There are quite a few castles and large historic houses in Kent and although the names of Chartwell, Hever, Knole, Leeds, Rochester, Scotney and Walmer – to name a few – are familiar to many people Chiddingstone Castle is not so well known, even to those living in Kent. But in the mid 1950’s it was a different story; the name of Chiddingstone Castle was plastered over the front pages of the popular press when the then owner, Denys Eyre Bower, was convicted of attempted murder of his fiancèe.
There was once also a substantial timber property at the end of the main street; in the 16th century this was the home of the Streatfeild family; originally Wealden ironmasters and sheep farmers. Over time different generations of the family altered and rebuilt the house. By the 1700s it was an attractive red brick mansion called High Street House but in the early 19th century the Streatfeild living there at the time decided he wanted something more imposing so sadly much of the old house was knocked down and a 19th century version of a medieval castle was constructed. The Streatfeild family left Chiddingstone Castle in 1900 but it wasn’t until 1938 that they sold it to Lord Astor, who never lived there. In WW2 Canadian soldiers were billeted there and in the early 1950’s it was a progressive school.
In 1957 Denys Eyre Bower, a bank clerk turned antiques dealer, bought the castle to house his growing collections of Japanese, Buddhist, Ancient Egyptian, Stuart and Jacobite artefacts. His plan was to open the castle and collections to the public to help pay for the house. His life is well recorded in displays in his old study and makes for interesting reading, he was certainly unconventional. He was imprisoned for the attempted murder of his fiancèe, and attempted suicide, although he denied the attempted murder charge, claiming that it was an accident. He was released after five years and the story is told in a book entitled ` Beyond Belief` that can be bought in the gift shop. On release from prison he returned to live in the castle and when he died in 1977 Chiddingstone Castle was left to the state (the National Trust turned it down) and a trust was eventually set up to run the estate and make his collections available to the public again. Chiddingstone Castle is now looked after by the Denys Eyre Bower Bequest. It’s a wedding venue and the castle and its collections are also open from 11.00 am to 5.00 pm on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from April to October (check website for actual dates and also for closures due to private events). Admission is £9.50 for adults and £4.50 for children, although I wouldn’t really recommend it for young children. The 35 acres of grounds, mainly parkland and lakes, are open all year.
The collections are housed in various ground floor rooms and there are some beautiful and rare objects on display; I particularly liked the exquisite enamel boxes and fully articulated metal animals in the Japanese room where the first mention of his imprisonment appears. Denys Bower was a member of the Royal Stuart Society and a Buddhist so these sections of his collection are particularly good. In Denys Bower’s study the story of his attempted murder of his fiancèe is revealed and there are photos of his wives (he was married twice) and fiancee.
The servants’ hall, housekeeper’s room and kitchen are largely unchanged since the early 20th century. There’s also a large medieval style hall and imposing staircase. There is disabled access to the ground floor but not to the first floor. Upstairs there is a library containing a large collection of books on Denys Eyre Bower’s main interests. Another room upstairs has old pictures and photographs showing the history of the estate and local area. The tearoom is located at the end of the tour, so people just visiting to walk round the grounds can enter via the gift shop and have tea in the courtyard or tearoom without paying to view the house. Full afteroon teas need to be ordered in advance but tea and cake or cream teas are available. The gift shop has some well chosen items and there is also a vintage shop in the courtyard. Walking round the park there are good views of the Kentish countryside and the lake with its attractive wooden bridge. There’s a large car park with an honesty box for the £3 charge requested. Many people just park there to have a walk round the extensive grounds and use the tearoom and toilets when the castle is open.