From 19th November to 2nd January, Christmas comes to Hever Castle in Kent. Perhaps most famous as the childhood home of Henry VIII’s second wife, as well as the film location of several films and TV shows, Hever Castle has loads to do even when it’s not lit to the gills with fairy lights. Last weekend, we spent a thoroughly festive day out, drinking mulled wine, walking the grounds and admiring the lights on the first day of their Christmas fair.
To outline our route: Coming through from the Lake View entrance, we quickly visited the huskies on our way to the Pavilion Cafe where we each grabbed some hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, the perfect hand-warmer for gazing out over the lake from the Loggia. Then we walked through the Italian garden to the lawn in front of the castle to meet the owls before touring inside the castle itself. We warmed up again with some mulled wine from the Moat Cafe before doing Anne Boleyn’s Walk which was lit up with a Space-themed light display, and ended with pulled pork buns from the stalls on the Church Lawn.
Hever Castle Gardens
The Hever Castle Gardens, as you can see on the map, are something to be reckoned with. Framed by the River Eden to the north and Hever Road to the left, they spread across 125 acres and hold an English rose garden, Tudor garden, Italian garden, a maze, military museum, miniature village, woodland, and a 38-acre lake. There’s also a mock-Tudor village (built in the early 20th century) which today acts as a luxury BnB, wedding venue and restaurant. During the Christmas season everything is covered in lights, and there are carnival rides including a carousel in front of the castle and a ferris wheel on Church Lawn.
The gardens are immaculately cared for and must be gorgeous during the spring and summer – the Rose Garden alone has over 5,000 flowers! The lake connected to the Eden River has boat rides you can take to the other side, leaving from the jetty by the Loggia. You might recognise the Loggia from season 1 of TV show The Great, where it was used in episode 8 as the location that Peter meets the King and Queen of Sweden.
From 19th November until 2nd January, you’ll need special Christmas tickets to get into Hever. These include access to the gardens and the castle, as well as all the festive attractions (apart from Santa’s Grotto, but that’s already sold out). The rides – ferris wheel, carousel, and hook-a-duck – take tokens which you have to buy separately. The Christmas lights are turned on at 4pm, and things start to close at 8pm.
Famous as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Hever Castle dates as far back at 1270 when the gatehouse and walled bailey were first built (the only remaining parts of the original castle). As castles go it’s pretty small, but it’s definitely worth nipping inside to see the perfectly preserved and recreated Tudor rooms, all decorated for Christmas with trees galore and a fire in every grate.
The Astor Family
You can thank the Astor family for the astonishing rooms inside the castle. William Waldorf Astor, the American millionaire you might remember from Cliveden House, acquired the castle in 1903 after it had fallen into disrepair. The Astor family restored the rooms, moved the river to build the mock Tudor village, and expanded the gardens into the picturesque sprawl you see today. Old William paid great attention to detail, even insisting that his workmen used the same materials and tools as Tudor and Elizabethan craftsmen.
The castle is brimming with paintings, furniture, carpets, tapestries and objets d’art from Tudor England and the surrounding periods, collected and added by the Astors and helpfully labelled for your academic perusal. Each room is in such good condition, with intricately carved bannisters, wall panels, ceiling designs and fireplaces.
You’ll find an impressive collection of Tudor portraits as you tour. Indeed, Hever Castle is regarded as the greatest privately owned public collection of Tudor portraits – one of the best collections after the National Portrait Gallery.
Of course Henry VIII is there, as well as five of his wives which you can find in the Queens’ Chamber. There’s also a permanent exhibition in the Long Gallery where you’ll see Catherine of Aragon.
Anne Boleyn was born in 1501 and spent her childhood at Hever Castle, which had belonged to her family since 1462. She grew up at the castle before moving to Europe where she lived for her formative years, but returned to Hever several times as an adult. In fact, seven of Henry VIII’s love letters were sent to Anne while she was living at Hever in 1528. In 1540, years after Anne’s death (ahem execution) her uncle sold the house to Henry VIII, who then gifted it to Anne of Cleves.
It is traditionally believed that Henry VIII stayed at the Castle on several occasions during his courtship with Anne Boleyn. Henry loved to hunt, and it wouldn’t have been unusual for him to tour the houses of aristocratic families, using their grounds to hunt and being fed well while he was at it. In fact, many families would have kept a room like this just for his visits.
Towards the end of the tour is the Astor suite, dedicated to the castle’s more recent history and displaying pictures and memorabilia relating to the Astor family. The tour then concludes in the Medieval Council Chamber in the Gatehouse, where the first 13th-century owners of the Castle would have eaten, slept and entertained. Here you can see an actual 13th century toilet, which emptied directly into the moat, along with collections of historic swords and armour, as well as instruments of execution and torture. Festive.
Christmas Light Experience
We left the castle right as the lights were switched on, and made our way to the food stalls and Moat Cafe to get some mulled wine. This was another great hand-warmer to nurse while exploring the woodland and grounds in its colourful Christmas get up.
One of our favourite parts of the visit was the Space Walk, installed along the path on the map labelled Anne Boleyn’s Walk. Big luminous globes hung from the trees like planets, and disco balls scattered shards of light across the ground as we strolled through neon tunnels. All the kids we passed were loving it – but it’s fun for all the family, whether you’re 8 or 80, as they say.
As well as the Pavilion Cafe and Moat Cafe, at this time of year you’ll find food and drinks stalls to warm you up throughout the day, with coffee, doughnuts, hot dogs, pizza, burgers, and our meal of choice, pulled pork with stuffing and apple sauce in a brioche bun. This was the ideal cherry on top of our day, and afterwards we happily headed for the car park, feeling thoroughly ready for Christmas. We had arrived at about 2.30 and stayed until just after 6.15 – I’d say that’s a pretty decent stint for a £25 ticket.
What a fun day out! The tickets for Hever at this time of year are a lot more expensive than usual at £25 (under 4s are free), but considering we stayed for almost 4 hours, I’d say we definitely got our money’s worth. This is a fab trip for families with so many activities. I’d say worth a visit any time of year, especially if you’re interested in history like me and Matt, or if you enjoy gardens and landscapes.