A Great Day Out at Leeds Castle

This Castles Wears Its Thousand Years of History Lightly

Leeds Caslte
© Ferne Arfin

Leeds Castle, in Kent, is that rare thing - an entertaining attraction for grownups that also provides a genuinely great day out for younger members of the family. If you've ever dragged a ten-year-old around a stately home or followed your kids around a completely child-centered attraction you know how important vacation attractions that please everyone can be This thousand-year-old castle caters for all ages, so happy faces all round.

It's surrounded by one of the loveliest moats you will ever hope to see, has gardens, a maze with a spooky grotto at the end, several different playgrounds, falconry and birds of prey, acres of woodland and parkland, accommodations, summer camping, boating, special exhibitions and a dog collar museum (really). You can even get married there.

Leeds - Not to Be Confused With Leeds

Before you head out, make sure you set your Satellite Navigation for the correct postcode or book your train for the right station. Otherwise, instead of ending up at Leeds Castle near Maidstone in Kent, you could find yourself in the Yorkshire city of Leeds, about 230 miles northwest of where you should be. Leeds Castle was named for a medieval village of Maidstone known as Esledes. The nearest rail station is Bearsted, Kent.

A Dower House for Six Queens...

The castle was built by a Norman baron on an island in the River Len. The river was later dammed to form the castle moat and the building spread to a second island. It remained, essentially, the home of an aristocratic family until the owner fell on hard times and had to sell,

Enter Queen number one - In 1278, Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, bought Leeds Castle for herself. When she died, after bearing the king 16 children, he remarried and gave the castle to his second wife, Queen Margaret, sister of the king of France as part of her dowry. Edward II had to fight to get the castle back from a royal steward he had given it to who refused to allow his queen, Isabella, to enter. After Edward was murdered, Isabella took over the castle for herself.

By 1382, the tradition of giving Leeds castle to a queen had been established. Richard II gave it to his wife, Anne of Bohemia, who kept it until she died of the plague, 12 years later. Later Henry IV gave Leeds to his second wife Joan of Navarre. Poor Queen Joan did not get on very well with her stepson, Henry V, who had her imprisoned in the castle for plotting his death by witchcraft. Eventually, he returned all her property and income, but not before she had spent years under house arrest. Finally, queen number six, Henry V's wife, Catherine of Valois, became chatelaine of the castle. She outlived Henry by 15 years, inherited the castle and remarried. Her grandson Henry Tudor founded the Tudor dynasty.

The Palace was more than just a house - even a palace house. The significance of an important castle was the earning potential of the land and estates that surrounded it. So in giving the castle to a wife, the king was, effectively, giving her a source of income with which to pay her household.

...And a Palace for Henry VIII

If only she had borne him a son, things could have been so different for Catherine of Aragon. As it was, she was the wife Henry divorced to marry Anne Boleyn (a lucky escape when you consider the fate of his other wives). Before that, she was Queen for 24 years and Henry converted Leeds Castle from a fortress into a luxurious royal palace for her. On their most famous visit, Henry and Catherine arrived with a combined retinue of 5,000 on the way to a famous meeting and tournament with the King of France known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Leeds Castle provided them with venison and butter for the journey - a pretty small allocation of what the traveling party took with them - 2000 sheep, 800 calves, 312 heron, 13 swans, 1,600 fish, 1,300 chickens, 17 deer, 700 eels, 3 porpoises and a dolphin.

The Castle

Most of Leed's royal story is related in the compact Gatehouse Museum that serves as a preamble to the castle itself. Despite its antiquity, much of what you can see of the castle was actually built in 1822 by a private owner long after the house had passed out of royal hands. The exception is The Gloriette, the oldest part of Leeds Castle, built by Edward I in 1280 on its own small island. Edward used the foundations of an even earlier Norman fortress.

Today, visitors are ushered into the castle through the Norman cellar, all that remains of the original fortress. It would have been used in times of siege to store food, straw, firewood, and wax. Now it is the castle's wine cellar.

Lady Baillie's Party House

To be quite honest, if you are interested in ancient interiors, you may be disappointed with the decor. In the early part of the 20th century, Leeds was purchased by an Anglo American heiress, who later became Olive Lady Baillie. In the 1930s, she worked with a French interior designer to create rooms that combine their interpretation of gothic style with fashionable details of the period.

