16th Century Fort Gone Through “Grand Design”

Since we started to “chase” castles, we have visited many different types of places, ranging from ruined forts to modern palaces. After exploring more than a hundred sites, it is always a pleasure to discover a new kind of “castle”, a hybrid between an artillery fort and a stately home.

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To understand the evolution of Walmer Castle, you do not have to use your imagination. All you need to do is walk about 30 minutes to the nearby Deal Castle which looks today more or less like Walmer used to look in the 16th century. The difference is huge. 

Walmer Castle was built in Kent between 1539-1540 by Henry VIII as part of what was known as Henry’s device: a series of fortifications intended to defend the shores of England from a potential invasion. The area of the Downs north of Dover was one of the most vulnerable regions for such an attack so three artillery forts were built close to each other: Deal Castle, Walmer Castle and Sandown Castle (which is now ruined). If you are familiar with English history you know that no such invasion took place, but Henry’s forts continued to be garrisoned and modernised every time the threat of invasion rose again, like in 1588 when the famous Spanish Armada sailed towards the shores of England.

During the days of the first English civil war in the middle of the 17th-century, the three castles supported parliament, but switched to support the king in the second civil war in 1648. The parliament army sieged Walmer Castle on the 15th June of that year and the garrison surrendered within a month with Deal and Sandown Castles surrendering a month later.

The significant change in Walmer Castle began when it was designated to become the home of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. This role was created in the 12th century and the person who held it was in charge of the protection of the Kent shores and five port towns. In time, the role became ceremonial, but it still included a personal residence and salary (since 1828 the position was no longer carrying a salary). 

The official residence of the Lord Wardens was in Dover Castle, but when the Duke of Dorset was appointed to the role in 1708, he felt that the accommodation in the medieval castle was not suitable and he decided to move to Walmer Castle. So from a humble Tudor artillery fort, Walmer turned into a lavish, coastal stately home that was home to a gallery of fascinating figures. Amongst the people who held it was the Prime Minister William Pitt the younger (1792-1806), the 1st Duke of Wellington who died in Walmer (1829-1852), King George V (1905-1907 whilst he was still the Prince of Wales), Winston Churchill (1941-1965) and the Queen Mother who held the role from 1978 until her death in 2002. While most Lord Wardens treated the castle as a weekend retreat, in 1865 when the role was held by the 2nd Earl of Granville, Walmer became his primary residence where he chose to raise his family. 

In 1913, Henry Lygon, the 7th Earl Beauchamp was appointed to the role of Lord Warden. The earl and his family were probably the real inspiration for the famous novel by Evelyn Waugh (and later a TV series and a film), ‘Brideshead Revisited’. The earl was married to the sister of one of the richest and most powerful men in England, the Duke of Westminister, but it was an open secret that he was actually homosexual. He used Walmer Castle to maintain several relationships with local men before his brother in law decided to out him and force him to flee into exile and you can read more about it here. Today, Walmer Castle and its gardens are open to the public and managed by the English Heritage.  For more information please visit Walmer Castle official website


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Two Castles in One Perfect Day

Chasing Castles review

We visited Walmer Castle during the last half-term break of the school year in May. It was the second castle we visited on the same day as we combined the visit to Walmer with the nearby Deal Castle. You can actually walk between the forts in under half an hour (if you visit without your young children, obviously). 

Walmer and Deal were both built by Henry VIII. It was an ambitious project to prepare England for an invasion following his break up with the Pope and Rome. Today, 480 years later, the two castles tell a completely different story, and while Walmer is presented as a stately coastal home with lavish gardens, Deal tells the story of a 16th-century artillery fortress. 

The English Heritage manages both castles (as well as the nearby Dover Castle). The yearly membership is cheaper than paying entrance to all three so it makes sense to join this organisation if you wish to explore them. 

Visiting Walmer after Deal (and probably not the other way around) creates a great synergy on one day out. At Deal, you can learn about the original function of Henry’s artillery fortresses.  The experience at Walmer is different and it is focused on its later history as a home to some very famous figures like Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, William Pitt, the youngest prime minister Britain ever had (he first became prime minister at the age of 24), and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother .

The castle itself is not a large building (somehow Deal felt bigger) and it is packed with artefacts from its previous famous owners. English Heritage offers visitors the most modern audio-video guide and it is full of stories and information about the rooms and the tales that took place in the castle. Thanks to the guide, it took me a whole hour to visit the various rooms and I managed to learn many interesting details about the house and the captains who lived in it, including the 7th Earl Beauchamp who threw notorious parties here and had numerous love affairs with his servants and men from the local area. 

Next, it was time to explore the pleasure gardens. The gardens evolved as soon as the castle became a stately-home and they were developed by its captains. Although the gardens are not massive (which is not necessarily a bad thing, as you can see them all in one visit), they are still full of surprises and variety. We visited during springtime which also contributed to the experience as many flowers were in bloom. There are several different areas to explore in the gardens, including the Queen Mother formal gardens, the kitchen gardens and even an old quarry turned into a garden. My children were happy to discover an adventure trail which was full of fun places for them to play and be active.

Finally, there is a coffee shop. Here is a tip, there are several places where you can enjoy your coffee and cake, but the best one has to be the artillery ramp that is overlooking the beach. There is a 19th-century picture showing the ladies of the house posing in the same location and now you too can experience how it feels to have your afternoon tea like a true aristocrat.

To sum things up, Walmer Castle is definitely a place you should visit for its excellent combination of the old artillery fort, the stately home and the gardens. If you are comparing castles to restaurants, Walmer would have a place in the Michelin Guide earning a star on its own, but together with the nearby Deal castle, a day-out that combines the two will easily be awarded two stars. 

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