Chiddingstone Castle

Chiddingstone Castle, Kent
Photo © Nigel Chadwick, 7 April 2009.

Chiddingstone Castle is situated in the village of Chiddingstone, Kent, England, in the upper valley of the River Medway. The castle reopened in 2008 after a period of restoration and now has over 10,000 visitors a year. The castle has collections of ancient artifacts which are on display in the castle rooms. As well as the many collections, visitors can enjoy a wide range of themed events and the 35 acres of grounds which are home to the award-winning orangery. In 2009, the castle announced plans to build the UK's largest Japanese stroll garden since Victorian times.


The history of Chiddingstone Castle can be traced back to the early 1500s, and during its life, the castle has undergone a number of architectural changes and has been owned and lived in by an eclectic mix of people and families.

The early timber-framed Tudor dwelling, inhabited by the Streatfeild family, was first replaced and partly transformed into High Street House in the 1670s. The building went through another transformation during the early 1800s when the then owner, Henry Streatfeild, decided to rebuild the house to resemble a medieval castle and commissioned William Atkinson to design the changes.

Characteristic of the Castle’s history, Atkinson’s plans were never completed, due to lack of funds, and the castle’s transformation was partially finished according to Henry Kendall’s design during the 1830s.

The Streatfeild's did not occupy the castle after 1900 and finally sold it to Lord Astor in 1938. The castle served as a base for military forces during the Second World War, and then as a home for the Long Dene school until 1954 when the school was closed.

An exhibition on the history of Chiddingstone Castle explores the different aspects of the castle’s eventful past. Topics covered in the exhibition include the architectural changes of the castle and its surroundings, life at the castle and the use of the castle for educational purposes by the Long Dene School.

We aim to expand the exhibition in the future and welcome any memories or information, related to the castle, that any visitors may have.

The building is currently managed by a group of four trustees, which include descendants of the original Streatfeild family.

The castle was used a location in the 1986 film A Room with a View.

Denys Bower

Between 1955 and 1977, the castle was occupied by a collector of various types of art and artifacts, Denys Bower. Born in 1905, in Crich in Derbyshire, Denys Bower was a passionate if eccentric collector, and led an extraordinary life. For the first 34 years he lived with his parents working as a bank clerk. Disabled in a motorcycle accident when he was a youth and needing glasses for reading (although he preferred a monocle) Denys did not have to serve in the Second World War.

In 1955 he bought Chiddingstone Castle for £6,000 with a loan for the whole amount from the Bank, and opened it to the public to display his collections. Although a gifted collector, Denys was less lucky in love and by 1950, he had two failed marriages behind him.

In September 1957, his life took a curious turn as he fell in love with Anna, a woman 30 years his junior and who claimed to be the Comptesse de Estainville, though she was really the daughter of a Peckham Bus Driver. After more than a year she broke off the engagement, and Denys, who was distraught, took a revolver from his collections and visited her in an attempt to change her mind. Initially she managed to keep him out of the house by claiming she was preparing breakfast, but he returned later and, relenting, she let him in. It was as she turned to adjust a budgie cage he drew the revolver, accidentally pulling the trigger, and shot Anna. Thinking he had killed her, he turned the gun on himself and fired.

Coming to in the Miller Hospital in Greenwich with a policeman standing over him, Denys muttered that Anna’s father, the Count Grimaldi must be told. Naturally the police, knowing who Anna really was, assumed that Bower was not quite right in the head. Luckily the "Countess" had only minor injuries and was released after a few days. Bower was not so fortunate and on his release from hospital after a fortnight, was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder and attempted suicide.

The tabloid press featured this story. Many people believed it was this sensationalist press coverage that led to his conviction, but thanks to the efforts of Ruth Eldridge and her sister Mary, a miscarriage of justice was eventually proven and Denys was released from Wormwood Scrubs in 1961. Whilst in prison Denys had made legal history by bringing a successful libel case against the Sunday Pictorial. The Eldridge sisters took pity on the ex-convict and helped him restore Chiddingstone Castle.

Visitors to the castle can explore a reconstruction of Denys’s study, which aims not only to give a taste of his passion for objects of high quality and beauty but also to reveal more about his life and persona. The study displays items from his time in prison, his homemade magazine shedding more light upon his life, a portrait of Denys by Dame Laura Knight, a number of photographs of him, his furniture, and many of his personal items.

The collections

Denys Bower wanted to share his passion for objects of beauty with other people and so displayed his collections in the castle for the public. On his death in 1977, in order that people could continue to view his treasures, he bequeathed his life’s work to the nation.

