An American in Paradise: Hever Castle Gardens

After becoming a British subject in 1899, American multi-millionaire William Waldorf Astor purchased Hever Castrle, near Edenbridge in Kent, the childhood home of Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife Anne Boleyn. Between 1904 and 1908 he transformed the property, including the gardens surrounding the moated castle. I have read that the equivalent of £110 million was spent creating the gardens alone.

I visited Hever with a friend just over a week ago. Approaching from the Lake View entrance, the first part of the garden we encountered was the Blue Corner. Red brick walls enclose a steeply raked lawn on each side of which deep beds accommodate large boulders and hydrangeas and clematis in varying shades of mauve and purple contrasting with the foliage of ferns, hostas and euphorbias. Purple annual bedding plants provide ground cover in the form of velvety petunias and densely flowered heliotrope the common name of which, Cherry Pie, aptly describes its sweet scent.

In the Rose Garden brightly coloured and fragrant shrub roses occupy beds separated by lawned paths radiating from large urns, representative of the classical antiquities and Italian renaissance pieces which Astor collected whilst American ambassador in Italy in the late 1880s. Much of his collection of sculptures, urns, cisterns and fountainheads is displayed at Hever.

Beyond the Rose Garden stands the classically inspired loggia flanked by colonnades facing the 35 acre manmade lake fed by the River Eden. Set behind the loggia (the romantic venue for a wedding on the afternoon of my visit) is the Italian Garden where most of Lord Astor’s sculpture collection is displayed. Marble gods and goddesses stand amongst arches and pillars festooned with climbing roses and clematis. On the shady side of this large plot is the ‘Gallery of Fountains’ where ferns and hosts grow in abundance along a water filled channel beneath a succession of arches. The crevices of the stone wall bordering the gallery are filled with shield ferns and mosses.

The classical formality of this part of the garden gives way to blowsy prairie planting behind the walls of the Italian Garden. Diana’s Path follows the lakeside towards the castle complex and is bordered with Verbena bonariensis, Echinacea purpureum, Crocosmia, fennel and the silky tresses of a bronze fringed grass. Nepeta, Eryngium and Veronicastrum represent the blue and mauve parts of the spectrum. A magnet for bees, the Veronicastrum displayed signs of that mysterious botanical phenomenon, fasciation. Some of the mauve flower spikes flatten and fork, their bizarre forms swaying in a scene reminiscent of a submarine landscape, through which one might imagine tiny tropical fish darting. According to the RHS website, the abnormal flattening of the flowers in Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’, is thought to be caused by a genetic tendency to the problem.

Approaching the castle and the adjoining ‘Edwardian Village’, the style of the garden reverts to formality, evocative of Tudor England rather than renaissance Italy. Inside an outer moat lie a Yew Maze and a Tudor Garden, the latter containing a number of sheltered ‘rooms’ bounded by crenellated yew hedging. Here are an intricate knot garden   created entirely from box (Buxus sempervirens) and a physic garden featuring medicinal plants. Hever’s second rose garden consists of a square pond decorated with a two tiered fountain surrounded by stone paving and beds spilling over with a pretty pink and white polyantha (formerly floribunda) rose, Rosa ‘Ballerina’. Beyond the rose garden giant topiary chess pieces fashioned from golden yew loom across a lawn on which stands a tall sundial.

The castle itself stands within a square inner moat in which coy carp swim amongst the waterlilies. The ‘art of creative pruning’ as the inspirational Jake Hobson calls topiary, is represented on Topiary Walk by a series of large box and yew shrubs fashioned into abstract and animal shapes. They reminded me of the fanciful designs I saw lining the Thyme Walk at Highgrove when I visited in May.

Vibrantly coloured planting in the style of Gertrude Jekyll decorates the Long Border between the castle and the lake. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, Hemerocallis (Day lilies), Leucanthemum x superbum (Shasta daisies), Echinops ritro (Globe thistle) and fennel predominate but with subtly supported climbing plants dotted amongst the herbaceous scheme. I particularly liked a delicate yellow jasmine (Jasminum officinale ‘Clotted Cream’ and a dainty mid pink clematis which I believe is Clematis texensis ‘Princess Diana’.

Hever is described as one of the great gardens of the world and I plan to return to explore it further.

 

 

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