A fertile imagination can run riot at Leeds Castle, which has been at the heart of English history since before the Norman Conquest and whose tagline is “the loveliest castle in the world”. Leeds was once a royal castle, familiar to kings like Edward I, Richard II, Henry V and Henry VIII. It is particularly, and justifiably, proud of its association with six queens – Eleanor of Castile, Margaret of France, Isabella the ‘she-wolf’, Anne of Bohemia, Joan of Navarre and Catherine de Valois.
Today, Leeds Castle is a romantically attractive and immaculately maintained business and visitor attraction. The reason it is has survived in its current state, though, is because until 1974 it was someone’s home for most of its 800 years. And, inevitably, each owner has left their mark – particularly Fiennes Wykeham Martin in the 19th century and Lady Baillie in the 20th. So it’s doubtful whether many of the earlier owners and historical figures associated with Leeds would recognise it now. Equally, it’s a bit of a challenge to picture these formidable characters from our past going about their somewhat gritty affairs – but of course it’s worth a try.
If you were remaking a 1950s Hollywood Technicolor blockbuster about Camelot or Ivanhoe, full of visual effect and eye-candy, but a little short on reality, Leeds might be one place to consider filming. Perhaps Leeds Castle is one of those places where heritage rubs shoulders with entertainment. This is not only a place to visit, but also to attend one of the events – concerts, firework displays, dinners – held throughout the year. The backdrop is superb and the experience could be, literally, awesome. People spend holidays here, booked into self catering accommodation; and what a place to hold your wedding reception! It’s also a place where people come to just to walk, have a picnic and bring the kids. Through snippets of overheard conversation, several mums with prams and toddlers seemed to be regulars. And I must confess to feeling a pang of jealousy when I saw the playground – the Squire’s Courtyard – and the amazing mock-castles it contains; we didn’t have stuff like that when I was small.
Unsurprisingly, the castle surrounded by its lake draws the eye as soon as it emerges through the gardens. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of the black swans introduced by Lady Baillie and now the castle’s symbol. The grounds are full of birds of one sort or another and Leeds Castle also features displays by birds of prey. This is not something I would normally go out of my way to see, but I admit to being impressed watching Mozart, a beautiful European Eagle Owl and a magnificent Harris’s Hawk from the US. The very amusing and capable handler also showed a fairly scabby and unpleasant Turkey Vulture, which somehow reminded me of an estate agent I once knew.
Just wandering through the parkland and gardens is a pleasant experience. Inside, the castle is fascinating, certainly with hints of its medieval origins, but mostly and very definitely a luxurious 20th century home. A set of chambers, the Queen’s Room, recreate what the quarters of Catherine de Valois might have looked like in 1422. Lady Baillie’s rooms were fabulous and fascinating, though it did feel a little voyeuristic seeing her personal things laid out.
You could round off your visit off by getting lost in the maze – we did (take breadcrumbs) – and walking through the underground grotto. After that – time for a coffee and a bun – though it’s slightly disappointing to discover the place has a Costa Coffee on site, which is rather too much like the high street for me. But, overall, Leeds Castle is a ‘must visit’, one of Britain’s treasure houses and a great place for a day out. It’s not cheap, and not a place to go if you have limited time: my advice is to allow several hours for your visit. It is possible to buy a ticket that allows unlimited access for a year.
You can read a bit about the history of Leeds Castle at “The loveliest castle in the world?”
You can learn even more from the Leeds Castle website.