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When I visited Sudely Castle recently I hadn't been there since I was about eight by my calculations. All I could remember was that there was a big adventure castle and some topiary arches; and all of 32 years later as we drew up to the car park it was pleasing to see that the playground, more of which later, was still there. The castle was ready for me to rediscover too - or was it?
At the entrance I made use of my tesco clubcard deal vouchers, they also accept a 20 percent discount voucher from www.discountbritain.net, "but not both", I was informed in no uncertain terms. Entrance at the time of my visit was £7.20 for adults, £4.20 for children of 5 and older, and there was also a family ticket.
To be clear straight away, as you visit the historic castle, you are mainly visiting the grounds, gardens, and an exhibition. Unusually in these days the castle is privately owned by Lady Ashcombe and two of her children, no National Trust or big company here. This does mean that you can't visit inside, unless you are over 12 and happen to be visiting on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, in which case the charge is £12 for a private tour. Visiting with two very-much under 12's as I was, no inside tour for me and it was off to visit the other delights of the castle grounds.
When you first arrive you can only really glimpse the historic building itself. Before getting to the gardens and the Chapel, where a former resident, one Catherine Parr is buried. As I am sure most people would know she was the wife of Henry VIII, his sixth to be precise - remember that rhyme "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived" - well she is the one at the end of that list.
Before you can get to look at the castle you go through the intriguingly signposted "Pheasantry", which does indeed contain pheasants - 15 species of them from all over the world to be precise, and makes for quite an interesting start to your trip. You are told to keep quiet for the birds, which was a challenge for us, but seemed to be respected by most visitors.
And so we arrived at the gardens. These have won awards and have been much restored by the current owners and the topiary arches I remember seeming so magical when I was little were still there, and for my own children just as much fun to run under. The gardens are beautiful and well kept, but wouldn't be much fun to visit in the rain I fear. In their depths you can enter one solitary rather crumbling corridor which starts to tell you some of the history of the castle, from the playground of Royalty to that of Land Girls, with a stunning knot garden recalling the Tudor times.
The exhibition through a door in the gardens tells you about Catherine Parr and some more of the history of the castle. Accompanied by my delgihtful but low-attention-spanned children as I was, I wasn't able to peruse the whole thing at my leisure. I did however see one of Catherine's dresses and also one of her teeth and a lock of hair, which had been removed from her grave at some point in the distant past. I should think if you were a history buff with no children with you it would have made for a good hour of perusal, no such luck for me.
And there essentially the visit finishes - there is a tea room and you can see a trout pond on the site of what was once a maze, and the visit of the castle concludes, unless you are able to go on a guide you don't see much more of the castle than that.
To end our visit we went on to the adventure playground castle, which was just as big and filled with staircases, slides and places to run up and down as I remembered it being all those years ago. Back then we had run round it before piling back into the Cortina, today's children seemed to be enjoying it just as much, happily it had been restored and extended somewhat since my youth.
Steeped in history and beautiful to look at Sudely is definitely worth a visit, and I am glad I went. If you are interested in gardens and history it is probably somewhere you will enjoy. Had I not had deals vouchers, courtesy of Tesco, I do think I would have found it a little pricey. I think also that the private ownership does have pros and cons. On the plus side it does feel less like visiting a corporate dominated historic place (think Warwick, now ruled by the Merlin group), but on the downside the access to the public is limited, you get a glimpse and not a whole visit. I would have liked to go on the tour as I should think it would be interesting, but this is on limited days, has to be booked, and under 12's are not allowed.
If you are in the area I should think you could enjoy a half day here in clement weather, then, like us you will probably move on to one of the other area's many attractions, flushed from a run around the wooden adventure castle, but wondering what lay inside the real thing.
http://www.sudeleycastle.co.uk/ for pictures of the castle and gardens and more info
Set amongst the rolling hills of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, Sudeley Castle has a beautiful location near the small town of Winchcombe, about 8 miles from Cheltenham. It is a building steeped in history, although for me (and I suspect a large proportion of visitors) the main attraction is its role in the Tudor period. For those of you interested in the period, the name of Sudeley will undoubtedly sound familiar. The reason for this was that the castle was once home to Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII; shortly after the King died, she married Sir Thomas Seymour (Lord High Admiral and brother to Jane Seymour, Henry's third Queen consort) who had been made Lord Sudeley in 1547. During the year and a half that Catherine and Thomas were married and lived at Sudeley, Lady Elizabeth Tudor and her cousin Lady Jane Grey were resident there as wards for a good deal of time. Indeed, having just read a novelised account of Elizabeth's early life ("The Lady Elizabeth" by Alison Weir) that does feature a lot of Sudeley Castle in it, this visit had even more of an interest for me, and once I had realised just how close it was to where I lived, a trip to see it for myself was a must.
