Andrea here, musing today about another facet of The Diamond of London, my just-published fictional biography on Lady Hester Stanhope. Along with Lady Hester, the book features a number of larger-than-life personages from the Regency era whose lives intertwined with hers. By its very nature, a biography is about people. But in Lady Hester’s case, “place” also had a profound influence on her life.
She grew up at Chevening, one of the grand country houses in England (it now serves as the unofficial country residence of Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary of Great Britain) and also lived at 10 Downing Street while serving at private secretary and hostess to her uncle, William Pitt the Younger while he was prime minister. But the place closest to her heart, and where she blossomed into her adult life and sharpened her strength of character and many talents—including garden design—was at Walmer Castle, a coastal fortress in Kent with a rich and fascinating history.
So I thought I would take you on a short tour of this storied place.
Walmer Castle was commissioned by Henry VIII to be the linchpin in defending the southeast coast of England from invasion, and was finished 1540. Designed as an artillery fortress, it boasted a fearsome battery of cannons pointed out over the strand, ready to sink any enemy ships.
Centuries passed without attack, and yet the area was still considered an important defensive bastion for the country. Walmer became the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinq Ports, a string of five fortresses that continued to stand sentinel against any threat. (The post of Lord Warden still exist today, though it is purely ceremonial.)
However, in Lady Hester’s time, it was still a position of great political and military importance. With the rise of Napoleon, France became Britain’s mortal enemy, and for over a decade, as the Napoleonic Wars raging throughout Europe, invasion was constant worry.
When her uncle, William Pitt the Younger resigned from his first stint as serving as Britain’s prime minister, he was appointed Lord Warden, a post he took very seriously. His duties included being in charge of the local militias and he was constantly reviewing their readiness for battle. A mediocre rider, Pitt was uncomfortable in the saddle, and was often accompanied by Lady Hester, who was a superb horsewoman. She won the admiration and respect of the soldiers for her daredevil riding skills and ebullient personality—a fact that came to play a fun part in Walmer’s storied history.
Pitt was we now call a “workaholic”, working late into the night every day on all the political complexities and conflicts of the British government. His suffered—exacerbated, no doubt, by the copious amounts of port and brandy he drank to calm his nerves. He did enjoy walking outdoors as an escape from the pressures of his duties, but the castle grounds were quite barren and uninteresting.
Lady Hester came up with the idea of creating garden as a refuge for him. In particular, a nearby abandoned chalk pit caught her eye, and she imagined how a grove of trees and tall grasses could create an oasis of tranquility for her beloved uncle. Never mind that she knew nothing about garden design! She set to work studying landscape books and collecting seed catalogues.
Pitt was very moved by her thoughtfulness, and Lady Hester’s gardens have become part of Walmer’s heritage. They still exist to this day and are considered a highlight of the castle and its grounds. (You can read more about them, and the fascinating history of Walmer Castle here.)
Pitt returned to serving as prime minster of Britain in 1804, and took o up residence at 10 Downing Street in London, taking Lady Hester. He returned occasionally to Walmer Castle, but the pressures of wartime leadership took its toll on his fragile health and he died in 1806.
But another Regency-era luminary followed in his footstep. The Duke of Wellington was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinq Ports in 1829, and took up residence at Walmer Castle. Like Pitt, he found the setting very peaceful and loved living there. In fact, he passed away there, and the castle has preserved a Wellington room, with many of his personal effects on display, including his armchair and camp bed.
I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the castle, but I’m hoping to get there this summer and experience for myself the magic of its tranquil beauty and wonderful history.
Have you a special historical place that captures your fancy—either a place you go to often in order to soak up its ambiance, or a “dream trip” to place you long to visit in person?
(All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)