Hever Castle

Back in the early 1900’s when America seemed to be producing millionaires at an exponential rate, one man stood head and shoulders above the rest. Born to an enormously wealthy family whose fortune was built on fur trading, real estate and opium, William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919) was brought into this world with his life already mapped out. After suffering the traumatic experience of being sent away to Europe for his education he later returned to America to study law, although this wasn’t to be his chosen career. Once graduated, he took over the running of his father's considerable estates, and following in the family tradition also became a successful financier and statesman.

Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius
However, his life took an unexpected turn when in 1882 he was appointed ‘Minister to Italy’ by the then US President, Chester A. Arthur.

This was a position that required William Astor to once again leave his home land and spend the next three years of his life in Rome.

 It was during this time that he developed a passion for ancient Roman history, but this became an obsession after visiting the ruined city of Pompeii. Destroyed and buried during a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii had remained lost and buried for nearly 1700 years. It would have remained so had it not been accidentally rediscovered in 1748.

Italian gardens at Hever castle
It was the intoxicating nature of this place that had touched Williams Astor’s heart, a mixture of unavoidable tragedy balanced seductively with the haunting beauty of a civilisation frozen in time.

Inspired by what he saw, he developed an almost compulsive desire to obtain anything that reflected his feelings for the place.

It was here, surrounded by the outstanding beauty of classical architecture, that his plan for the perfect Edwardian pleasure garden was conceived. But there was just one problem; he had nowhere to build it.

In early 1890, five years after William returned from his appointment in Rome, his father John Jacob Astor III died leaving him a personal fortune so vast that it made him easily the richest man in America, if not the world. One year later, after a family feud got out of hand, he moved to England.

At first Astor settled in London renting Lansdown House for a few years, but eventually he purchased a country estate at Cliveden–on-Thames that would act as his main residence.

The search for a suitable property with which to fulfill his pompeiian dream continued though, but it was to be a further ten years before he eventually committed to Hever Castle.

At this time it was just a small dilapidated castle, you can imagine its state of disrepair especially as the previous owners used to overwinter their farm animals inside it on the ground floor. Astor immediately called for his collection of classical artifacts to be shipped over from Italy.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
Although Hever Castle is not a ‘castle’ in the strictest sense of the word, it is by definition a fortified manor house.

Part of its protection was gained through the construction of the surrounding moats.

However, in order to guarantee these main lines of defence a constant supply of water was required; this was why the Castle was built here on low lying marsh land.

Unfortunately this meant that the romantic images of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn walking hand in hand across the beautifully manicured gardens would only have happened if they were prepared to wear waders!

Romantic image of an Edwardian Pleasure garden
It is difficult for us to understand today, but at the beginning of the 20th century the art of recreational gardening was still very much a pastime for the wealthy.

The Edwardian pleasure gardens (as they are known today) were the pinnacle of this art, an expression of culture, refinement and financial power. But it was the sheer scale of this project combined with an almost analytical attention to detail that put these gardens at Hever into a league of their own.

To give you some idea of the importance that Astor placed on his grand design, it took an entire year just to think it through and agree the plans.

William Waldorf Astor
In 1904 work commenced on such an unprecedented scale that it is unlikely ever to be equalled. William knew that he was creating something quite unique here and he took some unusual steps to protect his investment. While construction was in progress no visitors were allowed to stay over night.

This was to remove the temptation of guests slipping out under the cover of darkness for a crafty peek. His workmen, and there were over a thousand of them, were kept mostly on site.

Their accommodation, food, and more importantly beer were all provided at Astor’s expense and this helped to prevent them from wandering off and blabbing. If all else failed, he slept with a revolver under his pillow which was to be used as a last line of defence. This was particularly important for warding off horticultural intruders (presumably armed with sketchbook and pen) who may conspire to jump over the fence and steal his ideas.

Man-made lake in the grounds of Hever
If employing a thousand men to landscape a garden seems a little excessive then you would be right. The completed gardens that you see today probably took no more than between 250 and 300 craftsmen to finish.

