Herstmonceux Castle, near Hailsham, in East Sussex is a beautiful moated castle sitting in 550 acres of woodland and formal gardens.
Herstmonceux has a long history. Since it was built in 1441 it’s been the largest private home in fifteenth century England, a gothic ivy-clad ruin which the Victorians loved to visit, home to the Royal Greenwich Observatory and it’s now the Bader International Study Centre – part of Queens University in Canada.
I last explored the castle more than 20 years ago, and, since I only live a fifteen minute drive away, I decided I was long overdue for a return visit. We waited for a fine day and headed for Herstmonceux.
Here’s how to enjoy a day out at Herstmonceux Castle
Drive down the road from the main entrance and you’ll see the domes of Herstmonceux Observatory on your right. Buy your ticket for the castle and/or the observatory at the small ticket office follow the road ahead. You’ll get your first view of the magnificent brick-built castle as you drive past it to the car park. We parked up and took a wander back to the front of the castle to take in the grand façade and bridge.
Take a stroll around the right-hand side of the moat to get some wonderful views of the castle reflected in the water.
We carried on past the end of the moat and entered the grounds through a wooden gate at the back of the castle where we walked straight into the beautiful walled Elizabethan Garden.
Herstmonceux Castle Gardens and Grounds
There are seven formal and themed gardens as well as a woodland walk, wild meadows, an ancient chestnut avenue and a folly to be found in Herstmonceux Castle’s 300 acres.
The Elizabethan Garden
This is the grandest of Herstmonceux’s gardens and dates back to at least 1570, the era of Elizabeth I. Two lush lawns known as the Croquet Lawns and Queens Walk are divided by a path lined with English yew hedges and bordered by lavender. There’s a dry moat in front of the castle which is looked down on by eight perfectly clipped Irish yew trees.
We visited in mid-August when the borders were full of red, orange and yellow perennials with pops of purple. The borders are deep which allow a variety of planting with varying textures and heights. The grade II listed walls make the perfect rustic backdrop for a swathe of rambling roses.
Sundial and Rose Garden
Climb the central steps leading from the Elizabethan Garden and you’ll encounter a huge sundial and bust of Sir John Flamsteed. He was the first Astronomer Royal and founder of the Royal Greenwich Observatory which the castle was home to from 1946-1989. The sundial’s timing was spot on.
Six smaller sundials are interspersed amongst the hybrid teas and floribunda shrub roses of the surrounding gardens which were full of colour and scent on our visit. On the east wall the scarlet flowers of a Trumpet Vine contrasted beautifully with vivid yellow roses.
The Shakespeare Garden
This was my favourite garden as I’ve always loved literature and the theatre. All the plants in the Shakespeare Garden are mentioned in the playwright’s works. Small signs in the flower beds sit next to relevant plants and herbs. They highlight quotes from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets where mention of the plant is made.
The Lower Garden
The lower garden is planted to attract butterflies, bees and insects and it was buzzing with life and colour when we stopped by.
The Apothecary Garden
This garden is filled with a collection of plants and herbs for medicinal and culinary use. The central walkway is lined with planters overflowing with plants and herbs and studded with standard bay trees. A curved stone bench in the corner is a good spot to enjoy the garden.
We made our way through the shady garden and sculpture walk before heading past the long border to the tea rooms. This was our meeting point to start a tour of the inside of the castle. There’s a craft shop and visitor centre near to the tea room. Plants propagated in the castle grounds can also be bought.
A tour of Herstmonceux Castle
The castle tours take around an hour and are limited to 25 people. Our tour was led by Bryan who was a mine of information about the castle and its history. He also threw in a large measure of humour. By the time we’d finished everyone in the group had the date the castle was built ingrained in their memory. 1441 in case you’re interested.
The castle fell into ruin in 1777 the interior walls and contents were stripped out and sold so there are no original interior features. Everything inside the rebuilt interior of the castle has been salvaged from other stately homes including the grand staircase, a huge doorway from a Dutch Barn, and many fireplaces.
A Grinling Gibbins Staircase complete with his signature peapod carved into it.
We learned about the history of Herstmonceux, local smugglers gangs, secret passages, and ghosts said to inhabit the castle.
After you’ve explored the gardens and taken the tour follow the avenue of gnarled Spanish chestnuts. It’s thought the huge trees are around 350 years old and judging by the size of their trunks I can believe it.
What does Herstmonceux mean?
Centuries ago the UKs largest forest, the Sussex Weald stretched from the south coast all the way to London. Herste means clearing in the forest and in the 1200s a Lady Idonea de Herste married a nobleman called Ingelram de Monceux. Their manor house was known as their combined names; Herste of the Monceux, which gradually evolved into Herstmonceux.
How to pronounce Herstmonceux
The name Herstmonceux is pronounced Herst-mon-zoo. Easy when you know how!
