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!    

Secret Tunnels and Covert Operations

The nice thing about having houseguests is the opportunity to play tourist in one’s own country. We took advantage of the odd day off last week and dragged our most recent visitor to Canterbury and Dover, a part of the country we hadn’t yet explored.

Dover Castle stands sentry over the White Cliffs of Dover, a strategically significant spot since before the Iron Age.  Duke William of Normandy built the first castle at Dover, but it was King Henry II that undertook the building of the Great Tower in 1179.  Henry supposedly built the tower to impress important visitors on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, although it’s position on the hill allowed Henry II to observe, impress or threaten anyone sailing across the Straits of Dover from the mainland, a mere 21 miles away. The darker historians imply King Henry built this castle to assuage his guilt about his role in the murder of Thomas Becket.  

Churchill At Dover Castle © Imperial War Museum

Churchill At Dover Castle © Imperial War Museum

In successive centuries, Dover Castle withstood Civil, Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, expanding and modernizing after each conflict.  Dover Castle didn’t make its lasting mark on history until World War II, when its secret war tunnels buried into the hills beneath Dover Castle became the nerve center for an extraordinary event.

In May 1940, advancing German troops pushed British, French and Belgian soldiers onto the beaches at Dunkirk, France.  Over 400,000 soldiers were trapped on the beach with the sea in front of  them and the advancing German army behind them.  As this horrifying situation slowly unfolded, Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay began planning troop evacuations… code-named Operation Dynamo.  Ramsay estimated 45,000 of the 400,000 trapped troops could be rescued. The unfortunate soldiers left behind faced certain capture or annihilation at the hands of German troops.

At 18:57 26 May 1940, Operation Dynamo commenced.  British military vessels were able to evacuate 7,669 men on the first day of the mission.  Day two, 11,874.  On day 3, the pace of rescue quickened as the “little ships”  joined British destroyers in the rescue effort.  Lifeboats, pleasure craft, tugboats and barges manned by old men and young boys sailed from ports throughout England, Scotland and Wales to help ferry troops from the beach to the rescue ships or back across the sea.  Other soldiers “held the line” against the advancing Germans at great cost, giving their fellow soldiers a chance at escape. By the end of Operation Dynamo on June 4th, 338, 226 men had been rescued.

Entrance to the secret tunnels at Dover Castle

Entrance to the secret tunnels at Dover Castle

The planning for Operation Dynamo took place in the subterranean tunnels dug into the hills at Dover Castle. Now open to the public after an extensive renovation, the tunnels offer a chance to explore the nerve center for Operation Dynamo.

Operations Room

Operations Room

Visitors begin their guided visit by walking down into an underground bunker room, where they must await “orders” before proceeding to a operational brief in an adjacent bunker.  Multimedia presentations, preservation and restoration of the underground tunnel system brings the experience to life.  A fabulous piece of history in a unusual location.

Things to Know

Current rules prohibit photography.  There are a privileged few that have English Heritage permission to photograph the site. You can view their photos of the War Tunnels here.

Dover Castle is an all-day outing.  In addition to the Wartime Tunnels, there are medieval tunnels, the restored Great Tower, the Regimental Museum, the underground hospital, an Anglo-Saxon church and the battlements.  The Castle is a 10 minute drive from the White Cliffs of Dover.

Admission was a bit steep (£44.20 for a family) , so we opted to purchase an English Heritage membership that day.  The cost of one day’s admission was half the cost of a full year membership and allows free admission to over 400 English Heritage properties.

The tours into the Secret Wartime Tunnels are guided to ensure no one gets lost in the winding maze of passageways down below.  The timing of the last tour varies, so check with the visitor’s desk when you purchase your tickets.

You can actually stay at the castle!  Peverell’s Tower offers self-catering accommodation for two.  The Sergeant Major’s House accommodates 6+ .  I’m a little bit sad we didn’t stay there….maybe next time.

Check times, dates and details before you go.

I Missed You, London (but not really)


I knew it was going to be a perfect morning for my last walk with the dogs. The sun was streaming through the big front windows and a heavy mist hung low over the fields and wrapped around the church tower in the distance.  My week of housesitting in the country was coming to an end. I pulled on my wellies and tattered old Barbour, leashed the dogs and headed down to the fields. I thought about the past week, the serendipitous moments, the theraputic hours spent walking the fields and woods with two appreciative and affectionate dogs. I thought I would miss London.  I didn’t.



I’m convinced my first English housesitting experience was unusual.  The location was spectacular… a small, country village on the outskirts of Salisbury, the lovely old vicarage that overlooked sheep-speckled fields and two beautiful labradors to keep me company. My job was to take care of the house and the two dogs, walk them daily and keep general order around the property.



