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PARIS: The Louvre

The Musee du Louvre is on of Paris's  historic monuments and is undoubtedly one of the world's most impressive museums. It contains a staggeringly impressive 35,000 priceless objects from prehistory to the 19th century which are exhibited over an area of 60,600 square metres. With more than 8 million visitors each year, the Louvre is also the world's most visited museum

A brief history of the Louvre

Originally built as a fortress by King Phillippe-August in 1190, it was King Charles V (1364-80) who first made the Louvre his home.

In fact you can still see remnants of the fortress as they are visible in the basement of the museum

In the 16th century, François I replaced the existing building with a Renaissance-style palace and founded the royal art collection with 12 paintings from Italy.

During the French Revolution, the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre should be used as a museum, to display the nation's masterpieces.

It opened on 10 August 1793 with an exhibition of 537 paintings, the majority of the works being royal and confiscated church property.  

The young Napoleon
Shortly after, Napoleon renovated the Louvre as a museum and had it renamed the Musée Napoléon.

By 1874, the Louvre Palace had achieved its present form of an almost rectangular structure.

In 1983, French President François Mitterrand proposed, as one of his Grands Projets to renovate the building  allowing displays throughout the building.

Architect I. M. Pei was awarded the project and proposed a glass pyramid to stand over a new entrance in the main court, the Cour Napoléon.

The pyramid and its underground lobby were inaugurated on 15 October 1988. The second phase of the Grand Louvre plan, La Pyramide Inversée (The Inverted Pyramid), was completed in 1993.

Top must see exhibits - in no particular order

1. Of course you want to witness the Mona Lisa, despite the crowds and the poor presentation.

To see the Mona Lisa, head straight for the 13th-15th century Italian paintings section (on the first floor).

Arguably the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci's portrait  is thought to be of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo.

It was painted in oil on a poplar panel, and is believed to have been completed between 1503 and 1506.

It was acquired by King Francis I of France and is now the property of the French Republic, on permanent display at the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

 The Winged Victory of Samothrace
2. The Winged Victory of Samothrace. This Hellenistic treasure is approximately 2000 years old, massive and beautiful. 

It conveys a sense of action and triumph as well as portraying artful flowing drapery through its features which the Greeks considered ideal beauty.

Also known as the Nike of Samothrace, it was discovered in 1863, and estimated to have been created around 190 BC.

 It was created to not only honour the goddess, Nike, but to honour a sea battle at Rhodes. 

Modern excavations suggest that the Victory occupied a niche in an open-air theater and also suggest it accompanied an altar that was within view of the ship monument of Demetrius I Poliorcetes (337–283 BC). 

Rendered in white Parian marble, the figure originally formed part of the Samothrace temple complex dedicated to the Great gods, Megaloi Theoi. It stood on a rostral pedestal of gray marble from Lartos representing the prow of a ship, and represents the goddess as she descends from the skies to the triumphant fleet. Before she lost her arms, which have never been recovered, Nike's right arm was raised, cupped round her mouth to deliver the shout of Victory.

 The work is notable for its convincing rendering of a pose where violent motion and sudden stillness meet, for its graceful balance and for the rendering of the figure's draped garments, compellingly depicted as if rippling in a strong sea breeze.

3.  Venus de Milo – The positioning of the Venus de Milo is dramatically lit at the end of a hallway and enhances the beauty of this magnificent statue.

It dates from the end of the second century BC and was discovered on the Greek island of Milos in 1820.

It is an ancient Greek statue and one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture. Created sometime between 130 and 100 BC, it is believed to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty (Venus to the Romans).

Here’s a fact, the statue used to be on the seal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

4. The Raft of Medusa. This 1818–1819 by the French Romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault is simply astounding. Rather than a classic Greek theme as you might expect, this is the aftermath of the shipwreck of the French Vessel Meduse’ where 146 people struggled to survive on a raft. 

Only 15 were rescued, the others were eaten, committed suicide, were killed or died of the elements. The painting depicts the moment when rescue appears imminent.

The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain perceived to be acting under the authority of the recently restored French monarchy. 

In reality, King Louis XVIII had no say in the captain's appointment, since monarchs were not directly involved in appointments made to vessels like a naval frigate. The appointment of the vicomte de Chaumareys as captain of the Méduse would have been a routine naval appointment, made within the Ministry of the Navy.

