“ Address: The Bader International Study Centre / Queen's University (Canada) / Hailsham / East Sussex / England / BN27 1RN /Tel: +44 0 1323 834444 „
We recently spent a weekend on a church retreat at a lovely conference centre in East Sussex. The weather was absolutely magnificent, so at the end of our event, which wound up around Sunday lunchtime, we decided to explore the area a little before dashing back home. The obvious choices would have been either Battle or Bexhill on Sea, which were both in relatively close proximity to where were staying, but as a large number of our fellow attendees were planning assaults on both locations, we opted for somewhere quieter.
I am a big fan of castles, but my wife and mother-in-law are partial to gardens. My father-in-law, bless him, doesn't mind as long as there is tea and a bit of cake to be had. As such, armed with these three requirements - tea, gardens and castle - we found a venue that seemingly fit the criteria perfectly - Herstmonceaux Castle and Gardens.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The part of East Sussex we visited is known as "1066 Country" with many historic connections to the Norman invasion of the same date. There is a lot to see and do, especially around Battle (where the eponymous altercation took place between Saxon King Harold and William, Duke of Normandy), Pevensey, Rye and Hastings, with proper exploration justifying a full day or two out and about (for more details, see www.visit1066country.com).
Herstmonceaux is a relatively unremarkable village about five or six miles due West of Battle, situated in the vicinity of the castle and gardens from which it takes its name. The castle itself was built as a country home by Sir Roger Fiennes, Treasurer of the Household of Henry VI, who started building the castle in 1441. It gets its rather posh-sounding moniker from a local 12th century Saxon lady by the name of Idonea de Herst who married a Norman nobleman called Ingelram de Monceux.
By the early 20th century, the castle, which is mainly of red brick construction, had fallen into ruin, with much of it cannibalised for building materials for local projects. It was saved from complete destruction by a Lt. Colonel Claude Lowther, who used local Sussex craftsmen to restore the building to something of its former glory. The project was continued after his death by another benefactor, before the castle was sold to the Royal Greenwich Observatory shortly after the Second World War. It is now owned by Queens University of Canada, who have turned it into the Bader International Study Centre.
The castle is well signposted with brown heritage signs from both the A22 and A271. A short distance from the main entrance is a "toll-booth" style ticket office. The entrance fee is £6 per person (£3 for under 16's, and free for under 5's) for entry into the grounds, but this doesn't include a tour of the castle interior, which carries an additional charge of £2.50 (£1 for under 16's).
The castle is in active use as a working University, and also hosts receptions and other functions, so tours are not always available. If you have your heart set on visiting the interior, it is best to call ahead to find out whether (and when) tours are offered. We arrived too late for the last entry inside, but we'd come for the gardens and to enjoy the surroundings, so weren't that bothered. As a consequence, I can't comment on the tour.
You can also visit the Science Centre at the top of the hill - with its distinctive copper-domed observatories - and can buy a combined ticket for both the castle and the centre for £12.10 (£7.70 for under 16's). We were running short of time so concentrated on visiting the grounds and gardens instead. Once tickets are sorted (incidentally, they accept most major credit cards if you're short of cash) you continue down the sloping drive until the castle hoves into view on the right. Car parking is in the signposted grass visitor's lot on the left.
The castle is certainly impressive - in both in its imposing bulk and attractive red brick façade and architecture - slightly reminiscent of Hampton Court Palace. However, Hampton Court doesn't have a moat, a feature which gives Herstmonceux a slightly more fairytale feel about it. The crystal clear blue sky on the day we visited meant a perfect reflection of the castle in the water, which also added to its magical quality.
Entry to the gardens is via a shady avenue lined with ancient chestnut trees, which also lend their name to the on-site tea shop and visitor centre (Chestnuts). As it happens, the short trek up from the car park became all too much for our five year old, who, no doubt suitably encouraged by the sign for locally made ice cream, decided she needed refuelling, and to be fair, she brooked little resistance from her adult chaperones. We settled into some free chairs and relaxed in the dappled sunlight as my mother-in-law set off to investigate the options.
