Sunday, January 01, 2017

The history business

Two ugly sisters, apparently, in Hever Castle
The car was warning me. As we approached Hever Castle on the winding roads of the Sussex/Kent border, a sharp ringing started up underneath our seats. We drove into the mist, trying to ignore it, Giya's boyfriend battling with car sickness.

Although I've been to Hever a couple of times, Jan Willem is a fan of castles. He's visiting from the Netherlands and had missed out on seeing Hever the last time he was here. It's not easy to get to on public transport, but in the Christmas/New Year limbo, with industrial action on top, I took pity and said I'd drive.

I made sandwiches, packed slices of Mum's Christmas cake, mince pies, nut brittle, filled three flasks with tea, coffee and hot chocolate and we were prepared.

It was cold and damp when we got out of the car near the jousting field, and wandered towards the house. I was surprised by how busy it was and then we turned a corner. In front of the castle, masking our view of the entrance across the moat, was a funfair. Later I would notice the deafening music, but for now, we headed over the moat and into the courtyard clutching our tickets.

It took a while to sink in, but a bundle of rags hanging from a window was Rapunzel. A badly pasted sign told us the castle had a pantomime theme. Far worse was to come.
The largest Christmas tree made it impossible
to appreciate the portrait of Henry.

There were a lot of visitors, too many to fit into its small rooms. And someone had been determined to put a Christmas tree, garland, baubles or table decoration in every available corner and on every surface. It was impossible to stand and look or even consider the story we were walking through - that of Henry VIII, who cut off the head of a woman who was brought up here and then gave the house away to another of his wives.

Where was the story of incest and adultery? Anne's role as the mother of Elizabeth 1? Why were these stories being shoved aside in favour of badly presented summaries of fairy tales?

Anne Boleyn
We pushed on, bemused by each new tree (wasn't one enough?) and clutch of baubles. A wicked witch sat at one of the windows with a bottle marked poison. Seven small beds (belonging to the seven dwarves) were pushed up against the wall in the Staircase Gallery and a confused tourist asked his partner what they were there for.

We found Sleeping Beauty in King Henry's Bedchamber - the four poster randomly draped in strands of plastic ivy - and Snow White had been put up in the Waldegrave Room's  four poster, which was "decorated" with birds.

Thumbs up from Snow White for the birdsong CD
I failed to count how many trees were crammed into the 16th century long gallery along with a mysterious round tent for children under 16 only, as I tried to peer behind them at historical stuff on the walls, stumbling on towards another display of mannequins, including Cinderella's ugly sisters who appeared to be dressed in an amalgamation of bargains from the British Heart Foundation, Poundland and a joke shop.

And towards the end of the gallery, a prince and princess stood in a white and silver grotto.

Elizabeth 1 - Anne's daughter

Pantomime at Hever,
Risenga in front of a
Prince and Princess
enjoying a white Christmas
There was a queue to leave after we'd trooped through the torture room, featuring Robin Hood and where someone had thoughtfully placed a couple of child-sized bows and arrows in another window well.

So, to our picnic....we headed for a spare table and started to unpack until we realised that there was a hidden speaker in yet another festive display and it was pumping out volume. There was nowhere to hide. We bagged a spot under a heater where it was marginally quieter and decided to head for the lake (via the maze) for some peace from the tat, fairy lights, tasteless versions of Christmas and forced jollity. Even the topiary had been draped in lights.

As well as being acclaimed for its collection of Tudor portraits, Hever's won prizes for its gardens. The lake walk was a relief from the relentless tackiness of the house - mist over the water, Canada geese in flight, the willows and pavilion. Then we saw the blue and lime green LED floodlights beaming through the mist (the lime green was flashing).

The only truth in the day, the only really uplifting moment, was watching the geese lift off from the end of the lake and settle again in the sky's reflection under the mist.

I wondered if I was wrong to moan about the tat and baubles in every corner of a mainly reconstructed interior until I gasped out loud at the drab Sleeping Beauty, utterly without magic or anything in fact to make a story work, in her tired wig and dressing up costume, in the bed of this vicious king.... and the woman next to me said 'Yes'. She also had been wondering what the hell Hever was thinking.

And I realised I was embarrassed. Because we'd brought a visitor from the Netherlands, because there were tourists from Japan, the US, France, Spain, Germany, China, also squeezing through these rooms that they'd been lured to by the history business. It's bad enough having to discuss Brexit.

I was embarrassed that someone had not considered historical accuracy - the Tudor masquerades, mumming, the importance of the Lord of Misrule. I was embarrassed by the shoddy quality of it all, which seemed to indicate the paying public really didn't matter because having travelled all this way, who was going to make a fuss and ruin a day out? I was embarrassed because I have been to many historical sites in my years of travelling and only once, in Tenerife, seen anything as bad as Hever's gaudy attempt at Christmas.

As we walked back to the car we wondered why, if they wanted installations to reflect the seasons, they (whoever they is in the management of the castle) hadn't employed light artists to do something outside and set designers to do something inside. Or maybe history doesn't matter now, or the visitor experience....is history in fact an inconvenience for those in the history business? And why was the only room they didn't touch that of the Astor's?


Hever Castle is owned by Broadland Properties Limited. It is a member of the Historic Houses Association.