5. The Virgin of the Rocks  -sometimes the Madonna of the Rocks - is the name used for two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, of the same subject, and of a composition which is identical except for several significant details. 

The version generally considered the earlier of the two hangs in the Musée du Louvre in Paris and the other in the National Gallery, London. The paintings are both nearly 2 metres high and are painted in oils. Both were painted on wooden panel; that in the Louvre has been transferred to canvas.

Both paintings show the Madonna and Christ Child with the infant John the Baptist and an angel, in a rocky setting which gives the paintings their usual name. The significant compositional differences are in the gaze and right hand of the angel. There are many minor ways in which the works differ, including the colours, the lighting, the flora, and the way in which sfumato has been used. Although the date of an associated commission is documented, the complete histories of the two paintings are unknown, and lead to speculation about which of the two is earlier.

6. The Horses of Marly made by Nicolas Coustou for Louis XIV at Marly-le-Roi were re-set triumphantly in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, flanking the entrance to the Champs-Elysées.

 In the 1640s, bronze replicas were to flank the entrance to the Louvre: moulds were taken for the purpose, but the project foundered. Paolo Triscornia carved what seem to have been the first full-scale replicas of the groups for the entrance of the Manège (the riding school of the royal guards) in St. Petersburg.

Marly's sculptures are copied from the colossal pair of marble "Horse Tamers" - often identified as Castor and Pollux  - have stood since Antiquity near the site of the Baths of Constantine on the Quirinal Hill, Rome. 

They were too large to be buried or to be moved very far, though Napoleon's agents wanted to include them among the classical booty removed from Rome after the Treaty of Tolentino, 1797 

Even these are fourth-century Roman copies of Greek originals. They gave to the Quirinal its medieval name Monte Cavallo, which lingered into the nineteenth century.

Controversy at the Louvre

The Louvre is still involved in controversies that surround cultural property seized under Napoleon I, as well as during World War II by the Nazis. After Nazi occupation, 61,233 articles on more than 150,000 seized artworks returned to France and were assigned to the Office des Biens Privés.

In 1949, it entrusted 2130 remaining unclaimed pieces (including 1001 paintings) to the Direction des Musées de France in order to keep them under appropriate conditions of conservation until their restitution and meanwhile classified them as MNRs - Musees Nationaux Recuperation or, in English, the National Museums of Recovered Artwork.

Some 10% to 35% of the pieces are believed to come from Jewish spoliations and until the identification of their rightful owners, which declined at the end of the 1960s, they are registered indefinitely on separate inventories from the museum's collections.

They were exhibited in 1946 and shown all together to the public during four years (1950–1954) in order to allow rightful claimants to identify their properties. they were then stored or displayed, according to their interest, in several French museums including the Louvre.

From 1951 to 1965, about 37 pieces were restituted. However, according to the French government, the Louvre is in charge of 678 pieces of still unclaimed artworks by their rightful owners.

Napoleon's campaigns acquired Italian pieces by treaties, as war reparations, and Northern European pieces as spoils as well as some antiquities excavated in Egypt, though the vast majority of the latter were seized as war reparations by the British army and are now part of collections of the British Museum.

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ATHENS: The Arch of Hadrian

The Arch of Hadrian is a monumental gateway resembling – in some respects - a Roman triumphal arch. It was erected by the Athenians north-west of the Temple of Zeus and spanned an ancient road from the center of Athens, Greece, to the complex of structures on the eastern side of the city that included the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

It is believed that the arch was built to celebrate the arrival of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and also to honour him for his many benefactions to the city.

It is not certain who commissioned the arch, although it is probable that the citizens of Athens or another Greek group were responsible for its construction and design. 

There were two inscriptions on Hadrian's arch, facing in opposite directions, naming both Theseus and Hadrian as founders of Athens.

On the west side:

This is Athens the ancient city of Theseus

On the east side:

This is the city of Hadrian not of Theseus

While it is clear that the inscriptions honour Hadrian, it is uncertain whether they refer to the city as a whole or to the city in two parts: one old and one new. 

The early idea, however, that the arch marked the line of the ancient city wall, and thus the division between the old and the new regions of the city, has been shown to be false by further excavation.

The entire monument is made of Pentelic marble, from Mt. Pentelikon, 18.2km north-east of the arch. Pentelic marble was used for the Parthenon and many other notable structures in Athens, although its quality can vary significantly.

