A grand day out. What a lovely Sunday with the family.
We’ve been getting a bit frustrated the last few weekends. Storm Ciara, Storm Dennis and another weekend of wind, rain and generally miserable weather have seen us truly test our list of ‘101 things to do on a rainy day’. Ironically we’ve set ourselves a target of 250 hours outside this year and I laughed when I noticed that we’d only chalked up 2.5 during February. (My wife assures me that it’s because there are still some hours to mark up, but I’m not so sure…) On Friday, going into this weekend (yes, that’s the level of forward planning I’m up to at the moment), I had the idea of delivering on a request my wife made a few weeks ago, which was to go and see more castles (she’s quite keen on a castle, is my wife). A quick search of the ones closest to us confirmed my suspicions that we’d visited all of the decent ones. So I extended my search and stumbled across the name ‘Hever Castle’ which I was sure had been mentioned to be before. A quick bit of research quickly explained why: Hever Castle is the original home of Queen Anne Boleyn and if there is anyone interested in going to see the family home of the Boleyn’s then it’s my wife! (This woman taught me more about Henry VIII’s impact on the UK than an entire childhood of education ever could!)
We were up relatively early for us on a Sunday and skipped our traditional buckwheat pancakes in order to make the most of the day. It still took us a good few hours to get out of the house, although I did manage to braise a pork shoulder in prep for the slow cooker and roast a chicken (rock-and-roll in our house!).
The castle is just over an hour’s drive from us and we arrived there at about 11, which isn’t too bad considering it opens at 10:30. It had clearly rained hard overnight as the ground was sodden and we passed quite a bit of flooding on the way. However, we arrived to bright sunshine and walked straight up to, and through, the gates on showing our booking reference. We’d booked the night before which saves a small amount compared to buying on the day, It cost us £17.80 per person (Piglet was free as an under 5) which is not a cheap day out I realise. That said, we’re National Trust members and make good use of it so I guess we often go to places that cost quite a bit to go in without really registering what it would cost without our memberships. That said, for the day out it gave us, we could have done a lot worse.
We arrived first to the Italian gardens; an elaborate pillared terrace overlooking a manmade lake. The bright sunshine created multiple glorious photo opportunities: all of which I managed to mess up it would seem on looking through them when I got home. We headed quickly towards the Moat Restaurant which a quick bit of internet research indicated was always going to be our best chance for suitable food. That said, I didn’t know for certain that we’d be able to eat anything and was nervously thinking up contingency plans if we couldn’t. It turns out I needn’t have worried.
The first thing I see on walking into the restaurant is a table on which the menu and a clear allergen sign are standing. The allergen sign lists what allergens they keep track of and explains that they have an allergen menu available to customers to use. That’s pretty unusual for a non-chain restaurant and certainly an on-site cafeteria/restaurant. In general they’re all compliant with their allergy responsibilities (having allergy info available and good ones even have some allergens listed on the menu) but they have a captive audience and so there isn’t always much incentive to push them to go above and beyond. As a result, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a fully detailed allergen menu, both for the hot cooked food and the deli options.
I’d actually gone ahead with Piglet to look at the menu while my wife perused the shop for presents ahead of the wave of children’s parties that come around the month of Piglet’s. It was pretty clear from scanning the allergen menu for a few minutes that there were a couple of decent options for all of us. In the end we chose a beer battered fish and chips for me, a vegan dhal with brown rice for my wife and a sausage roll with salad for Piglet. I also had a moment of madness and decided to buy a can of pre-mixed Pimms and lemonade. Rock and roll reference #2! The plan was that Piglet could have some of the fish and chips with me getting some salad if that’s all he wanted to eat.
The food arrived pretty quickly and within a couple of mouthfuls it was pretty clear that both my wife and Piglet had completely lucked out. My wife’s dhal was really tasty and Piglet’s sausage roll was out of this world. So much so that he ate the whole (enormous) thing and was pretty reluctant to let anyone else even try it! My fish and chips were fine but quite disappointing compared to the other two options. I consoled myself with occasional sips of Pimms; desperately pretending it was summer. They also did dairy-free milk alternatives so Piglet had himself a customary babyccino to round things off.
Feeling very chuffed that we’d managed to find such a nice place to spend the (what had turned out to be a wonderfully sunny) day and that the food options had been so good, we turned back on our tracks and headed into the castle that we’d walked in front of before dinner. The castle still has parts of its 13th Century origins (Piglet was very excited about the portcullis and drawbridge) but then was extended by the Tudors and then significantly restored by William Waldorf Astor in the early 20th Century. As a result, you get to experience some of the genuine medieval castle but also experience the spendor that it must have had at the time in the way that it has been renovated.
They provide audio guides that are actually part video guide and interactive tool. Even better, they had a children’s option which Piglet was very excited about once I told him that it would be like the children’s audio guide for Bayeux Tapestry that we visited last summer, and for which he was absolutely riveted the entire way round. This guide was no disappointment and after trying to hurry us through the first two rooms, he suddenly seemed to find the appeal and follow every single word. The fact that some of the sections used the screen and even had puzzles/tasks to complete seemed to delight Piglet and there were certain rooms he would not leave until he had completed (blindly) the tasks. He was particularly keen on matching the wives of Henry VIII with the conditions on which their marriages ended: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. (There will be a test at the end – bonus points for naming the wives to match).
