Following Anne Boleyn

I’m no expert on Anne Boleyn.  I’m more of an Anne Boleyn sympathizer.  I glean information about Anne from multiple questionable sources, ie  The Horrible History series I read to my kids, the epic and very racy television series,The Tudors and a song about Henry’s wives my kids learned in primary school. I can’t really remember how it goes…

Hever Castle

Lucky for me, my passionate retelling of the Horrible History books and a quick recap of The Tudors was enough to convince everyone to come with me to Hever Castle in Kent, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.


Anne Boleyn (2nd wife of Henry VIII) spent her childhood at Hever Castle before attending Court in the Netherlands and France. Her ambitious father, Thomas Bullen (Boleyn) pushed Ann into King Henry VIII’s Court when Henry tired of having Anne’s sister, Mary, as a mistress. Anne was in love with Sir Percy, however, and was heartbroken when her match to Percy was denied. Anne left Court and returned to Hever Castle to nurse her broken heart where Henry VIII, enamored with Anne’s charm, wit and intelligence, visited her there often. She rebuffed his romantic advances and refused to become his mistress, which clearly motivated Henry to redouble his efforts to annul his marriage to Catherine.  Eventually, as we all know, Henry VIII broke ties with the Catholic Church and married Anne. He fathered one living child with Anne before he tired of her.  She was tried and convicted on a number of questionable charges and beheaded in May of 1536 to make way for Henry VIII”s third wife, Jane Seymour.


The house was eventually given to Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, as compensation for the marital annulment after Henry decided Anne of Cleves was incredibly unattractive and refused to consummate the marriage.  Hever Castle passed through a number of families after Anne of Cleves’ death before falling into complete ruin, a sad state for a place that played a role in changing the course of English history.  John Jacob Astor, a wealthy American, purchased and restored the house and gardens n 1903.

It’s easy to imagine Anne wandering the grounds as a child or hiding from/with Henry in the hedgerows.  Supposedly, Anne’s ghost still wanders over the lovely wooden bridge and around the garden (without Henry) during Christmastime.

Photo via

Photo via

The house itself contains an extensive collection of artwork and antiques highlighting the Castle’s role in English history (no photos allowed, sadly).  I loved standing in Anne’s tiny bedroom, staring out the window and reading Anne’s prayer books, one of which she took to her execution. Love letters sent between Henry and Anne hang on the wall. They loved each other once-upon-a-time.

It seemed to me a bit insensitive to highlight Henry VIII so boldly throughout the property.  He did, after all, execute the woman who lived here.  Yet, his portraits and likenesses hang the Long Gallery and the Inner Hall and one of his gilded, personal locks hangs on the door of the Dining Room. Henry’s bedchamber has an original Tudor carved ceiling and a glorious, canopied bed.  If only walls could talk….

Le Temps Viendra   Anne Boleyn  "The Time Will Come"

Le Temps Viendra Anne Boleyn “The Time Will Come”

Things to Know

Hever Castle lies appx 35 miles from London, southeast of Edenbridge in West Kent. It was our first stop on a multi-day trip to the Southeast.  If you want to drive, consider taking the train/tube to the outskirts of London and picking up your car there. I didn’t follow my own advice, and it ended in a very long drive and  a few minor domestic disputes en route. If you’d rather go by train, check the link here to find out more.

Hever Castle is currently owned by a commercial venture, instead of a private family.  I was initially wary about having  a “faux” castle experience (you know what I mean) but was pleasantly surprised. The Castle was wonderfully presented.  The gardens are spectacular and the grounds have activities for children and grownups….archery, walking trails, camping (shudder) and mazes.  Beware the wet maze.  It’s called the WET maze for a reason.  The Mister was not amused.

The Castle opens later than the grounds, so time your visit accordingly. Check rates and times here  before you go. You can spend the night on the castle grounds by contacting the Hever Castle Bed and Breakfast.

If you have an interest in Anne Boleyn, you should also plan visits to Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London and Blickling Hall.

If you have good reading recommendations about Anne, I’d love to hear them!    


A Day at “Downton Abbey”


I love the fact we can watch Downton’s seasons a full 4 months before they debut in the States. Tonight, my American friends sit down to watch the last episode of Downton Abbey, Season 3.   What shall we do during the 7 month wait for a new season?  I suggest planning a trip to Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey.

Located approximately one hour from London by train, Highclere Castle is the stately home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.  Sir Charles Barry built the present house in 1842 on top of an existing Georgian home, which was built on the site of an Elizabethan home, etc. While the estate has been a part of the Carnarvon family for over 300 years, there is evidence of building on the site dating back 1300 years.


We took a train from Paddington station in London to Newbury and hired a cab to drive us the remaining way to the castle.  We wound our way past miles of lovely countryside before turning up the mile-long, tree lined driveway.  As you round the final corner of the drive, you can see Highclere Castle’s glorious gothic turrets through the trees.  You can almost imagine the curtains twitching as Lady Edith watches you pull up the drive.