In 1778 the triumphal arch was incorporated into the eastern section of the Turkish fortification known as 'Haseki Wall', at which time was converted into a gate, then known as the 'Vasilopoulos Gate' or 'Kamarophorta'.

The Arch of Hadrian is located just 325m south-east of the Acropolis as is easily seen from this vantage point.

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ENGLAND: Sissinghurst

Acquired by Vita Sackville West with her husband Sir Harold Nicolson in 1930, Sissinghurst Castle gardens have become one of the brightest jewels in a spectacular crown of English country gardens. It was their unique vision and uncommon single mindedness that took this dilapidated Tudor estate and moulded it into a breathtaking series of compartmentalised gardens. But there is something at Sissinghurst which makes it quite unique, a quality of peace and tranquillity that has enabled it to become regarded as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.

However, scratch the surface and you will reveal a history so sinister that you may never look at this place the same way again. To uncover the truth we must go back to over 250 years to when Britain was in the grip of a punishing war against France.

With the success of the British Navy during the ‘Seven Years War’, many ships from of the French fleet were captured as prizes and their seamen confined in prison hulks at Plymouth. As prisoner populations rose this proved to be an unpopular choice, and so the Government of the time decided that it needed a more suitable location to house them.

With the owners of Sissinghurst being in considerable debt, they leapt at the chance of leasing it to the government, and did so in 1756. If prison conditions were believed to have been bad then, they were about to get much, much worse!

Unfortunately for the French, English prisons were traditionally run by the Royal Navy, and Sissinghurst had extra security in place by way of short term army garrisons. This made the inmates at Sissinghurst not just prisoners but also the enemy and as such, the treatment they received here was significantly worse compared to other British prisons. So powerful became its reputation, that the very threat of being sent to Sissinghurst was often enough to enforce discipline in other prisons across the country.


New prisoners would have been greeted by the stench of overcrowded, dilapidated and unsanitary accommodation, although the word ‘overcrowded’ is somewhat of an understatement. Even after 250 years, inscriptions still survive above the cell door frames indicating the maximum population level’s for each room.

For example, one particular chamber of no more than 16ft by 20ft would have been home for up to eighteen men. Another, found under a staircase in the Elizabethan quarters, indicates a population of only 6, but it’s a cell of no more that 4ft square. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was no running water or toilets in these makeshift cells so imagine how intolerable the heat of summer would have been - bringing with it the stink of human faeces, and what would have seemed like a plague of lice and flies.

Of course with this many men living in such poor and barbaric conditions, diseases ran rife through the camp infecting prisoners, guards and the garrison alike.

These were terrible times and instances of smallpox and dysentery were commonplace.

There was enormous pressure to find somewhere suitable for treating the large numbers of infections and so the large Elizabethan brick barn - found to the left of today’s main entrance - was converted into a make-shift hospital.


With 18th Century jailers subjected to very poor pay and conditions, it was down to them to come up with ways of making a little extra money, in fact they were expected to. It was common practice for all new inmates to be fitted with heavy irons. This was so that for a small payment they could be replaced with lighter ones, or - for an additional charge - they could be removed altogether.

Unfortunately many of the guards had a strong sadistic side, so on top of stealing prisoner belongings and fiddling the exchange rates of foreign nationals, they also used their position to impose conditions of starvation, isolated confinement, and inadequate clothing.

Although the jailors were widely known for being institutionally corrupt, the French soon learned that it could be used to work in their favour. This was done by using bribes to condition the guard’s behaviour.

In one particular case, the guards were conditioned to such an extent that a number of prisoners were able to smuggle in explosives in an attempt to blow a breach in the castle walls. It was only when guards intercepted a prisoners letter, describing the escape plan to one of their mothers, that the plot was discovered.


Although associated with medieval times, torture was an accepted part of prisoner interrogation right up until the eighteenth century.

Although both brutal and inhuman, torture was believed to be a viable tool and would have been authorised in order to retrieve valuable information on enemy troops and fortifications.

Typically, irons and fetters would have been fitted - to prevent sleeping or cause paralysis, and on occasion prisoners were known to have been forced to stand in water until their feet rotted.

However there would have been times when more extreme devices were demanded such as the torture chair, the rack, foot crusher and the little known Scavenger’s daughter.


Fighting and death would have been commonplace at Sissinghurst, and although you’d think it would be in the guards interest not let such incidences become common knowledge, several letters of complaint on the subject managed to find their way to a Court of Enquiry.

