Having travelled around Europe extensively, I feel that, UK has one of the finest castles, palaces and manor houses to offer. No matter which corner of the country you travel to, you will always find an exhaustive list of castles and palaces to visit and explore. I believe, what really makes them stand out more than their architecture, are the stunning gardens that surround them. Among thousands of historical sites across the UK, the one I found incredibly unique and often referred to as one of the finest not just in the UK, but at a global scale is the Leeds Castle.
History & Timelines:
Situated in the South East of England, it falls under the Kent county and is about an hour’s drive from London. Although the Leeds Castle site was initially founded in A.D. 879 as the Manor of Esledes during the reign of King Alfred the Great, it went through several changes and iterations in the centuries to follow:
1119 A.D.: Converted from a manor to a stone castle by Robert de Crevecoeur.
1518 A.D.: King Henry VIII made significant changes to the castle buildings and transformed it into a royal palace for his queen Catherine of Aragon.
1821 A.D.: Three centuries later, Fiennes Wykeham Martin inherits the Castle and immediately begins construction work by demolishing the Jacobean House and building a ‘New Castle’ in a more fitting medieval style.
And finally, in 1926 Lady Bailie yet again completely restores the fabric and structure of the castle which is also the present-day form we see of the Leeds Castle.
How to get there
If you have a car, then its quite easy to reach by road by taking Exit 8 on the M20 motorway. Train travellers can get off at Bearsted station and catch a coach shuttle service run by Spot Travel. There are also several coach tours that run from London. For those who are driving down from the continent, it is only a 25 mile drive from Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone.
An adult ticket costs £25.50, but if you buy it online, you will earn a £1 discount. There are also ticket rates available for senior citizens, students, children and families. The castle operates different opening and closing timings by season, so I would recommend checking the website before you plan your trip.
The best time to visit the Leeds Castle would be between April and September, given the sun is usually out and flowers blooming giving you the full scope to enjoy the lavish gardens, the castle has to offer. My fourth and last visit was in September last year, as I was very eager to take my wife there as part of our romantic weekend getaway.
We decided to reach there by around 10am so that we could fully utilise the scenic gardens. To be honest, on weekends it would be advisable to get there as early as possible to avoid issues finding parking. And if you are a picnic lover under the sun, then trust me this is your dream picnic spot.
Note that, visiting the castle normally involves plenty of walking and I would recommend wearing your comfortable walking shoes to ensure you don’t face too much discomfort whilst covering the trail.
Recommended walking route:
My personal recommendation would be to ensure you spare more time covering the gardens than the castle itself because they are outstandingly picturesque.
Once we bought our tickets and entered the castle we decided to take the following walking trail:
(1) The Wood Garden: If you are into flowers, then you will surely love this garden. It has a lovely collection of Daffodils, Narcissi and Anemones which together form a lovely burst of colour.
(2) Cedar Lawn: We decided to stop here and simply digest the breath-taking views around us, with a special focus on the Castle ahead.
(3) Pavilion Lawn: An ideal spot to sit down and enjoy a picnic, with a stunning view of the castle.
(4) Castle Bridge: One of the most scenic spots, do not forget to take a couple of clicks here! Ideal for combo view of the castle and gardens.
(5) Castle: Our next stop was the Castle itself. The entrance bridge to the castle gives you the feel of a fairy-tale. My honest opinion, the interiors of the castle are quite elegant but nothing exceptional that you don’t find in other medieval castles in Europe built around the medieval era. We spent about 45 minutes touring the castle.
Some of my personal favourite spots in the castle include: The Castle Dining Room, The Thorpe Hall, The Queen’s Bedroom and Lady Baillie Bedroom.
(6) Dog Collar Museum & Castle View Restaurant: Although we decided not to go inside the museum, the entire complex which includes the Museum and the Castle View Restaurant is quite appealing. I would highly recommend taking a short coffee or ice cream break here, simply for the elegant look and feel of the place.
(7) Culpeper Garden: Originally built to serve as the Castle’s kitchen garden, under Lady Baillie it was converted to a cut flower garden. In 1980, it was modified again into a large cottage garden. A delight for flower lovers such as my wife (Sneha), the garden offers a stunning variety of florae including Roses, Lupins, Poppies and other exotic blooms.
(8) Maze & Grotto: Luckily both my wife (Sneha) and myself love puzzles, and so we decided to give this maze worth a try. Took us about 30 mins but we got there in the end! 😉 The maze ends with an underground grotto whereby lies the mythical beast created from shells, minerals and wood reside.
(9) Falconry Shows: For bird lovers, this is a sight you don’t want to miss. Falconry shows are held daily at 2pm between April and September. The show usually lasts around 30 to 40 minutes and features a wide range of birds including hawks, vultures, falcons and owls.
(10) Lady Baillie Garden: On our way back to the Castle Exit, we decided to pass through the Lady Baillie Garden. What makes this garden different from its peers around the castle is its Mediterranean touch and view of the water side. Just the perfect way to keep a lasting impact of the Castle in your memory.
Other modes of exploring the Leeds Castle
Most people prefer to walk it around Leeds Castle, but there are other options too in case you want to explore other means of transport.
1. Elsie the Castle Train: For £1 each way, the castle train will pick you up from the Castle Entrance and drop you off all the way down to the castle. It will give you a good flavour of the gardens and perfect way to get a feel of the place if you have mobility issues. We decided to take the Castle train on our way back since we had walked over 10 miles by then.
2. Black Swan Ferry: The ferry boat takes passengers across the Great Water from the castle drive to the maze and play areas. We never did this, but an option worth checking out. Again, only costs a pound.
3. Punting on the Moat: Enjoy a leisurely punt on the moat in the shadow of Leeds Castle.
Although we didn’t do this either, we could see several groups of people sitting back and relaxing as their boats floated through the ancient arches in an elegant wooden punt. Adults can get a ride for £6.
And so, this brings me to the end of our Leeds Castle trip. A visit that I know will always hold a special place in my heart. I can’t wait to be back soon!!