The Loveliest Castle in the World is a Lot of Family Fun
Leeds Castle was the home of six Plantagentet Queens - the she-wolves of England. It was also where Henry VIII spent time with his first Queen, Catherine of Aragon and from where he left to parlay with the King of France on the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Standing on two islands in a moat commanded by Edward I, who had a river dammed to make it, it has been called the loveliest castle in England. Today, this 900 year old castle on a site with 1,000 years of history, is also a very entertaining family attraction within easy reach of London, the Channel Tunnel and the Channel ports.
A neighboring landowner, historian, Lord Conway (Martin Conway, 1st Baron Conway of Allington), described Leeds Castle as the loveliest castle in the world in the early 20th century. The description has remained ever since and it is hard to argue it.
King Edward I flooded the River Len to create the castle's dramatic moat and built his fortress palace on the two islands that were formed. The Gloriette - or castle keep, on the right side of the castle, actually stands on a much earlier Norman stronghold, created almost 1,000 years ago by a follower of William the Conqueror. The new castle, on the left connected by a bridge to the Gloriette, was created in the Tudor style 1822, on the footprint of Henry VIII's castle.
Beautifully landscaped grounds and woodland gardens are arranged around Leeds Castle, setting it like a jewel in the landscape.
A Picnic Among the Rhododendrons at Leeds Castle
The vibrant colors of rhododendrons and azaleas on the edge of the Pavilion Lawn in the grounds of Leeds Castle are a good setting for a family picnic. The expansive landscape, with its secret corners and colorful landscaping are ideal for relaxed family time.
Junior Knights and Maidens
During school holidays and vacations, the castle organizes a schedule of family events and activities for children. On the day we visited, little knights and courtiers enjoyed dressing up, face painting and junior jousts on the Pavilion Lawn.
The Barbican at Leeds
An ancient stone bridge crosses the moat to enter Leeds Castle Bailey.
The Castle Keep
The Castle keep at Leeds is known as the Gloriette. It was named that during the life of Edward I's Spanish wife, Eleanor of Castile. The word is a Spanish term for a garden pavilion at the intersection of pathways. Perhaps that was a way of softening the image of a structure that was built on an early 12th century fortress stronghold.
The Gloriette occupies the whole of its own small island and was, at one time linked by a drawbridge to the larger island, where the castle bailey was located. The wall that still surrounds the larger island was built at this time as well (around 1280) but was probably three times taller then.
A 900 Year Old Wine Cellar Still Storing Wine
Visitors today enter Leeds Castle through the Norman Cellar, probably the oldest part of the castle, dating from the 1100s. It would have been used to store food, straw, firewood and candle wax, the large barrels used for wine and beer. It is still used as a wine cellar, where wine for conferences and weddings held at the castle are stored.
The Fountain Courtyard
The Fountain Courtyard is in the center of Leeds Castle Keep, the Gloriette. In the 14th century a system was created to divert water to the central fountain. They built well in those days -- it's still in use.
Henry VIII's Banqueting Hall
Henry VIII had the largest room in Leeds Castle converted to a banqueting hall, adding fireplaces and a magnificent chimney as well as a bay window with views of the moat and grounds.
Lady Baillie, the last occupant of Leeds Castle, used it as a place for cocktails and for her famous guests - who included Hollywood movie stars and prominant politicians - to gather after dinner. In it's heyday, the house parties at the castle included the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplain, Errol Flynn, David Niven, Noel Coward; and powerful politicians, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden.
Look for the painting of Henry VIII's fleet setting sail from Dover to meet King Francois I of France at the gathering known as The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Henry traveled with a retinue of 3,997 courtiers. His queen, Catherine of Aragon, took her own party of 1,175.
The Library in the great hall of Leeds Castle's New Castle section, was designed in 1936 by leading Parisian designer Stéphane Boudin also designed grand, French inspired interiors for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Lady Baillie's Dining Room
The dining room, decorated in the 1930s, includes parquet floors imported from Paris that were said to come from the Versailles. The walls were painted "water green" to best show off Lady Baillie's collection of Chinese porcelain, mounted on the walls.
The Culpepper Garden
The Culpepper Garden at Leeds Castle, named for a family who owned the castle in the 17th century, was first a kitchen garden and then a cut flower garden. In the 1980s, the castle gardener turned it into a large example of an English cottage garden. It's one of several gardens. Another, named after the last owner, Lady Baillie, is a lakeside Mediterranean garden.
The Maze at Leeds Castle is one of several family-friendly attractions. It was designed in 1987 and includes 2,400 yew trees. A circle, set in a square, it takes about 20 minutes to half an hour to get to the center, where a surprise awaits.
A Surprising Reward
Persistence pays. Visitors who make their way to the end of Leeds Castle Maze find the surprise of a mysterious, shell-lined grotto where a stone carved head of the Greek Monster Typhoeus (who had 100 heads) flashes fire from his eyes. Even more treats await inside.