The Kent castle that used to be a lavish party house for prime ministers

Emma Cooke
·4-min read
The history of Walmer Castle is a fascinating one - Getty
The history of Walmer Castle is a fascinating one - Getty

“Imagine having a party here,” shouts my partner, Alex, as he strides across the moat of Walmer Castle. Emptied of water and covered in plush lawn, the sunken space is indeed an ideal setting for an evening of revelry – a fact which was not lost on William Lygon, 7th Earl of Beauchamp, who held "lavish homosexual parties" at the castle during his tenure as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

This now-ceremonial role dates back to the 11th century, and is based at Walmer Castle, an English Heritage property that sits two miles from Deal on the Kent Coast. A total of 98 people have held the position of Lord Warden over the past 1,000 years, including George Boleyn (brother of Anne), the Duke of Wellington, and the Queen Mother.

Of these, seven have been prime ministers and 12 have been dukes. Many have used the position as an excuse to live a very English version of a Fitzgerald novel – Wellington notably used the castle as a summer retreat to entertain friends and family, and was visited twice by Queen Victoria while there.

The most famous to unlock the castle’s full potential as a party pad, however, is the aforementioned Earl of Beauchamp, the aristocrat who was an inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. During his tenure, he entertained everyone from the cream of British society to local fishermen.

Lady Christabel Aberconway gives a glimpse into life at the castle in her memoirs, A Wiser Woman: “We arrived [at Walmer] and were shown into a garden surrounding a grass tennis court. There was the actor Ernest Thesiger, a friend of mine, nude to the waist and covered with pearls.”

Walmer Castle - Getty
Walmer Castle - Getty

Perhaps envying William Pitt, who was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports for the turn of the 19th century, prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith used his friendship with Lygon to gain access to Walmer during the First World War, when Beauchamp lent the castle to him as a weekend retreat. From there, the guest list only ramped up, with poet Rupert Brooke, Lord Kitchener, and author Henry James all passing through the castle’s screening hedges.

Sir Winston Churchill was also a guest during this time, and was later appointed Lord Warden in 1941. Unfortunately, wartime made retreating there for any soirees highly unwise, with the then prime minister supposedly commenting at the time that, “we’re in range of the German guns and if I live here it’ll be rubble by tomorrow morning.”

Though a risky prospect during modern wartime, prior to its career as party house extraordinaire, Walmer was in fact one of England’s finest artillery forts. Built during the reign of King Henry VIII, Walmer and its sister, Deal Castle were originally constructed to protect the Downs – the stretch of water between the shore and Goodwin Sands.

Why the need for this enhanced protection? In 1539, Spain, France and the Pope had forged an alliance, and the Tudor king was feeling the need for a little more beefed up security along the Kent coast.

Seen from above, the castle’s purpose seems clear: its heavy lines sit squat and snug among the coastal countryside, an imposing warning to any foreign invaders. Close-up, the impression is vastly different. The stone walls of the main structure are softened by greenery, and an entrance through a high hedge gives access to a warren of gardens and woodlands.

Inside the Queen Mother's garden - Getty
Inside the Queen Mother's garden - Getty

Due to its position next to the coast, the hedges screening the interior grounds give welcome relief from any salt-soaked winds, and the guests – these days, mainly families with children, groups of young people and couples – are able to wander freely through the castle’s eight acres of fantastical landscapes.

The castle reopened its grounds (but not its interiors) to visitors on March 29, and though no parties are allowed these days, the gardens are still an appealing prospect. Giant yew hedges run through the centre of the grounds, cut into cloud shapes, while the Queen Mother’s garden is a peaceful, tucked-away space: a corgi statue on one of the many benches there pays homage to her. Woodlands higher up are currently smattered with snowdrops, and a single wooden table surrounded by trees is a treat for any picnic-ers who make the effort to find it.

The essentials

Advance booking is now essential. Timed-entry tickets cost £12.60 for an adult and £7.60 for a child.

Public toilets are available, and a small cafe serves takeaway drinks and snacks.

0370 3331181; english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/walmer-castle-and-gardens