Travels with Victoria: Walmer Castle

A visit to Walmer Castle opens a number of interesting windows on English history. As you might expect if you have read this blog for a while, one of those windows concerns the Duke of Wellington, our favorite hero. But the story began centuries before the Duke arrived on the scene.

Above, the moat is now partially filled in with garden and lawn, but when Walmer was built in 1539 by Henry VIII, it was an important defensive feature.  Concerned about invasion by Spain, the king ordered a chain of fortresses along the coast, including Deal Castle, just a few miles north of Walmer.  Henry had defied the Church of Rome, divorced the Spanish Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn.  He had reason for concern.

The design of Walmer (above) and Deal, which is the larger of the two, responded to the technological developments in firepower by the sixteenth century. The low shape and size provided positions for many types and calibres of guns as well as making a difficult target from ships out at sea. The goal was to protect the coastal harbors and fleet anchorages along the Downs of eastern Kent.


Cannons on the parapet at Walmer Castle
Unlike the town of Sandwich just up the road, Walmer is still right on the English Channel beach.  The Spanish Armada did not approach until 1588;  although the defenses at Deal and Walmer were prepared, the action took place elsewhere.
Alongside the canons, are comfortable lounge chairs for gazing at the sea. Looking in the opposite direction, the residential parts of the castle have the look of a comfortable Georgian house.
The office of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports is ancient, but became less important by the 16th century, because most of the original ports had silted up and were no longer required to provide ships to the Crown — which had the Royal Navy at its disposal. Nevertheless, the office continued with limited responsibilities; by the 19th century, it was a largely ceremonial position. Walmer Castle has been the residence of the Lords Warden since 1708.
The Dining room also has a Georgian look.
Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger was the Lord Warden from 1792 until his death in 1806, the first commoner to hold the post. Receiving the annual stipend helped him to offset some of his debts while also providing a position from which he could raise a local militia during the wars with France. Pitt’s niece, Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), lived at Walmer and worked hard to improve the gardens.  Later, Lady Hester became famous (or perhaps infamous) for living in the Lebanese wilderness, reclusive and devoted to the occult.

interior shots from English Heritage

The Duke of Wellington spent increasing amounts of time at Walmer as he aged. This is the room in which he died in 1852; he had served as Lord Warden since 1829. More about the Duke at Walmer will be on the blog tomorrow. (Yes, Kristine, that’s the armchair in which the Duke breathed his last).

This view of the garden with the castle behind the pavilion shows you how dry the spring had been in Kent in 2011. Even a short distance from the sea, the lawn was browning.  Among some of the other significant Lords Warden were W.H. Smith (1825-1891), the founder of railway newsagents, whose company still bears his name on every British High
Street and well beyond; HRH The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII; Sir Winston Churchill; and HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  Since her death, the post has been held by Admiral Lord Boyce.

This weather-beaten lion somehow symbolizes Walmer perfectly for me, a place which time has passsed by but which still provides an afternoon’s enjoyment and remembrance of things past.

Tomorrow, more on the Duke of Wellington at Walmer; Next on Travels with Victoria, Penshurst Place

Travels with Victoria: The Charming Town of Sandwich, Kent

Sandwich has little or nothing to do with the famous dish of the name, other than the fact that the 4th Earl of Sandwich invented it in the 18th century. The earl’s title had been taken from the name of the city in the 17th century. However, one of the amusing vagaries of geography is in the vicinity. I must admit I never saw the hamlet of Ham.

If you need a glass of milk with your sandwich, you will find it still delivered in glass bottles.  Shades of long ago!

And just in case you wondered where the meat came from…

But seriously, folks… Sandwich has been important since before the Roman landings here in the first century AD, and as one of the vital Cinque Ports, so designated in the 12th century.  Along with such harbours as Dover, Hastings, and Hythe, Sandwich was protected by the crown, exempted from some taxes and fees, in exchange for performing official services, such as the provision of ships for the king.

The organization continues in a ceremonial format to this day. We’ll encounter the Cinque Ports when we talk soon of nearby Walmer Castle. Though Sandwich’s harbor was once on the English Channel, today the silted up harbour means it is two miles inland, joined to the sea by channels and the River Stour.

