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South East Leeds Castle, Kent - the image of a medieval castle....

Background

I remember looking down onto Leeds Castle from the A20 on days out in the late 1950s and thinking that it was every child’s dream of what a medieval castle should look like. The castle was privately owned and very shut. Now it is run by a charitable trust and is a popular conference centre and wedding venue. It also offers accommodation either in the castle itself or one of its glamping tents. For those not wanting to stay overnight, there is the option of having afternoon tea in the castle.

Set on an island in the Rive Lee, it is also one of the most popular visitor attractions in Kent with visitors visiting both the castle and the attractive gardens.

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The castle has a long, illustrious history. It has been a Norman stronghold, the private property of six of England’s medieval queens, a palace used by Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, a Jacobean country house a Georgian mansion and finally an elegant early 20th century retreat for the influential and famous.

Records go back to the C9th when there was a Saxon royal manor here. Just before the Norman Conquest this was granted to Harold Godwin, who was defeated by William at the Battle of Hastings. After the conquest it was gifted to William’s half brother Odo but he forfeited his estates after rebelling against William II. They were then granted to the the de Crevecoeur family, who held the estate for 175 years.

The first stone castle was built in 1119 by Robert de Crevecoeur, when he built a keep on a small island in the river, where the Gloriette now stands.

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The domestic buildings were on the larger island, known as the Bailey. The two islands were linked by a drawbridge that could be lifted in case of attack. Only the window at the end of the banqueting hall and the cellar beneath the heraldry room remain from the C12th castle.

The castle was acquired by Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I in 1278. The barbican and revetment wall around the larger island and the lake date from that time.

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The walls originally stood 10m high and were reinforced with D-shaped bastions. Only the north east tower stands to its original height.

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The castle stayed in royal hands and was the home of queens until Tudor times. Henry VIII transformed the castle from a fortified stronghold into a magnificent Royal Palace between 1517-23, for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The principal apartments were still in the Gloriette, to which an upper floor was added.

In 1552, the castle was given to Anthony St Leger by Edward VI in recognition of his services to Henry VIII in subjugating an uprising in Ireland. The family held the castle until 1618 when they sold it to Sir Richard Smythe. Smythe demolished all the surviving buildings at the north end of the larger island and constructed a Jacobean house in their place.

A few years later, the castle was again sold to Sir Thomas Culpepper. His son sided with Parliament so the castle suffered little damage during the Civil War and was used as an arsenal and prison. At the Restoration in 1660, the family were financially ruined and sold the estate to a wealthy cousin, another Sir Thomas Culpepper, who as a Royalist, had been rewarded with 5 million acres of land in Virginia.

In 1665, the castle was leased to the government to hold Dutch prisoners of war. Lodged in the Gloriette, they set fire to their accommodation which was left ruined until it was repaired in the C19th.

In 1690, Catherine Culpepper married Thomas, 5th Lord Fairfax and the castle and Virginia estates passed into Fairfax hands. Sale of the Virginia estates in the early C18th released a large sum of money that was used for extensive repair and remodelling of the castle. The reception rooms were refurbished at great expense for the visit of George III and Queen Charlotte in 1778. When the 7th Lord Fairfax died in 1793, all the family money had been spent and he was buried in a pauper’s grave in a nearby village.

The castle passed through a series of different distant relatives until it was inherited by Fiennes Wykeham Martin in 1821. He commissioned a survey of the castle. The mill and barbican were in ruins, the gatehouse and inner gatehouse in disrepair, the Maiden’s Tower in imminent danger of collapse, the main Jacobean house decaying and the Gloriette was more or less a ruin. Wykeham Martin decided to demolish the main house and replace it with one in the Tudor style. This was finished in 1823 and is externally essentially the building seen today. The Gloriette was rebuilt and the moat cleared.

