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King of the castles

PUBLISHED: 12:11 14 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013



Kent's castles cover the full range, from defensive strongholds to family homes and romantic ruins - and there's one near you

Type Defensive
Don't miss Labyrinth of cliff tunnels

With views stretching over the White Cliffs to France, Dover Castle hides centuries of conflict history.

From its Norman destruction by fire to the Napoleonic wars, the castle has been referred to as the Key to England and was even called into use during the Second World War. The miles of underground tunnels were converted into a military command centre and underground hospital, and it was in these that Admiral Ramsey planned the infamous Operation Dynamo.

So walk the battlements, explore the tunnels, check out one of Europe's best-preserved Roman lighthouses and be thankful it was ever built - it's been protecting England for hundreds of years.

English Heritage
Tel: 01304 211067

Type Artillery
Don't miss The first-floor captain's residence

One of the best-preserved artillery castles in England, Deal's Tudor construction
is one of the most elaborate of a chain of coastal forts. Built with no expense spared by Henry VIII, who was understandably mildly concerned about an invasion of Catholic Europeans, its rounded bastions were designed specifically to deflect incoming cannon balls, and created excellent platforms from which to fire the rapidly improving artillery items of the day.

The King's feared invasion never happened, but the castle was put to good use during the second Civil War, when it was besieged twice by Parliamentarians.

English Heritage
Tel: 01304 372762

Type Defensive
Don't miss Audio-visual interpretation of the 1667 Dutch raid

This stone artillery fortress set in tranquil grounds on the north-west bank of the River Medway was built in the 16th century to protect our warships moored at Chatham dockyards. The frontage was later remodelled to create a bastion and improve landward defences, but sadly, despite a brave attempt, in 1667 the castle entirely failed to protect the dockyards when the Dutch navy under Admiral de Ruyter sailed past it to burn or capture the English fleet at anchor.

English Heritage
Tel: 01634 718742

Type A large manor house
Don't miss The new vegetable garden

Admired worldwide for its fantastic gardens, created in the 1930s by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson, there has been a settlement at Sissinghurst since the 12th century. During the early Middle Ages, a stone manor house surrounded by a moat was built and in 1480, the property was bought by the Baker family (who were related by marriage to the Sackvilles of Knole). The old manor house was allowed to fall into ruin and an impressive brick mansion was built to replace it, of which only the long front range survives today.

An Elizabethan house, based on a double courtyard, was built by Sir Richard Baker during 1560-70 and became regarded as one of the most magnificent houses in the Weald.

In 1756, the house was let to the government and used as a prison camp for French prisoners of war and it was from these inmates that the title of 'castle' was given to the site. The house was very similar to a French château, and the name stuck.

The National Trust
Tel: 01580 710701

My Sissinghurst
Alexis Datta, head gardener

I make sure the garden is looking good all the time we are open. I manage a team of nine gardeners, as well as planning the garden and actually working in it myself. We grow all the plants here ourselves, which is very satisfying.

I love the garden best of all! It's a truly beautiful place and great to enjoy from March to October. I think my favourite part is the nuttery, with its fantastic plantings of ferns and woodland flowers under hazel trees.

I love to walk around the garden as well as work in it - even after working here 18 years, it still sometimes takes my breath away.

Don't miss going up the Elizabethan tower and see the whole garden and a lot of the Weald right to the North Downs from up there. Whenever you visit there are plenty of flowers to see and there are a lot of birds in the garden, too.

Type Fortress
Don't miss The rebuilt round tower

Standing guard over the River Medway is the imposing fortress of Rochester Castle, and its plain walls conceal quite a history. Built in 1127 by William of Corbell (Archbishop of Canterbury), the Norman tower was created from Kentish ragstone and stands a magnificent 113ft off the ground.

In 1215, while garrisoned by rebel barons, King John launched an epic and wildly inventive siege against the castle. After undermining the outer wall, he used the fat from 40 pigs to light a fire under it, bringing the southern corner crashing down.

The remaining (presumably highly committed) defenders were starved out after a two-month resistance.

Medway Council
Tel: 01634 335882

Type Family home
Don't miss The moat

Once overlooking the tidal waters that covered Romney Marsh, Saltwood appears first on an 833 charter of King Egbert, and for many years was occupied by both priests and noblemen. In troubled times, locals would take refuge inside the castle walls, sleeping in animal skins and tethering their animals in stalls along the north wall while they waited for peace to return.

Thought to date from 488, the castle was replaced in the 12th century by a Norman structure, and later rebuilt in the 18th century after an earthquake rendered it uninhabitable in 1580. It was subsequently home to the late Alan Clark, maverick Conservative MP, and sadly you will just have to admire it from outside - it's a private residence.