Across from the quay stands the Fisher Tower, dating from 1384, the only one of original gates in the town’s walls to survive. It is constructed of bricks and the kind of flinty stone so common in this region of Kent.

Nearby is the much-remodeled Barbican, formerly the toll house for the bridge over the Stour.

As we wandered the crooked streets and gazed at the old houses, our guide told us the town is now very prosperous.  A nearby pharmaceutical company provides many good jobs. Two championship golf courses and the easy access to the sea make Sandwich a very desirable place to live and a sought-after weekend retreat for wealthy Londoners.

The old houses and hidden gardens are popular and pricey. Sandwich is another of those when-I-win-the-lottery places!

I can’t tell you how tempted I was to try and climb up to peek over.

Seems like there were a lot of these garden walls…this one of more of that flinty stone.

Above and below, up close and

This wall encloses a famous secret garden…and a mansion designed by Sir Edward Lutyens in 1912.

It is now part of the complex  known as The Salutation, which provides luxury accommodations and has a tea room within the gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll in the early 20th century.

Sandwich has been in the sports headlines recently as the site of the 2011 British Open Golf Tournament, held at the Royal St. Georges Golf Club (website here).  More than a dozen British Opens have been held here.

Our quick tour of Sandwich only whetted my appetite for more, but I was eager to go a few miles back toward Dover, through the town of Deal to Walmer Castle…next.

Travels with Victoria: Arriving in Dover

Sunrise over the English Channel on June 3, 2011.  I didn’t notice any bluebirds, but I definitely could not miss the white cliffs! And Dover Castle at the top.

Here’s a closer view of the Castle — which has been in use for more than 900 years, from the time of  Henry II to the present day. And pre-Roman earthworks have been found, making the use of the channel bluff for defense more than 2,000 years old – or more. It has been a continuing process of adaptation and rebuilding, and it’s not over yet.

Currently tourists are invited to tour the World War II secret tunnels, including protected command centers deep under the surface.  Below, reversing the perspective, from the castle to the harbour.

Dover, beyond the castle, is a busy port with ferries arriving and departing almost every hour of the day. From Dover to Calais (and vice versa) is still a popular route, even since the opening of the chunnel and the Eurostar rail service to Paris and Brussels. Along the harbour, the promenade is often full of strollers , sailors, sun bathers and tourists.
Our hotel was across the street from this promenade, and had a lovely outdoor cafe perfect for watching the passing scene.
If you watched the recent repeat of the Poirot episode entitled The Clocks (2009), you would have a very good view of Dover Castle and the promenade, but the residential street in the film was actually in London.

Above, scenes  from The Clocks, by Agatha Christie

We also walked around the town (found an excellent pub, not to our surprise) and toured the Roman Painted House, excavated in the center of Dover, with continuing explorations going on today. It boasts the finest painted frescoes in Britain from the Roman period. Below, an overview of the site, and below that, one of the frescoes.
From Dover, we visited the charming town of Sandwich and nearby Walmer Castle, at which the Duke of Wellington died in 1852. Next in the series…

Travels with Victoria: Monet's Garden at Giverny

The rose trees stand in front of Claude Monet’s pink house with green shutters at Giverny on the Seine. Here is the website of the Foundation Claude Monet for more details about the house and gardens.

I haven’t exactly formulated a Bucket List of things I MUST do, but visiting Monet’s home would definitely have been included.  I grew up loving all the Monet works in the Chicago Art Institute and loving all the stories about how the Impressionists were shunned by the Art World at first and then triumphed by becoming so popular in the 20th (and 21st) centuries that their work is almost considered low-brow all over again!  It’s that old saw: (over) familiarity breeds contempt, I guess.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) began living at Giverny in 1883, eventually purchasing the property and devoting himself to cultivating his garden and painting it for almost 43 years.  He was one of the founders of the movement known as Impressionism, and his works can be found in almost all major (and many minor) art museums in the world.  When they come on the market, they are sold for millions of dollars, pounds or euros.

