Originally built as a Tudor artillery fortress guarding the Kent coast, Walmer Castle was later the occasional home of successive Lord Wardens of the Cinque Ports. Many of these illustrious occupants – whose number includes William Pitt the Younger, the Duke of Wellington and the late Queen Mother – left their own marks on the house and gardens, which are now open to the public under the stewardship of English Heritage.
A recently completed learning centre by Adam Richards Architects is the first substantial new building at the castle in many decades. It sits alongside a cafe inserted within an existing greenhouse, in a small ensemble that also works to improve access to the 11-acre grounds for visitors.
The buildings have been designed as a “sequence of interventions” with their own access route along the existing garden wall on the northern boundary of the kitchen garden to the west of the castle. ARA has also reorganised a gardeners’ compound to the west of the new buildings. Further west, it has added an oak and steel stair that leads into the Glen, a former chalk quarry now publicly accessible for the first time in a century as a new garden.
A new entrance in the garden wall leads from the site car park to an open court between the learning centre and the cafe, set within a repurposed greenhouse and a new zinc-clad addition.
The 70-square-metre learning centre is a single-storey building with a shallow pitched zinc roof which “draws on the brooding qualities” of the castle, says ARA. Its use of grey handmade brick references the colour of the stone fortifications and the material of existing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century outbuildings and the site’s garden wall.
A large window on the south elevation of the learning centre takes the form of a five-pointed Tudor arch, echoing the castle’s gun ports. It frames a view of a cloud-shaped double row of hedges that borders the kitchen garden, and from the inside appears as a large exhibition case, with the garden as the exhibit. “Conceived as a vitrine, it establishes a critical distance between the viewer and the landscape”, says the architect, “highlighting the visitor’s role as a participant in the construction of meaning”.
The learning centre is designed as one room, with restroom facilities in a smaller annexe. The building will be used by Walmer Castle’s 3000 annual education visitors.
The new 100-square-metre cafe is housed in a repurposed timber-framed glasshouse, and opens onto a York stone terrace overlooking the kitchen garden. Ancillary spaces such as toilets and a plant room are housed within a low, black zinc-clad building with cantilevered roof canopies, positioned behind the existing garden wall.