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Rediscovering Walmer Castle and Gardens

PUBLISHED: 09:45 30 July 2019

Walmer Castle has been the official residence of the of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports since 1709 (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Walmer Castle has been the official residence of the of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports since 1709 (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

A £2.3m project at Walmer Castle has resulted in the restoration of a lost glen, created by William Pitt the Younger and his niece Lady Hester Stanhope

When Henry VIII ordered the building of a series of coastal artillery forts to protect the southern English coastline from potential invasion in the 1530s and 1540s, landscaped gardens, flowery meadows, woods and spectacular vistas were far from his mind.

But, for more than three centuries now, Walmer Castle has come to mean rather more to people than your average gun fort.

The office of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was created in the 11th century. While their original residence was always Dover Castle, its clifftop location made for a cold and draughty home.

So, since 1709, the more sheltered Walmer has been their official residence, with a succession of wardens taking steps to make the castle something resembling a family home.

The lost glen that had become a wildernss and is now restored (photo: Manu Palomeque)The lost glen that had become a wildernss and is now restored (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Among the most famous Lord Wardens is the Duke of Wellington, who became a familiar face to locals as he strolled along the beach beyond the walls. When Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother took on the role, she would descend upon the castle with her beloved corgis every July. A special walled garden was created to celebrate her 95th birthday in 1997.

However, for the development of the 11 acres of grounds which have made the castle such a favoured place to come to for both locals and visitors, thanks is due to other, less often recalled figures.

English Heritage's Rediscovering Walmer's Pleasure Grounds is an ongoing £2.3m project, underpinned by a £1.5m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. One of the most eye-catching elements has been the restoration and reopening of a lost glen, created by William Pitt the Younger (Lord Warden from 1792-1806) and his niece Lady Hester Stanhope from 1803.

This dramatic chasm, fully 60ft deep at its lowest point, lies to the north of the ground's woodland area beyond the areas known as the Terraces, and the Paddock.

The restored glasshouses date back to the 19th century (photo: Manu Palomeque)The restored glasshouses date back to the 19th century (photo: Manu Palomeque)

"It was a disused chalk pit at the time they decided to develop into a landscape feature," explains Brian Addison, Project Garden Supervisor. He agrees it is likely the pit contributed to the construction of the castle, pointing out: "The walls are built of Kent ragstone, but if you look closely you can see flints in the mortar."

When William Pitt the Younger, the serving Prime Minister at the time, was appointed Lord Warden in 1792, he immediately set his heart on 'beautifying' the castle interiors. By 1802 it had become his main country residence.

His family had long shown an interest in landscape gardening and Pitt turned his attention to improving the grounds as well.

Much of Walmer Castle's parkland was originally farmland, leased by Pitt to expand the boundary, and the tradition of that original land use is maintained by the sheep who graze the meadow at the front of the castle today.

Portrait of William Pitt By Gainsborough (1754-97) (photo: Jonathan Bailey/English Heritage)Portrait of William Pitt By Gainsborough (1754-97) (photo: Jonathan Bailey/English Heritage)

Pitt found an enthusiastic partner in his plans for garden improvements in his niece Lady Hester Stanhope, who came to live at Walmer in 1803.

Her rooms above the bridge over the moat gave her a birds-eye view of the gardens, and she wrote about her idea of "filling the chalk pit with creepers, furze ([gorse] and broom and anything that will grow to make it less barren."

Spectacular as it must have looked, it's possible the Glen did not enjoy a long period as a maintained feature. "It was very much Pitt and Lady Hester's creation, and we believe from the 1860s and 1870s it had become a wilderness," says Brian, taking me for a look. Until the Gardens teams and volunteers edged their way down the steep and slippery chalk slope to set to work on the site last year, it resembled a thicket.

"Standing on the edge of the wood you could see there was a drop there, but the view was nothing but trees draped in ivy, and overgrown bramble. There was no sense of a pathway at all."

Lady Hester Stanhope (photo: Mark Bennett/English Heritage)Lady Hester Stanhope (photo: Mark Bennett/English Heritage)

Yet once vegetation clearance got underway it soon became clear the ground surface was unchanged from when the glen was laid out. "We carried out an archaeological survey and the paths that were found conformed to the original plan," says Brian.

He thinks one of the paths was an old cart track that wound its way down into the depths to collect extractions during its previous existence as a quarry. A tall, aged yew stands in the exact place it occupied on the plan, meaning it was most likely planted at the time the glen was laid out.

"The glen was created at a time when there was this interest in creating natural looking, though still quite managed, landscapes rather than more formal gardens, and we are trying to regain a sense of that," adds Brian.

Lady's Hester's planting scheme included light-loving species such as broom, gorse and mulleins, as well as evergreen ferns from the polypodium and blechnum families; they have been replanted.

The lower part of the trunk of a massive beech, which came down in high winds last summer, now lies with its roots exposed, like a piece of natural sculpture. Studio Hardy will set to work on the chopped up other parts of the trunk to create some crafted woodland sculptings for the Glen.

This is not the only part of Walmer's pleasure grounds to have received attention. "We have been working on making the woodland area more inviting. Some of the paths were in poor condition, and a lot of the trees smothered in ivy, and it was discouraging a lot of people from exploring it," explains Brian.

In some parts, children's play areas have been created as well as more seating under the trees. A more sympathetic management system has encouraged the return of more wildflowers to the grass meadow known as The Paddock.

Along with, at various times of the year, orchids and fritillaries and cyclamen, these even include the lovely but elusive oxlip.

Some of the most striking trees in the Paddock are copper beeches, which seem to have been planted to form a ring around the garden. Brian is now trying to return the shape of the Paddock to a semblance of Pitt's original design, with large, broad canopied trees in areas of grassland in between.

For some people it is the more formal areas closest to the castle that will be the biggest draw. The kitchen garden now has a new tea room, supplied with fruit and vegetables from the restored glasshouses which date back to the 19th century.

And a new education centre has been built to host school groups and other special interest meeting groups.

More details on visiting Walmer Castle and Garden at: www.english-heritage.org.uk

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