Scotney Castle is a BOGOF (i.e. buy one get one free) as there are not one but two houses to visit there. However, its name is perhaps slightly misleading as neither one of these is what I would traditionally describe as a castle. Certainly, one has a moat and a circular tower that resembles part of a castle, but these are all that is left of an original fortified manor house built by Roger Ashburnham in the late 14th century.
Castle or not, the existence of the two separate buildings at Scotney is key as neither one nor the other would make anywhere near as much impact alone. Vastly different, the imposing Elizabethan-revival house on the hill would lose a lot of its merit without its little sister, the ruined manor house-cum-castle, at the foot of the hill. Between the two is the Quarry Garden – with its striking maple trees and spring azaleas – plus huge banks of rhododendrons, so whether you are standing at the top of the hill looking down at the ruins or at the bottom looking up at the big house, the views are extraordinary. And to get the full impact, you can walk around the other side of the moat and look back to see both buildings in the same view. It is really something quite special.
Your Scotney Castle BOGOF also gives you several different historic eras to consider. The old moated manor house changed considerably between its construction by the Ashburnhams and its dismantlement in the 1830s when the new house was built. For 350 years from the early 1400s to the 1770s, it was home to the Darell family whose most interesting story perhaps relates to their Catholicism and their harbouring of a Jesuit priest during Elizabeth I’s Protestant reign. What is thought to be the priest’s hole used by Father Blount is on show in the old castle. The Darells also changed the face of the building, initially adding the wing that still adjoins the round Ashburnham Tower and then creating a three-storey manor to the east, only one or two walls of which can still be seen.
This leads us to the Husseys and eventually to the creation of the new house. Two generations of Edward Husseys owned Scotney before Edward III decided to build a new house at the site. In the process, he basically created a DIY ruin, pulling down most of the Darells’ three-storey manor house to leave the picturesque jumble of Tudor house, Medieval tower and crumbling walls that you see today. Built between 1837 and 1843, the big house was designed by Anthony Salvin, who also created some of the internal furnishings as well as the house’s external features. Stone from the grounds was used in the construction of the house and this created the quarry that became such an important feature of the landscaping. At the top of the quarry, a Bastion with semi-circular balustrade was built as a viewpoint and I can’t imagine that any visitors to Scotney have gone away without standing there at least once (I did it twice!).
After Edward III, his son Edward Windsor Hussey took over at Scotney Castle and it then passed to his nephew Christopher. Christopher was a writer and edited Country Life magazine for seven years, and he and his wife Betty were the last Husseys to occupy the castle. Christopher left the house to the National Trust on his death in 1970 but Betty remained living there until she passed on in 2006, so the big house has only been open to the public since that time. There is actually one remaining Hussey on site in the form of Puss, Betty’s last cat. Unfortunately, we didn’t meet Puss but there was evidence of her presence in the kitchen where her basket and food bowls occupy one corner.
The big house is displayed as it was in Christopher and Betty’s time, but they kept many original features and there are signs of Salvin’s influence everywhere, from the bookcases in the library to the Jacobean ceilings in several rooms and a four-poster bed in one of the guestrooms. It is an interesting balance between the old and the new(er).
I would also like to thank Betty Hussey for the light. Having recently complained about Packwood’s gloomy halls, I was delighted to learn that Betty insisted the Husseys’ bedroom should be preserved with the blinds up at all times so the room would be bright and visitors could appreciate the view down to the old castle. A woman after my own heart. In fact, Scotney seems to have got this right throughout the house as even in the Library, where the Thomas Willement wallpaper has faded over the years, there has been no knee-jerk reaction to light’s damaging effects and it is still a bright and welcoming room to visit, with great views once again.
Once we had taken in the views from inside the house (note: timed ticketing is in operation), we refuelled at the tearooms, which are a little small with fairly slow service at busy times, but which served very good food. Then we headed into the gardens. As with Winkworth Arboretum and its autumn colour, I had made a plan to visit Scotney at a specific time of year in order to see the vast array of rhododendrons. Unfortunately, I repeated the Winkworth experience by being a week or so too early. However, as usual, gardens offer different things at different times and the Quarry Garden’s azaleas were an amazing sight that I would have missed if I’d waited for the rhodies. Mother Nature gives with one hand and takes away with the other! I also had no idea that azaleas came in so many different colours – my favourite was the purply-blue variant that almost looked like a ceanothus from a distance. Scotney is also an important site for rare green-winged orchids so you are encouraged to stick to the paths so as not to damage them.
As you’ll probably have guessed from what I have said so far, it is difficult to sum up Scotney Castle in any specific way as there are so many different angles to it. And it is difficult to know who to recommend it to: after all, if you want a castle, you’d be better off looking elsewhere (nearby Bodiam, for example), and if you want a significant stately home, there are others that offer a lot more than Scotney. But as a complete landscape, Scotney can compete with the very best that this – or any other – part of the country has to offer. Edward Hussey III was influenced by the ‘Picturesque’ movement to create his vision at Scotney, and you’d struggle to find a more picturesque spot to spend the day.
Highlights: The azaleas, the ‘Picturesque’ landscape
Refreshments: Scotney tea bread with a pot of tea; tuna mayonnaise jacket potato
Purchase(s): Guidebook; four bottles of Scotney ales as a gift (Scotney is home to the only National Trust-owned hop farm)
Companion(s): Mum and Dad