In every room, Piglet would find a corner to sit in and follow the audio meticulously. It was quite adorable to see and caught the attention of quite of a few of the stewards/staff in the castle who I think expected to see him running around, raising the blood pressure of the ones who were responsible for the antique furniture and paintings! When we go to one of the picture galleries; Piglet was delighted to go around finding all the pictures of certain queens and key individuals of the time. It was also all he talked about for the rest of the evening. Some months ago, I got quite excited when he took an interest in his Quantum Entanglement For Babies book but I’m now starting to think, ‘like son, like mother’.
On leaving the castle building, we realised we’d missed a downpour (luckilt) and that the sun was out again. We headed across the the playgrounds to see what they had in store. To say they exceeded my expectations would be an understatement.
We headed towards the younger age bracket playground first (as this is probably more naturally suited to Piglet) and there was a sandy play area with climbing frames and tunnels to climb through and over. Unfortunately the heavy rain fall overnight meant that some of it was a bit flooded and we weren’t really equipped for wet play. At the far end there was a sort of rock garden leading up to a tree house which you could walk over to, using a loose wooden bridge. At the far end was an impressive looking metal tube slide. Piglet wasn’t feeling his most adventurous and so we got him up to the tree house but not down the slide.
At the top of the rock garden end of the younger playground was a gate that takes you into the larger one. This was an entire custom made wooden castle full of all the climbing obstacles you could dream of. For context, when I was a kid I used to draw childish plans of what my dream house would look like. It was complete fantasy with rooms for arcades, a giant ball pit, indoor football pitches, a swimming pool, monorails to take you from one wing to the other, etc… You get the idea. Well this custom castle was the playground equivalent of the houses I used to draw. This construction was 3 stories high, four in one quarter. There was a spiral slide that went right from the highest point, in and out of the walls, and spat you out on the opposite corner. The three floor atrium in the middle had open rope tunnels crossing it 3/4 of the way up. The back of the castle had a secret underground entrance where you climb into a well outside and emerge within the walls. It was quite simply the most amazing children’s apparatus I’ve ever seen. To be fair, Piglet was a bit small to make the most of it at this point and mostly went through with us. I was certainly far too scared to climb through the rope tunnels so there was no way I would be able to persuade him to. It’s something I’ll definitely come back to though; especially as he gets older.
When Piglet had had enough, and I’d managed to pick my jaw back off the ground at the sheer scale of it, we headed off to make the most of the rest of the gardens; knowing that we’d need to think about heading back home for dinner at some point. Piglet was very keen to take photos and is very sweet with it when he does. We kept an old point-and-click Sony camera from back in the days that smartphones weren’t instantly better and more portable. It’s a bit scratched and dated but it works and means we can let Piglet use it with little to no regrets. He’s certainly got the concept and likes to take photos of the most random things. It was very important to him that he took photos of the ducks as we crossed over the moat back past the castle again.
There are a couple of mazes at Hever and Piglet is a big fan. We’d dangled it as a motivation for later in the day, knowing that we’d be able to use it as a enthusiasm boost if he was starting to flag at any point. After leaving the playgrounds the weather had started to turn and we were suitably dressed in coats but it still wasn’t that pleasant to be outside. We would never be forgiven if we left without visiting the maze so we headed there as a last port of call. Unfortunately just a few steps in (having tried to go in via the exit the first time), it was clear that the route was marked with long deep puddles. I didn’t fancy getting stuck in a fairly big maze as the weather turned, knowing that we had to wade through cold water to get back out again and so we all decided to give it a miss. Also we’d read that there was a “water maze” which we thought might be more practical. However having walked a fair way around the edge of the lake to get to it we realised that that wasn’t open until later in the year. Piglet took it pretty well but was clearly fairly disappointed not to have been given a chance to go to either. We headed towards a cafe that we’d seen earlier on the way back to the car but found that was closed by now too. The tiredness from a full day walking (I was starting to flag a bit by now and we’d barely carried him at all), the mis-sold promise of a snack and the disappointment of the mazes was the only display of frustration and threenager-ness that we had all day. He’d been an absolute joy the rest of the day.
We got back to our car and I was surprised to see how few were left in the car park. The day had disappeared much more quickly than any of us had realised. We were already planning our next visit by the time we drove off the grounds. We managed to keep Piglet awake to a service station on the way home (just) and then replenished our energy levels for the rest of the drive home.
The day worked as a family rebuild for us all brilliantly. I think we’d all become a bit frustrated and stir-crazy at the last few weekends stuck in the house. They’d followed unusually busy working weeks for my wife and I, with Piglet not getting the calm, attentive parents he’d like as a result. I felt much closer to my wife and son by the end of the day than I’d felt the evening before. Even the long list of chores left over from a busy weekend weren’t enough to dent my spirits. I forget sometimes that you need to give yourself reasons to catch up on the jobs rather than focusing on them as the primary task. Family reset complete.
P.S. I promised there’d be a quiz. How did the six marriages end, anyone? And bonus points for naming the queen in each case. Feel free to answer in the comments!