Jul. 18th, 2020
Once upon a time. These are four words that we all remember from the bedtime fairy tales of our early years. Many of those stories included a princess in a royal castle and adventures of knights in shining armor. As adults, many of us have kept an ember of those childhood fantasies and still yearn to explore those lavish castles where untold treasures can still be found. Today there is one such castle that lies deep within the English countryside, complete with drawbridges, moats, and beautiful gardens. There you’ll find the Leeds Castle, which has been rightfully called the worlds “Loveliest Castle in the World” and is a holiday where those childhood fantasies come to life.
Leeds Castle is a standout among the top castles in Europe with all the accouterments that one would want in a castle vacation. The majestic castle lies in the heart of the English countryside of Kent, surrounded by 500 acres of forests, lakes and gardens. On an island in the center of a lake and moat is the medieval castle with its impressive crenelated rooftops and two-foot-thick roughhewn stone walls with interiors as equally regal as its exteriors.
Leeds Castle is a major tourism destination for the day-trippers who come for a castle tour, to explore the castle grounds, or walk through the parklands and gorgeous English gardens. Others bring the little ones for perhaps a hawk experience or playtime in the children’s park. Yet others come for a round of golf on their highly acclaimed nine-hole course.
Away from the castle is a village of more austere buildings with additional accommodations, a visitor’s center, and the restaurant. After the castle closes for the day, visitors leave, and the castle is reserved for guests staying overnight. There are several levels of accommodations from guests staying in the castle during a special event to glamping in a regal tent.
The Leeds Castle has a noble history, beginning in 1119 and has passed down through the ages of kings and queens and was most notably the palace of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. At the turn of the last century, ownership passed to an American socialite and bon vivant, Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie, who, after acquiring the castle in 1926, hosted lavish galas attended by her contemporaries, European Royalty, and icons of the silver screen such as Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks as well as John F Kennedy.
Along the way, each of the castle’s custodians left their mark with improvements and renovations. Ironically, it was the American socialite, Lady Baillie, who may have had the greatest impact and whose life’s work became bringing the castle to meet its potential. Her legacy is manifested in the lavish interiors, opulent in design, and created by the highest regarded French interior designers of their day. Her last gift as she passed away in 1974 was to put the castle into a trust to keep it at its finest state and to be enjoyed for generations to come.
After you have visited a few castles, you quickly realize that not all are the same. It may be the grandeur of the setting and surrounding landscapes; it may be the size of the castle, as some can be quite small and cramped. And then there are the interiors with many not well taken care of and literally showing their age with dark and dank rooms that are better suited for a quick look around than an overnight stay.
However, Leeds Castle is a medieval masterpiece and exactly what one looks for in a castle holiday. From the grounds, the eclectic blend of Tudor style and contemporary interiors, the range of activities and their attentive staff. Inside the castle is a haven for royalty with elegant rooms filled with priceless antiques and period furnishings. Thanks to Lady Baillie and her army of French designers, the interiors offer a tasteful contrast of French Nuovo and classic décor with light-colored walls twenty-foot ceilings, with large windows that bathe the rooms with natural light. One can almost see the ghosts of dinner parties past with Errol Flynn chatting it up with Charlie Chaplin and David Niven.
There are daily tours that escort guests through the castle to see each of the rooms from the ornate dining hall with a long table set with fine English china, set for a dozen guests. Other rooms include a library with a trove of leather-bound books, and a den with fireplaces, objects d’art, and keepsakes from around the world. Upstairs are the guest’s rooms, one more lavish than the next with regal four-poster beds, artifacts of the day and a boudoir replete with Louis XVI style paneling, French furniture and fine art. The castle is frequently rented by deep-pocketed guests for weddings or for special occasions which include the full use of the castle for your own exclusive use.
Surrounding the castle are 500 acres of grass plains, woodlands, idyllic ponds fringed with weeping willow trees. Moving about in the ponds are all manner of waterfowl from the elegant long-necked black and white swans to the waddling and quacking mallard ducks. The scenery is so stunning that one doesn’t know whether they’d rather have a picnic or to spend the afternoon just wandering about and snapping a few keepsake photos.
