Taking the plunge into the cool waters of Hever Castle lake was something like a dream come true. I had spent years walking round its shore and boating on its surface — now I was finally in it. Swimming past the lily pads beneath the wooden footbridge, I struck out for the centre of the lake, watched only by a family of ducks preening in the morning sun.
With towers, battlements, a moat and drawbridge, the castle itself lives up to all the fairytale expectations. It was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife, but the 38-acre lake, and the various follies around it, were created by a much later owner, William Waldorf Astor, then America’s richest man.
In the middle of the lake, I rang the floating bell, then took in the view of the Italian loggia that spans the western shore. I swam north to the Japanese tea house, then floated on my back as a flock of honking geese flew directly over me. You can’t arrange these moments but Hever has a kind of magic where they often seem to happen. Hard to believe I was less than 25 miles from Trafalgar Square.
The castle, which sits amid rolling countryside just east of the Kent town of Edenbridge, has been open to the public since 1963 but the lake has always been off limits, apart from an annual triathlon. The only other exception was in the 1920s, when the castle’s then owner, John Jacob Astor, hosted summer parties for the staff of his newspaper, The Times. Some 3,500 employees came down from London on these occasions to swim in the lake and picnic on the lawns.
Such celebrations would have been unthinkable this socially distanced summer, but ironically the pandemic did play a role in the lake being opened up. Kenton Ward, a local fitness enthusiast and entrepreneur whose ancestors had been housekeepers at the castle, had long fantasised about setting up swimming sessions in the lake. When pools in the capital were closed down in the pandemic, he began to hear complaints from Kent residents about other nearby rivers and ponds becoming clogged with visiting Londoners. So Ward, the founder of an events and ticketing company, approached the castle’s owners and on July 21, the first swimmers were allowed to dive in.
“It can be a life-affirming experience for people stuck in their houses for so many long weeks, to finally get out in the open and breathe,” says Ward. “It feels slightly bonkers to be swimming in the lake at all but it’s truly beautiful.”
Trains from London Bridge to Hever’s little station take about 45 minutes, but those coming from further afield, or those eager to spend a little longer among the castle’s historic surrounds, can stay at its own bed and breakfast. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and, after being buzzed through private gates away from the castle’s main entrance, we drove up to the replica Tudor “village” built by the Astors at the turn of the 20th century. The buildings, interconnected with a pretty courtyard at their heart, are attached to the original 13th-century castle by a corridor over the moat. Two wings (which made up the original Astor home and their servants’ quarters) were turned into a 28-room B&B eight years ago.
After a lazy hour savouring the views of the moat and castle (it was tempting to take an afternoon snooze in what would be the biggest and comfiest bed I have ever slept in) we left our suite for afternoon tea at the Pavilion, a lakeside restaurant beside the castle’s rose gardens. Later we attempted to walk off our scones and cream by exploring some of the 125 acres of grounds. One of the luxuries of staying here is the freedom to stroll through the gardens when the day-trippers have gone home and visit the castle’s warren of Tudor rooms — including Henry VIII’s bedchamber and the spectacular great hall — undisturbed.
The castle was owned by four Tudor monarchs but its links with Britain’s rulers continued long afterwards. Queen Victoria visited in 1838 (calling it “a curious old place”); Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip would join the Astors on shoots, and Princess Margaret was also a regular house guest. Meanwhile a succession of Conservative prime ministers — from Winston Churchill to Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath — came to enjoy the Astors’ hospitality.
As well as owning The Times, John Jacob Astor was the Tory MP for Dover and he built a friendship with Churchill based on their mutual love of art and their Kent estates. They would sit together by the loggia and paint the Italianate gardens and lake. Many Hever scenes that Churchill painted still hang today in Chartwell, his estate four miles to the north.
John Jacob’s father, William Waldorf Astor, had bought Hever in 1903 and set about the most ambitious private engineering project of its time. The Jeff Bezos of his day, Astor juggled vanity projects across the world, from his eponymous New York hotel to Cliveden, the grand stately home on the Thames in Buckinghamshire. At Hever, he demanded that the river Eden, bridge and village were moved to afford the family more privacy, and created the lake, loggia and acres of formal Italian gardens to house part of his enormous collection of Italian sculptures. The five-year project cost about £13m — equivalent to £1.5bn today (and a sum that seems even more excessive set against the £9m the current owners, the Guthrie family, paid for the estate in 1983).
As I swam across the lake it wasn’t difficult to imagine the 800 labourers who dug deep into the meadows around the clock. Sundays remained a day of rest only after the local vicar intervened and a steam railway was installed to transport the mud away. But soon, Astor had the English playground of his dreams.
After roaming through the castle dreaming of the past, it was time to return to the suite and change for dinner. A 10-minute stroll through the grounds is the King Henry VIII, a cosy, half-timbered pub also owned by the Guthries. There has been an inn on the site since the late 16th century. At one time it was called the “Bull and Butcher”, a play on the Bullen family (the original name of the Boleyns) and their children’s fate at the hand of Henry.
More recently the pub was run by John Jacob Astor’s first world war batman — he saved his boss on the frontline and was rewarded with a lifetime lease on the idyllic country pub. A later landlord was gangster George Francis, linked to the Kray brothers and the notorious Brink’s-Mat robbery; legend has it is where the audacious heist was planned.
After an early coffee-fuelled wake-up call, it was time for the highlight of my visit. You can either swim in the evening at the lake before a hearty meal at the Henry — as many guests do — or you can save it for the morning.
Past the yew tree maze and through the breathtaking Italianate gardens, I caught a first glimpse of the serene water through the loggia in the morning light. A grove of weeping willows makes the ideal natural changing room.
Swimming the Hever way might not be to everyone’s taste. Stepping into the warm water your feet squelch into an oozy mud. But there is also a welcome absence of monotonous swimming lanes, and tight skin and loss of taste courtesy of chlorine. Just glorious open space and fresh water.
The lake is vast enough that even when at its fullest — as many as 90 swimmers have attended on warm evenings — you can feel completely alone. That morning, there were about 30 brave souls taking the plunge. Although the lake’s temperature can be as high as 29C, it was a chilly 13C and I was thankful for my wetsuit.
The health benefits of open-water swimming are well documented. After just one 400-metre loop, I could feel my endorphins flowing freely. Not only did I feel like I had done an hour of yoga, I also felt a sense of achievement.
After another round of the lake, I was ready for breakfast served in a hall fit for kings back at the castle. It didn’t surprise me that many B&B guests are regulars: one London couple have been three times since lockdown, each time trying out a different room.
As I left the estate and the gates closed behind me, I imagined how my fellow journalists felt a century ago as they left the grounds from their summer party. I won’t be leaving it that long before I’m back again.
Suzanne Blumsom was a guest of the Hever Castle Bed and Breakfast, where doubles cost from £180 per night. Swimming sessions cost £11 (or £15.95 including an induction and swim hat for first-time visitors) and must be booked at hevercastleswimming.co.uk. Times are limited: the lake is open to swimmers on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings until the end of September; it will reopen in April.
Hever makes a good base for a history-themed short break. Just over a mile to the east is Chiddingstone, the best preserved example of a Tudor village and now owned almost in its entirety by the National Trust, and two miles beyond it is Penshurst Place, a medieval stately home with spectacular gardens. Chartwell, Churchill’s former home, is just to the north while Knole Park, an imposing Tudor house surrounded by 1,000 acres of deer park, is a 20-minute drive; both are run by the National Trust
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