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How to stay at a British castle

Castles and historic houses share an undeniable affinity with the past and, providing they have survived to the present day, represent a sense of permanency – with us, as visitors, passing through. They have come to embody history. There are, however, opportunities by which today – with many open as heritage attractions – one can manage to experience them in a way which hints to how they were experienced in previous centuries, by literally crossing behind the ropes and becoming a guest instead.

Although this has a modern luxury in standard as we would understand it, this nevertheless reflects the sense of privilege of how you would have been received by private invitation. Accommodation, in this case, is usually carefully furnished with a particular sensitivity to the building’s history, giving the setting its authentic patina. This opens the door to the past of a building, where the great house – once a seat of power – can be seen with the eye of an insider – so that the glimpses which may be gained are privileged and intimate. This is, perhaps, what makes staying at a historic house so fascinating; it is the blending of multiple worlds when the houses had their on-site communities and units, you can experience the great house in a domestic form, aware of its own daily life behind the scenes. You can become, a guest of the past.

Hever Castle and its near-lying ‘Tudor Village’, Kent (Peter Trimming [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Grace and Favour Apartments at Hampton Court Palace are a remarkable example of this. They combine a shared sense of community juxtaposed with the modern challenges of living in a historic residence, with such symbols – so evocative of daily life but rendered unusual by their setting – a set of bells in the household wing leading to specific rooms, or a grocery basket dangling down from the top floor to the bottom, to enable the ageing residents living at the upper part to wheel up their shopping by a pulley. In this way, even the mundane can acquire a certain novelty.

The many thousands of rooms which were left empty when George III decided not to occupy the Palace, were given over to those individuals who had rendered a particular service to the Crown. There have been no new warrants for Grace and Favour Apartments at Hampton Court Palace since 1977, and now, few people officially live there. The apartments now left empty today pose a curious question as to what to do with them. One such charity which has the experience of transforming priceless historic buildings in a way that both rescues and maintains them as furnished holiday spaces for letting, is the Landmark Trust, which acted as an agent for Historic Royal Palaces when Hampton Court Palace’s Georgian House was restored. In this way, the upper floor of the Tudor Pastry House also became an apartment on Fish Court for a time.

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Brian Gillman [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

As someone who had the privilege, for a brief time, to live in a historic house, I can testify to the unique perspective that this experience can shed on the residence itself and its past. There is a strange sense that the house itself is all-knowing and ever-present and that you are but one character in the book – there is the sense of the house’s ‘other life,’ which you are observing but also, curiously also a part of – all the more so, when the estate is closed to the day’s visitors, and it is divided instead into the home that it represents to its inhabitants. There is something strange about having your own modern set of keys, even as a paying guest – a fob that allows you to exit and then re-enter that world.

Sometimes, this is all the more striking when it is paralleled with the historic house’s calendar events, such as the 1930s style Country House parties held at Leeds Castle – or The Royal Weekend Party installation at Warwick Castle, with waxwork figures of servants laying out clothes and preparing baths for guests – particularly if you know that there is your own accommodation whereby you can go and run the hot water yourself. The historic residence was a living, functioning organism. It was also a miniature for life at the time.

‘The Bathroom’ at Warwick Castle – installation for ‘The Royal Weekend Party (By Spiderone [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The accommodation in these historic houses, of course, may not have been for domestic use originally but could have been an entirely different affair, as with Hampton Court Palace’s Georgian House, which was first designed as a Georgian kitchen for George I and his son, George Augustus, Prince of Wales. Fittingly, perhaps, the modern holiday kitchen at the Georgian House is placed within the space which accommodated the royal kitchen of previous centuries, so that the traces of the room’s ancestral use is not ignored but underlined.

Such historical holiday accommodation is – as you would expect – more often than not, furnished to compliment the building’s past tastes, juggling modern standards with the previous ambience and so, offers an experience which never fails to fascinate. Like the great hidden army of servants who provided the housekeeping services and performed domestic tasks, the modern room service is discreet and often unseen, so that again, the former way of life in the house is echoed. Ultimately, the way that the historic country house is providing accommodation for modern guests reflects what these houses were crucially also built for – to entertain, to make very definite public statements about the great ambitious families that owned them and to stand for the age in which they were built. They are literally, repositories for the past.

I have chosen to focus on three historic castles at which guest accommodation is available, to enable such an experience.

Hever Castle

Hever Castle, in Kent, was the childhood home of Henry VIII’s second queen, Anne Boleyn. Begun in 1270, the double-moated medieval defensive castle most famously became the seat of the Boleyn family in the 15th and 16th centuries but also was later owned by his fourth queen, Anne of Cleves.

It subsequently passed into the ownership of the Waldegrave family – after whom a historic room is named in the castle today – and then the Humphreys and the Meade Waldos. It was then acquired by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who restored the castle and built the so-called ‘Tudor Village’ Edwardian extension to the castle – which is now appropriately known as the ‘Astor Wing,’ where today guest accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis is located. As a nod to the castle’s most famous occupant, the other wing is known as the ‘Anne Boleyn.’ A self-catering option is also available on the 1903 property, Medley Court. All 28 luxury bed and breakfast rooms are beautifully decorated, marrying modern tastes with Tudor flavour and a feel for the past.