Our café neighbours were a curious mixture locals and tourist types, interspersed with students from the study centre somewhat incongruously pecking away at their laptops and enjoying the splendid weather. While scooping away at delicious Sussex made ice cream, we were visited by curious crows and some adventurous ducks, all looking for a hand-out, clearly oblivious to the carefully placed signs politely asking visitors to refrain from feeding them. A small issue is the slightly disconcerting amount of bird mess under the trees and in the outdoor seating area (although not on the tables and chairs themselves I hasten to add) - which is probably the reason for the previously mentioned plethora of signage.
The café block also includes a visitor centre, gift shop and the toilets. The former offers some useful information and interesting exhibits relating to the use of the castle through the ages. The latter were very well kept, clean and hygienic. There is a horse and carriage service (for an additional charge) that starts and ends at Chestnuts, but I have no idea where it goes. Despite seeing the horses being watered, we didn't notice them working during our visit.
Once we had our fill, we set off to explore the themed, Elizabethan walled gardens, as well as the nature trail which winds its way around the outskirts of the grounds. Most of the flowers were in bloom, but despite the splashes of colour here and there, we found the gardens a little tired, lacking something in colour, style and arrangement, and perhaps a bit devoid of imagination.
Not being a huge fan of flora, I found them pleasing enough to my uncultured eye, but my in-laws are discerning members of the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) who make regular visits to Kew, Wisley and Leonardslee, and I was assured that the displays were little better than average. In any event, I found plenty of subjects to focus my new Nikon D5000 DSLR camera on, so spent most of my time looking for good photo opportunities and testing out the capabilities of my new bit of kit.
The walled gardens are atmospheric and well maintained, but I don't think they would have been nearly as interesting without the impressive and picturesque castle as a back-drop. It dominates the landscape and gives the place a real sense of history and relevance. There is a Rose Garden, a Herb Garden, the Butterfly Garden (totally absent of butterflies - but that's just timing), a Rhododendron "Avenue", a Shakespeare Garden (with plaques showing quotes from some of his famous works, tying them in to some of the displays) as well as an interesting Zimbabwe-themed sculpture garden.
The further we got away from the castle, the wilder and less polished the gardens became, however, it is an organised chaos with purpose behind it. The nature trail takes you to several woodland points of interest - including a wood henge, some wild meadows, a couple of small lakes dotted with lily pads, and a Georgian-style folly built in the 1930's. It is clearly sign-posted for its entire length, with placards pointing out interesting features, plants and animals.
One of the features, a little off the beaten track, is the peacock house. You can hear the males calling well before you reach it, but I was thoroughly disappointed to find about five of the birds caged behind a large wire enclosure. These impressive birds put on a real display for us, much to the squealing delight of my daughter, but I felt a measure of sadness to find such magnificent creatures barricaded behind chicken wire.
We spent a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half at Herstmonceux, taking in the sun, the flora, the fauna and the regal atmosphere and, on balance, decided that it was a worthwhile detour to take on our way homeward. Most of the grounds were easy enough for Baby H's Bugaboo pushchair to navigate with minimal problems. The paths in the gardens were dry and well surfaced, and even the nature trail was easily navigable.
We visited Chestnuts again on the way back for some liquid refreshments and found the teas, soft drinks, coffees, presses and juices all reasonably priced. The Tea room offers a limited lunch menu (between Noon and 3pm) of sandwiches, jackets, panini, salads and bakes - along with an all day cream tea for £3.99 a head.
That said, there were a few niggles. At £6 a head for adults, I would have expected a bit more for my money, charging for a castle tour on top of this seems a bit cheeky, especially as the ticket says "Castle & Grounds". The gardens themselves are well cared for, but a little lacking in imagination and colour, and therefore not as interesting as they could be.
In short, this is not really somewhere I would make a special trip to see, especially given the varied and many other points of interest in 1066 country. However, the castle also hosts a number of concerts, exhibitions and historic re-enactments during the year, so it may be worthwhile visiting for an event. In any case, if you are in the area and have decent weather, it is worth a diversion.
Herstmonceux Castle & Gardens
BN27 1RN (NOT suitable for SatNav)
Telephone: 01323 833816
Open 7 days a week between 3rd April to 31st October
10am to 6pm - Last admission at 5pm (Closes 5pm in October)
Tea shop (Chestnuts) closes at 5pm
Castle tours subject to availability (call to confirm)
Family tickets, group discounts and concessions available
The site advises "limited wheelchair access"
© Hishyeness 2010