The rest of the work force, which accounted for almost 800 men, were engaged in the creation of the magnificent man-made lake that you see just west of the castle. Imagine if you can thirty five acres of open marsh land dug down to 6ft just by hand and spade. Incredibly this feat of human engineering was completed in less than two years, but what makes this all the more fantastic is that because their food, beer and shelter were already provided, most of the labourers had to work unpaid!

Italian fountains at Hever
To supply the amount of block work and natural stone needed to complete the Italian gardens and beloved Pompeiian wall, Astor looked to the local quarries at Tunbridge Wells. Such was the amount required that two of these quarries were effectively emptied in trying to keep pace with the building work. What’s more remarkable is that every single piece of stone had to be transported here by horse and cart.

Some of the larger pieces as used in the Pergola Walk weighed upwards of several tonnes! Fortunately William Astor went to the trouble of installing a light steam railway around the garden perimeters, as well as several great steam engines to give his men a fighting chance.

Hever Castle
Nothing was going to stand in the way of completing his vision and that included spending the enormous sums required to get what he wanted. The cost of plants alone came in at around £25,000, that’s equivalent to approximately £1,000,000 in today’s money.

Despite the enormous practical challenges that William Astor faced, the words ‘…It can't be done…’ always managed to evaporate once enough resources were thrown at it.

An example of this was the need to supply mature trees for the strip of woodland that ran along Anne Boleyn’s walk. The solution to this was to take a team of men down to Ashdown forest, choose the trees which took his fancy and wait for them to be dug up and transported the 12 miles back to Hever. It was achieved but each tree took ten men and a team of four horses!

Hermits cave at Hever
Everything was thought out down to the last detail, even the ‘fashionable’ hermit's cave was artistically presented by the exposed roots of a gnarly old beech tree.

To further entertain his guests, a ‘live-in’ hermit was employed to partake in witty banter, but unfortunately there was a flaw in the plan. One of the hermits had developed a strong taste for beer, something that may have been picked up from working on Hever Lake. As it turned out he spent more time in the local King Henry VIII Inn than he did in his cave and as a result his entertaining stories and witty banter became increasingly rude as alcohol took effect. This was a rather unsettling experience, particularly for the fragile constitutions of Edwardian ladies. With the cave set precariously close to the hermit’s man-made pond it made feinting a dangerous and possibly life threatening response. Clearly believing that the drunk hadn’t experienced enough hardship in his life to successfully use in the role of hermit, William Astor decided that more training was required and so sacked him after just three weeks of employment.

Tudor effect extension to the castle at Hever
His ideas for Hever didn't just stop at the gardens; there was plenty of work to be done on the living quarters too. As with the garden, things had to be done exactly how he saw it no matter what the cost involved.

With Hever being on the small side, it was considered unsuitable for the style of entertaining he was accustomed to. To fit in with the period feel of the outer walls, he completely restored the Castle's interior before adding an interconnecting mock Tudor village. What is more remarkable is that before they could even consider starting with the building work there were two further obstacles that needed to be overcome. In true Astor fashion the road, which used to run alongside the castle and therefore directly in the path of his new building scheme, was completely removed and then re-laid almost a hundred yards away. But this pales into insignificance when compared to the successful diversion of the river Eden, a formidable task undertaken for the very same reason!

Roman fountain at the end of the Italian garden
Even after a century, the detail and workmanship still stands up to close inspection, but no more so than the superbly executed Pompeiian wall that runs along the south facing side of the Italian gardens.

Littered with a collection of exquisite Roman artefacts, some of which are up to 2000 years old, what you see today is the realisation of one man's dream who had the power, money and more importantly the determination and drive to achieve it. But the greatest gift that Astor has given us is what we see here today. Because the gardens have now had a century to mature it is us, and not the man himself, who can experience the reality of William Astor’s dream, the pinnacle of Edwardian pleasure gardens as he envisioned over 120 years ago.

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