Lady Baillie used the house to entertain prominent politicians, socialites, and celebrities and that is what you'll see. Much of it is lovely, but if it looks medieval it is probably a recreation.

Nevermind. The views of the beautiful castle exterior, surrounded by a moat that is almost a lake are almost worth the price of admission in themselves. And there's a good deal more to see and do.

The Stable Courtyard and the Dog Collar Museum

If you are traveling with children, by now they are probably expiring with boredom. Even if you aren't, you could be ready for a break before tackling the rest of the attractions. The Stable Courtyard, along the way, has several seasonal food and drinks kiosks for light snacks, coffees, and soft drinks. The Fairfax Restaurant, in a much modernized, 17th-century brick and oak-beamed hall serves unchallenging, healthy meals and lighter fare.

The Stable Courtyard is also the site of the refurbished Dog Collar Museum, an eccentric collection of more than 100 dog collars made brass, leather, copper, iron and even gold, date from the middle ages to modern times.

A narrow archway through one of the stable buildings leads through two small (by castle standards) gardens to the rest of the attractions.

UK Travelers' Tip - Despite its heritage and the fact there is much for adults to enjoy, this is very much a family-oriented attraction. If lots of little people running around with face painting and toy jousting swords are not your thing, avoid visiting during school vacations and holidays.

Leeds Castle Family Attractions

  • The Maze - A circle of 2,400 yew trees is arranged in a circle inside a square. It will probably take you about half an hour to conquer the yew maze. Escape is through a mysterious shell grotto where the giant head of a mythical monster greets you with flaming eyes.
  • Falconry Displays - Free shows take place in the Falconry Arena, in front of the Maze, daily at 2 pm, April through September.
  • Birds of Prey Center - 22 birds, from tiny burrowing owls to Russian eagles are on display outdoors in their aviaries and on the "weathering ground", weather permitting, daily, year-round. The center is behind the Maze.
  • Two playgrounds - The Knights Realm Playground, for children older than 5, is built entirely of wood and features a scale model of the castle. The Squires Courtyard Playground is for children younger than 6. It has sandpits and slides, mini-zip lines, turrets to climb, all of them safe and age-appropriate.
  • Special events - It's always worth checking the Leeds Castle website before you visit to see what's on. The Castle hosts a full schedule of seasonal events, exhibits, and dinners for both adults and children.

Staying at Leeds Castle

A variety of accommodations are available including:

  • bed and breakfast on the Stable Courtyard ($$$) and the 16th century Maidens Tower ($$$+)
  • several self-catering properties sleeping from 2($$$) to 10($$$$). Guests in these properties have use of the leisure facilities of a nearby hotel as well as free access to the castle and grounds.
  • award-winning "Knight's Glamping". Eight, luxury striped tents, based on a medieval design are arranged in the Castle vineyard during the summer months, equipped with 4-poster beds and wood-burning stoves.

Essential Information for Visiting Leeds Castle

  • Where: Leeds Castle Maidstone Kent ME17 1RG. The Castle is about 7 miles east of Maidstone, an hour southeast of London and a half-hour from the Channel Tunnel and Channel ports.
  • Open: Year-round. Summer hours from 10:30 am to 6 pm, last admission 4:30 pm, winter hours to 5 pm, last admission at 3 pm. Closed Christmas and Fireworks Weekend (7-8 November in 2015).
  • Cost of Entry: Adults £24/$37.75 (until March 31, 2016), senior and child discounts, children under 4 free. Tickets are valid for unlimited entry for a year from the date of issue. Buy online for a 10% discount.
  • Contact: Phone or email enquiries@leeds-castle.co.uk
  • Visit their website
  • How to Get There:
    • By Train: Southeastern Trails run regular services from London Victoria to Bearsted Station. Check National Rail Enquiries for times and prices. A shuttle bus operates from the station to the castle during the summer months.
    • By Car: From junction 8 off the M20 motorway, follow the brown and white tourist signs.
    • By Bus: Several tour companies operate sightseeing tours from London that include Leeds Castle. As these change from time to time, it's best to check the Castle website for the latest information.
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