Type Family home
Don't miss The Hot & Spiky Cactus House

Lullingstone Castle, scene of BBC 2's Save Lullingstone Castle and Return
to Lullingstone Castle, is one of England's oldest family estates. The present manor house and gate house were built in 1497 and have been home to the same family ever since, numbering both Henry VIII and Queen Anne as regular visitors. Hidden in the grounds, alongside the River Darent, you'll find Queen Anne's Bathhouse and an 18th-century Ice House.

Tom Hart Dyke's innovative World Garden, laid out in the shape of a map of the world, pays tribute to the plant hunters of old and brings horticulture bang up to date with its crazy sounding plan to grow exotic blooms, outside, in the Garden of England. His Hot & Spiky Cactus House, which opened last Easter, is already a firm favourite. The new temperate house, Cloud Garden, with its jungle planting and swamp areas, joined the attractions this April and looks set to be just as popular.

Tel: 01322 862114

My Lullingstone
Tom Hart Dyke, owner and head gardener

I'm in charge of the garden department - head gardener of the World Garden! It's full on, what with running the one-acre World Garden that contains thousands of different species of plants, and also in the other acre of the walled garden maintaining the Hot and Spiky cactus house, the new cloud garden (our temperate house), the propagating area and the small nursery.

I also give talks all over the country and beyond about my experiences in captivity in Colombia, and about the developing World Garden, which in turn attracts visitors. I also do my best with the PR - it's 24/7, all year round, but I love it!

I especially love the tranquillity of this special place I'm fortunate enough to call home. I'm the 20th generation of the same family to have lived here, so my tap root is firmly in this part of north-west Kent.

Visitors to the World Garden shouldn't under any circumstances miss the Hot and Spiky cactus house, which contains some 1,000 different types of cacti, succulents and bromeliads. It knocks my horticultural socks off every time I walk inside, the structural qualities of these plants all year round is retina blasting but right now when they are flowering, grab those sunglasses because the gaudy, fiery colours will blow you away!

Type Defensive/residential
Don't miss The gatehouse

Constructed between 1381 and 1385 to help protect the River Thames, Cooling Castle was originally on the edge of marshland but is now at least two miles inland.
Besieged by Thomas Wyatt the younger in 1554, owner Lord Cobham surrendered after a brief resistance, although he was later imprisoned for sympathising with Wyatt.

Parts of the castle are still in residential use, although the main part is in ruins. The gatehouse is in good condition and the castle's current resident is musician Jools Holland.

Cooling Castle
Tel: 01634 222244

Type Defensive
Don't miss Your chance - it's only open on Tuesdays (until 8 Sep)

Westenhanger Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument with a Grade 1 listed house, reflecting both its national and historic importance.

It belongs to a group of early quadrangular castles and manor houses that were strengthened in response to threats of attack from France during the 14th century.
It's possible that Saxon kings once inhabited the area and evidence of Roman occupation has been discovered on site.

In 1509, the two manors of Ostenhanger and Westenhanger which stood here were merged into one ownership by Sir Edward Poynings, who began to build magnificently. He died with the work incomplete in 1522, but his son continued building, later exchanging Westenhanger with King Henry VIII for other lands. By 1544 the house was grand enough to have separate suites of rooms for use by royalty. Westenhanger then became home to Thomas Smythe and his descendants, the Lords Strangford, who further enlarged it and by the mid 17th century, it was one of the largest houses in Kent. However, in 1701 much of it was taken down and it fell into neglect.

For the past 12 years, English Heritage has been heavily involved in its conservation and restoration over eight phased stages of work.

Graham Forge
Tel: 01227 738 451 (tours)

Type Defensive
Don't miss Wellington's bedroom, and the armchair in which he died

Built during Henry VIII's reign as part of a chain of coastal artillery defences, Walmer castle became the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1708.

Over time, the castle has evolved from its origins as a coastal defence into a an elegant residence, with extensive landscaping and furnishing being undertaken by various Lord Wardens.

The most famous Lord Warden, the Duke of Wellington, died at Walmer castle in September 1852 and his bedroom, complete with the armchair in which he died, his campaign bed and a pair of original Wellington boots, are still on display.
Walmer's extensive grounds and gardens also make it a great place for wildlife watchers, so take binoculars!

Walmer Castle
Tel: 01304 364288

My Walmer
Denise Garrett, visitor operations manager

My job involves overseeing the day-to-day running of the site, which ensures the castle is presented in accordance with English Heritage's high standards and maximising the visitor experience.

The site is absolutely wonderful - it has a vast history and over the years, the Lords Warden have altered and converted the castle into a wonderful country house with beautiful gardens.

I feel honoured to walk among walls that have housed such famous people as Queen Victoria, The Duke of Wellington, and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The sense of history is incredible.

