Leeds Castle, in Kent, has a history of festive indulgence. When Henry VIII visited, on his way to the opulent ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’ meeting in 1520, he took with him 9100 plaice, 7836 whiting, 5554 soles, 2800 crayfish, 700 conger eels, 3 porpoises and a dolphin. This was just for the meeting’s fish menu. These days, the castle’s kitchens don’t groan at the seams in the same way. But, in the weeks leading up to 25 December, a pop-up Christmas market helps spread some merriment and cheer.
Leeds Castle’s Christmas market opened at the end of November, and features around thirty stalls arranged in a circle, with a bandstand, funfair and picnic area in the centre. We strolled around to the tunes of a brass band playing Good King Wenceslas and Deck the Halls. At the market’s hub, German wurst sizzled and children nibbled on giant chocolate kisses. On the stalls, there was a decent selection of handcrafted tree decorations, cushions, furry hats and throws, as well as gourmet pickles to go with your Christmas cheese selection, wooden crafting kits for children, and Kentish festive tipples.
Leeds Castle’s funfair was small but bijou. Chuggy boats, a helter-skelter and an ornate carousel gave a nod to tradition. There was a mini rollercoaster, and ride-on swans for more modern mini thrill-seekers.
Reindeer and hawks
The reindeer who had transported Santa to his grotto (see below) were resting in a stable, ready to greet Leeds Castle visitors. And the castle’s falconry team wandered round the market, with hawks and small owls on their gloved hands. If you bought a falconry experience at the market – a day’s training in bird handling, eg, or a hawk walk around the grounds, to be booked over the next 12 months – there was a 20% discount.
We booked to see Santa at Leeds Castle back in October. Tickets usually sell out on the morning they’re released, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the Leeds Castle website. Ticketholders have a time slot, and before walking through to the grotto they wait in a tent, furnished with Christmas trees, a TV showing festive movies, colouring pens and paper, and board games.
We paid £15 for each child, and this included a good-quality gift – an Orchard Toys game for my daughter, and a kit with dominoes, pick-up sticks, marbles and playing cards for my son. This was a replacement gift. Santa originally gave my son an Orchard Toys game for children aged 5-7. When I emailed customer services to explain that my son was eight, they sent out the replacement on the same day, with a sweet letter from Santa, apologising. He wrote that he’d got into a muddle, and had been told off by the Head Elf. This was a nice touch, and I still think Leeds Castle’s is the nicest Santa experience we’ve been to.
Leeds Castle’s Christmas Market is open on weekends from the end of November to 17 December. Inside the castle itself, the rooms are decorated following Christmas traditions, from the past to the present. This ‘traditions of Christmas’ display includes a Christmas pudding trail for children, and is open until 1 January. Entrance is free to Leeds Castle ticketholders (annual passes are £24.90 for adults, £16.90 for children over four). For more information, see the Leeds Castle website.
Leeds Castle is in Kent, near the village of Leeds. The castle is seven miles east of Maidstone, off junction eight of the M20 motorway, one hour south of central London. It’s a 30 minute drive from the Channel Tunnel and Channel Ports.
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We were gifted annual tickets to Leeds Castle. All views are my own.