Have you heard of Château Hardelot? If not, you’re in for a treat.
It’s one of the prettiest, and least known, attractions on the fabulous stretch of north French coast between Le Touquet Paris-Plage and Boulogne.
Built of white stone, its square and round towers and vaulted windows look out over the gardens while a flag made of the British and French insignia flies cheerfully in the breeze from the sea.
Today the château is the centre of the Entente Cordiale, an agreement signed on April 8th, 1904 to help diplomatic relations between the two countries.
It was a close, but not always amicable, relationship.
History of Château Hardelot
The château first appears in records in 1194 but it wasn’t until the late 1220s that the small wooden fort was turned into a fully fortified castle. The Counts of Boulogne modeled it on the local fortifications at Boulogne-sur-Mer and Montreuil. It was, of course, designed to keep the traditional English enemy at bay.
The castle may have been defensive, but it was also the last word in medieval luxury with steam rooms and baths to keep the French Lords fragrant.
Louis XI grabbed it as a royal castle, and in October 1532 Henry VIII besieged it as part of his campaign against Boulogne. Later he and François I met here to form one of those all-too-brief alliances between the two warring nations in the interminable 100 years war.
It did okay until the 17th century when the all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu destroyed the château. He wasn’t too happy with the power of the Counts of Boulogne so pleased the French King with a handy policy of destruction.
A new lease of life for the Château
Nothing much happened over the next two centuries until 1848 when an entrepreneur from the port of Bristol bought the ruins. Sir John Hare began to repair, restore and renovate the buildings.
It became something of a destination for his English friends. Charles Dickens popped in to visit while staying with his mistress (in secret) in nearby Hardelot.
In 1865 Captain Henry Guy bought the château and rebuilt the castle in its present Tudor style. In 1872 he and his family moved here.
But it was the entrepreneur John Whitley who had the greatest impact on the château and its surroundings. In 1898 he bought the castle and the 400 acres that went with it to create the seaside resort of Hardelot. He later used the experience to develop chic and rather English Le Touquet Paris-Plage.
The second English invasion of this part of north France was complete.
The two resorts followed a similar pattern of villas set in their own grounds in the pine forests that led down to the sea. They were aimed at a clientele of wealthy English. The Prince of Wales, Edward VII and his sister Louise, Duchess of Argyll sailed over here to join the chic Parisians who came to play golf, ride and walk, misbehave…and party.
The story didn’t stop here though the glamour went out of the window for a while. The castle was sold by John Whitley to one Benjamin Evans in 1921, then in 1932 it became the property of the extraordinary Abbot Bouly, a water diviner and a healer.
In place of the riotous parties came the Sisters of St. Agnes and a retreat.
Today the château is owned by the local authority who run it as a cultural attractions.
Visiting the Castle
The château is delightful; a thoroughly elegant, and unusually comfortable, place with a plush Victorian interior.
Most of the objects are loaned from public institutions and museums. Items come from the Louvre to the museums in Boulogne, from the ceramic museum in Desvres and the l’hôtel Sandelin de Saint-Omer. They look thoroughly at home here.
In the entrance hall, tiles from the Houses of Parliament set the tone. Look out for deep red lincrusta wallpaper on the stairs from John Whiteley’s factories; William Morris wallpaper in the Smoking room; pictures of Churchill, the Black Prince, Charles I and his French wife Henrietta Maria; chairs in the dining room bought by Napoleon III when he was living in England.
Don’t miss the extraordinary Cabinet of Curiosities. It’s full of the kind of intriguing items gentlemen collected on their travels so they could proudly show them off to their guests. Often some of these items were a bit dodgy in taste, but I couldn’t see anything remotely tasteless when I visited much to my disappointment.
Each year there’s a temporary exhibition. They’ve covered Dickens and Bleriot, and this year feature knights and noble ladies, and photographs of the Beatles. It’s an eclectic programme!
1 rue de la source
Tel: 00 33 (0)3 21 21 73 65Website
Open Tuesday to Sunday 10am-12.30pm & 1.30pm-6pm
Also open Monday June 10
Rates Château 3€
Temporary Exhibition: 3€
Château & temporary exhibition: 5€
Guided visit (in French or English) 5€
Annual pass Château and temporary exhibition 12€
Free for under 18s, students under 26 years
First Sunday of the month free to temporary exhibition and musical event (though you must book for this)
The Elizabethan Theatre
This is a small masterpiece; a gem of a wooden round theatre encased in a wooden delicate lattice-like bamboo surround. It pipped a building by Sir Norman Foster to win a World Architecture award in 2018. Designed by Andrew Todd, an English architect working in Paris, it seats 400 in tiered seats.
If that’s not enough to tempt you, the lively annual program of events, baroque music, jazz, Shakespeare, comedy and performances by the likes of Jane Birkin should.
Check out my article on the best seaside resorts on the north French coast, which includes Hardelot. Other resorts run from Wimereux on the beautiful, lonely stretch of the Cote d’Opale down to Mers-les-Bains.
I’ve also recommended places to stay.