Shakespeare returns to Chilham Castle
- Credit: gary calton
This Spring Bank Holiday Chilham Castle will host The Globe in five performances of a trio of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, ending the weekend with the much-loved Chilham Chase. And it’s in honour of one remarkable woman
Taking on anyone’s legacy is a tough call but when it’s your late wife’s project, then it’s unimaginably hard.
Such was the position the owner of Chilham Castle, Stuart Wheeler, 83, found himself in when his beloved Tessa died just before Christmas following an operation she was expected to survive.
The financier and political activist was left not only grieving but also soon faced with a big question: would May’s famed Chilham Chase go ahead and would he be up to hosting The Globe Theatre that very same weekend in the first of their regional tours of a trio of Shakespeare plays?
The answer was never in doubt. One of the couple’s shared interests was the theatre and it was Tessa’s persistence that initially got The Globe to agree to perform at the castle back in 2016, a significant year for both parties. Not only Chilham Castle’s 400th birthday, it was also the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, who is inextricably linked with the castle.
Its first owner Sir Dudley Digges, who built the house between 1612 and 1616, was an associate of Shakespeare; his brother Leonard wrote a Preface to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works; the wrecking of the Sea Venture on the shores of Bermuda in 1609 – a financial disaster for Dudley, one of the voyage’s backers – is said to have inspired the plot for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Other links between Dudley Digges and Shakespeare centre on Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, patron of a group of actors at the Globe playhouse. Leicester’s tutor, Dr John Dee, was the Queen’s mathematician, astronomer and astrologer; he was also the tutor of Dudley’s father Thomas Digges, one of Leicester’s protégés.
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Another great name linked with Chilham is Inigo Jones who, before being made Architect Generall to the King, was impresario of theatrical productions for the royal court.
It was he who created the shape of this fine Jacobean house which, like the playhouses of Shakespeare’s days, is a hollow-cored polygon; thus the outside grassy courtyard where performances take place is literally a home from home for the Globe players.
And as well as these strong cultural links and the desire to continue his late wife’s work, Stuart was surrounded by loving support – from his daughters Charlotte, Jacquetta and Sarah, from the villagers of Chilham and from Canterbury Festival.
The latter’s President, Peter Williams MBE heads up a Committee that meets regularly at the Castle to progress the important Bank Holiday weekend in May that begins with Shakespeare and ends with the famed Chilham Chase.
The Chase was started by Sir Dudley Digges and features runners in fancy dress jumping over horse hurdles, doing a sack race and more over a two-mile fun run. Last year the Estate staff ran in Tessa-style wigs and kaftans in her honour.
Peter tells me: “Part of the Canterbury Festival’s role is to support other initiatives in the area and when it came to The Globe back in 2016, Tessa just lifted the phone – as Tessa would – and simply said ‘I need a little help here Peter.’
“We were very pleased to help. Since Stuart and Tessa have been here  what they’ve done is to make the castle – which in many ways was an edifice but not part of the community – a vital part of the community. They have been both gracious and generous; there is now a glow about the place which was never here before.”
Chloe Arnold, who also sits on the Committee, along with members of Ashford Borough Council and representatives from the village, adds: “One of the very first questions I was asked after Tessa passed was ‘what’s happening with the castle – are they moving out?’
“It was a testimony to Tessa to see how many people from the village went to her funeral; they have been very supportive to Stuart. Tessa’s vision was that at least once a year the village should get together to enjoy each other’s company, so The Chase is the constant every year and then an event is linked to it, as with The Globe in 2016 and 2018.
“The Chase was set up to benefit village organisations and charities has grown and grown over the past 10 years, thanks to Tessa, who got it going again.”
Peter comments: “Despite the poor weather, the first Globe here was a resounding success and the fact that The Globe wanted to come back is a huge compliment. The first time they came we were amazed to discover we were the first venue to start the regional tour and to have the honour again is a huge compliment.
“Part of that is the generosity of time with which Stuart and the castle give – we give them five days in advance, which is unusual for a touring company.”
Stuart – who says of Tessa and himself “we couldn’t have been more different but we had a very interesting life together and it was a very successful marriage” – admits: “Until Tessa died I was in London five nights a week and now I spend a bit more time here. My daughters ask me what I’m doing in London so often and why I’m always so busy but I’m never quite sure what I am up to, to be honest.
“It seems unbelievable, I have no job but I have a full-time PA and a full-time assistant and they tell me they’re overworked, so I must be doing something!”
He adds: “Tessa was incredibly enthusiastic and wonderful about almost everything and I’ll never be able to emulate that, but I’m trying to some extent to step into her shoes so that all the many activities she loved that take place here can continue. But I will never be a substitute for Tessa.”
Something the Globe cast and crew can be assured of is the generosity of welcome and hospitality at Chilham Castle. Stuart famously suggested the family move here because he didn’t feel their previous home, Dane Street House, on the outskirts of the village, had enough space for large house parties.
After his spread-betting firm I.G. Index was floated on the Stock Market in 2000, the Wheelers found themselves in a position to be able to buy Chilham Castle. Typically, after all the renovation work that needed doing from roof to cellar was completed (which coincided with Stuart’s 70th birthday in January 2005), the family threw a big party to celebrate and thank all those involved.
And Stuart still loves a party, telling me: “I very much feel if you’ve got a big house and plenty of rooms, it’s pretty mad if you don’t have a lot of people staying at least quite often. Tessa used think I made the castle a bit too full on occasions and I think she might have been right, but I don’t want to come down here in the morning and be all by myself.
“I love having my own friends of my own age here, but I much prefer it when I have my daughters’ friends down – they’re more interesting, and certainly prettier.”
Chloe grins: “It would be like caging a wild bird to keep Stuart in here on his own.”
So if you are looking for a cultural fix, watching or indeed taking part in the quite frankly eccentric Chilham Chase – you can be assured of the warmest of welcomes at The Peoples’ Castle.
Shakespeare’s Globe has chosen Chilham Castle for second time in two years for the launch of its national and international tour of three Shakespeare plays, as part of Michelle Terry’s first season as Artistic Director.
Brendan O’Hea is directing the tour of eight actors with The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, with the three plays opening at The Globe and then starting the tour at Chilham Castle before setting out across the UK and Europe and ending back at The Globe.
The Merchant of Venice will be the first performance in the grounds of Chilham Castle, followed by Twelfth Night as a matinee on Saturday and The Taming of the Shrew that same evening.
The audience attending on the Sunday matinee will have the chance to vote for their choice of play, mimicking a tradition from Shakespeare’s day.
The weekend will continue through to Bank Holiday Monday with the famous Chilham Chase, Britain’s oldest ‘fun run’ where participants of all ages race across the beautiful parkland setting of Chilham Castle.
Shakespeare’s Globe at Chilham
25 May, 7pm The Merchant of Venice
26 May, 2pm Twelfth Night; 7pm The Taming of the Shrew
27 May, 1pm (the audience will have the chance to vote for their choice of play, mimicking a tradition from Shakespeare’s day), 6pm Twelfth Night
Tickets: £50 Premium Seats including a glass of Champagne and canapé reception inside the Grand Hall and entry to the grounds; £30 seats include entry to the grounds;
£10 students, including entry to the grounds
Tickets and info on the website
Venue: Chilham Castle, Chilham CT4 8DB
The performance takes place in the grounds of the Castle with seating constructed around a temporary stage. The performance will go ahead no matter what the weather and will last approx two hours and 20 minutes, including a 20-minute interval.
Sponsored by: Taittinger, Ashford Borough Council and Mid-Kent Fisheries