From around the property, the castle sits as its crown jewel, atop an island knoll surrounded by a small lake which doubles as a moat. The setting is made for romance as couples enjoy a languid punt on the lake in a scene akin to the gondolas in Venice as the oarsman steers the couple on the small boat under the shadow of the castle.
In England, gardens are a competitive sport on the level of their cricket matches. The Leeds Castle gardens would be characterized as a star player, with intricate gardens awash with color and variety of fauna behind neatly coiffed hedges, as if they’d just come from an appointment with a barber. And what’s so impressive is that Leeds Castle does not just have one magnificent garden, there are several unique formal gardens with a mesmerizing array of plant life from exotic to the common, with some for color and beauty and others for fragrance. One features a classical English garden separated by low box hedges with a sea of roses, lupins, poppies. Along the river, the garden explodes with color from daffodils, narcissi and anemones and in the fall with bursts of color from azaleas and rhododendrons. Any time of year the gardens are beautiful, full of color, and a showcase for the wizardry of the garden’s keepers.
Following the garden path leads to a daunting garden maze that consists of 2400 yew trees formed into a maze in the design of the British crown. As beautiful as it may be, you’ll want to enter with caution and be warned, it’s not for everyone. The level of difficulty is quite high and often you’ll find many frustrated and lost souls, giving up before finding the end, or even worse, calling the hotel to ask for a rescue party to be sent. But the arrival at the center is well worth the aggravation to climb up to the lookout and see the many trying in vain to get the center or those who have given up and having a challenging time to get back out. Those who have won their way to the center descend below to an eerie underground grotto with ghoulish statues with glowing red eyes to spook and scare along the tunnel way to the exit.
An overnight stay offers several options including 1930s Stable Courtyard accommodations, self-catered cottages, and medieval glamping tents. The Maiden’s Tower is a five-star romantic abode steeped in history in an original building constructed in the 16th century. Outside is roughhewn stone walls, thick wooden shutters, and ancient reinforced doors. Inside is anything but with contemporary and new with refined manor homestyle interiors.
The Maiden’s Tower is a five-bedroom 700-hundred-year-old villa next to the castle with indulgent views of the castle and grounds. The Catherine de Valois room, named after a queen and owner of the castle, has a Tudor style décor with antique furniture, whitewashed cabinetry, matching Louis XV crimson velvet and gilded chairs and a king-sized sleigh bed. The room’s most endearing feature is the window seat and large window offering perfect views onto the castle and grounds. This is not your typical old stuffy castle room; it is modern and fresh with all the latest amenities one would expect in a five-star resort, including a fully equipped bathroom with Molton Brown amenities and a large soaking tub.
For a less regal stay, the Knights Glamping at Leeds Castle is a good option. The glamping tents appear as if you just may see a Medieval jousting tournament beyond your wooden outdoor deck. Striped in white and bold colors, these are proper tents of old with lovely interior décor including a full-sized bed, wood-burning stove and comfortable furnishings.
Dining takes place in the 17th-century oak-beamed Castle View Restaurant which, as the name implies, is set across the lake in perfect view of the castle. During the day, the menu is casual and caters to both stay-over and the general admission guests. In the evening the menu has a variety of offerings from casual fish and chips to gourmet with a focus on local and seasonal ingredients.
In addition to all of the afore mentioned activities, Leeds Castle also offers a Bird of Prey Centre where guests can interact with a range of species from owls to hawks and eagle. Golfers will enjoy an afternoon on the links with their highly regarded nine-hole golf course overlooking the castle and grounds.
The Leeds Castle is the quintessential English holiday and one of the finest castles in the world with everything for the forlorn knight and princess. The castle’s beauty, immense grounds, lavish gardens, and rich history make it the ideal choice for a royal holiday in the English countryside.