Walmer & Wellington

Walmer Castle

Walmer Castle - Credit: Archant

With the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, all eyes are on Walmer Castle, where its best-known lord warden, the Duke of Wellington, lived and died

Surveys of its members show that, of all the properties in English Heritage’s south-east portfolio, Walmer Castle gets the most return visits.

The long-time residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a relaxed set up and friendly staff provide the backdrop for a leisurely inspection of the intimate rooms and impressive gardens, followed by home-made refreshments in the tea room .

But there’s a special reason for a revisit in 2015, as the interior has undergone its first major representation in 20 years.

The spur is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the defining moment in the career of the best-known of the Lord Wardens, the Duke of Wellington, who died here in 1852. After his death more than 9,000 locals filed into the castle to pay their respects as his body lay in state.

Attention has been given to three rooms, two of which are especially associated with the Iron Duke and which officially reopen on 5 June. A Regency weekend is being held on 27-28 June to commemorate the anniversary of the official news Despatch back to England of Wellington’s great victory. A ceremony will include a restaging of the arrival of the post-chaise and horses and a presentation of the Despatch to the current Lord Warden, Lord Boyce. See also pages 47-50.

For Rowena Willard-Wright, curator for English Heritage’s south-east properties, Walmer’s ‘reimagining’ is the culmination of several years’ research and planning, but as funding for the work was only approved last autumn, it’s been a race against time.

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It has also needed delicate handling. “People are very fond of this place, and many feel they have a special relationship with it. We have to be careful to keep a balance when making any changes, so that when they come back they still recognise it.”

Loved for its serenity and sense of permanence today, Walmer Castle has evolved considerably over time.

Its low-slung, semi-circular profile relates backs to its origins as one of a chain of coastal artillery defences built by Henry VIII to protect his kingdom against attack by Spain and France. With its deep, although now dry moat, Walmer retains much of its Tudor form today, but it also developed into something more stately.

“Although designs varied along the coast, these coastal forts were essentially gun platforms, but several became quite grand,” explains Rowena. “Walmer was the only one, however, to become a personal residence in the gift of the monarch.”

Originally, the Lord Wardens, an office dating back to the 11th century, had been based at Dover Castle, but it was cold and draughty, prompting the move to Walmer in 1708. It’s been their official residence ever since. Lionel Sackville, the First Duke of Dorset, an ambitious courtier in Queen Anne’s reign, was the warden who began its transformation into a family home.

He adopted the practice continued by his successors of spending several weeks each summer in residence at Walmer.

Many come here to see mementoes of the Duke of Wellington and on the staircase leading to the first-floor corridor is a bust of him, sculpted when he was being fêted for his victories on the continent. Adjacent is a remarkably lifelike print of his great adversary Napoleon Bonaparte, positively dripping with gloom after his exile to Elba.

Wellington was a stoical, unemotional figure in contrast to his highly-strung adversary but, as Rowena explains, the hold he had on the imagination of the British public lasted and beyond death.

A series of contemporary illustrations and caricatures reflect his impact. “When he died, the railway age had arrived, powering crowds into London for his funeral in a way that hadn’t been possible for the funeral of Nelson,” says Rowena.

“The legacy of hero worship went on for years after. Winston Churchill as a boy had a massive set of Battle of Waterloo soldiers. In the First World War the fleet flag ship HMS Iron Duke was named after him.”

An important element in the Walmer representation has been Wellington’s favourite room. A contemporary watercolour enabled the recreation of key period features, including specially commissioned foliate wallpaper with a 3D trellis effect, egg yolk yellow curtains and a carpet whose pattern was sourced from Brinton Carpets’ archive.

Other features from his time include the campaign bed he insisted in sleeping in long after his army days were over, the armchair in which he died, his death mask and, of course, a pair of the boots he had specially designed, and which became a fashion item among the London dandies.

Rowena is keen that the memory of another Lord Warden isn’t forgotten. “William Pitt the Younger isn’t a name to conjure with now in the way Wellington is, but he was major figure in his time, the Prime Minster in the Napoleonic wars,” she says. His legacy is remembered at Walmer with a display of hard-hitting caricatures.

Pitt was the youngest-ever Prime Minster at 24 and devoted his short life to politics; he died aged 46. One of the most appealing rooms is Pitt’s Library, where he spent a lot of time thinking and planning the defence of the south-east coast, the likely frontline in the event of a French attack.

Around the turn of the 20th century, just before Chequers became their official summer retreat, Walmer was an informal summer residence for prime ministers where matters of state could be discussed.

With its maps and charts, the Dining Room has been laid out as it might have been during the First World War, when Walmer was lent to Prime Minster Asquith, who used it to meet his ministers and generals on the Western Front.

Another visitor was the poet Rupert Brooke, who was in the RN Volunteer Reserve, commanded by Churchill.

He had some sonnets he wished to complete before heading off to fight and doubtless felt the sanctuary of Walmer would be perfect. One of these, The Soldier, features the famous line: “some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England.”

Tragically, Brooke would be dead by the spring of 1915, aged 28, but it’s a poignant thought that Walmer has not only played host to major figures on the political and military stage, but that it inspired one of the most evocative lines in English poetry. n

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Walmer Castle Regency Weekend: 27- 28 June

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