Perhaps the most senseless death was that of prisoner Jacobus Lofe who was shot as he lay sleeping in his hammock, secured in one of the topmost rooms in the tower. A statement from the sentinel charged with firing the shot - who was believed to have been drunk at the time claimed that:
 ‘…he called out to the prisoners several times to put out their lights, which they refused to do so, and bid him fire and be damed…’
However, evidence from three other prisoners who were in the room at the time declared that there were no lights on and as such they didn't feel the need to answer - believing the sentinel was shouting to another room. Unfortunately, this incident was caused by nothing more than a trick of the light because - on certain clear nights - the moon rises to a point where it can shine directly onto the tower lighting up the inside of these topmost rooms. Even today, its reflection in the glass can often look as though there has been a light left on inside.

Once in a while the prisoners managed to get their own back. On one recorded occasion, water was being brought to the top of the tower by a system of ropes secured to the outside wall. Rather than using the steep internal staircases this was the preferred way to supply water to these top most rooms. Unfortunately, once the bucket reached the top it became untethered and crashed down on the head of the supervising sentinal - killing him outright. It was put down as an accident but you can make up your own mind as to the ability of a French sailor to tie a secure knot?


By the end of the war in 1763 the prison camp was closed down with the garrison sent back to their regiments. Many of the released prisoners returned home to France, while some opted to stay and work within the grounds. A few even married local girls.

Unfortunately the Elizabethan court yard had suffered tremendous damage during the French occupation, and 15 years later much of the house and furniture had been destroyed for firewood. Sissinghurst and its future looked bleak.

And it was as a soulless shell that Sissinghurst stayed for a further 150 years until it was rescued and loved by Vita Sackville West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson.

By the creation of these wonderful gardens it has since become a fitting memorial to the atrocities that occurred here all those years ago. May God give peace to their souls.

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LONDON: The Tower of London

If you are unfortunate enough to have not been born in the green and pleasant land that is known to all as England, then your first thoughts of Her Royal Highnesses' kingdom is likely to be the City of London.

More specifically, Buckingham Palace, St Paul's Cathedral, and the Tower of London!

The Tower of London 

Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, more commonly known as the Tower of London, is a historic castle on the north bank of the River Thames.

It lies within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and is separated from the eastern edge of the City of London by the open space known as Tower Hill.

It was founded towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest of England.

The White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078, and was a resented symbol of oppression, inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite. The castle was used as a prison since at least 1100, although that was not its primary purpose. A grand palace early in its history, it served as a royal residence.

As a whole, the Tower is a complex of several buildings set within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat.

There were several phases of expansion, mainly under Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I in the 12th and 13th centuries. The general layout established by the late 13th century remains despite later activity on the site.

The Tower of London has played a prominent role in English history. It was besieged several times and controlling it has been important to controlling the country.

The Tower has served variously as an armoury, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public records office, and currently as the home of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. From the early 14th century and up until the reign of Charles II, a procession would be led from the Tower to Westminster Abbey on the coronation of a monarch.

In the absence of the monarch, the Constable of the Tower is in charge of the castle.

This was a powerful and trusted position in the medieval period. In the late 15th century the castle was the prison of the Princes in the Tower.

Under the Tudors, the Tower became used less as a royal residence, and despite attempts to refortify and repair the castle, its defences lagged behind developments to deal with artillery.

The peak period of the castle's use as a prison was the 16th and 17th centuries, when many figures who had fallen into disgrace, such as Elizabeth I before she became queen, were held within its walls.

This use has led to the phrase '...sent to the Tower'. Despite its enduring reputation as a place of torture and death which was popularised by 16th-century religious propagandists and 19th-century writers, only seven people were executed within the Tower before the World Wars of the 20th century. Executions were more commonly held on the notorious Tower Hill to the north of the castle, with 112 occurring there over a 400-year period.

In the latter half of the 19th century, institutions such as the Royal Mint moved out of the castle to other locations, leaving many of the buildings within the tower's walls empty.

Anthony Salvin and John Taylor took the opportunity to restore the Tower to what was felt to be its medieval appearance, clearing out many of the vacant post-medieval structures.

In the First and Second World Wars, the Tower was again used as a prison, and witnessed the executions of 12 men for espionage. After the Second World War, damage caused during the Blitz was repaired and the castle reopened to the public.