- Getting There
Getting to Sudeley is one of those things that you will really need a car for (unless you happen to be in Winchcombe, in which case it is walkable). Signposting is decent enough from Cheltenham, and the narrow country lanes that lead between the estate and the village form a helpful one-way system for visitors (I was absurdly grateful that such common sense measure had been taken - I am not overly find of roads with passing places). Getting to and from the estate roads is another matter, however, as it means driving through Winchcombe itself to reach them. Not that I have anything against Winchcombe per se, indeed it is a very pretty Cotswold village; the problem with pretty Cotswold villages, though, is that they attract a lot of people and invariably have nowhere for all these people to park...except along the roads, on both sides. The result was a slightly hairy vehicular situation where I think I was lucky to escape with my wing mirrors intact (moral of the story: don't visit on August Bank Holiday weekend if you value your nervous system). Once you are inside the estate, though, there is a nice large cark park (well, field) so parking will not be a problem (unless it has rained a lot and you consider parking your nice shiny car on a muddy, squelchy field to be a problem).
- Arrival and Introduction to Sudeley
The entrance area to the estate at the far side of the car park is made up of the plant centre ("take a little piece of Sudeley's award winning gardens home with you") and a building that doubles up as a shop and purveyor of entrance tickets. The fact that you buy your plants, tickets and branded tat (sorry, souvenirs) all in one place makes for queues if you visit on a busy day, and must make it hard for the two staff that work here to simultaneously check that everyone who wanders out of the rear of the shop and into Sudeley estate has actually bought a ticket. To try and get around this issue, they give you a little Sudeley sticker to wear to prove that you have paid - a good enough idea, excepting two things: (1) they fall off ridiculously easy, and (2) no-one actually appears to check that you have a sticker later on. In regard to the wares sold, the plant shop appears to be of good quality and sells a mixture of herbs, old-fashioned roses and bedding plants, but I'm afraid that my knowledge of such matters is insufficient to comment beyond they come from Sudeley's gardens (which are apparently award winning) and they are not that cheap (in as much as I know about how much old-fashioned roses should cost). The main visitor shop has a decent selection of books (mostly on local history, local interest and the Tudors) as well as the usual brightly coloured kiddie-magnets (pens, badges, key rings, drinking cups and various other plastic things) and some jars of honey produced on the estate (which did tempt me, but at nearly a fiver for a modest sized jar I didn't end up buying any).
Having been relieved of my entrance fee and feeling like a child who has just been the dentist with my sticker on, I left the shop and began to explore the estate. The castle is situated prominently in the centre of the estate surrounded by gardens, although a sizeable chunk of this remains private, as the family who own the castle still live in it. By "sizeable", I mean most of the interior of the castle (unless you arrive on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and are prepared to pay extra to go on a connoisseur tour of the more interesting bits of it - which would have interested me, but I visited on a Saturday) and about 20-30% of the garden area too. So, although it seems huge at first glance, you are actually getting quite a bit less than I anticipated. That is not to say what is available isn't lovely - it certainly is, especially if you are lucky enough to visit on a sunny day - but I still would have expected an attraction affiliated with the Historic Houses Association to show you, well, something of the historic house. As it is, what the visitor gets is the gardens, the shop, the cafe, St Mary's church and a couple of rooms with history-related exhibitions in it, but none of the historic interiors that it might have been reasonable to expect from such a property.
- The Gardens
But moving swiftly on to more positive thoughts, the gardens were a treat to visit, even for someone like me, who can be a bear of very little brain about such matters. The gardens have been gradually developed over the centuries, and range from the romantic ruins of the tithe barn and old medieval castle (the current one is Elizabethan in date) that have plants growing up and around them, to the Queen's garden (a recreation on the site of original Tudor parterre) to the field of wildflowers that have been encouraged to bloom. A highlight for me was the Victorian kitchen garden, which is part of a project to recreate and preserve old varieties of fruit and vegetables that have fallen out of favour in the modern world of mass food production because they are unsuitable for the needs of commercial growers. It was interesting to see and read about this work, as it is so easy to forget just how much variety there is in such plants if you only ever encounter the limited range of products in the shops. The carp pond was also worth seeing, and those with children will be pleased to note that there is a great looking adventure playground and large picnic area with plenty of tables available. A major feature of the gardens was the Pheasantry, another effort at conservation based on the tradition of pheasants and wildfowl being kept at the castle. Apparently, pheasants are one of the most threatened bird groups in the world, and a collection of 15 endangered species (plus the more common and ever popular peacock) are kept and displayed here. The pheasants have quite large and well-stocked cages - but can be quite difficult to see! If you are quiet and patient, however, this is a very pleasant part of your visit to Sudeley.
In the gardens around the back of the castle is St Mary's church, a working church (although only with a few services per year) built in the 15th century, and unusually for a castle church, part of the local Church of England parish. Amongst celeb-watchers amongst you, it may be known as the venue for Liz Hurley's wedding, but for history hunters like me, it is better known as being the resting place of Catherine Parr. The church is only small with the tomb being very prominently displayed, and is a (morbidly) fascinating object for those who have read about this woman.
