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Leeds Castle: The Loveliest Castle in the World?

by Richard Crowhurst

The Domesday Book describes a productive but unremarkable estate. "Adelold holds Esledes [Leeds] of the bishop. It is assessed at 3 sulungs [about 600 modern acres]. There is land for 12 ploughs. In demesne [land whose produce was destined for the Lord] are 2 ploughs: and 28 villans [villagers] with 8 bordars [peasants] have 7 ploughs. There is a church and 18 slaves. There are 2 arpents of vineyard [between a half and two acres] and 8 acres of meadow, woodland for 20 pigs, and 5 mills of the villans. TRE [before the Conquest] it was worth £16; when received, the same; now £20, and yet it renders £25. Earl Leofwine held it."

Leeds Castle

Simon Jenkins has called it "an English Udaipur." However, it is Lord Conway's famous description of "the loveliest castle in the world" that epitomises Leeds today. So much so that it has become a marketing tool and something of a cliché through over-use. Despite this, he was probably right. Leeds' atmosphere is closer to a country house, yet the visitor is struck by an atmosphere of solidity in gentile surroundings. There is no doubting the romance of Leeds. I have attended balls in the Fairfax hall and visited the grounds in all weathers. It holds a special place in my heart, as I experienced my first teenage kiss on the bank of the lake, with the floodlit and snow-covered castle as the ultimate backdrop. Yet there is a falseness about Leeds. Despite the site's great age, much of the main building is a modern restoration; a gothic recreation of a medieval fantasy.

The castle was extensively rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Jacobean house that been built on main island (the original Norman structure had long been ruined) was demolished in the 1820s when the Wykeham-Martin family built the current Gloriette (see below) and house. The American heiress Olive Paget (later Lady Baillie) brought the castle in 1926, after death duties forced the Wykeham-Martins to sell, transforming it into a vision of tasteful luxury with the help of French designer Armand Rateau. In 1975 Lady Baillie created the Leeds Castle Foundation to manage the estate after her death and the castle was opened to the public a year later.

Castle of Six Queens

Leeds Castle

As far back as 857 AD, Esledes Manor had royal links. It was held by Leed or Ledian, the Chief Minister to the King of Kent, for the Saxon Royal family. Not only did he leave his name to the site for posterity, but he also built a wooden structure on two small islands at a widening of the River Len. It wasn't until the 11th-century motte and bailey built by Hamon de Crevecoeur had been replaced by a more permanent stone structure that the castle became a royal palace. In 1278 it was adopted by Edward I and his Queen, Eleanor of Castile -- who would become the first of six queens to claim it as her home.

Edward made a number of improvements to the castle, including a unique Barbican with three separate sections, each complete with individual drawbridge, gateway and portcullis. He also constructed a proper set of outer walls and a D-shaped Keep on the smallest island. This tower became known as the Gloriette in honour of Queen Eleanor and the name is still used today. Edward also created the lake, flooding the marshland around the castle and controlling the river with a complex of dams and sluices.

Leeds Castle

The second queen to claim the castle was Isabella, who inherited the castle in 1327 after her husband, Edward II, was murdered. It could be thought of as revenge. Six years earlier Isabella had arrived at the castle (then held by Edward's steward) seeking shelter; she was denied admission and her party was fired upon by archers guarding the castle. Not surprisingly, Edward II was less than impressed and quickly laid siege to the castle.

The Castle's most famous owner was Henry VIII, who created a sumptuous home for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1520. His main motivation seems to have been to keep her well out of sight, away from Court, rather than any sense of love! Later Henry's daughter Elizabeth was imprisoned at leads before her coronation.

The estate finally passed from royal ownership in 1552 when Edward VI presented it to Sir Anthony St Ledger. Unlike many private homes, Leeds survived destruction in the Civil War thanks to the Culpepper family's support for the Roundheads. This was the first of many military experiences at the castle, despite its popular perception as a "Castle of Queens." During the Napoleonic period it held French and Dutch prisoners of war, while during the Second World War Leeds was used as a centre to develop and test secret military technology.

Visiting the Castle

Today the castle is an ideal day out for families. It just manages to strike a balance between retaining its sense of history and heritage, and maximising its visitor and corporate income. This is forgivable as the charitable trust running Leeds receives no public money.

Leeds CastleFrom the ticket office in the car park, visitors can either catch a land train to the castle or walk through the Duckery (recommended). The best time to see the surrounding woodlands is the spring when streams of daffodils and narcissi and bluebells weave through the ash, willow and alder trunks. Later in the year rhododendrons and azaleas present an equally striking display of colour.

After passing lawns and flowerbeds, the visitor's first view of the castle comes from beneath an ancient cedar. The ruined Barbican and Mill are the oldest remaining structures, while the 'modern' house beckons beautifully across its manicured lawn. The castle contains rooms depicting different periods from history, and is famous for its collections of furniture, paintings and tapestries. The rooms are often magically lit by reflections from the lake. Whatever the season, Leeds always seems to be bathed in light. A building beside the gatehouse (which was used as a squash court in the time of Lady Baillie's occupancy) houses a unique collection of over 100 historic dog collars and other artefacts. This exhibition is far more interesting than it sounds.

There's plenty for visitors to see and do beyond the castle. In addition to exploring the 500 acres of parkland landscaped by Capability Brown, you can head along the river to the Fairfax Courtyard. From here you can explore the Culpepper Garden, which Lady Baillie turned into an archetypal English garden, stuffed with fragrant blooms for cutting for the house. Below this is the more recent (1999) Lady Baillie garden. Designed by Christopher Carter, this Mediterranean-style terrace occupies the original site of the aviary.

CockatooToday's aviary occupies another walled garden above this and is home to over 100 species. The birds are housed in state-of-the-art enclosures and the success of the aviary's breeding programme speaks for their comfort. A more recent addition to the estates bird population has been the birds of prey, which can be found near the maze when they are not taking part in the regular flying displays.

Unlike those at other historic houses, the maze at Leeds is recent -- the 2500 yew trees forming the hedge have only just reached their full height, having been planted in 1988. The deceptively tricky maze leads eventually to a rock outcrop, below which sits an enchanting Grotto, filled with decorative symbols from different cultures.

A range of special events run throughout the year, including themed events and festivals, open air concerts, firework displays, falconry displays and balloon festivals. Activities for visitors include hawking courses, balloon rides, fishing, golf and special dining events. There are two well stocked gift shops and a choice of venue for meals, snacks and drinks.

The castle is well signposted and only minutes, from junction 8 of the M20 motorway, to the east of Maidstone. Leeds Castle is usually open every day (except Christmas Day), but opening times can vary for special events, so check before your visit.

Leeds Castle

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Leeds Castle

Richard Crowhurst is a freelance writer and author based in Lincolshire, England. He writes on many subjects, including history and heritage topics. More details can be found on his websites, http://www.freelance-writer-and-author.co.uk and http://www.enagri.info.
Article and photos © 2006 Richard Crowhurst


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