Today the Tower of London is one of the country's most popular tourist attractions. It is cared for by the charity Historic Royal Palaces and is protected as a World Heritage Site.

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ENGLAND: Knole House - the ghosts!

After 600 years of historical drama you’d think that Knole House would have it all, but there was something about this place that doesn’t ring true. 

After centuries of fluctuating prosperity the Sackville lineage still resides there, but someone or should I say something is missing.

It would be naive to suggest that no skeletons exist in the Sackvilles aristocratic closet, but to say there isn't a single ghost at Knole is positively un-English.

Today, Knole is now in the protective hands of the National Trust. Ask anyone who works there, from the Estate’s property manager to the lady who runs the shop and you won’t come across a single piece of anecdotal evidence. 

Is this some kind of National Trust conspiracy or we simply not speaking to the right person.

Head Gardener to the current Lord Sackville, Justin Wilson reveals a different story. In 1456 Knole manor house became an Archbishops palace, after being bought from Sir William Fiennes, Lord Say and Sel for just over £266. 

The original buildings and chapel still exist along with a small enclosed garden which today is now part of the much larger walled gardens.

“…Its here when you’re working in the small archbishops garden that that you begin to feel something out of the ordinary. 

It’s particularly pronounced as you walk through the archway at the top of the garden when you face the medieval chapel with its impressive stained glass window. 

You always get the feeling of being nervous or unsettled here but its something you just get used to. 

However if you are still here when it gets dark you often get a distinct and sometimes overpowering feeling of being watched. Several times I have had to finish what I was doing to go and work elsewhere in the larger gardens…”

It has long been traditional for members of the Sackville family to be buried at St. Nicholas church, found opposite the entrance to Knole Park, but with the existence of the Chapel on site it is not unreasonable to suggest that the gardens next to it would have been made consecrated ground. 

With that in mind this ‘garden’ is likely to be the last resting place for many of Sir William Fiennes ancestors, and who of those wouldn't be angry at the sale of the family’s inheritance to England finest heritage and conservation empire.

Knole was originally in the hands of the Catholic church until after Henry VIII's reformation in 1534 when the ownership of Knole reverted back to the crown. 

However, if you are looking for evidence of our ghostly watcher then you need look no further than under the original archbishop’s palace! 

Situated in the dark underbelly of this magnificent home could be the clues that point to our ghostly watchers origins, notably a number of cellars fitted with heavy doors and iron locks. 

These makeshift prisons probably became quite useful when it was needed to maintain catholic discipline. How many Protestants ended their days with the misery of forced confinement in these damp and squalid conditions?

After all is said and done we don’t know the identity of this poor lost soul, however there is another clue from old Sackville history. 

Richard Sackville, the 3rd Earl at Knole lived a life of splendour and vanity. 

He bankrupted himself and died at the age of 35 while his wife Lady Anne Clifford had to endure his shame for a further 52 years. 

Known as the black knight, his ghost is said to roam the older quarters at Knole whenever a misfortune is about to befall Knole. Perhaps it is his presence that can be felt in the gardens to day. 

Whoever it is, the ghostly history of Knole adds yet another fascinating side to this splendid country house.

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It has probably been a good 15 years since I last walked round the gardens at Wisley, and as a young keen student of horticulture I remember being generally underwhelmed as well as bored with the number of the displays which proved to be lacking in imagination.

And so it was with a certain trepidation that I arrived in the car park after being invited along for a second visit. 

After an initial confusion as to where the conflicting toilet arrows were pointing to, I finally made my way through the ticket booth and – to my amazement – stepped into one of the best gardens I have ever seen!

Wisley belongs to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) which was founded in 1804 in London, England. Originally called the Horticultural Society of London, it gained its present name in a Royal Charter granted by Prince Albert in 1861.

Wisley is undoubtedly one of the great gardens of the world, boasting a huge as well as diverse plant collection. 

With that in mind you are going to spend the best part of 4 hours walking round so make sure that you are wearing sturdy shoes and take one of the small maps provided so that you don't miss anything. On a hot day, take plenty of water and a few snacks.

Makes sure that you get to see the alpine glasshouses, and the Bonsai display - they are superb!

The history of Wisley 

It was founded by Victorian businessman and RHS member George Ferguson Wilson, who purchased a 60 acre (243,000 m²) site in 1878. He established the ‘Oakwood Experimental Garden’ on part of the site, where he attempted to make difficult plants grow successfully. 