While on board the ship, I read Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell, an engaging novel about Monet’s first love. It fit in perfectly with this visit to the house where he lived with Camille’s sons and his second wife who had a large family herself.

Though I tried to cut from my pictures as many of the visitors as I could, I thought it was quite crowded on the day we visited, but guides assured us that it was actually a slow day.  Particularly as we negotiated the rooms inside the house, it seemed packed.

No pictures were allowed inside, but I did follow many others in sneaking a shot out the window at the garden from above.  This website reveals all and will lead you to many more accounts and pictures of Monet’s life, his paintings, and his garden.

Monet was obsessed with the play of light on his subjects. He painted the same or similar scenes over and over in various light and weather conditions: haystacks, cathedral facades, landscapes, and of course, his garden.

As of June 1, 2011, an Englishman called James Priest took over as head gardener.  His background includes training at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and many years working with Gilbert Vahe, who rescued and redeveloped Monet’s Giverny gardens. 

The garden is divided by the road through the village, and the two halves — one near the house and the other mainly the pond — are joined by a walkway under the now-busy road.

Perhaps Monet’s most famous paintings are those he did of this pond and its waterlilies. 

The pond is much larger than I expected, with more than one little Japanese bridge — at least today.

The version of Water Lilies he painted in 1916, below, hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

And below, my photo of the water lilies in the pond on June 1, 2011.

Below, another painting, from 1904

 Can you tell the difference?  And, just for good measure, here are a two more of my pond photos…

Thank you, Claude Monet, for bringing so much pleasure to so many people.  Perhaps I will revisit Monet and take a look at the many paintings he did in England someday.
This is next to the last of my posts from our cruise.  After returning to the English Channel from the Seine, we crossed to Dover….soon.

Travels with Victoria: Rouen, France

Cruising the Seine — can you think of a more beautiful place to be on a warm sunny day at the end of May? Our ship navigated the broad mouth of the river and about 75 miles of curving river from the English Channel to Rouen past an idyllic countryside of neat farms, lush fields and contented cattle, past villas and villages.

Approaching the Pont Gustave Flaubert; the vertical lift bridge across the Seine at Rouen opened in 2008. At the right is the distant steeple of the cathedral (see below). 

A passing River Cruise ship, which can fit under the bridges; we saw many of these vessels which can go at least as far up river as Paris.

Rouen being the principal city of Haute-Normandie, one might expect the half-timbered buildings — and there were plenty of them.  This one houses a Monprix, part of a large French chain, roughly comparable to Target in the U.S.

One of the city’s more famous sights is the Gross Horologe, an astronomical clock.  It reminds me that we found a McDonald’s nearby, which we were looking for to use their worldwide free wi-fi.  In the several French McDs at which we stopped, a separate coffee bar served excellent cafe au lait. Nice sipping while we caught up on e-mail.  But that brings up another question: How come ships and hotels so often charge exorbitant rates for their internet access?  And then are so slow it costs a bundle just to read a few messages — while good ol’ Mickey D’s has good wi-fi service (most places) free, whether or not you buy a Big Mac?

Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral (above) was damaged and almost half of the city was destroyed by allied bombing attacks during World War II.  Restoration is complete, but constant renovation and repairs are needed to keep the oldest parts of the structure, dating from the 12th century, intact.

The cathedral houses a tomb of Richard Coeur de Lion (the LionHeart) who lived from 1157-1199. Richard was King of England and Duke of Normandy; his heart is buried here though other remains are buried elsewhere.

Joan of Arc was tried and executed by burning at the stake in Rouen in 1431, not a claim to fame that is celebrated in the city.

Here is a cheerier note, taken at a flower vendor’s colorful corner.

Claude Monet painted the facade of the Cathedral over and over in varying light and weather conditions.

One of Monet’s paintings of the cathedral on a misty day hangs in the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Rouen.

The above view of the Rouen Cathedral in full sunlight (1894) by Claude Monet belongs to the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

                                          The Courtyard restaurant of the Rouen Art Museum.

 Rouen’s Hotel de Ville, aka City Hall.
Street Scenes
  Detail of old stone carving…

Coming soon: Visiting Monet’s Garden at Giverny