By my reckoning there are two types of castle in England.
One is a medieval affair, all crenellations, arrow slits and drawbridges staffed by cheerful locals who can tell you all about the kings and queens that stayed there. They run falconry and jousting events and everything is brightly coloured, like a Hollywood film about kings and queens. This is the sort of place that you want to visit with an American guest - in our case, the lovely Alyson.
I wanted her to see the pomp and ceremony of a proper old castle. I wanted there to be galloping horses, draughty rooms, some reproduction stocks and stories of a “white lady” who walks the ramparts at night. I wanted it to be the sort of castle that you can imagine Errol Flynn swashbuckling in. The sort of castle with ramparts and cannonballs and a moat. This is the ideal type of castle.
The other type is where a castle has been used and lived in. It’s been sold a hundred times to rich landowners and wealthy dowagers who have gone bankrupt renovating it; knocking down the old bits and replacing them with newer buildings, with central heating and reproduction staircases. These places are staffed by people who know all about the modern life of the castle; the fancy parties, the bamboo ladders for the pet monkey, the film stars and the gilding that made this castle just The Place To Be in the 1930s.
This is not the place you want to take an American guest. It’s not even a place I want to go to myself. I am not much interested in the rich heiress’s family trips to Africa in her private jet. Or the way the maid had to use a secret passageway to run the bath for her ladyship’s nightly ablutions. I do not much care to see footage of the family in their sports cars or at the races living it up. This, to me, makes it not a castle but a stately home.
It is important when expecting the former but getting the latter to turn disappointment into cheer. This can be done by having ice cream (though seeing Alyson discard the Flake in her 99 was an anathema to us Brits), taking in the Dog Collar Museum (yes, really) and making jokes about S&M practices and then, best of all, visiting a substantial hedge maze in that most English of weathers – drizzle.
When approaching a hedge maze I’d recommend splitting into two teams and then spending the next half hour wondering where the other team had got to whilst remarking that, yes, we had seen that discarded Costa coffee cup before. Then turning and looking at the turret in the middle of the maze to see the other team doing a winner’s slow-mo high-five while the accumulated drizzle drips down the back of your neck. And laughing because you’re soaking wet, lost in a hedge maze and have been beaten by the other team and the maze is the only thing that redeems the fact that you spent twenty quid to see how extremely rich people lived in a time when others were extremely poor. And laughing too, because she’s really here, in England, with all of us getting soaked in a maze in Kent and she’s even better than you had hoped and that the castle didn’t matter at all.