Because the ‘Astor Wing’ itself is Edwardian, many original features remain – which, when paired with luxury features such as roll top baths and panelled walls, lends this experience a unique charm and beauty.

Hever Castle’s ‘Tudor Village’ (‘Astor Wing’) (By DeFacto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Warwick Castle

Originally built by William the Conqueror in the 11th-century, Warwick Castle would develop into a great 14th-century military stronghold. As the seat of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick, it became the home of the Greville family, who themselves became the Greville Earls of Warwick from 1759-1978, after which the castle was taken over by the Tussauds group, now merged under Merlin Entertainments.

Warwick Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Grade 1* listed building, being listed among the Top 10 of Britain’s historic houses and monuments in 2001 by the British Tourist Authority, alongside such iconic national sites as Stonehenge and the Tower of London. The castle allows guests to stay in its grounds in the ‘Knight’s Village’ lodges or as part of what has come to be known as ‘glamping’ – a somewhat glamorous interpretation of what it means to sleep in a medieval-themed tent.

In the 14th-century Caesar’s Tower, however, two Tower Suites have been adapted as guest accommodation, appropriately furnished in the style of a medieval chamber with tapestries, incorporating original vaulted ceilings and four-poster beds. The Peacock and Rose Suites have wet rooms and water closets and like most themed rooms in historic accommodation, are named after features in Warwick Castle itself – in this case, the Peacock Garden and of course, the Victorian Rose Garden, since re-opened in 1986. Packages are offered which include breakfast and a private tour of the castle with second-day tickets. The Royal Weekend Party waxwork installation is particularly apt because you can see how the castle appeared during a visit of the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – who in fact, visited the Earls and Countesses of Warwick so often, that he reputedly even had his own bedroom.

Caesar’s Tower, Warwick Castle, Warwickshire (By DeFacto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Leeds Castle

Through its association with six English queens, Leeds Castle came to be regarded as a dower residence for queens, being retained by them as personal property even in their widowhood, after the death of the King. Formerly a fortified Norman stronghold, it was a royal castle between the 13th-15th centuries, being in the direct ownership of Queen Eleanor of Castile, (queen consort of Edward I) Queen Margaret of France, (second queen consort of Edward I) Queen Isabella, (queen consort of Edward II) Queen Anne of Bohemia, (queen consort of Richard II) Queen Joan of Navarre, (queen consort of Henry IV) and Catherine of Valois (queen consort of Henry V).

Henry VIII transformed Leeds Castle in a Tudor royal palace, visiting Leeds Castle most memorably in 1520, where he stopped on the way to his state meeting with King Francis I of France at what became known as the now legendary ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold.’ In addition to the Stable’s Courtyard Bed & Breakfast en-suite bedrooms, the castle offers twelve battlement rooms – each christened after the castle household in the 1930s – eight luxurious period -furnished state bedrooms  on the first floor and five Maiden’s Tower bedrooms, which afford spectacular views of the castle’s floodlit moat, followed by breakfast in the beautiful 17th-century oak-beamed Fairfax Restaurant. Five historic properties on the estate are also available as an accommodation under the castle’s hospitality scheme and like at Warwick Castle, luxury glamping tents are also available, furnished with a modern flair while adhering to essential medieval designs.

Maiden’s Tower, Leeds Castle, Kent (Lynda Poulter [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Historic UK is, for example, a History and Heritage Accommodation guide, which can enable you to choose from a wide range of historic hotels and also allow you to search amongst UK castles at which some form of accommodation is possible, such as the 900-year-old Amberley Castle in West Sussex. Some of the possibilities, such as the 14th-century Lumley Castle or the 12th-century Walworth Castle in County Durham, actually identify themselves as castle hotels and if so, tend to have period features and modern luxuries such as spa bathrooms, blending the history of the building with the needs of the modern guest.

Royal links are not excluded either – the 13th-century Ruthin Castle in Denbighshire was originally built by Dafydd, brother of Prince Llewelyn ap Gruffydd for King Edward I. Even Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, well known for its strong associations with Henry VIII’s last queen, Catherine Parr and the later Queen Elizabeth I, has 13 Cotswold holiday cottages on the edge of its estate.

English Heritage also offers a scheme called, ‘Holidays with History’ – which enables you to stay at the heart of selected historical sites. Ones with definite royal links that allow you to do this include the renovated ‘Bowling Green Apartment’ in a former service block at Carisbrooke Castle, on the Isle of Wight – of which Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice was appointed as governor. It is also where King Charles I was imprisoned from 1647 until late 1648, after having escaped house arrest at Hampton Court.

English Heritage also includes other options for historical accommodation, including the Greenhouse Apartment and the Garden Cottage at Walmer Castle – the castle which was built by Henry VIII and has since enjoyed associations with many prominent figures such as Pitt the Younger, Winston Churchill and The Queen Mother. The Sergeant Major’s House and more romantically, Peverell’s Tower – added by Henry III – which are both at Dover Castle, may also be stayed in.

With the ever-growing popularity of historic houses as venues for private celebrations, conferences and banqueting, accommodation at the site itself represents a unique way in which the organisation and the guest can experience the house in a way that bears tribute to its history. It is – literally – an experience quite unlike any other.

  • May

    What a insightful article – didn’t realise that you could stay at so many famous castles. What a unique and immersive experience it would be. Will certainly be looking into the helpful suggestions! Thank you Elizabeth.

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