As I walked across the drawbridge to enter Hever Castle, the ancestral home of the Boleyn family, a tall, bearded, red-haired man wearing a fur-trimmed doublet and Tudor cap came striding toward me.
"Welcome to Hever," he said. "I'm King Henry."
I was frozen in a scene I had read about many times. Should I curtsy? What do I say? Finally, I snapped out of it and found my voice.
"Your majesty," I said. "I have long dreamed of this day. It's an honor to meet you."
Maybe my many years of reading Tudor historical fiction had been good for something — preparing me for meeting Henry VIII, sovereign monarch of all England.
My long-held dream of visiting Hever Castle was off to a great start.
In every book I've read about Henry VIII and his six wives, Hever Castle is central to the action. In 1532, when Anne Boleyn was trying to hold off his advances and not let him bed her until they were married, she would often retreat to Hever. Later, when she was queen – she was the second of his wives and mother of Queen Elizabeth I — she would go to her family's castle to escape the intrigues of court and the wrath of the king.
Unlike many other British royal castles, Hever is not well-known among tourists. There is no town with it; it's in the countryside of Kent, 30 miles southeast of central London (an hour by train). The day my daughter and I visited, we seemed to be the only Americans there. But if you have any interest in Tudor England, it's well-worth a visit for a beautiful, authentic glimpse back in time.
Hever is relatively modest in size compared to other such British palaces and castles – hundreds of visitors an hour are herded through Buckingham Palace; Windsor Castle has a dining room that can seat 300 guests – but has stone towers, a moat, and an iron portcullis to keep out intruders. But as I walked through the wood-paneled rooms at Hever, furnished simply with high-backed chairs, small tables, and carved beds, I could easily imagine living there. As we wandered through, I could envision a maid entering the room to say that his majesty was riding toward Hever and would arrive by nightfall.
The oldest parts of the castle date to 1270. It was enlarged and converted into a home in 1462, by Geoffrey Boleyn. His grandson, Thomas Boleyn, inherited the castle in 1505. He lived there with his wife Lady Elizabeth Howard and their children George, Mary (a mistress of Henry VIII), and Anne, (future queen and wife of Henry VIII). The third period of renovation was in the 20th century, when Hever was bought, restored, and lived in by American millionaire John Jacob Astor.
Astor did a wonderful job reviving the castle, planting orchards and restoring the grounds and facilities. The drawing room is still furnished with upholstered Edwardian sofas, desks, artworks, and a grand piano from Astor's time. But that period, when a piece of important British history was owned by an American, seems to be a sore spot for the staff. Hever has changed hands several times since, and today is quietly owned by a (very wealthy) British family.
Anne's bedroom has a large bed, with "Boleyn's Bed 1520" carved into the wooden footboard. Another room has an elaborate canopy bed where the king is thought to have slept when he visited. The "Queen's Chamber" contains portraits of all six of Henry's wives and a rare 16th-century replica of a portrait of the king by Joos Van Cleeve. In a glass case in another room, lies Anne's prayer book that she carried with her to the scaffold and her execution. It still has her signature and hand-written notes inside.
Hever Castle sits alongside the Eden River, surrounded by 125 acres of gardens, orchards, and hundreds of years of royal history. The gardens, fountains, and walkways are a popular destination for local British families and grandparents with children needing amusement. The grounds offer plenty of room to run and explore. Swans and ducks roam the property, hopping in and out of the waterways, begging for cracker crumbs.
In summer months, a spray fountain is filled with kids cooling off. There's also a playground, a yew maze, Rose Garden, and topiary chess set. There's a restaurant on-site offering outdoor dining where my daughter enjoyed a typical British lunch of fish and chips with mushy peas. There's also a terrific gift shop packed with souvenirs — mugs, postcards, magnets, dish towels, umbrellas, and more — featuring the Hans Holbein portrait of Anne Boleyn. I treated myself to a small tin with portraits of all six royal wives on the front. I keep my knitting needles and scissors in it, and every time I reach for the tin, I'm reminded of my day with Henry VIII at Hever Castle.
Hever is 30 miles southeast of London, in the countryside, not particularly near any town, so most visitors arrive by car or chartered bus, but it is easy to get there by train (about an hour from London). From London Victoria/London Bridge station, you can go to either of two stations: Edenbridge Town is three miles from the castle and you can call for a taxi; Hever Station has no taxi service and is a mile walk to the castle grounds.
We took the train to Hever Station, and the rural walk – through unmarked sheep pastures, climbing over fences, and up deserted country roads – turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. I clutched the map I had printed out from the website as my daughter searched for landmarks like "end of the crooked fence."
When we made it to the castle grounds, my daughter told the young woman working at the entrance that that we had cut through a herd of sheep and crossed an unmarked pasture to get there.
"Was that the correct way to walk?," my daughter asked.
"Why yes, you're in the countryside you know," was the reply.
The day we visited, an elementary school class trip of 10-year-olds took the train with us and conquered the walk from the station.
Hever is 30 miles southeast of London, near Edenbridge, in Kent. Most visitors arrive by car or chartered bus, but taking the train (about an hour) is a viable option.
Hours: Daily (except Christmas), 10:30 a.m. (grounds) or noon (castle) to 4:30 p.m. or 6, depending on the season.
Admission (converted from British pounds): Adults, $24.50; seniors (60), $21; students, $20; youths (5-15), $13.50; children, free. Discounts are available for families and advance online purchases.
Other activities: The castle also hosts special events like jousting tournaments, holiday celebrations, pet days, and more. There are adjacent small cottages where you can stay overnight.