The castle of queens and witches

It is one of the most beautiful castles in England, but the first thing people should know about Leeds Castle is that it is located in Kent, not Leeds.The name of the castle probably derives from the old English word Esledes, meaning a slope or a hillside, and it is also was the name of the village nearby as recorded in the Doomsday Book in 1086 AD.

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Leeds Castle sits magnificently on two islands in the middle of a giant man-made moat. You have to appreciate that this castle is 900 years old so they had to dig this moat by hand. The original castle was built by a Norman knight like most of the castles of that era, but what makes the castle unique, is the fact that throughout History it became a tradition for several generations of English Kings to give this castle as a wedding present to their new brides.

The first Queen bought the castle herself. This was Eleanor of Castile, the Spanish wife of Edward I’st. Under her rule and chequebook, Leeds started to become a royal household. A place that the Queen could visit in order to give birth (she was constantly pregnant and had at least 16 children, most of whom did not reach adulthood). In her days, the castle expanded on to the next island and this section was called the Gloriette. Eleanor was also building something shocking in Leeds Castle: she built a bath!

Unfortunately, cleanliness was not enough in those days to keep you well and Eleanor died before her husband, who almost immediately married again. He was 60 and his new wife was called Margaret. She was 17 and the sister of the French King, so just giving her a diamond ring was not enough and she was the first Queen to receive Leeds as a wedding gift. This tradition skipped one Queen, Isabella of France, the wife of the useless Edward II. She gained this castle by invading England and abdicate her husband. Taking Leeds Castle as a trophy. In total, six queens lived in the castle but only five called Leeds Castle a home, one of them calling it a  jail.

The last royal connection Leeds castle had was during Tudor days. King Henry VIII made a lot of improvements to the castle and made a very special visit on his way to meet the French King. Henry’s entourage was massive. It included over 5000 people, so basically Leeds became the second most populated city in the kingdom for a few days. But this was also the swan song for the castle which then moved from royal to private hands. Unfortunately, most of these hands could not really afford the upkeep of the castle in the same way the Crown could and the castle began its demise.

During the English civil war in the middle of the 17th century, the castle was owned by Sir Cheney Culpeper who was a staunch parliamentarian, meaning that there was no danger of the castle being slighted. At the same time, another branch of the family was royalist and helped the Prince of Wales ( the future Charles II) to escape from England to France. They later received a huge amount of Land in Virginia as a reward and thus the fortune arrived at the family who held Leeds. In this way, the castle was lucky to enjoy the best of both worlds. This was also probably the first connection between Leeds Castle and the New World.

During the 19 century, the castle moved to the hands of the Wykeham Martins family. They embarked on a very expensive and massive repair and renovation that was completed in 1823 and turned the castle ( at least from the outside) into what we see today. But this did not last long and the castle started to deteriorate again and by the end of the century, it was empty. The final private owner of the castle bought it in 1925. Her name was Olive Cecilia Paget ( her friends called her Olive) and she was a rich American heiress. She had the money and the passion not only to save Leeds Castle, but also to turn it into the number one destination for parties until World War 2. The castle even had a wave pool! During these times, people like Charlie Chaplin, the Prince of Wales (future Edward VIII) and many others partied between its walls. When Olive died in 1974, the castle moved to a special trust that currently operates it and is entrusted with the task of making sure that the castle or the grounds will never be at risk again.

The castle is open to the public, for more information: Leeds Castle official website

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So big, so beautiful and so expensive..

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Leeds Castle during the Christmas holidays so, unfortunately, the gardens were not at their best. Even so, Leeds does present an impressive terrain, one of the best we have ever visited.

Managing and maintaining huge grounds like those of Leeds Castle costs a lot of money and Leeds Castle is an expensive place to visit. It is not part of the National Trust, HHA or the English Heritage; however, by buying a single day ticket to Leeds, you are actually buying unlimited entry for a year. This may not benefit you, though, if you are located hours away or if you are a tourist, with the option to come back again in few weeks time not being very likely. I would really like to see the people behind the Leeds Castle trust working alongside someone like the HHA, as I am sure it would bring them many more visitors.

Enough about pricing, let’s talk about the visit. The grounds of the castle and the castle itself are very impressive (it was my second visit to Leeds, so I remember how they looked during the summer time). Upon entry to the castle, there is a well-done exhibition that tells the story of the castle through the ages. In the castle itself, you are “forced” to walk in a certain trail between the rooms ( Ikea style!). What was really strange, was the fact that some of the guides in the castle rooms were not knowledgeable at all about the castle. I tried to ask a few questions in the same way I do in any castle, but I could not get any answers; or worse still, I was given some wrong answers. I understand that Leeds Castle runs as a business, but it is also a historical monument with vast heritage, so it would make more sense to educate your employees to help visitors unlock it.

Outside the castle, the grounds include several more attractions. Most of them are targeting families, which is probably one of the strongest advantages of the castle. The climbing frames and maze were top-quality and my kids enjoyed them so much that we forgot to view the birds of prey exhibition (although we did see the birds). If you visit the castle during summertime, you can probably enjoy taking a boat ride and even a segway tour (for an extra charge of course).

We also visited the coffee shop and the restaurant. The coffee shop did not impress me – it was more like Costa Express- but the restaurant was great. A good selection of food and drinks and amazing views from its terrace to the castle.

To sum things up, Leeds Castle offers a great day out and it is definitely one of the most beautiful castles in the UK with some of the most attractive grounds as well. If I’m using the example of the Michelin guide (which I do from time to time), it is a clear two-star castle from me.

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