Special Days Out: Herstmonceux Castle
by Peter d’Aguilar
Situated at the heart of a six-hundred-acre estate about seven miles north east of Eastbourne, Herstmonceux Castle traces its origins back to the fifteenth century. Surrounded by a moat, formal themed gardens and abundant woodland, the castle is the oldest brick building of any note still standing in England. It is now a popular visitor attraction, open from early March through to the end of October.
The castle also houses the Bader International Study Centre, a campus of Queen’s University in Canada, which plays host to hundreds of international students each year; as well as providing an ideal setting for residential conferences, corporate events and weddings. The parks and gardens are Grade II* listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens and the walled garden to the north of the castle has a Grade II listing. The castle itself is Grade I listed.
On arrival, visitors are greeted with a perfect opportunity to take photographs of this iconic edifice before making their way along Chestnut Tree Walk. This takes them to the visitor centre where they can learn more about the history of the estate and which is also the starting point for tours of the castle. These can be booked on arrival and are subject to availability (more details can be found on the website). Chestnuts Tea Room is ideal for a light lunch or afternoon tea, either before or after embarking on a gentle stroll around the gardens, which lead on to the woodland trails that showcase the estate’s carefully-managed flora and fauna. Features such as Willow Warren, the Folly, the Secret Garden, the Lake and the Moat Walk all offer a perfect escape from the rigors of everyday life.
The first recorded evidence of a settlement here appears in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book – Herste is derived from the Saxon word for a woodland clearing. Towards the end of the twelfth century, Idonea de Herst married a Norman nobleman named Ingelram de Monceux. Around this time, the manor house on the site now occupied by the castle became known as the “Herst of the Monceux”, which later evolved into Herstmonceux.
Sir Roger Fiennes, a descendant of the Monceux family, was responsible for the construction of Herstmonceux Castle. When he became Treasurer of the Household of Henry VI, he needed a fitting house for a man of his status. He began construction of the castle on the site of the old manor house in 1441, at a cost of £3,800. Rather than a defensive structure, it was designed as a palatial residence in the style of a castle.
In 1541 his descendent Sir Thomas Fiennes, Third Lord Dacre, was tried for murder and robbery of the King’s deer after his poaching exploits on a neighbouring estate resulted in the death of a gamekeeper. He was convicted and hanged as a commoner, and Henry VIII confiscated the Herstmonceux estate. It was not returned to the family until 1558 by Elizabeth I when she became queen.
Gambling debts and excessive expenditure on the castle forced Sir Thomas Lennard, Fifteenth Lord Dacre to sell the estate in 1708 to George Naylor, a London lawyer. Bethia Naylor became the heiress of Herstmonceux on the death of her brother’s only daughter and married Francis Hare. The castle eventually came into the possession of Robert Hare-Naylor and was by now in quite a dilapidated state. The architect Samuel Wyatt assessed that it was beyond economical repair. This led to the internal walls being torn down and the bricks taken away to be used in the construction of nearby Herstmonceux Place. Fortunately, before this process began, local artist James Lambert was commissioned to paint a series of watercolours depicting the castle prior to its destruction. The castle was eventually dismantled in 1777, leaving the exterior walls standing, and remained a ruin until the early 20th century. Local smugglers used its network of tunnels for their nefarious activities and no doubt embellished stories of the Headless Drummer, one of the castle’s alleged resident ghosts, to keep inquisitive strangers away.
Colonel Claude Lowther, a politician and distinguished soldier, bought the site in 1911 and began radical restoration work to transform the ruined building into a residence; a project finally completed by Sir Paul Latham who purchased the estate in 1932. The existing interiors largely date from this period, incorporating architectural antiques collected in England and France. The one radical change was the amalgamation of the four internal courtyards into one. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described the restoration work as ‘exemplary’.
By 1947, the estate was once again under new ownership, the Admiralty having purchased it as the new home for the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Away from the increasing pollution of London and the glare of the city’s lights, the Observatory flourished and remained here for more than forty years.
In 1992 Canadian businessman and philanthropist Alfred Bader bought the Herstmonceux estate and donated it to his alma mater Queen’s University, Ontario as an international study centre. Today the picturesque castle and beautiful grounds stand as an embodiment of medieval England and the romance of renaissance Europe, receiving thousands of visitors each year.
Herstmonceux Castle is home to a variety of special events throughout the year including the famous annual Medieval Festival on August Bank Holiday weekend. With jousting, banqueting, re-enactments, stalls, crafts and numerous children’s activities, it is Britain’s largest and most spectacular medieval festival. As well as this flagship event, the castle hosts several music concerts, drama productions, children’s Easter and Halloween events and an autumn wedding fair.
THE OBSERVATORY SCIENCE CENTRE
A short distance from Herstmonceux Castle is The Observatory Science Centre, offering hands-on science for all ages and abilities. Joint admission tickets can be purchased from both attractions.
Address: Herstmonceux Castle, Wartling Road, Hailsham, BN27 1RN
Main Photo: Rich Page