- The Exhibitions
The exhibitions were housed in rooms next to the cafe, and were not quite what I was expecting! In such properties as this with a rich and varied history, I would have anticipated a general overview of the castle's past first of all to get a grip on things and give it some context - but instead we just plunge right it to snapshots of Sudeley's history, and not necessarily in chronological order. We start with a display area called "threads of time - textile treasures of Sudeley", which focuses on the industrial revolution; the family that bought the castle at this time were wealthy textile manufacturers, and they used their money to restore the castle to its former glory after it had been gradually declining for some time. I left this area still unclear as to what the "textile treasures" were (other than money of course!) and proceeded upstairs to the next exhibition: "six wives at Sudeley". This was an exhibition I found to be much more to my taste, on (surprise, surprise) the six wives of Henry VIII and their connections with the castle. Well, three of them had a connection to the castle, anyway - Catherine Parr (who I have mentioned previously), Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour (who both visited it). Not as huge a connection as it might first appear, but it is a good enough excuse to have a Tudor themed exhibition anyway, given the eternal popularity of the era. The information and presentation was pretty basic and those visitors used to being spoon-fed by whizzy museum interactive computers and games might find it a little pedestrian. It included the costumes made for the David Starkey series "The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth", based on those worn in paintings of the women, which was an interesting touch.
You then moved through a curious jumble of objects that were collected by 19th century occupants of the castle (notably a letter from Charles Darwin) and into a new exhibition entitled "letters from Khartoum". The main part of this section is a short film that has been specially made for the display about the siege of Khartoum (1884/5), which is quite exciting and interesting, but the link to Sudeley is even more tenuous than the claim for the "six wives" earlier on - apparently the nephew of the castle owner had a marginal involvement in the siege! I left the exhibitions feeling rather bemused and a little disappointed by the slightly amateurish displays and attempts to capitalise on such peripheral bits of populist history. I would far rather have learned more about the castle's history - but I suppose they keep that to one side for people buying the guidebook.
- The Coffee Shop
The cafe was located in a large beamed hall at the front of the castle and offered plenty of indoor and outdoor seating (to take full advantage of the one sunny day we had in August). They offered a selection of sandwiches, toasted paninis, soup, snacks, ice creams, homemade cakes and drinks; nothing terrifically exciting, but they try to locally source wherever possible. I had a perfectly nice toasted panini for around the £3.80 mark, which I didn't think was too bad for a visitor attraction eatery, based on previous experience. Not everyone agreed, of course - while I was there, a loud American was complaining about everything from the choice of food to the price, to staff who looked disgruntled enough to be working the Bank Holiday weekend anyway (so I doubt it got her very far). Service was decent, if not enthusiastic, but then anybody who has had the pleasure of working over a holiday weekend knows exactly what it feels like and will perhaps not get too annoyed when staff take your money but forget to give you the Feast that you have just bought!
I think I have given the impression that this is not the most sophisticated presentation of a historical house that I have ever seen, but in all fairness I don't think it was ever intended to be - Sudeley Castle is marketed more as a family day out than a fix for history junkies. And let's be honest: Sudeley opens its doors to the public to make money to keep the incumbent family solvent*, not because it has a noble National Trust-style ethos about history. My enjoyment rested firmly on the fact that I am familiar with Tudor history and found it wonderful to be visiting a place that I had read about and which so many prominent figures of the age had lived in or visited; it made history tangible for me. Without this aspect, I would probably have felt a bit let down by it all - as it was, I was disappointed that the special tours (see below) were only available on weekdays and were therefore unavailable to me. The gardens were also lovely, but you really need a nice (or at least a dry) day to really enjoy them. I had a good day out and felt I had got value for money, but I can appreciate that rather a lot of people would have felt like the loud American I encountered in the cafe.
Recommended to Tudor history and garden lovers, partially recommended to families with children young enough to enjoy the adventure playground, and not recommended to anyone requiring wheelchair access.
- Visitor Details
Opening Times: Daily, 10am to 5pm, mid March to 31st October each year
Admission (standard): Adult £7.20 / Concession £6.20 / Child (5-15) £4.20 / Child (under 5) free / Family (2 adults, 2 children) £20.80 / Members of Historic House Association free
Admission (groups 20+): Adult £6.20 / Concession £5.20 / Child (5-15) £4.20 / Child (under 5) free
Connoisseur Tours: Available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 11am, 1pm and 3pm during open season at a cost of £15 (including general admission and a guidebook) on a first come, first served basis. Children under the age of 12 are not allowed on the connoisseur tours.
Historical Garden Tours: Available Monday and Friday at 11am, 1pm and 3pm during open season at a cost of £11 (including general admission) on a first come, first served basis. May be cancelled in extreme weather conditions.
Access: Exhibitions are accessible by stairs only, and there is only limited access to the gardens and pheasantry for wheelchair users.
Phone: Sudeley Visitor Centre, (01242) 604244, (10am - 5pm)
Address: Sudeley Castle
*Sudeley Castle was featured as part of the BBC series "Crisis at the Castle".