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The costs forced Wykeham Martin to sell the contents of the castle at auction and the family had to sell the property in 1925 to pay death duties. It was acquired by the Anglo-American heiress the Hon. Olive Paget, then Mrs Wilson-Filmer, who was looking for a country retreat in Kent. She saw the castle’s potential and had the style, imagination and funds to carry out the necessary modifications. After her third marriage, when she became Lady Baillie, she commissioned the French architect Armand-Albert Rateau to recreate a Gothic fantasy medieval castle, but with modern plumbing.

During the 1930s, Leeds Castle became one of the great country houses of Britain and a centre of lavish hospitality for princes, politicians and film stars. The interiors were transformed to the latest French designs. The Maiden’s Tower was converted from a brewery to bachelor apartments and a cinema.

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The gatehouse was renovated and the grounds relandscaped with tennis, squash courts and a swimming pool.

During the Second World War, the family moved into the Gloriette and the new castle was used as a hospital and for the rehabilitation of severely burned pilots. The grounds were used for weapon research. After the war, improvements continued. After Lady Baillie's death in 1974, the castle and grounds were left to a specially created charity, Leeds Foundation Castle. It opened to the public in 1976.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Visiting the castle

Set in the heart of Kent, the castle is surrounded by a large park and formal gardens. The car park and visitor centre are well away from the castle. It is a lovely half mile walk through the trees and along the river to the castle. For those not wanting to walk, there is a land train.

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The first view of the castle appears above the lawn.

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The path goes past the now ruined barbican and fortified mill.

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Beyond is the gatehouse. The Constable in charge of the smooth running of the castle had rooms above the archway. Stables and accommodation for the soldiers were on the ground floor.

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This now houses an exhibition of castle history with artefacts including books, clothes, swords and armour.

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From the far side of the gatehouse there are views across the lawn of the bailey to the new castle with the Maiden’s Tower on the right.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Going inside the Castle

The recommended entry, and more interesting entrance to the castle, is by dropping down through the wall and along the moat before entering through the Norman cellars under the new castle. The cellars are the oldest part of the castle and date from the early C12th. As well as barrels of beer and wine, they were also used to store food, straw, firewood and wax for candles.

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A steep stone staircase originally gave access to the hall above, but has now been replaced by a modern staircase.

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There is a set of C17th armour and a display of a halbert, spear and pike on the wall. These are C19th and were intended for trophy displays and not for use. The helmet above is the real thing, dating from the late C16th.

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The stairs come out into the Heraldry Room in what is described as the 'New Castle’ at the far end of the bailey, with its splendid Jacobean strapwork ceiling.

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This is the first room to be visited when touring the castle and has information about the castle and its former owners along with their their coats of arms as well as portraits of the Fairfax family.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Gloriette

The tour begins in the Gloriette. From the Heraldry Room, the C19th lower bridge corridor leads to the Gloriette. The armour displayed on the walls is C17th.

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The rooms on the ground floor have been restored by the Charitable Foundation to give an impression of what the rooms might have looked like during Medieval times. The Gloriette was the original keep of the castle and housed the royal apartments. It was the safest and best defended part. The rooms are built round a central courtyard with a small fountain. This dates from the 1820 reconstruction but was made over by Rateau for Lady Baillie in the 1920s. He was responsible for the half timber frame work.

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The first room to be visited is the Queen’s Room which has been recreated as the bedroom of Catherine de Valois, the young widow of Henry V. She would have been used as an audience room to received guests. The wall and bed hangings are decorated with gold H and Cs.

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It has a beamed ceiling with decorative carving along the edges of the main beams.

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Catherine de Valois coat of arms is above the fireplace. The lozenge shape, indicates she was a widow.

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A splendid wooden door leads to the Queen’s Bathroom.

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The bath tub is hung with a fine white curtain for privacy and the cloth covers would stop splinters! No luxury was omitted and there is even a small fireplace in the room.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Gloriette cont...

The tour continues into the Queen’s Gallery. The fireplace with the initials of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was moved here from a room on the upper floor. The long refectory table is C17th and comes from an Italian monastery.

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The marble busts are of HenryVIII and his three children are late C16th.

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This leads into Henry VIII’s Banqueting Room, the largest room in the castle. This was originally created for the visit of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1520, who were en route to France to meet with the French King. It is an attractive warm looking room with its red hangings.

