2023-Walmer Castle & Battle of Britain Memorial

Walmer Castle (photo: Nick Withers)





The Society's vice chairman, Roger Cornish, and Lawrence Nicholls report on the visit to Kent


A group of 43 members, partners and friends took part in a trip to Walmer Castle, Deal and the Battle of Britain Memorial near Folkestone on 4 July 2023.


After collecting all passengers outside Tandridge District Council and St Peter’s in Limpsfield the coach took us all directly to Walmer Castle. People spent two hours exploring the castle and gardens.


Originally built by Henry VIII in 1539-40 (along with two others at Deal and Sandown to protect the lowland area at the Downs anchorage), the castle was part of an extensive range of defences against the threat of invasion from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and Francis I of France, promoted by the Pope following Henry’s break with Rome. The invasion did not happen and ironically, the castle only saw fighting when we fell out with each other during the Civil War in 1648!


The castle consists of a central keep plus four large gun bastions giving the image of a four-petalled flower in plan. It is surrounded by a deep dry moat and the whole, including the linked defences along the coast was a project of immense ambition involving 1400 workers.


From 1540-1720 the castle was occupied by a Captain and garrison under the command of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, whose job it was to watch over coast. Notable later Wardens include:


·        1720 Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset and the then Lord Warden, was the first to make it his home and initiated many improvements, with a new suite of rooms looking seaward.

·        1792-1806 William Pitt moved in as Lord Warden with his niece, the adventurous Lady Hester Stanhope and they made multiple improvements to both the apartments and gardens. Lady Hester was rumoured to be the love interest of Sir John Moore, who was responsible for improvements to the defences along this part of the coast at the time that lady Hester was at Walmer. Hester’s brother, Charles served with Sir John as his aide de camp in the peninsula campaign and as he lay mortally wounded at Corunna Sir John asked that Charles pass on his best wishes to Hester. Sadly, Charles was later killed in the same retreat from Corunna and was unable to deliver the message.

Lady Hester and Charles were the children of the 3rd Earl Stanhope who lived in Chevening and gave his name to Stanhopes in Limpsfield and also The Manor House formally known as Stanhopes which he possibly commissioned.

Hester became the hostess at Walmer for the unmarried Pitt and talked of dining with army officers every night to which women were not invited, ‘I suppose, because they do not form any part of our society’.  On Pitt’s death she received a pension from Parliament and left for travels in the Middle East where she died as a recluse in Sidon (Lebanon) in 1839.

·        1829-1852 After his military successes in India, Iberia and at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington entered politics, became an indifferent Prime Minister twice and the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. He died at Walmer in 1852 and his room is as it was when he died, at the age of 83.

·        1866-1891 The then Warden, the 2nd Earl Granville, added additional floors over the gatehouse. He was a prominent Liberal and a cousin of the Leveson-Gower family which married into the Oxted Greshams in 1804.

·        1908-1913 Thomas Brassey, the 1st Earl Brassy and the eldest son of the railway magnate and uncle to Evelyn who married Granville Charles Gresham Leveson-Gower and was mother to the last four male members of that family.

·        1913-1931 William Lygon, 7th Lord Beauchamp, having been a successful politician in the Asquith government held notorious gay parties at Walmer which became increasingly extreme. Eventually, he was ‘outed’ by his brother-in-law, left the country in disgrace and spent his remaining years overseas. He is reputedly the inspiration for Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited.

·        Other Wardens have included Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother. The last Warden is Lord Boyce, Admiral of the Fleet, who died November 2022.


After exploring the castle, most of those attending took the flat, two mile walk into Deal along a paved path at the top of the beach. Lawrence Nicholls led the walk elucidating the main points of interest along the way:


·        The sea at Walmer is now further back than in earlier times when it even threatened to swamp the moat but in October 1805, an American Robert Fulton demonstrated to Pitt and Lady Hester his innovative torpedo which was actually the first sea mine. The demonstration spectacularly destroyed the 200ton Danish ship Dorothea, purchased for the purpose.

·        Julius Caesar is believed to have landed in 55BC and a rather uninspiring concrete memorial to this significant event in our history can be found just to the west of the path. Modern thinking challenges whether this is indeed the spot (there is a lack of archaeological evidence) or whether a more likely spot is further north, south of the Isle of Thanet, which was a real island at the time.

·        The site of the Royal Naval Air Station, Hawkshill Down, was located on the hill to rear of the gardens of Walmer Castle.  At this airfield were based 17 pilots who lost their lives bringing down German airplanes returning after bombing cities in Southern England during World War 1.

·        The Lord Warden Estate built in the late 1960’s, despite its name this estate had no connection with the Lord Warden.  It took eight hours and eighty pounds of gelignite to demolish the tower of the original 1909 manor house built on this site.

·        The lifeboat station is the last remaining of three which used to try and rescue people from the 2,000 ships that have got into trouble on the Goodwin sands over the centuries. The sands, located four miles off the coast, protected the beach but were a major shipping hazard in the wrong winds.

·        In the early hours of 27 September 1989, the men of 539 Assault Squadron Royal Marines came ashore to quietly leave a floral tribute at the Royal Marine’s barracks in Deal.  It was in honour of the 11 musicians of the Royal Marines who had been killed by an IRA bomb at these barracks five days earlier.

·        In 1993 a bandstand was opened as a further tribute to the bandsmen who had been killed in 1989.

·        The Royal Marines Swimming Pool, located on the site of what is now a doctor’s surgery was a swimming pool for the Royal Marine’s use.  A year after it was opened, in 1893, a terrible accident led to 68 marines drowning when two naval ships collided.  From then it was mandatory for all marines to learn to swim as part of their training.

·        The Royal Buildings were part of the extensive barracks in Deal which were built originally in Napoleonic times and in 1869 were transferred for the exclusive use of the Royal Marines.  These two buildings were the homes of the depot commanding officer in one case and his second in command and the surgeon general in the other.

·        The Royal Naval Hospital and Clock Tower were originally built to service the nearby naval shipyard and anchorage, this building was converted to a barrack block for the Royal Marines as the military facilities expanded in the town.

·        Deal Castle was the largest of the three ‘Castles of the Downs’ built by Henry VIII in 1540 to protect 2½  miles of beach from landings by Britain’s enemies of the time.  The others of course being Walmer Castle and Sandown Castle.

·        An area of beach is reserved for the boatmen of Deal to bring their boats ashore.

·        Timeball Tower: originally a signalling station for the naval shipyard created in 1672 to service the offshore anchorage of ‘the Downs’, with the invention of telegraphy this was converted to a tower for indicating one o’clock each day in order for ships to maintain the accuracy of their time pieces.  It is all that remains of the extensive shipyard.

·        Deal Pier was destroyed in 1940 when a mined Dutch ship ran into it, the last pier built in Britain.

·        The Royal Hotel included Horatio Nelson as a customer when he was based in the area as second in charge of the Channel Fleet.


People took lunch in Deal or enjoyed a picnic on the pier after which we all departed for a brief, one hour, visit to the moving and magnificently sited Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel-le-Ferne, Folkestone opened in 2015 to commemorate ‘the Few’.