Visitors must see The Duke of Wellington's bedroom in which he died and is still as it was then.

Queen Victoria's bedroom is also one of my favourites too, as well as the Pitt museum.

Type Defensive
Don't miss Taking an audio tour - vividly recreates 13th-century castle life

Built in the 11th century by Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, a cousin of William the Conqueror's invading Norman army, only fragments of Tonbridge Castle's shell keep and curtain walls survive - but the 13th-century gatehouse is remarkably complete and widely regarded as Kent's finest motte and bailey. Extensive improvements have been made recently, including a new roof.

Rising majestically above the High Street and the River Medway, it boasts pretty lawns to the front, much used for community events such as music concerts and fêtes (don't miss the Festival of Music & Fireworks, 10, 11, 12 July). The Castle is owned and operated by Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council.

Tourist information centre
Tel: 01732 770929

Type Family home
Don't miss Japanese and Egyptian collections

Re-opened last Easter after an extended period of restoration, Chiddingstone Castle is a picturesque Gothik revival set in 35 acres of Grade II listed gardens, including an award-winning Orangery. Its history dates back to the early 1500s and during its life, the castle has undergone many architectural changes and has been owned and lived in by an eclectic mix of people and families.

Sold to Lord Astor in 1938, it served as a base for military forces during the Second World War, and then as a home for the Long Dene school until 1954 when the school was closed. Banker and antiques enthusiast, Denys Eyre Bower, bought the castle in 1955 to display his wonderfully eclectic art collection.

When Denys died in 1977, he left both the castle and his collections to the nation. It is a member of the Historic Houses Association.

Chiddingstone Castle
Tel: 01892 870347

Type Picturesque ruin
Don't miss Spectacular displays of rhododendrons, azaleas and kalmia

Scotney Castle was home to the Hussey family from the late 18th century and in 1835 Edward Hussey III, who took the 'Picturesque' style as his inspiration, commissioned eminent architect Anthony Salvin to design a new country house in an Elizabethan style. The celebrated gardens, designed around the ruins of a moated 14th-century castle, are beautiful (and photogenic) all year and there are fine walks through the estate, with its parkland, woodland, hop farm, wonderful vistas and views.

The country house is opening in stages over the next few years, and the different styles of each room show visitors how a house can be changed to accommodate three generations of a family alongside modern living.

The National Trust
Tel: 01892 893820

My Scotney
Chloe Tapping, house manager

I am responsible for the care and conservation of the house and the Old Castle and their collections. My role also involves helping to interpret the history of the house and the wider garden and estate to our visitors. I am supported by a fantastic team of two trained conservation staff and about 150 volunteers.

Although I love many things about Scotney, the main one is how the house, garden and estate all fit together and complement each other, just as Edward Hussey III hoped for when he designed the house and wider landscape in the picturesque style back in the mid-1800s.

This summer, we are opening more rooms in the house. Visitors will be able to see the kitchen, which I am really excited about, as it is not what a lot of people are expecting to see.

The original study was converted into the kitchen in the 1950s and was redecorated in the 1980s. It's a really interesting room to interpret. We are hoping that the opening of the kitchen and Butler's Pantry will complement the new tearoom and shop.

Type Manor house
Don't miss A new exhibition, The Pampered Prince, on display in the Long Gallery to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession to the throne

Romantic and double-moated, Hever Castle is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, its most famous inhabitant, and much of Henry VIII's wooing of his future second wife took place here. The oldest part dates to 1270 and consisted of the gatehouse and a walled bailey. In the early 1500s, the Bullen family bought Hever and added a Tudor dwelling within the walls. It later passed into the ownership of Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves and from 1557, the castle was owned by a number of families including the Waldegraves, Humfreys and the Meade Waldos.

In 1903, William Waldorf Astor invested time, money and imagination in restoring Hever, building the 'Tudor Village' and creating the lake and spectacular gardens, which include Italian, Rose and Tudor gardens, topiary, a yew maze and splashing water maze.

Estate office
Tel: 01732 865224

Type Defensive
Don't miss The Great Hall

Strategically important since Roman times, commanding views over the surrounding area made Lympne attractive as a coastal defense against the Danes and Normans.

On a clear day, it's possible to see France from here, and the building has been home to the Archdeacon of Canterbury and Thomas a Becket.

Lympne was used as a crucial observation post in the Second World War, and the castle's provenance has seen it granted Grade 1 listed status.

If you're making a day of it, the nearby Port Lympne Wild Animal Park will give the kids a welcome break from history, and for the train enthusiast, the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch railway is a must-see.

Lympne Castle
Tel: 01303 261666

With thanks to Castles from the Air by Paul Johnson (Bloomsbury, £35), and also Alan Duncan, for our superb aerial photographs

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