A coastal artillery fort built on the orders of King Henry VIII in light of a threatened Catholic invasion, Walmer Castle on the Kentish coast is officially the residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.
What was a rather functional artillery platform has been embellished significantly in the years since it became the official residence of the Lord Warden in 1708, creating a comfortable home for holders of the title who have included Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, the Duke of Wellington and bookseller WH Smith.
The ‘castle’, located about a two hour, 10 minute train journey from London (and then a mile walk from Walmer Station), was constructed in 1539 as one of a string of forts – others include nearby Deal Castle and the long gone Sandown Castle – designed to protect the watery stretch between Goodwin Sands and the coast known as the Downs.
Its low circular design, featuring a central ‘keep’ reached by a drawbridge and surrounded by a curtain wall with four projecting, semi-circular bastions, was influenced by the need to defend against heavy artillery and provide a platform for guns.
Initially garrisoned with ten gunners, four soldiers and two porters under the command of a captain and a lieutenant, Walmer saw little action during Tudor times but was the site of a siege during the Civil War.
Obsolete by the end of the 17th century, it was the Duke of Dorset who was the first Lord Warden (an office created in the thirteenth century to oversee the affairs of the Cinque Ports Confederation, a grouping of five ports including Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich) to use Walmer Castle as a residence, embarking on a renovation and extension of the existing structure.
Further alterations was carried out by successive Lords Warden, the most extensive being those made by the 2nd Earl Granville, Lord Warden between 1865 and 1891, who commissioned architect George Devey to oversee the additions.
The gardens, meanwhile, which are well worth visiting in their own right, were also Granville’s work as well as that of an earlier Lord Warden, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who was Lord Warden between 1792 and 1806.
The Duke of Wellington (Lord Warden between 1829 and 1852) reputedly enjoyed his time staying at the castle – he was even visited by the young Princess Victoria here in 1835 (she later stayed for a month with her family when Queen) and died here on 14th September 1852. His room can still be seen inside – the contents include the armchair he was sitting in when he died (the rooms also include a small museum dedicated to Wellington and another dedicated to William Pitt).
Not all Lords Warden enjoyed the property. Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Warden between 1941 and 1965, never stayed here but Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia and Lord Warden between 1966 and 1978, did and the Queen Mother, Lord Warden between 1978 and 2002, was a regular visitor.
The castle was opened to the public soon after responsibility for it was transferred from the War Office to the Ministry of Works in 1905. It is now under the care of English Heritage and the rooms inside are decorated as they were in the 1930s (it was WH Smith who ensured historic furnishings at Walmer could not be removed). There are even a couple of holiday cottages on site which can now be rented.
WHERE: Walmer Castle, Kingsdown Road, Deal, Kent; WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily (until 6th July); COST: Adults £7.90/Children (5-15 years) £4.70/Concession £7.10; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/walmer-castle-and-gardens/.