Four hundred years ago, it has been written, the beam of history was fixed on Hever Castle. It was to illuminate the place with a hectic glory for several years, a light which faded to a baleful glow and finally and distrously disappered. The sunlit peace which envelopes Hever Castle and its gardens today is in startling contrast.
The historical background to the gardens at Hever is of such interest that it must be outlined before any detailed description of them is undertaken. The Castle, in the sixteenth century, was the home of the Boleyns, a worldly ambitious family whose social aspirations were, literally, crowned, when the daughter of the house, Anne, achieved marriage with King Henry VIII. After Anne´s execution the fortunes of the Boleyns and of their home declined. In the first years of the present century, the Castle itself was lived by a farmer. The proud banqueting hall had become a kitchen, hung with hams. Sacks of corn and potatoes were stacked in upper chambers that were haunted with memories of royal lovemaking.
Then in 1903 an American, and a great lover of Britain and its gardens, saw the little moated castle, fell in love with it, and set about its restoration. The development of the gardens was spectacular: the course of the River Eden was changed; public roads were moved further away, and out of sight, a 35 acre lake was conjured in some of the low-lying meadows which lay around. To beautify his new pleasure grounds Mr Astor transported fully-grown trees from Ashdown Forest, a specialized art in which Americans have always excelled, and rocks were moved in to edge the lake and from cascade. All this was done on a scale unseen in England since Joseph Paxton moved the great rocks at Chatsworth, causing his patron to say that the spirit of Druid inspires Mr Paxton in these bulky removals.
A totally new landscape was conjured round the castle itself, where a series of new gardens sprang into being. To the west, Anne Boleyn´s Orchard was set out and thousands of daffodils were planted to lay a golden carpet every spring. In 1906 another area was planned, and dedicated to King Henry´s luckless queen. This lies to the east of the Castle, and comprises that favourite device of the Tudors, a maze. Nearby, and framed in perfectly clipped yew, are glowing beds of scarlet tulips and red Frensham roses. An interesting centre-piece in this part of the new garden is a gilded astrolabe, which the present owner, Lord Astor of Hever, describes in his careful notes on the garden , as an´old astronomical instrument for measuring the altitude of celestial bodies, from which it is possible to estimate, roughly, time and latitude.
As Tudor in feeling as the Maze is the nearby Herb Garden, set out with all the herbsbeloved of cooks of long ago, such as sage, thyme, mint and golden marjoram aromatic plants with spicy leaves that keep their seeming and savour all the winter long.
Not far away from the Herb Garden lies a garden with happier associations than those connected with unfortunate Anne Boleyn. This is the Silver Garden, laid out in October 1970 to commemorate Lord and Lady Astor´s Silver Wedding. Here are to be found all the various plants of grey and argent foliage which are so popular with modern garden planners: artemisia, santolina, stachys, anaphalis, and a dozen others. Many of them keep their lucent leaves all the year round and so add a welcome glint and glitter to the garden , even in winter.
The gardens at Hever are many and varied. The Rhododendron Walk is in full beauty in early summer, with the scented Loders White, and the pink budded King George as its star attractions. Recently Mr Astor´s original Golden Stairs and Quarry Garden were cleared and planted anew with shade-loving plants such as hostas, astilbes and Kurume azaleas, with, where there is a patch of sunlight, yellow brooms and hypericums to give their individual touches of gold.
By far the most unusual feature of the gardens at Hever is the Italian Garden. Here are collected the classical statuary and sculpture which Mr Astor amassed while American Ambassador in Rome. But, being a man of taste and tact, he was careful to place his collection of sculptures so that il could not be seen from the Tudor Castle, with which it might have looked out of place. The Italian Garden is approached by crossing the outer moat and following a wide path with lawn on either side. The statuary, Corinthian colums, sarcophagi and marble gods and goddesses are placed under a long wall of old stone; this is an eighth of a mile long, and richly clothed, for all its length, with roses, magnolias and vines. It is the inspired juxtaposition of foliage and flower with stonework and marble which makes the succes of this very special part of the garden at Hever. Marble, under grey English skies, can look cold and forbidding: it needs flowers and the trailing leaves of climbing plants to set it off, and soften the effect.
The gar dens at Hever Castle, with their variety, their historical associations and their beautiful setting, present as fair a prospect as any in Britain. Within easy reach of London, they should come very high on any list of gardens that must be visited.