The National Trust refused to accept the bequest, despite impassioned pleas from Ruth Eldridge, citing the lack of sufficient funds to preserve the collections and castle. After nearly seven more years effort and work, Ruth Eldridge succeeded in persuading the High Court to order the formation of a private trust. Today, the Trustees of Denys Eyre Bower continue his legacy by opening Chiddingstone Castle to the public for much of the year.

Japanese collection

This collection transports you back to the days of brave Japanese warriors, sword fighting, and demonstrates the beauty of Japanese craft and culture. The Japanese Room is home to a selection of objects from an extensive collection of lacquer objects, armour, helmets and swords. There are also other noteworthy objects in the collection which do not fall into these groups and are currently on display. The earliest objects in the collection are three fascinating haniwa figures from the Kofun Period (250-552AD). Haniwa, meaning "circle of clay," were initially simply large earthenware cylinders placed atop mound graves. They evolved into decorative objects and large sculptural figures such as those in Denys's collection. There will also be a new display opening in 2010 about tea ceremony, using specific objects from the collection.

Denys Eyre Bower grew up in a "collector's" world as his father was a knowledgeable collector of ancient Chinese porcelain. It is therefore quite natural that his love of oriental art grew from there. Japanese art also provided a particularly rewarding field for Denys' collecting as it was highly accessible during the beginning of the 20th century. The Japanese Lacquer collection is arguable one of the finest in private collection in Western Europe and is perhaps one of Denys Bower's greatest achievements.

Japanese armour

The collection of armour, helmets and masks on display, mainly date from the Edo period (1603–1868), but also much earlier items, including a 14th century helmet bowl, make up this imposing collection.

The elaborately made armour and its fantastic present condition is testament to the attentive skill of Japanese armourers. Many of the masks that accompany the armour on display would have been made to represent the wearer in some way, and in some cases include teeth and facial hair. Secret pockets and compartments for items such as medicine bottles and tobacco can also be seen on the armour in the collection.

The suits of armour were expertly installed by John and Liz Anderson for the 2008 Easter opening, with the installation featuring on local ITV news.

Japanese swords

As a result of Denys Bower’s lifelong interest in Japanese swords Chiddingstone Castle has an exquisite collection, an important selection of which are on display. Denys's love of swords was inspired by his father and in a diary entitled "Childhood Collecting Preferences"; Denys quoted his grandfather speaking to his father in about 1895 as saying: "There must be no more of this silly sword business". But his grandfather evidently relented, and Denys's father amassed a large collection of the swords from different countries. His collecting inspired Denys and there started his collection.

The collection demonstrates a wide variety of types of swords and sword fittings, collected not necessarily for their quality, or maker, but based on Denys's aesthetic taste and interest - a trait that is found across all of the collections at Chiddingstone. As well as swords made specifically for fighting, the collection has examples of blades and fittings made during the Edo period (1603-1867), a time of relative peace in Japan which followed centuries of civil war and unrest. As weaponry and armour were not in such high demand at this time, sword smiths and armourers had time to create more elaborate and decorative pieces. There are also examples of sword fittings in the collection made specifically for the export market which are not necessarily in Japanese style or taste.

Japanese swords are designed to be dismantled easily, so while some of the blades date back as far as the 13th century, some of their current fittings (koshirae) may have been manufactured and added hundreds of years later. This is very common as Japanese blades are incredibly durable and flexible, therefore long outlasting their fittings.

Conservation of the swords is still taken very seriously and traditional methods of cleaning and restoration are being used here at the Castle

Japanese lacquer

The Japanese lacquer collection amassed by Denys Eyre Bower and on display at the Castle, is both vast and beautiful. Denys's collection is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. Most of the objects were acquired from the breakup of the great 19th and early 20th century collections so give an insight into the tastes of an earlier era. Denys was comparatively uninterested in names and signatures and so was drawn to pieces based on his excellent eye for quality and a search for originality (though not always condition), rather than a keen search for a specific lacquerer or family of lacquerers. He was able to buy some magnificent examples, often just happening to be in the right place at the right time.

The collection spans the late Momoyama, Edo and Meiji periods, the 17th to 20th centuries, with a great selection of object types for both the domestic and export market. Objects range from tea caddies (natsume) to writing boxes (suzuribako) and from cabinets and picnic sets (sagejubako) to simple boxes (kogo). The collection demonstrates fine examples of the intricate and skilful lacquering process.

The display is complemented by a book written specifically about Denys's collection, featuring more than one hundred of the most interesting pieces ("Japanese Lacquer, The Denys Eyre Bower Collection", Joe Earle, 2000, now only £20) which is available in the Castle shop.

Egyptian collection

Chiddingstone Castle’s Egyptian collection brings to life many aspects of ancient Egyptian culture; from farming and writing, to religion and their belief in the afterlife. The exhibition guides you through the daily lives of ancient Egyptians, their professions, the roles played by the pharaohs and the gods, and their perceptions of death and the afterlife.

