‘The Loveliest Castle in the world’, claims the strapline on Leeds Castle’s website. It’s been a while since we visited a historical building, so this February half term we decided to take a trip into Kent to find out whether the castle’s reviewer was, in fact, right.
Those who prefer their castles to be craggy, ruined and remote may be disappointed. When we visited – the first day of half term – the place was teeming with families; enough to make the place’s 500 acres feel busy (around the more popular areas, at least).
But Leeds Castle does have an awful lot going for it. It’s one of the most spectacular places I’ve seen, flanked by beautiful formal gardens and a number of out-houses that are delightful in their own right.
Leeds struck me as unusual because it’s both ancient and well-kept. Parts of it date back to the Norman period. King Henry VIII used it as a residence (accompanied by 700 eels, two porpoises, a dolphin and a colossal amount of other items for eating, according to one of the castle’s information boards). He built a new wing for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. And, in more recent times, the castle’s last private owner, Lady Baillie, entertained such distinguished guests as Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward.
The castle and its grounds have been cleverly adapted to appeal to families (and couples or singles too, although on the day we went, the visitors mainly consisted of parents and small folk). We visited for seven hours; although this was almost the longest time you could spend there (opening hours are 10.30-5pm in Winter, and 6pm in Summer), the day passed in a trice because there was something to engage all of us.
D and I managed to get our historical fix, when we walked through the castle and learned about its rich past. The rooms were all carefully reconstructed, with some beautiful period pieces on display.
The kids were entertained by the knight-themed play area, as well as the half-term fairytale trail and dragon hunt, with storytelling (there was archery, too, for the over-threes, but we didn’t manage to fit that in).
We rounded the day off being helped around the maze by an incredible boy – Dutch, I think – who remembered the way to the centre even though his last visit was three years ago. And he must have been no older than ten or eleven.
We exited the maze through the grotto, which was a bit spooky for the children, but nevertheless a quirky little note to end the day on.
Although part of the castle’s 500 acres are off-limits to the public, there is enough walking to make it tiring for little legs, without the help of scooters or a buggy. But a train shuttle service made the final stretch to the exit that little bit easier.
We climbed aboard as the light was beginning to dim and, on our final glimpse of the castle, I felt rather sad to be leaving. Entry to Leeds Castle isn’t cheap, but a ticket gives you access for a whole year. It’s the sort of place you can visit several times and, as it’s within easy reach of London, I could imagine taking some of our weekend visitors there for an out-of-town trip.
On the fairytale trail, we spotted 26 of the 30 dragons dotted around the place. They’ll be there until the end of this week; I’m already tempted to go back and try to find the remaining four.
I’m not well-travelled enough to say whether it’s the loveliest castle in the world, but for our little team, it makes for a perfect day out.
Leeds Castle is open all year round, except for fireworks weekend in November, and Christmas Day.
Disclosure: we were given free entry to Leeds Castle for the purpose of this post. All views are my own.