Nestled away off the M20 outside of Maidstone lies Leeds Castle, described as ‘The Loveliest Castle in the World.’ Dating back to the 1100’s, the castle is shrouded in history. From Edward I to Henry VIII right up to Lady Bailey’s private ownership in the early 20th Century, this magnificent building has become one of Kent’s best and most attractive tourist attractions.
We have been a few times – we’ll come to a reason why shortly – and have been impressed by its spectacle and grandeur. With its beautiful and vast five hundred acre gardens, moat and lake, it is impressionably quaint, especially around the spring and summer months when the flowers are in bloom and the resident peacocks are in feather. Around autumn, it evolves with the browns and oranges as the trees get ready for the cold, turning the once green foliage into a burning secret gem. What is magnificent is that it still holds a lot of charm no matter how the weather is. You can appreciate the best of the grounds even if it’s incredibly cold or blisteringly warm.
Spring and summer are best suited to castle and gardens as it is the perfect time for picnics with a fantastic backdrop of the castle. And the geese. And ducks. And swans. And many, many peafowl. Due to the warmer climes a botanical wonder also beholds any who enter the grounds with many beautiful and brightly coloured flowers in bloom to delight and amuse you. The gardens hold a serenity that not a lot of places can match. They are well kept throughout the summer and you can wander at your own leisure. As for spring and autumn, parts of the grounds are kept sealed off so the plants and flowers can be replaced without interference. The lakes are linked up by small streams that run the course of the gardens. At one end, there is a summer house and a traditional Japanese-styled zigzag bridge that crosses one of the ponds. At the other is a waterfall that feeds the lower lakes from the larger moat that surrounds the castle itself. The expansive garden also has its own hedge maze, which is as fun as it is frustrating. You start and you can see the finishing point; a raised concrete mound at the centre. You just have to find the route. It’s a fun little time-spender and out of the times we have been, we still haven’t known which way is the correct one. We still recognise specific parts of the maze but don’t know how to get there. Once the middle has been reached, you can see the entire maze to retrace your route and see the correct route you should have taken instead of aimlessly drifting through the hedges, which is what we did the majority of the time. Getting to the middle was just pure luck, we feel. Once you’ve finished going over your failed route, you exit via an underground grotto, complete with carved stone statues, eerie lighting and this ghastly face…
When you’ve had enough of the gardens (or indeed the rain) you can wander around the castle itself and learn all about its history. The walk past the water cascade to the gatehouse hits home that when you see the castle, you realise that this wasn’t built as a defence. There are no portholes or secret nooks for soldiers to hide in, battlements only look decorative, cannons don’t line the front garden, and the castle itself is not belligerent; this was purely built as a place to live. It just so happens to have a moat. With a choice of an audio tour or simply making your own way, you get to explore the majority of the rooms. Starting out in the wine cellars on the lower floors, you work your way up and around the grand building learning about its colourful history as a royal residence and under private ownership. Some of the rooms have encapsulated the Tudor splendor very well and the furniture, decorations and awnings have remained.
Other rooms have a more modern décor from the turn of the 20th Century; with the bold colours and striking but simple lines. You make your way through into the different rooms, laid out in a labyrinth style, which is somewhat confusing if you don’t know where you’re going. This is an over-thought though as you do make you way through rooms such as master bedrooms and down corridors, peering into servant quarters, the music room, drawing room, the spectacular bathroom and various exhibition spaces. The grand marble staircase brings you to the end of the tour. The castle also features a courtyard; a magnificent spiral staircase made out of one large tree; period art works; historical artefacts and sizable library full of old books.
Although not as big or even as spectacular as some royal palaces, Leeds Castle is still an eye to behold. It’s quaint within its surroundings which suites it perfectly.
Leeds Castle does also hold special events in its grounds. We visited during a St. George’s day festival and on a plot of land, overlooking the castle, an arena had been set out and various skilled recreationists took part in jousting challenges. Crowds gathered around, cheering and booing for their respective knights in shining armour; watching on in awe as they stormed down the track on horseback; charging at each other with lances, only to continue their battle on-foot with carefully choreographed swordfights. The castle has been known to hold special open air concerts, guided garden tours and photo walks, a supercar showcase, hot air balloon flights, fireworks displays and Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. These events are rather limited and can be somewhat quite pricey in their exclusivity but on the more down-to-earth front, there are regular occurrences that do take place also.
Falconry displays are held at specific times and if you have time during the visit it is worth it. You get to watch the birds of prey dive and swoop whilst a trained falconer talks you through the stories and the procedures of being a falconer and how these winged hunters work. If birds of prey aren’t your thing and you prefer water-bound birds, there is also an opportunity to feed the swans and ducks that reside in the lakes. There’s also a children’s play area where you can let your kids burn themselves out to their hearts content if you so wish. And then there’s the…
And once you need a break you have a choice of a Costa coffee café, the restaurant that serves hot food, a snack bar selling chips and the like or, our personal favourite, the ice cream parlour that sells delicious frozen Kentish diary treats! There are also a couple of souvenir shops that sell gifts such as personalised fridge magnets and key rings so you can immortalise your visit forever.
Leeds Castle is a unique place to visit. It’s fairly hidden away but it is a highly recommend place to go. Unfortunately ticket prices aren’t cheap and this may come as a downside – an adult ticket costs £21 – something that when cash is hard to come by, will turn people away, especially if they have . However, what you get for the price is as many visits over the course of a year. Perfect if like us, you live only thirty minutes’ drive away, which is why we’ve been as many times as we have. Not so perfect if you plan on only visiting once. If you are local, you can of course behold the castle in all its splendour. Take a picnic and enjoy the views. Take a raincoat and enjoy the house itself. Or merely take yourself and wander peacefully through what the gardens and grounds have to offer and realises why they call it ‘The Loveliest Castle in the World.’
Jimmi and Kat
Follow Leeds Castle on Twitter: @leedscastleuk