A Castle's Secrets
PUBLISHED: 13:23 25 October 2015 | UPDATED: 13:33 25 October 2015
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
No one seeing Allington Castle for the first time can fail to be moved by its beauty. The winding driveway takes on an almost magical quality as it crosses a section of the 13th-century moat at what feels like the same level as the water and approaches the drawbridge.
When asked if he can remember his first impressions of the castle that’s been his home for the past 19 years, Sir Robert Worcester is swift to answer “Yes, with precision.” He recounts a time when he was asked the same question by a dining companion. “I said ‘my heart soared’ as Lady Worcester spoke out from the other end of the table and added ‘mine sank’.”
To be fair, when Lady Worcester first saw the castle it had been in the possession of the Carmelites – an ancient religious community belonging to the Roman Catholic Church – for 46 years and, says Sir Robert, “it was a shambles.”
He adds: “Everything that had been done was cheap and nasty. It had black tarmac in the courtyard; it looked like a high-school basketball court. The plumbing was horrible, telephone and electrical wires ran waist high across these ancient walls and, on the road going out, right on the corner, there was a great big electrical sub-station.”
The castle also needed serious restoration and re-organisation but, despite these challenges, the Worcesters still decided to buy it. As Sir Robert says: “It’s every American schoolboy’s dream. Who would have thought that a boy from Kansas City would ever live in a 13th-century castle?’
It may have been a dream but there was an awful lot of work that had to be carried out before the couple could start living in it and they initially spent 18 months deciding how to transform the neglected communal living space into a welcoming family home.
Taking the brave decision to tackle the entire restoration in one go, the couple then spent the next 18 months travelling between their old home, a 15th-century Wealden Hall House in Tenterden, and a one-bedroom flat created within a wing of the castle’s barn.
The whole place was taken right down to the bare walls before new radiators, pipes and electricity were installed. Sir Robert can’t abide seeing wiring of any kind so it was all carefully hidden within the walls before, as he says: “We basically, started over. Corridors became second bathrooms and bedrooms became corridors and the like, but there are now 12 bedrooms and 17 loos.”
Unsightly heating was another bugbear: “We scoured south-east England and even into Wales to find radiators that would match the ones the Carmelites had.
“There were mid-1920s radiators on one side of the long gallery and picture gallery and plastic tat radiators on the other side. I mean, the whole place was like that.”
Paintings, photos, comfortable furnishings and the sound of Wagner now fill the castle, creating a welcoming atmosphere. The couple made all the decorating choices themselves, explaining: “We didn’t employ an interior designer; I don’t think we needed that. We had quite a lot of period furniture that was suitable and we also acquired several pieces from the Carmelites separately to the building itself.”
When asked whether the Worcesters’ tastes are similar, Sir Robert is quick to respond: “Oh yes, our choice of style, our interest in history and definitely our musical taste and art taste.
“The only thing that differentiates us in terms of taste is when we first got to know each other 35 years ago, I had some modern art in the house in London and she banished it to the basement. It’s effectively been in the basement ever since.”
The main restoration of the castle and its 42-acre garden was completed 10 years ago but the maintenance is forever ongoing: “Something goes wrong every day.” Which is why Sir Robert has a team of nine to help him. They include a professional decorator, a qualified electrician, an estate manager and several gardeners.
Sir Robert now passes the majority of his time in his office, a sitting/TV room where he holds staff meetings at the table in the corner or sits reading in his favourite chair, and in his “beautiful library, where the books tell their own story.” The books are housed within American black walnut cases and one section of the library holds his particular affection due to a catalogue he once received from Townsends of Somerset.
“I’d never heard of Townsends but I glanced through it and a compliment slip popped into my view signed ‘Rose’ and I thought I had better look closely at it. Rose, the auction’s curator, was married to a friend of mine I had known 20 years before and in the ‘Books, Manuscripts and Maps’ section were the books from the library of Allington Castle which had been in the Knight Frank sale in 1951. I did my best to buy the lot and I got 100 or so of Conway’s books.”
Lord Conway owned and restored Allington Castle between 1905 and 1937. He was also the first director of the Imperial War Museum, a mountaineer, a politician, a Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge and a prolific writer.
Sir Robert spent three years travelling up to the Manuscript room at Cambridge to read nearly 1,000 of his papers. Fortunately, he says: “Lord Conway has very clear handwriting and he mostly wrote back to his father-in-law for money during the restoration.”
Sir Robert has had bookplates made for this section of books which portray Lord Conway’s portrait and crest, together with the words ‘Returned to Allington Castle 2005.’
Lady Worcester also has several favourite spots within the castle and enjoys reading and watching TV in her sitting room downstairs as “it’s a nice size, comfortable and it’s central, so I’m always around. The dining room is nice too.”
The great hall is a particular favourite for both of them and once you’ve stepped inside, it’s easy to see why. The dark timber ceiling soars above your head as you take in the stone floor and bare walls. A gallery at the far end provides a bird’s-eye view of the room and two enormous tapestries adorn the walls.
The tapestries were bought at auction and Sir Robert says the lining was so beautiful that it’s now in another room where it’s been used for curtains. Two large fireplaces draw your attention and Sir Robert gives a big smile before revealing that he’s taken a photograph of Keira Knightley posing as a witch in this very room.
The castle is often used for film and photo shoots, as well as being a wedding venue. One of Sir Robert’s favourite memories is of when the Horrible Histories film crew came to visit and Margaret’s grand-daughter, Georgina, was here when they were filming and were so nice to her.
Above all, however, the castle is a family home and Sir Robert smiles as he asks me: “Can you imagine Christmas with a 20ft tree in here? When our grandchildren were small we had a train set in one corner and a trike in the other.”
The Great Hall has witnessed many great feasts and spectacles and Sir Robert says he’s constantly aware of the castle’s history.
One of its most turbulent times was during the Tudor period when it was owned by Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder. Under the orders of King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas was either spending time imprisoned in the Tower of London accused of being Anne Boleyn’s lover or hosting the king at his table with figures such as Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr and Thomas Cromwell.
King Henry VIII’s many visits are recorded in the castle’s archives and another historical moment happened recently when the castle co-hosted 108 judges and lawyers as part of the Magna Carta Commemorations in the presence of Faversham town’s copy of the Magna Carta.
It seems entirely fitting that the charter should find its way to the castle, however briefly, as Sir Robert has spent the past six years planning, arranging and promoting the 800th commemoration of the sealing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede.
During that time he’s gathered a unique and intriguing collection of Magna Carta-related artefacts and his aim is to display them all within a new Magna Carta interpretation and education centre. Fundraising is going well and Sir Robert says the charter has “seemed to follow me through my life.” He adds: “Seeing the Faversham Charter at the castle gave me the same feeling as when I was a seven-year-old boy at the New York World Fair seeing the 1215 Lincoln Magna Carta.”
He was a pivotal figure in organising the 800th anniversary commemoration programme, which is vastly bigger than Sir Robert ever thought it would be, with more than 1,000 activities in more than 50 countries this year. He has already given 37 speeches worldwide and at the time of writing, still had another 19 to go.
“I hope that the legacy will be an increased awareness, a depth of knowledge that brings the kids along, the provision of more than a dozen PhD scholarships in medieval history and the yet-to-be-completed aspiration of an education and interpretation centre in the Runnymede vicinity.”
Now there are plans for some rare time off. “Starting on the first of the new year, I’m going on a sabbatical for three months. I’ve never stopped, so I’m going to stop. I am very, very lucky, I’ve been at the right place at the right time and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
He’s planning to read something besides the 13th century – and simply enjoy being at home. w