Wilson died in 1902 and Oakwood was then purchased by Sir Thomas Hanbury, the creator of the celebrated garden ‘La Mortola’ on the Italian Riviera. He gifted both sites to the RHS the following year. Since then Wisley has developed steadily and it is now is a large and diverse garden covering 240 acres (971,000 m²). In addition to the numerous formal and informal decorative gardens, several glasshouses and an extensive arboretum, it also includes small scale model gardens, and a trials field where new cultivars are assessed.

The laboratory - which was built for both scientific research and training - was originally opened in 1907 but proved inadequate. It was expanded and its exterior was rebuilt during World War I. It was made a Grade II Listed building in 1985.

In April 2005 Alan Titchmarsh cut the turf to mark the start of construction of the Bicentenary Glasshouse This major new feature covers three quarters of an acre (3,000 m²) and overlooks a new lake built at the same time. It is divided into three main planting zones representing desert, tropical and temperate climates. It was budgeted at £7.7 million and opened June 26, 2007.

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ENGLAND: Hever Castle

Back in the early 1900’s when America seemed to be producing millionaires at an exponential rate, one man stood head and shoulders above the rest. 

Born to an enormously wealthy family who’s fortune was built on fur trading, real estate and opium, William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919) was brought into this world with his life already mapped out. 

After suffering the traumatic experience of being sent away to Europe for his education he later returned to America to study law, although this wasn't to be his chosen career. 

Once graduated, he took over the running of his fathers considerable estates, and following in the family tradition also became a successful financier and statesman.

However, his life took an unexpected turn when in 1882 he was appointed ‘Minister to Italy’ by the then US President, Chester A. Arthur.

This was a position that required Wiiliam Astor to once again leave his home land and spend the next three years of his life in Rome.

 It was during this time that he developed a passion for ancient Roman history, but this became an obsession after visiting the ruined city of Pompeii. 

Hever gardens
Destroyed and buried during a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvious, Pompeii had remained lost and buried for nearly 1700 years. It would have remained so had it not been accidentally rediscovered in 1748.

It was the intoxicationg nature of this place that had touched Williams Astor’s heart, a mixture of unavoidable tragidy balanced seductively with the haunting beauty of a civilisation frozen in time.

Inspired by what he saw, he developed an almost compulsive desire to obtain anything that reflected his feelings for the place.

It was here, surrounded by the outstanding beauty of classical architecture, that his plan for the perfect Edwardian pleasure garden was conceived. But there was just one problem; he had nowhere to build it.

Lansdown House
In early 1890, five years after William returned from his appointment in Rome, his father John Jacob Astor III died leaving him a personal fortune so vast that it made him easily the richest man in America, if not the world.

One year later, after a family feud got out of hand, he moved to England.

At first Astor settled in London renting Lansdown House for a few years, but eventually he purchased a country estate at Cliveden–on-Thames that would act as his main residence.

The search for a suitable property with which to fulfil his Pompeiian dream continued.

 However, it was to be a further ten years before he eventually committed to Hever Castle.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
At this time it was just a small dilapidated castle, you can imagine its state of disrepair especially as the previous owners used to overwinter their farm animals inside it on the ground floor. 

Astor immediately called for his collection of classical artefacts to be shipped over from Italy.

Although Hever Castle is not a ‘castle’ in the strictest sense of the word, it is by definition a fortified manor house.

Part of its protection was gained through the construction of the surrounding moats.

However, in order to guarantee these main lines of defence a constant supply of water was required; this was why the Castle was built here on low lying marsh land.

Unfortunately this meant that the romantic images of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn walking hand in hand across the beautifully manicured gardens would only have happened if they were prepared to wear waders!

Edwardian pleasure garden
It is difficult for us to understand today, but at the beginning of the 20th century the art of recreational gardening was still very much a pastime for the wealthy.

The Edwardian pleasure gardens (as they are known today) were the pinnacle of this art, an expression of culture, refinement and financial power. 

But it was the sheer scale of this project combined with an almost analytical attention to detail that put these gardens at Hever into a league of their own.

To give you some idea of the importance that Astor placed on his grand design, it took an entire year just to think it through and agree the plans.

In 1904 work commenced on such an unprecedented scale that it is unlikely ever to be equalled. 

William knew that he was creating something quite unique here and he took some unusual steps to protect his investment. 