Admission tickets, purchased either on-line in advance or from the little shed near the gates, are timed in order to manage the crowds. We had about 1.5 hours to explore the castle grounds before being admitted to see the house.  The castle landscape, designed by Capability Brown, lends itself to endless wandering through fields and across lawns.  We visited the tea room for a light lunch and convinced ourselves we needed a double-chocolate magnum bar to eat on the lawn while watching military planes, both ancient and modern, flying over the castle.  I’m pretty sure the flyovers aren’t part of the usual day out at the castle, but it was fun to watch. We walked through gardens and orchards, peeked into greenhouses and tried desperately to recreate the opening scene from Downton by walking up to the house from the fields below while loudly humming the opening music. We nailed it, even without the dog. The house also hosts a collection of Egyptian artifacts from the Tutankhamen tomb, discovered by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, but we didn’t have time to visit the exhibit before our scheduled time at the house.


HC doors

We joined the visitors queue outside the giant front doors at the appropriate time and waited for Carson to open the door and welcome us inside.  Sadly, he was not available and we had to make do with the lovely greeters that gave us a brief overview of house rules and a quick outline of the self-guided tour.



Visitors are allowed to wander through the glorious dining room where the portrait of Charles I hangs over Carson’s sideboard and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) throws her infamous one-liners at unsuspecting guests.  Visitors can also see the library, used as Lord Grantham’s office and study and the glorious “saloon”, where the family gathers and the Grantham sisters plot their various schemes.  Upstairs, visitors file past Sybil and Edith’s bedrooms as well as the “Rose bedroom” where Lady Mary and Mr Pamuk had their passionate, ill-fated romp.  Unfortunately, all of the below-stairs scenes of Downton Abbey are filmed in a studio in London and not at the house.


The house and grounds are stunning and make a fabulous day out, even for non-Downton Abbey fans.  Make sure you check opening dates and times before you go, as the family is in residence most of the year and Highclere is not open year-round.  You can check visitor information here.

Things to know and other random bits about Highclere Castle:

The 8th Countess of Carnarvon wrote a book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” to raise funds necessary to restore Highclere Castle.  The Castle was falling into serious disrepair in 2009 and required a minimum of £12 million to prevent it from falling into complete ruin.  The book, film fees and publicity from the Downton Abbey series generated enough funds to make necessary repairs. There was a bit of a neighborhood tiff between the Earl and his neighbor, Andrew Lloyd Weber. When Weber heard about the plight of the Carnarvon estate and offered to buy Highclere Castle to store  his art collection. The Carnarvon’s were not amused.

Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, nursed and housed recovering soldiers in WWI at Highclere Castle  just as it did in the second season of Downton Abbey.

You can book weddings and special events at the castle.

Highclere Castle is a two hour drive from central London.  Alternatively, you can take a train from London Paddington to Newbury and a cab to the Castle (cab fare approximately £25 plus tip).  It is also possible to take a bus from London Victoria to Newbury.

Make sure to arrange your return trip to the train station with your cabbie before you step out of the cab at Highclere.  The wait to return to the train station can be long if you do not.

Driving to Highclere from London takes approximately 2 hours.

The Painted Hall at Greenwich


When The Mister was an exchange officer with the Royal Navy (long, long ago), he received an invitation to dine in one of the holiest of Naval places, The Painted Hall at Greenwich. For reasons neither of us can remember, he didn’t attend. I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that we had three small children under the age of 7, lived in Portsmouth and I wasn’t invited. Regardless of the reason(s), he didn’t attend and he’s still a little bit sad about it.  I couldn’t arrange a naval dining-in at The Painted Hall, but I did arrange a Maritime-themed day out in Greenwich, home of the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory and the Cutty Sark.

The Painted Hall is the breathtaking crown jewel of Greenwich. The Hall, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, was meant to be a dining hall for Naval Veterans living at the Royal Hospital for Seaman.  The Hall itself is lovely, but the wall paintings by James Thornhill make it truly spectacular.  Mr. Thornhill was commissioned to decorate the walls with scenes depicting the glory and legacy of British maritime power.  He was either very confident in his abilities or a poor businessman as he failed to negotiate a fee before starting his commission.  It took Thornhill 19 years to complete the project for which he was paid £7000 and given (eventually) a knighthood.  Interesting side note: legend suggests that his commission was partially funded by the confiscated loot of the pirate, Captain Kidd.


When The Painted Hall was complete, it was deemed too elaborate for use as a “mess hall” and  became a tour-able attraction where Royal Hospital Pensioners would act as guides in exchange for a small fee.


