberships to use.  The downside was, like many English Heritage properties, photography was not allowed inside the house (hence all the garden pictures accompanying the post), and there was very little signage inside the house, leaving us reliant on the audio guides (which I hate).

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Walmer Castle has long been the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (though it was built in the 16th century as a coastal defence), so the residents have changed along with the Lord Wardens.  Wellington isn’t even the most famous one, as William Pitt the Younger, Winston Churchill, and the Queen Mother all lived here at various points in time, and Queen Victoria and Albert used to visit when Wellington was in residence.  Nonetheless, three of the rooms in the house are devoted entirely to Wellington, and it was these that I was most interested in seeing.

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The first contained a collection of coins bearing Wellington’s rather beaky visage (his nickname was “Old Nosey” which could probably be my nickname as well, since I’ve got a similarly sized schnoz myself.  Actually, kids in middle school used to call me Toucan Sam, so I think Old Nosey would probably be a step up), and a splendid array of Wellington Toby jugs.  The second of these Wellington rooms was the one he died in, which was arranged much as it would have been in 1852, with Wellington’s intriguing reading desk on display (he liked to read standing up), and the armchair he died in front and centre.  I dearly wish I could show you a picture of the armchair, which is understandably worse for the wear, but alas, the whole no photography thing.  The room next door to this had been turned into a miniature Wellington museum, with all sorts of great artefacts, like his death mask, the rag used to hold his jaw shut after he died, and a pair of the original Wellington boots.  There were a few cheeky touches, like a pair of pitchers proudly designed by Wellington that his friends apparently didn’t like using, because they “didn’t work very well,” and a picture of a villager in Walmer who bore a striking resemblance to the aged Duke and was often mistaken for him.

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Near the Wellington rooms was a small suite of rooms that Victoria and the Prince Consort would have stayed in, with some of the furniture they would have used still in them.  There was also a William Pitt the Younger room that had one of his chairs (alas, not one he died in, so my morbid curiosity was not satisfied in this case) and some other Pitt possessions, but the other rooms were fairly generic, and simply decorated as they would have been in various time periods.  One of the former ladies of the house (or, you know, an actress portraying her) voiced the gossipy audio tour, which offered more extensive detail, but she did ramble on for far longer than my attention span could take, so I cut her off early in most of the rooms, which means I’m probably missing some key details of the furnishings.

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The gardens were delightful, however, as you can probably tell from the pictures thus far.  I particularly liked the unusual hedges, which were left in lumpy, natural shapes (apparently Churchill liked them that way, and decided to just let them be).  There was a small walled garden for the Queen Mother, and a larger Woodland Walk, as well as a few fields that seemed ideal for picnicking (judging by the families using them for that purpose, I’m not big on al fresco dining myself as I dislike having to constantly swat bugs away from my food); some lovely tulip beds, and a few small greenhouses.  Walmer also had a tea shop, and a stunning view from the ramparts that were still accessorised with a few cannons.

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Because of all the neat Wellington stuff, I’d rate it slightly above the standard English Heritage property, and certainly above the average National Trust one.  Maybe 3.5/5?  Recommended for Wellington or Pitt the Younger fans, or people who like nice gardens; everyone else can probably skip it and either head to nearby Deal Castle for a similar experience, or Dover Castle for a more extensive one (which is the subject of my next post).  Personally, I think the Wellington death-chair made my trip worth the while, those with less macabre tastes might disagree.

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