A short history of Herstmonceux Castle
Herstmonceux was originally built as a country home in 1441 by Sir Roger Fiennes. Fiennes was treasurer of the Royal Household having won favour with the Royals fighting the French wars.
The Fiennes’ Coat of Arms on the front of Herstmonceux Castle
Fiennes, who also owned Hever Castle, wanted the manor house to be grand and decided it should be built of brick like the ones he’d seen in France. Dutch bricklayers were brought to Sussex to build the castle because nobody in England knew how to build in brick which was a rare luxury in the fifteenth century. When the house was finished it was the largest private residence in England and brick became very fashionable. Nowadays the moated castle is the oldest brick built building of significance still standing in the UK.
When the castle was built the sea used to come up as far as the cars parked in the picture below. Occasionally the water level would rise to just under the windows. Today the sea is around 7 km away.
All remained well at Court for the Fiennes family for nearly a century until Thomas, Lord Dacre, crossed Henry VIII. A game keeper on a nearby estate was murdered, Dacre implicated and executed at Tyburn. It may be that Henry VIII had his eye on Herstmonceux Castle and Dacre’s death gave him the perfect opportunity to seize it. The castle was returned to the Fiennes family when Elizabeth I succeeded the throne.
Herstmonceux in ruins
In 1708 the then Lord Dacre bankrupted the family due to his lavish lifestyle and Herstmonceux was sold. By 1777 the castle was in a bad state of repair, so bad that everything inside, including the interior of the castle, walls and all, were ripped out and sold off. The ivy-clad castle became a ruin and right up until Victorian times was a popular sightseeing place for visitors from Brighton and Eastbourne.
Colonel Claude Lowther bought the estate in 1910 with the vision of restoring Herstmonceux to a grand country house. By June 1912 most of the south front and the roofs had been restored. Lowther died in 1929 before the restoration was completed and the castle was bought by Sir Paul Latham who finished the renovations which would have cost around £60m in today’s money.
The Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux
Between 1948 and 1970 the castle was home to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. As nearby Eastbourne, Bexhill and Hastings expanded so did light pollution which hampered star gazing and so the observatory moved to La Palma in the Canary Islands.
Since 1992 the castle has been home to the international campus of Queen’s University, Canada. Alfred Bader purchased the castle and donated it to Queen’s University. The Bader International Study Centre opened in 1994 and the residence at the International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle is named “Bader Hall” in recognition. Alfred Bader died in December 2018.
England’s Medieval Festival Herstmonceux
Go back to the Middle Ages every August at Herstmonceux. The castle’s annual Medieval Festival sees people gathering from across Europe. With over 1000 costumed performers recreating a lively and colourful Medieval atmosphere it makes a fabulous day out.
Knights joust, court jesters fool and sieges of the castle are re-enacted. Crafts like arrow-making, archery and calligraphy can be enjoyed. There’s falconry and lessons in wizarding and princessing. A hog roast, Medieval eats, traditional mead and delicious food for all the family. For more information about the Medieval Festival at Herstmonceux click here
Herstmonceux Castle Opening Times
Saturday 2nd March to Sunday 3rd November 2019
Open daily 10am – 6pm
March, October & November 10am – 5pm
Herstmonceux Ticket prices
Please note that as the castle is primarily a university campus it is not always open to the public. Please check the website to make sure you won’t be disappointed or telephone the castle on 01323 833 816.
Entry price is £6 for adults and £3 for children aged 4-17 years. Under 4’s go free. There are also family tickets and senior concessions available so check the website for details. This gives you entry to the gardens and grounds, plus the tea room. See below for combined entry prices to the Observatory Science Centre.
Herstmonceux Castle Tours
Tours of the Interior of Herstmonceux castle take place most days. However, these don’t always stick to a regular timetable due to university schedules and private events. When tours are running there are only one or two a day. Numbers are limited to 25 people per tour. Tickets are £3 for adults and £1.50 for children over the age of 4.
For tour days and times check the castle website’s tour page.
Tip: If you want to take the castle tour I recommend you go straight to the castle’s reception on arrival and book your tour tickets before they sell out as places are limited.
Castle and Observatory Science Centre combined ticket
If you’d like to visit the Observatory Science Centre a combined ticket can be purchased at £13 for adults and £9 for children aged 4-17 years. There are also family tickets and senior concessions available so check the website for details. The centre is open from the beginning of February to the end of November.
How to get to Herstmonceux Castle
By car – Wartling Road, Hailsham, East Sussex, BN27 2RN. Ensure your SatNav uses the Wartling Road entrance and follow the signs as the postcode may not lead you to the correct entrance.
By train – Take the train from London Victoria station to Polegate station. From there, you’ll need to take a taxi to Herstmonceux Castle which will take around 18 minutes. There’s a rank outside the station.
Where to stay in Herstmonceux
Read about other castles in Sussex
A visit to beautiful Bodiam Castle in East Sussex
Afternoon Tea at Amberley Castle in West Sussex
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