Penshurst Place and Garden in Kent, known as 'the Garden of England.' We ended our trip here, visiting with old friends who have now lived in Sevenoaks for many years and seeing a little more of a part of England that has perhaps an embarassment of riches. On a previous trip, we visited Chartwell (Churchill's home from 1924 to the end of his life) and Sissinghurst Castle, whose beautiful garden was created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s. Both were absolutely wonderful and memorable.
On this visit, our friends Luc and Lorraine took us to three castles that were equally as wonderful, one of which is practically within walking distance of their house: Knole, referred to as "England's forgotten palace." Set in a medieval deer park (and yes, there are deer everywhere and they walk up quite close to people), Knole is one of England's most important and complete historic houses. It was remodeled by the family of Vita Sackville-West, who still live here today and have for the last 400 years.
Penshurst is one of England's oldest family homes, and it has belonged to royalty and nobles -- including Henry VIII -- for more than six centuries. The castle's Barons Hall, dating from 1341, is magnificent. Sir John Julius Norwich has described it as "one of the grandest rooms in the world" and it has featured in several films, including 'The Princess Bride.' But Penshurst's formal gardens really knock your socks off. An 11 acre series of walled gardens create garden 'rooms,' each one distinct from another, with different foliage and blooms occurring throughout the year.
Hever Castle & Gardens is noteworthy for its double moated, 13th century castle which was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. Its gardens are beautiful as well, but the water maze might be the property's most popular feature!
Kent is also home to Leeds Castle, Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery, Spa Valley Railway, Canterbury Cathedral, Dover Castle, and the home of Charles Darwin (an English Heritage property), among many other noteworthy attractions.
Regrettably, I was not able to visit the Great Dixter House & Gardens, which is in nearby East Sussex. I'd especially wanted to visit Great Dixter because the manor house there -- with one of the largest surviving timber-framed halls in the country -- was the longtime home of noted British gardener and gardening writer Christopher Lloyd, and the gardens consistently appear on a short list of top gardens in England. But additionally, readers of my Istanbul book may recall that I included an essay entitled 'The Turkish Rose' by Fergus Garrett, who is the head gardener at Great Dixter. It's a wonderful piece, and I'd hoped to meet him in person. Ah well, as the French say, il faut toujours garder une perle pour la prochaine fois (it's necessary to save a pearl for the next time)...
Finally, I have come to the end of this series of posts, and therefore, I'm about to start posting like mad on a number of other topics and destinations: the pile I've amassed for blog posts is a leaning tower of papers, and needs to be reduced!
The photo of the London Eye below, as seen from the Kensington Gardens, is a reminder to either reserve in advance or arrive early to buy your tickets. My daughter really wanted to go, and we waffled as my husband is afraid of heights and wasn't keen on it, and then we made a last-minute decision to go but when we arrived in the late morning the wait was an hour and a half. La prochaine fois!