Historical hospitality on English castles tour

The exterior of Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Fans of British castles know Hever Castle in Kent for its stately interiors and lavish gardens, but what I was really hoping for was a ghost.

After all, the 13th century castle was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII's second wife who quite literally lost her head after failing to present her husband with a male heir. Imagine my satisfaction, then, when the guide who gave us a predinner tour of the property confirmed that there is one room where more than one visitor has reported an apparition frequently described as an old man.

It's usually children who see it, and its appearance often coincides with a chill in the room's atmosphere.

Thus satisfied, we turned our attention to the rest of the castle's public rooms, which were anything but scary and, in fact, offer luxurious furnishings and art.

The property boasts 28 lavish guestrooms in the Astor and Anne Boleyn wings, featuring four-poster beds, in-room fireplaces and massive bathrooms. Guests can also opt for the four-bedroom Medley Court, which accommodates up to eight in grand Tudor style.

A highlight of Hever Castle is its gardens, which were just about to flower during my recent visit but which dazzle even off season with statues, fountains and lake views. In summer, the grounds come alive with activities such as archery and jousting tournaments in full medieval regalia.

Our visit was part of a nearly weeklong exploration of Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire in southeastern England, focusing on the region's most luxurious castle properties as well as high-end local dining.

The itinerary was geared around a new commissionable Gardens and Gourmet pass, which offers international visitors free entry to the region's most beautiful gardens, along with special offers at participating restaurants, cafes, vineyards and breweries.

The dining room at Hever Castle in Kent.
The dining room at Hever Castle in Kent. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

About 20 minutes from Hever Castle, we embarked on a day visit to Penshurst Place and Gardens — not a castle per se, but the fortified manor house with an 11-acre walled garden was once a home of Henry VIII, so close enough. In fact, the interior of the house is so chock full of period furnishings and architectural elements that several rooms served as locations for the BBC series "Wolf Hall," the 2008 film "The Other Boleyn Girl" and the 2015 BBC documentary series of "Armada: 12 Days to Save England."

Despite its stately grandeur, Penshurst is surprisingly family-friendly, with a robust menu of activities that include a giant corn maze, a toy museum and even an adventure playground. There are also numerous eateries on property, including the Garden Restaurant, which serves lunch and cream tea.

A highlight of the day was a multicourse lunch with wine pairing at Leeds Castle, a picture-perfect estate comprising 500 acres of parkland and gardens and even a moat. Accommodations include suites in the stables, the so-called Maiden's Tower or in striped Knights Glamping pavilions set up in season in the vineyards.

Fans of English beer can enjoy a private tour of Shepherd Neame, where visitors are let in on the secrets of artisanal beer making, followed by a curated tasting of locally brewed ales and lagers.

"Downton Abbey" addicts who find the stories of the lives below stairs more compelling than those of the upper crust will enjoy a tour of Audley End House and Gardens in Essex.

Here visitors can tour the Victorian Service Wing of the Jacobean mansion house, where the harsh working conditions of the staff, brought to life by interactive displays in the kitchens, contrast with the views of the picturesque countryside.

There is a Victorian stable yard where staff in period grooms' costumes introduce visitors to the resident sturdy ponies, and a children's play area where small fry can let off steam.

Knebworth House and Gardens.
Knebworth House and Gardens. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

Also in Essex, we spent a few hours at the Royal Horticultural Society Hyde Hall, with its massive gardens spread out over rolling hills, before stopping for afternoon tea aboard a stationary Topsail Charters barge.

At our next stop, the Marygreen Manor Hotel in Brentwood, we learned that not all servants in the days of yore lived lives of penury. This 16th century, 56-room property, one of my favorites on the itinerary, was once owned by Catherine of Aragon's gentleman servant Henry Roper. The property offers posh accommodations that range from straightforward guestrooms to Tudor-style suites with antique, carved four-poster or canopy beds, over-the-top brocades and high-end toiletries.

The real highlight was the chef's tasting menu at the property's Tudor Restaurant, where we tucked into too many courses to count, accompanied by first-rate wines.

The art lovers among us got a kick out of a stop at the former estate of sculptor Henry Moore in Perry Green, Hertfordshire, where oversize statues are positioned outside on the vast estate, interspersed among bucolic herds of sheep.

After lunch at George & Dragon, a pub that serves locally sourced, traditional fare, we pulled into the grounds of Knebworth House and Gardens just as a film crew was closing up for the day. A descendent of former owner Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton was on hand to give us a private tour of the premises.

Fans of rock music might find the name Knebworth familiar because of the high-profile concerts that have taken place on the grounds over the last few decades, with performers such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Oasis. The concerts were a way to fund the upkeep of the house, our guide cheerfully acknowledged, noting that the vast grounds include a natural amphitheater. There is also a playground with kid-friendly rides and a Dinosaur Trail with some 70 life-size models of dinosaurs.

The Prince Regent Suite at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, England.
The Prince Regent Suite at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, England.

If I could pick one property where I would have loved a longer stay, it would be the 18th century Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, where we arrived just in time for dinner and a quick overnight.

The Hall, which describes itself with excessive modesty as a typical English country house, sits on a 543-acre estate and offers 30 rooms that are only bookable as a full buyout. Instead of a front desk, butlers greet guests, whisk them to their rooms and invite them to the reception room "as soon as you're ready" for Champagne, followed by a lavish dinner. My room, the Prince Regent Suite, offered so much in the way of stunning chinoiserie style, including hand-painted wallpaper, that I didn't want to leave it the next morning.

The whole-property experience is aimed at special events, like weddings or high-end corporate gigs, but guests not looking for an entire buyout can stay in one of 16 rooms at the on-property Melbourne Lodge, a Georgian coach house conversion.

The Gardens and Gourmet website went live in March and features videos with insider information on each destination.

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