Walmer Castle—Guns, Gardens and History!

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.)

17 thoughts on “Walmer Castle—Guns, Gardens and History!”

  1. Thank you for this post. I have been to two places in the U S which made me feel a strong sense of sorrow. I have been to the Alamo twice. It seemed very tiny. For me it was filled with a terrible sense of dark. I was surprised that both times I was there the people near us in line were from other countries. The other place which made me feel like crying was Gettysburg. There was a wonderful man who told stories about the area and the events that took place. He was a wonderful volunteer who was there because he wanted others to know where they were. It was another place that made me want to cry. The sadness was overwhelming.
    For me, there is no question that the emotions of the past can remain in certain areas. Thank you again for the wonderful post.

    Reply
    • Annette, I have been to both places you mention, and totally agree with you on the emotional reaction. They really do resonate with a profound aura of sacrifice and sadness. It someone that sticks with you. (I, too, was struck by how small the Alamo is.)

      Good guides can really make a historical site come alive. What a great experience you had at Gettysburg.

      Reply
  2. I am very much enjoying The Diamond of London, Andrea, and also recently saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow filmed at Walter Castle, so your post is particularly interesting. While the AR host showed the Wellington room and Pitt’s stay, she did not mention Lady Hester – clearly an oversight!

    Two historical places that have affected me quite strongly are Gettysburg, which Annette discussed, and another battlefield, Culloden. At each, the sense of loss and of the futility of war seem to linger in the air. I’ve visited each twice now, and it has been the same each time, and I know others feel the same.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for the kind words on Lady Hester, Constance. I’m so glad you enjoyed her story.

      And how fun that you saw Walmer Castle on Antiques Roadshow. It’s amazing how little mention Lady Hester gets in history. I give the englishheritage.org great credit for talking about her achievements on the Walmer castle site.

      I agree with you and Annettte on Gettysburg being such powerful emotional experience. I have never been to Colloden, but can imagine that it would be very similar.

      Reply
  3. One of my favorite places to visit in New Jersey is Jockey Hollow National Historic Park. During the Revolutionary War, it was used by Continental Army as a winter camp site, most memorably during the extremely cold winter of 1779–80. Looking at the woods and rolling hills it’s mind-boggling to think an entire army lived there. You can view replicas of the crude log huts that soldiers lived in, 12 men to a hut, and there were over 1,200 huts built. They cut down the forest for miles around to build them, and for firewood, but the trees have all grown back in the last 200 or so years. You can also find traces of the original huts in the woods.

    Reply
    • Karin, that sounds like an incredible experience. It’s one thing to read about history in a textbook, but to actually see meaningful places really makes them come alive.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for this piece in Walmer Castle. I had read about it in bios of Wellington but didn,t know much of the history and that photo of the garden looks wonderful.

    Two places which have always be been my go to places are Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. My first visit was with my father in 1967 and i have been visiting almost every year since. I discovered Amtrak gets me there quite easily almost door to door! They are inspiring, fascinating places where you can not only soak up the atmosphere and learn a lot if you choose, but relax and enjoy yourself.

    My dream trip cam true in 1984 on my first trip to London. Ever since I was a small child i had dreamed of seeing England. I was like a kid in a candy shop seeing all the places I had only read about in books and seen in movies. I had to pinch myself to make sure i was really there! And the best thing was, it was just like it was in the books i had read and the pictures I looked at.
    I have been back many times to England since, but nothing beats that first ever glimpse of my dream come true!
    I just started “Diamond” and am enjoying it vey much so far.

    Reply
  5. Thank you for this posting, Andrea. The history of Walmer is an amazing one.

    I have wanted to see Mont Saint Michel. It’s such a beautiful island in Normandy.

    Reply
    • Oh, you would love Mont St. Michel. T It’s magical, especially as the tide creates this feeling of enchantment about it. It’s been years since I visited, but I still remember that it felt like a fairytale settingt with its narrow streets and ancient buildings.

      Reply
  6. Two places I love & have been to many times are Gettysburg & Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The place I would love to go is Newport RI to see the Gilded Age “cottages”. My daughter & I are planning on it sometime this year.

    Reply
    • I was fortunate to visit Newport and one of those cottages back in the eighties, Jeanne. They truly are impressive! I hope that you and your daughter will have a great trip. In a similar vein, but on the opposite coast, Hearst Castle is also fun to visit.

      Reply
  7. Places that stay in my memory are the Book Depository and Dealy Plaza in Dallas, Texas, the scene of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I have seen the footage of the assassination many times on television, but actually standing in the Book Depository window gave me chills.

    Reply

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