Leeds Castle is not as the name would suggest anywhere near the city of Leeds but it is in fact in Kent not far from Maidstone. Advertised as “the loveliest castle in the world” it makes for a perfect day trip from London. Connected by train from London Victoria, it takes just over an hour to get to Bearsted from where a shuttle bus operates to and from the castle, daily from April to September and less frequently the rest of the year. Set across two islands on a small lake, the castle first comes into view from the Cascade Garden across Cedar Pond.
It is quite a long walk from the ticket office to the castle so for people with mobility problems or visitors that prefer to avoid walking for a long time, a land train is available near the main entrance to the castle grounds.
On the way to the castle building, a short detour should be made to visit the ruins of the Barbican and the Fortified Mill before making the way to the Gatehouse where audio guides can be hired, a gift shop is also available here.
The castle is accessed through a narrow path along the moat with steep steps and uneven pavement unsuitable for some visitors who are allowed to use the main entrance instead. The visit starts in the cellar and up stairs and along narrow corridors; a number of rooms can be visited including the beautiful Chapel, the Dining Room and the Castle Library.
Built as a Norman stronghold, the castle history can be explored through its rooms where once King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon stayed. The last private owner of the castle was an Anglo-American heiress, Lady Baillie; on her death in 1974, the castle was left to the Leeds Castle Foundation to be preserved and for the public to be able to visit.
Although the castle is the main attraction, the vast park around it has many other features to keep visitors entertained. Some are seasonal, like falconry shows, a ferry boat that takes visitors on boat trips across the Great Water and punting around the castle’s moat. Popular permanent attractions are the rather peculiar Dog Collar Collection housed in the Exhibition Centre, and the world famous Maze and Grotto; after getting lost in the maze, the exit (spoiler alert) is found by going through a grotto where eerie music is played and some stone sculptures set the scene of an underground world, probably a bit scary for young children.
After a brief stop for refreshments in one of the cafes or at the restaurant, some time should be spent exploring the two formal gardens located on the side of the Great Water. The Lady Baillie Mediterranean Garden Terrace has plants and flowers arranged along narrow paths by the water while the Culpeper Garden above it has manicured shrubs and more flowers and plants. Stunning views of the surroundings can be enjoyed from there.
For families with young children there are two playgrounds: the Knight’s Realm Playground built entirely of wood and suitable for children over 7 years old and the Squires’ Courtyard Playground for younger children.
During the year the castle hosts a number of events including concerts, and more seasonal events like Halloween’s Ghost Tours, the Christmas Gifts Fair and spectacular fireworks displays. Not surprisingly given the beautiful location, the castle is also very popular for weddings. Like any respectable old castle, Leeds Castle has its own resident ghost: a black dog, saying to be “a curly-haired retriever”, appears and disappears through walls and closed doors so…keep your eyes open during your visit and you might just catch a glimpse of it!