The exhibition also focuses on Denys Eyre Bower, who, inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, began amassing this fine collection. The archive includes his correspondence with famous archaeologist and Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie.

Amongst the many objects on display are:

•“Shabti” figures, which would have been placed in the tombs of the deceased as companions or workers for the dead in the afterlife. •A 5,000 year old funerary boat, which would also have been placed in a tomb, served as transport for the deceased to Abydos, where the god Osiris could grant them access to the afterlife. •A mummified cat on display, surviving from approximately 150 BC, may originally have been a temple offering to the goddess Bastet, who was depicted with the head of a cat.

Buddhist collection

Denys Eyre Bower had very personal reasons for collecting Buddhist artefacts as he was himself a Buddhist. Some of Denys's work colleagues recalled that he believed himself to be a reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Whether there was any real seriousness in this claim is not known, but it may also go some way towards explaining why he felt so strongly about the Jacobite cause. Denys's way of life does not appear to have directly followed a specific form of Buddhism. His want for possessions and obsession with his collections, even overpowering his regard for his wives, indicates a more general interest in Buddhist ideologies, rather than a specific dedication to one aspect. He certainly did not hold to one of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, that suffering is caused by craving or attachments to worldly pleasures of all kinds.

Denys Bower's collection at Chiddingstone Castle consists of about 150 pieces, about half of which are Tibetan, Sino-Tibetan (Chinese style closely influenced by Tibet) and Nepalese Tibetan. The other half consists of items mainly from India, Nepal, Myanmar, China and Japan; however there are also a small number of objects from Thailand and Sri Lanka. The wide variety of items in his collection, from numerous countries and streams of Buddhism, indicates that his collecting probably stemmed from a love of beautiful objects and not necessarily from a wish to collect devotional imagery from a specific type of Buddhism.

The Buddhist collection has only been on display at the Castle since May 2009 and is currently being research for redisplay in April 2010.

Stuart/Jacobite collection

Chiddingstone Castle has a fine collection of Stuart paintings and Stuart and Jacobite objects which were all collected by Denys Eyre Bower. Having been born in Derbyshire, which had strong connections to the Jacobite cause and Charles Edward Stuart (or Bonnie Prince Charlie as he was also known); Denys had a keen interest in Stuart history and material culture.

The Stuart paintings displayed in the White Rose Room and Print Room represent a selection of Stuart family members from Charles I to Bonnie Prince Charlie. The highlights include a copy of Sir Peter Lely’s painting of Charles I and the Duke of York, as well as a double portrait of Princess Henriette Anne Stuart and the Duke of Gloucester, attributed to Gerrit van Honthorst.

The Stuart and Jacobite collections comprises Stuart manuscripts and autographed letters, Jacobite memorabilia, portrait miniatures, tobacco and snuff boxes, medals and coins, and books.

Japanese Stroll Garden

Chiddingstone Castle has plans to develop its 35 acres of natural landscape into a Japanese Stroll Garden. When completed, the landscaped grounds will feature many winding strolling pathways, a cherry tree garden, a Japanese ceremonial tea garden, a woodland play garden and nature garden.

This project will give Chiddingstone Castle the largest Japanese Stroll Garden in the UK, and will be a fitting addition to the Castle, which is renowned for being home to one of the most important private Japanese collections in Europe. The Castle staff have been working closely with English and Japanese historians to ensure the authenticity of the new garden with the history of the Castle and grounds. Their research has led to discoveries that during the Victorian era, people in the UK became fascinated with Japanese culture. In fact, the interest was so great in London that a Japanese village was built in Knightsbridge, complete with tearoom, gardens, shops and homes! The Victorians also became avid collectors of all things Japanese, especially ceramics. In 2008/09, 150 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and the United Kingdom were celebrated. Following a commemoration of the signing of the Treaty on 26th August 2008, a large number of events took place to celebrate JAPAN-UK 150. As part of the celebration, the Chiddingstone Team promoted Japanese arts, culture and crafts, which culminated in a very popular Japanese Culture and Arts festival held at the Castle in 2009.

To coincide with JAPAN-UK 150, details for the Japanese Stroll Garden in a Victorian setting were revealed during a day of celebration. Specially invited guests came from all over the UK to take part in the opening presentation of the plans. The Chairman of the Trustees, Mark Streatfeild and Garden Designer Marie Jackson revealed the designs and explained how the Stroll Garden would enhance and compliment the history of Chiddingstone Castle. Mr Ken Okaniwa, the Cultural Minister from the Japanese Embassy, attended the event.

Detailed plans and dates for the garden will be released in 2010.

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