Hever Castle on a sublime summer day.
It would seem like from my latest posts that I must’ve lost interest in following Cornelia’s and Emily’s story, but that is hardly the case. Every day I read a bit of the book, and write about the girls, and continue my research on them and their travels. And any time I am in the West End, especially when I’m going to the theatre, I think of them and imagine them strolling through these same streets (sometimes in those crazy white rabbit fur capes).
Because of the mishap with the Montcalm, and the eight days waiting in Canada for another ship, compounded with Cornelia being bedridden in Southampton with the measles for ten days, the girls were severely delayed in getting to London, so their time in the city was cut rather short. Whereas I’m spending nearly five weeks here, the girls barely got more than two. So aside from a few passing references to places they visited, and their stories from Hampton Court and Easton Glebe (more on that in a later post), there is very little for me to search out in London. Which I don’t mind, as it gives me some free time to have a few new experiences of my own, while also allowing me to revisit parts of my own past travels.
Something I was keen to do, which I had never done before, was tour Hever Castle, the onetime home of Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and – a few centuries later – William Astor. I have a fascination with Tudor history, and since my early days have always been staunchly in the Boleyn camp, so I was eager for the chance to finally visit their home.
My neighbor and new friend Sabrina and I went out to Hever Castle on June 25th (the wedding anniversary of my parents, John and Janet Crow, by the way). We were pleased to learn that the castle would be hosting special activities and attractions that day, as part of Armed Services weekend. All the better, we thought. I was especially pleased, since Our Hearts Were Young and Gay has its own tie-in to World War II (once again, more on that in a later post).
The train ride through the countryside of Kent couldn’t have been prettier or more pleasant. At one of those picturesque little stations decked out with hanging baskets, we changed from the big Southeastern Railway train to a smaller, regional train which took us to Hever Station.
It was then just a brief walk through some fields and country lanes, and up past an ancient half-timbered pub and the village church and graveyard, to reach Hever Castle. Immediately we were struck with the beauty and the layout of the grounds. Whereas some of the great estates have elaborate, ostentatious grounds, Hever Castle and its surroundings were beautiful in an understated, natural way.
The grounds were buzzing with all sorts of interesting sights. In the center of everything was a World War II spitfire, being watched over by gentlemen dressed as members of the Home Guard. Further on, in front of the castle was parked a vintage double-decker bus, which had been turned into an interactive experience called “London During the Blitz”. There were activities for kids, such as the sobering craft project of making their own gas masks. And I was proud to see some tents and a trio of left-hand drive jeeps representing the American troops who had flooded into England once the US had entered the war.
But first we wanted to step a little further back into history and tour the castle. Sabrina and I viewed a lot of the rooms together, but soon got separated as we went at our own paces. I was glad she had been spared my lengthy conversation with one of the docents about Henry VIII, the Boleyns, and who murdered the Princes in the Tower.
After being on Henry’s turf at Hampton Court, it felt good to be here in Boleyn territory, where the king had been just the lovesick suitor of Anne. Of course, later he would have her beheaded, seizing Hever Castle from her family and then giving it to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves – who, on balance, probably fared the best of all of Henry’s wives.
Sabrina and I met up at the gift shop and cafe, and after a tasty bite of lunch, we headed over to the gardens and a series of tents. The largest tent was serving as the grand stand for a trio of female singers in period dress, who were performing big band hits of the war years.
Next to the tents, a pick-up game which appeared to be half-cricket and half-baseball, was being played by people dressed in G.I. uniforms – soldiers and sailors both – as well as a few women who were sporting “A League of Their Own” baseball uniforms. There were also a few “civilians”, also in period dress, who had joined the game, while a large group of men and women surrounding us, 1940s from head to toe, merrily cheered them on.
There was something magical about that game, everyone laughing and delighting in the spectacle – the mood was ebullient and infectious, and Sabrina and I were swept up in the joy and spirit of it all. The uniforms, the clothes, even the hairstyles, with “Chattanooga Choo Choo” being sung in the background – it all looked and felt so authentic, that this easily could have been the summer of 1942, with everyone taking a brief respite from the worry of the war for a bit of happiness and fun. Once again I found the edges of time and space blurring, and it was quite a wondrous sensation to be here seventy-five summers ago.
After enjoying the game and the summer of ’42 for a while, we checked out the tents and were particularly struck by the one selling handmade reproductions of 1940s hats. Oh, there were some heavenly creations! It made me want to come back next year in vintage apparel. I very much wanted to be part of that homefront ballgame crowd, and slip into their 1940s world again, hopefully for more than just a moment or two.
Our last stop, albeit an extensive one, was touring the flower gardens and enormous man-made lake. All of this had been installed by William Astor when he purchased Hever Castle in 1903. On the lake, folks were out boating, while a mother swan sat at the water’s edge with her offspring – though larger than babies, they still had all of that sweet, soft-looking grey fluff and were quite adorable.
Museum legs had begun to set in a bit for both of us, so we made our way back to the train station, then on to London and the 21st century. Along the way, we looked through our photos, and talked about the centuries of history we had just taken in, all in a matter of a few short hours. Sabrina and I agreed that the ballgame had been the best part of an all-around terrific day. And I had no doubt that Hever Castle day would end up being one of my favorite days of the entire trip.
Top Row: The charm of a village train station; Hever Castle, the London Blitz double-decker bus, and a glimpse of William Astor’s Tudor Village; Henry VIII, that jerk, slept here.
Middle Row: … And the crowd is ecstatic; Winston Churchill embraces his American side and bats baseball-style; safe at third, to everyone’s delight.
Bottom Row: A treasure trove of hats; Sabrina photographing roses; a swan and her little ones head to the water.