William Waldorf Astor
While construction was in progress no visitors were allowed to stay over night.

This was to remove the temptation of guests slipping out under the cover of darkness for a crafty peek. 

His workmen, and there were over a thousand of them, were kept mostly on site.

Their accommodation, food, and more importantly beer were all provided at Astor’s expense and this helped to prevent them from wandering off and blabbing. 

If all else failed, he slept with a revolver under his pillow which was to be used as a last line of defence.

This was particularly important for warding off horticultural intruders (presumably armed with sketch book and pen) who may conspire to jump over the fence and steal his ideas.

Hever lake
If employing a thousand men to landscape a garden seems a little excessive then you would be right. 

The completed gardens that you see today probably took no more than between 250 and 300 craftsmen to finish.

The rest of the work force, which accounted for almost 800 men, were engaged in the creation of the magnificent man-make lake that you see just west of the castle. 

Imagine if you can thirty five acres of open marsh land dug down to 6ft just by hand and spade. 

Incredibly this feat of human engineering was completed in less than two years, but what makes this all the more fantastic is that because their food, beer and shelter were already provided, most of the labourers had to work unpaid!

The Pompeiian wall
To supply the amount of block work and natural stone needed to complete the Italian gardens and beloved Pompeiian wall, Astor looked to the local quarries at Tunbridge Wells.

Such was the amount required that two of these quarries were effectively emptied in trying to keep pace with the building work. 

What’s more remarkable is that every single piece of stone had to be transported here by horse and cart.

Some of the larger pieces as used in the Pergola Walk weighed upwards of several tonnes!

 Fortunately William Astor went to the trouble of installing a light steam railway around the garden perimeters, as well as several great steam engines to give his men a fighting chance.

Hever moat
Nothing was going to stand in the way of completing his vision and that included spending the enormous sums required to get what he wanted. 

The cost of plants alone came in at around £25,000, that’s equivalent to approximately £1,000,000 in today’s money.

Despite the enormous practical challenges that William Astor faced, the words ‘…It can’t be done…’ always managed to evaporate once enough resources were thrown at it.

An example of this was the need to supply mature trees for the strip of woodland that ran along Anne Boleyn’s walk. 

The solution to this was to take a team of men down to Ashdown forest, choose the trees which took his fancy and wait for them to be dug up and transported the 12 miles back to Hever. It was achieved but each tree took ten men and a team of four horses!

hermit cave
Everything was thought out down to the last detail, even the ‘fashionable’ hermits cave was artistically presented by the exposed roots of a gnarly old beech tree.

To further entertain his guests, a ‘live-in’ hermit was employed to partake in witty banter, but unfortunately there was a flaw in the plan. 

One of the hermits had developed a strong taste for beer, something that may have been picked up from working on Hever Lake. As it turned out he spent more time in the local King Henry VIII Inn than he did in his cave and as a result his entertaining stories and witty banter became increasingly rude as alcohol took effect. This was a rather unsettling experience, particularly for the fragile constitutions of Edwardian ladies. 

With the cave set precariously close to the hermit’s man-made pond it made feinting a dangerous and possibly life threatening response. 

Clearly believing that the drunk hadn't experienced enough hardship in his life to successfully use in the role of hermit, William Astor decided that more training was required and so sacked him after just three weeks of employment.

Mock Tudor village at Hever castle
His ideas for Hever didn't just stop at the gardens; there was plenty of work to be done on the living quarters too. As with the garden, things had to be done exactly how he saw it no matter what the cost involved.

With Hever being on the small side, it was considered unsuitable for the style of entertaining he was accustomed to. 

To fit in with the period feel of the outer walls, he completely restored the Castles interior before adding an interconnecting mock Tudor village. 

What is more remarkable is that before they could even consider starting with the building work there were two further obstacles that needed to be over come. 

In true Astor fashion the road, which used to run along side the castle and therefore directly in the path of his new building scheme, was completely removed and then re-laid almost a hundred yards away. 

Hever fountains
But this pales into insignificance when compared to the successful diversion of the river Eden, a formidable task undertaken for the very same reason!

Even after a century, the detail and workmanship still stands up to close inspection, but no more so than the superbly executed Pompeiian wall that runs along the south facing side of the Italian gardens.

Littered with a collection of exquisite Roman artefacts, some of which are up to 2000 years old, what you see today is the realisation of one mans dream who had the power, money and more importantly the determination and drive to achieve it.