My mornings consisted of waking and feeding the dogs, chugging a cup of coffee and trying to choose which of the dozen scenic walks we would take that morning.  There is something to be said about crunching through the hoar-covered fields and ancient forests just as the sun hits the horizon.  Clears the head.  Accentuates the need for more coffee.  Afternoons were much the same…a long ramble, a quick walk through town for stops at the butcher or green grocer before heading home for dinner and a night snuggled up on the sofa in front of a fire.


On the weekend, The Mister came to play the role of country gentleman and our daughter came to visit.  We piled the dogs into the car and explored the neighboring towns on Saturday and drove to the beach on a beautiful, sunny almost-spring day. Sound like heaven?  It gets better.

My  first morning in town, the doorbell rang.  I opened it to find a neighbor, who stopped by to see if I needed anything.  We shared a cup of tea and a chat before he was off with a promise to return if  anything came up while the owners were gone. The shopkeepers in town were lovely and helpful.  They called you “luv” and asked if I was”enjoying my time here.” Strangers on the street said “hello” and “you’re a long way from home.”   In my first three days of housesitting, I had two coffee dates, one tea afternoon, two lunches and an invitation to church on Sunday. I met an ex-Royal Navy pilot, numerous retired clergymembers, a woman who was in the midwifery corps that inspired the Call the Midwife series and someone who had, in addition to an amazingly interesting life, Hugh Bonneville as a student (just mentioned in passing).  Somehow I had landed in the Lake Wobegone of England. In addition to everyone in town being good-looking and above average, they were interesting, kind, generous and neighborly. It was unexpected, undeserved and much appreciated.

There were moments that weren’t perfect. I forgot the poo bags on my first walk and had to walk a half mile with a warm poo wrapped in a receipt I found in my pocket.  I managed to blow a fuse in the kitchen the first evening. I stood on the toilet with a flashlight in my teeth and yanked the fuse out with enough force that it ricocheted off the wall and cracked into two pieces.  I did get to meet the electrical supply people in town, though.  They were very nice. There was a trip to the vet and a silly issue with a car key (by silly, I mean I was being completely stupid).  Life is interesting, isn’t it?


So, I’m back in the city, missing the country, needing a dog and a few friendly faces.  Maybe I can talk the owners into an extended vacation.

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.

Betwitched by The Witchery


I was obsessed with the idea of staying at this “restaurant with rooms” the moment I saw it mentioned in a travel magazine (thanks, Marissa). The Witchery by the Castle stands in the heart of the Old City, steps below Edinburgh’s beautiful castle.  Suites are often booked months in advance and fall into the “special occasion” price category with rare exception. I rationalized The Mister’s 50th birthday combined with Valentine’s Day combined with a visit with Daughter #3 qualified as a “special occasion x 3.”   I can rationalize anything if I want it badly enough and I’m sure you would agree a stay was justified.   Alas, we did not dine at The Witchery Restaurant, but we did have the good fortune to book one of the eight sumptuously decorated suites for our weekend in Edinburgh.



The suites are housed in a collection of  buildings dating back to 1635 and restored to their present glory by brilliant owner and restauranteur, James Thompson.   After a fast and comfortable train trip from London, we walked up (and I mean UP) the hill to The Witchery. Roxy met us at reception and happily lugged our suitcases up the winding stone staircase and stopped at a heavy, wooden door with a brass plate stamped “The Library.”  It would be an understatement to describe the Library Suite as opulent, decadent, and luxurious. The antique-filled, almost theatrical decor wraps guests in a transformative experience.  It was hard not to “ooohhh and ahhhhh” my way around the suite as Roxy uncovered hidden door after hidden door.   Champagne upon arrival, breakfast hampers in bed, luxurious bathrooms hidden behind book-lined  doorways, bathtubs for two and discreet, attentive service are all part of The Witchery experience.


Our stay at The Witchery was the first time in my life I ceased to care about touring schedules, event agendas or ticking off sites in a city.  I just wanted to stay in our fabulous little bolt-hole in Edinburgh and luxuriate in my surroundings. I suggest you do the same.

Things to know:

There are 8 Witchery suites:  The Library, Inner Sanctum, Old Rectory, Vestry, Armory, Semphill, Guardroom  and the Heriot.  No two are alike, so spend your time choosing a favorite here .  I’ll have to go and stay 7 more times to determine which suite I think is best.  I’ll do it for you.

The suites do book up quickly.  I booked 5 months ahead.  Check their website for offers.

The Witchery is centrally located on the Royal Mile.  It was very quiet when we were staying (off-season), but if you are concerned with noise from the potentially busy street, choose a suite without street-facing windows.

The Witchery has a “sister” hotel adjacent to Royal Holyrood Park, a short distance from the Royal Mile. You can find details at Prestonfield House .