Sussex columnist visits Hever Castle – childhood home of Anne Boleyn – for day of family fun and history

Sussex has a huge amount to offer, but if you don’t mind venturing a little further afield a fun family day out awaits you.

My family and I were invited to visit Hever Castle, in Kent, which is around an hour’s drive from Worthing. It was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife, who became Queen of England for just 1,000 days.

It is also home to stunning gardens, a yew maze, a water maze, a huge children’s play area, miniature model houses, a boating lake, archery, walks and loads more.

We arrived as Hever Castle opened, and it’s a good thing we did as we easily spent a full day there.

We were directed to the lake view car park, and entered Hever from this way. You can also enter from the other side of the grounds at the top gate.

Coming in the way we did means you stumble upon the boating lake first, and the beautiful Italian Loggia and Japanese Tea House.

I looked up the history of the lake and it’s man-made. The land was excavated in 1904 by a team of 800 men, after it was dreamed up by then-owner of the castle William Waldorf Astor. They worked day and night (except for Sundays) and it was completed and filled in two years later in 1906. I found this fascinating, and loved that you can take 20-minute boat tours (additional charge) to enjoy the stunning scenery.

Next, we had a quick potter in the Courtyard Shop as we walked past and came out £75 lighter having seen exactly the kind of outdoor mirror we’ve wanted for ages. We also took advantage of using the next-door Lavender Loos, which my daughter said were ‘the nicest toilets ever’ as they were super clean and even smelled of lavender. All jokes aside, it’s so important to find the facilities to be clean as it makes a real difference to your day and your overall impression of a place. Particularly when you have young children who struggle not to touch everything they go near!

As we walked towards the castle, we enjoyed the manicured lawns, rose garden, Italian garden and the stunning tulips, which were in blossom throughout the flowerbeds.

As you marvel at the gardens, you also start getting beautiful vistas of the castle, the history of which dates back 600 years. It has ‘one of the best collections of Tudor portraits after the National Portrait Gallery’ and gives a fascinating insight into the tumultuous series of events that changed the history of Britain, religion and the monarchy.

As you enter the castle, you’re thrust into a Tudor world in a tranquil courtyard, where you can also pick up an audio guide (included in standard ticket admission) if you would like. There’s different options for adults and children, which is a great way to get any little people with you more interested and included.

My two children (aged four and nine) loved having control of the screens, which also featured games for them to play, such as ‘find the painting’ or ‘feed Henry V111’.

Anyone who knows me knows I adore an audio tour, so I was in my element. It’s such a great way to bring history alive, and allows you to look around and take everything in, instead of having to read endless signs. And the tour was just the right length to make you feel like you’d got a good sense of the castle, without being overwhelmed.

After a quick stop for lunch – we brought a picnic this time, but there are lots of food carts offering options like Greek souvlaki and doughnuts, as well as two cafés on site – the kids were begging us to do the Yew Maze.

It’s just to the right of the castle forecourt and measures 80 feet by 80 feet. It was built in the Edwardian era by William Waldorf Astor, so is around 100 years old, and is no doubt just as fun now as it ever was.

We had so much fun coming to dead ends, winding back on ourselves, and trying different pathways. To get to the centre felt like a real achievement!

Our children did it another couple of times, and I’m sure would have done it more if there wasn’t so much else to see and do.

We also did the water maze, which consists of a series of concentric stepping stone walkways sitting over water. At intervals the stones tilt when stood on and hidden water jets spring into action to soak the unwary visitor.

If you really want to let your kids go wild here, definitely bring a towel and a change of clothes. It is possible to get to the centre without getting wet – we thankfully managed it – but you have to have your wits about you! Either way, it’s huge amounts of fun.

Dotted throughout the site are numerous coffee and ice cream stands which I absolutely loved. There’s nothing worse than promising the children an ice cream and then realising you have to stand in a queue for half an hour to get them. As it was such a fine day when we visited, we stopped for an ice cream and a much-needed coffee for me, and just watched the world go by. We loved the animal-shaped topiaries on the pathway to the left of the front of the castle, and wondered what it might be like to stay in the stunning holiday accommodation behind the castle.

Somehow, we’d got to mid-afternoon without going into the play area, but now it was time (after a quick stop in the Hever Shop where my son used his pocket-money to buy a toy wooden dagger – now his most prized possession).

There’s a sand pit, climbing equipment, a huge replica castle with tunnels and lots of tunnel slides, a zip wire, swings and so much more. Most children would probably happily spend all day in here, and to be honest, it was a great way for this adult to while away an hour, too.

I definitely did not expect those slides to be so fast, and definitely wish I could have made myself a bit smaller so navigating the tunnels was easier!

We managed to tear the children away for a final walk around the site with promises we’d definitely come back soon.

On the way out, my son got chatting to Little John and even had a ‘duel’ with him. He was given a token to say he was now an official outlaw, and was then commended by Robin Hood and Maid Marion. It made his day to have such fun interactions, and all added to the immersive experience.

As well as all the activities I’ve mentioned, Hever also offers lots of special events throughout the year. When we were there it was May Day weekend, and we got to take part in some Maypole dancing, but other upcoming events include a spring fair, art week, Hever in Bloom and jousting.

For more information on everything Hever has to offer, and to book tickets, see the website.