 But the greatest gift that Astor has given us is what we see here today. 

Because the gardens have now had a century to mature it is us, and not the man himself, who can experience the reality of William Astor’s dream, the pinnacle of Edwardian pleasure gardens as he envisioned over 120 years ago.

Fountain details
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MARRAKECH: The Saadian Tombs

Walking along the bustling, dusty and sun-baked Rue Bab Agnaou it is easy to miss the small passageway that leads off to the Saadian tombs. However, once you get to the kasbah mosque - which is likely to be on your left if you are coming from the Djemaa el Fna - the signs are clearly displayed if you keep your eyes peeled.

The Saadian tombs are definitely worth a look at - even if you are only going to be in Marrakesh for a couple of days.

Unfortunately, this means they can be full of tourists and may take a while to get round.

Therefore, take some water with you - maybe a snack if you are American, and keep your belongings out of reach of pick pockets.

The Saadian tombs are clearly a  popular and an important part of Moroccan heritage.  

Even so, there is not much in the way of tourist information here, so it is worth finding out a little about what is here before you go, in order to make the most of your visit.

History of the Saadian tombs

This site may have been a burial ground before the Saadian period, but the earliest known burials dates from 1557. All the main buildings represented here were constructed under Sultan Ahmed el Mansour (1578-1603).

When Moulay Ismail (1672-1727) - the second ruler of the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty, took over in Marrakesh, he systematically destroyed the adjacent Badi Palace. 

However, superstition kept him from destroying the burial ground. Instead, he sealed up all the entrances to the Saadian Tombs except for an obscure one found at the Kasbah Mosque.

Nevertheless, a few prominent Marrakeech citizens were buried here after it was sealed up -  the last being the 'mad sultan' Moulay Yazid in 1792, who ruled for 22 violent months.

Immediately after his brutal suppression of a rebellion based in Marrakesh, he was shot in the head during a counter-attack.

From this point on, the Saadian Tombs lay hidden and mostly forgotten until 1917, when they were discovered during a French aerial survey and a passageway was built from the side of the Kasbah Mosque. 

The tombs' long neglect has ensured their preservation and they have since been fully restored to their original glory.

What is here?

The Mad Moulay Yazid
The enclosure consists of two main mausoleums, with 66 tombs laid out within them and over 100 more outside in the gardens. The first mausoleum, on the left as you enter, is the finest of the two. 

Built to house Sultan Ahmed el Mansour's tomb and completed during his lifetime, its vaulted roof, fine carvings and stunning zellij tiles are reminiscent of the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain that was built 200 years earlier.

The first hall is an oratory and was probably not intended for burial purposes. Nevertheless, it contains the thin marble stones of several Saadian princes. The tomb of the infamous 'Mad Moulay Yazid' is also here, and whose presence conflicts with the black-and-white script in the hall that reads:
'...and the works of peace they have accomplished will make them enter the holy gardens...'
In the back of the mausoleum is a very fine mihrab, supported by a delicate group of columns. Sultan Ahmed el Mansour's tomb is in the domed central chamber, flanked by the tombs of his sons and successors.

The second mausoleum is older but less impressive. It was built by Ahmed el Mansour in place of an existing pavilion over the tombs of his mother and of the founder of the Saadian dynasty - Mohammed ech Sheikh. 

The former is below the dome in the outer chamber, while most of the latter is buried in the inner chamber.  Mohammed ech Sheikh was murdered in the Atlas mountains by Turkish mercenaries and his head was put on public display in Istanbul.

Scattered around the gardens are the tombs of over 100 more Saadian princes and members of the royal household.

Surprisingly, there are even a few Jewish graves. The gravestones are covered in brilliantly coloured tiles and most have inscriptions with epitaphs and quotes from the Qur'an.

Most simply read:

'...there is no God but God. Muhammad is God's messenger. Praise be to God. The occupant of this tomb died on...'

Carved on the walls is the following poem:

'...o mausoleum, built out of mercy, thou whose walls are the shadow of heaven. The breath of asceticism is wafted from thy tombs like a fragrance. Through thy death the light of faith has been dimmed, the seven spheres are fraught with darkness and the columns of glory broken with pain...'

Click here for related articles:
MARRAKECH: Marjorelle Gardens
MARRAKECH: The Saadian Tombs
MOROCCO: The Jemaa el-Fnaa
Based on an article from and
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