In January of 1806, three months after the Battle of Trafalgar, the body of Horatio Nelson lay in state in The Painted Hall. Over 100,000 people paid their respects before Nelson’s body was placed on the King’s Barge and floated up the Thames for his funeral.


The Painted Hall became the National Gallery of Naval Art and remained as such until 1936 when the collection moved elsewhere. After an extensive restoration, the Hall opened again in 1939 as a dining venue for officers of the Royal Naval College.  When the Royal Navy left in 1998, the Greenwich Foundation took over stewardship of the site.


Today, The Painted Hall is open to visitors almost every day of the year, free of charge. You can also book it for a special event or wedding venue (can  you imagine?) if you prefer.  The west wall paintings are currently undergoing restoration and visitors are allowed to climb the scaffolding and watch the master conservators at work.  Rumor has it that once a year, The Painted Hall hosts a Trafalgar Night dinner.  I plan on spending the next 263 days hunting down tickets so The Mister can, at last, dine amidst the glory of British Maritime history. Hopefully, I’ll be invited.

Things to know:

The Painted Hall and other venues are occasionally closed for private events.  Check here  before you go.

The scaffolding/conservation tours are limited.  Check for times and availability here    Children must be over 12 only to participate in conservation tours. 

There is quite a bit to see within the Royal Naval complex.  You can plan your day out by checking the main website before you go.

The Thames Clipper boat is a great, scenic way to see London and get to Greenwich. Oyster card holders receive a 1/3 discount!

The Royal Naval College, National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory and Cutty Sark are all within walking distance.  Greenwich is a long day out, but well worth it.  Get there early and plan on spending a full day.

Ceremony of the Keys/ Tower of London


 “Halt!  Who goes there?!” You, if you are fortunate enough to obtain tickets to a ceremony that takes place every night at the Tower of London. Ticketed patrons are allowed to witness the “securing/locking up” of the Tower by the Chief Yeoman Warder and the Tower Guards in a ceremony that dates back over 700 years. The Tower opens the gates to ticket patrons at 9:30pm (latecomers NOT admitted). The tourists are long gone.  The spotlights slowly click on and bathe the Tower in an eerie light. The group (appx 40 people) is escorted through the ancient gate and greeted by a Yeoman Warder, who explains the tradition and pageantry of the Ceremony as you wait by Traitor’s Gate.  He also reminds you not to take pictures OR use a cell phone.  They mean it.

At exactly 21:52, the Chief Yeoman Warder leaves the Byward Tower carrying a candle-lit lantern and the Queen’s Keys.  He walks to Traitor’s gate to meet a company of waiting soldiers who protect him throughout as he locks the gates of the Tower.  The Warder locks the outer gate and retraces his steps to lock the Middle and Byward Towers. As the Warder approaches Traitor’s Gate, a sentry calls out “HALT!  Who comes there?”  He answers “The keys!” and the call and response continues in the same way it has for over seven centuries.  The Warder and the soldiers walk to the Bloody Tower to meet the waiting regiment of guards. The ceremony concludes with the Chief Yeoman Warder raising his hat in the air and calling “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” The clock chimes and the bugler plays as the keys are returned to the Queen’s House. Visitors are escorted to the gates.

The Ceremony of the Keys is a magical way to experience the Tower AND witness an extraordinary part of London history. Highly recommend.

Tickets are free, but you must apply IN WRITING to:  Ceremony of the Keys Office Tower of London LONDON, EC3N 4AB Great Britain Tel: +44 (0)20 3166 6278

You must list, as part of your request, the names of all attendees, two dates you are able to attend (they recommend you make your request 2 to 3 months in advance) and a self-addressed envelope with full British postage or something called a “coupon-response international.”  I contacted the USPS to request a “coupon” and was told such a thing hadn’t existed in years.  In the end, I went to the Royal Mail website and printed off a self-addressed envelope at home.  Much easier.

For detailed booking information, check here.

UPDATED information for Residents of the US :  Please check the  link for information specific to US Residents.

Things to know/Interesting facts:

The Ceremony of the Keys continued on a daily basis throughout the plague, the Great Fire and the Blitz.

On December 29th, 1940 a bomb fell during the ceremony and literally knocked the Warders off their feet and caused the ceremony to end 3 minutes late.  They wrote a letter of apology to the King.

London During The Blitz/ An Interactive Map

In an effort to find and read everything I can about my new city, I stumbled across the most amazing website. Bombsight is a project funded by JISC, the National Archives and the University of Portsmouth and provides an interactive and stunningly visual map of every bomb that fell on London during an 8 month period of the Blitz (October 1940 to June 1941).

Full screen-1

Here are a few screenshots to give you an idea of the devastation inflicted on the city. Each red marker represents at least one bomb.

Med Screen-1

Close screen-1

Users can zoom in to an address or  particular location to view markers that represent the number and type of bomb dropped.  To view the fully interactive version of Bombsight, go here.

There are no words.