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The room was completely redesigned by the French architect Rateau for Lady Baillie. He was responsible for the carved wooden beams on the ceiling and the C16th fireplace which came from a chateau in France. The tapestry is C16th Flemish.

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The final room on the ground floor is the Chapel. There has been a chapel in the castle from 1293 when masses were said for the soul of Eleanor of Castile, beloved wife of Edward I. The site of the chapel is unknown, so this room was turned into a chapel by the Charitable Foundation and reconsecrated in 1978. It is a simple room with gold hangings above the altar.

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On the walls are four lovely early C16th carved limewood panels showing the Annunciation, Birth of Christ, the Adoration of the Magi and Christ being presented at the Temple.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Gloriette cont...

The tour now climbs to the upper floor of the Gloriette and rooms here remain much as they were in the time Lady Baillie lived in the castle. The lovely wooden spiral staircase which gives access to the upper floor of the Gloriette was designed by Rateau in 1927. The wood was wire brushed to age it. At the top is a carving of a laughing crusader with his dog.

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A series of rooms are accessed off the upper landing with a lovely old clock hanging on the wall

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It is furnished with old carved chests. The set of carved panels are mid C16th and were in the library before being moved here.

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The first room is the Boardroom which is used for Meetings of the Charitable Trust and as a conference centre.

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The Seminar room was Lady Baillie’s private sitting room and later a bedroom for her son. It is now used as a meeting room. On the walls are Lady Baillie’s collection of Impressionist paintings. It is now used as a seminar room and the preliminary meetings between the foreign ministers of UAS, Israel and Egypt leading to the Camp David agreement were held here.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Gloriette cont...

Next are Lady Baillie’s private rooms. In the passageway leading to the rooms are examples of children’s clothes, dating from the end of the C19th.

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Lady Baillie’s Dressing Room was designed by Rateau in the late 1920s in the style of Louis XVI. All her bedlinen and towels were embroidered with a black swan which has since become the symbol of the castle.

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Off it is the bathroom which is lined with onyx and had underfloor heating.

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Lady Bailie’s bedroom was designed in the style of the French Regency and some of the panelling dates from then. The rest was made to match. The dressing case would have travelled with her between homes.

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Although this part of the castle was used by Henry and Catherine, the Catherine of Aragon bedroom was used by Lady Baillie’s third husband. It was turned into a sitting room for Lady Baillie in the 1960s and she controlled the running of the estate from here.

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The Upper Bridge Corridor leads back to the New Castle.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The New Castle

A splendid stone staircase leads from the Upper Bridge Corridor into the Inner Hall of the New Castle.

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At the bottom is a C12th Italian marble lion. It would have been one of a pair that would have supported a church portico.

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The Lumley Horseman was commissioned by the 7th Lord Lumley in the C16th for the Great Hall of Lumley Castle in County Durham. It is a life size representation of Edward III, and the earliest known English equestrian statue. He is holding a battle hammer.

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The Yellow Drawing Room is an attractive room with silk damask wall coverings and decorative tassels hanging below the plaster frieze. As well as comfortable chairs, there is a grand piano.

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The wooden doors have a carved portico above them with a large decorative Chinese jar.

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Beyond is the Thorpe Hall Drawing Room. Lady Baillie bought the beautiful pine panelling and Italian Marble fireplace from Thorpe Hall near Peterborough, hence the name, as it was being sold off to pay death duties. The panelling had been painted green and had to be stripped before it was fitted. The ceiling had to be lowered to fit the size of the panels.

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The brightly coloured porcelain birds on the wall are C17th Chinese.

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Across the Inner Hall is the Library, with its rich cream and brown colour scheme and walls lined with bookcases. On top of these are pieces of Chinese porcelain and antique globes. Above the fireplace is a painting of Lady Baillie with her two daughters. Before becoming a library, this was the daughter’s school room.

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Beyond is the Dining Room, possibly the most elegant room in the castle, with its pale grey panelled walls picked out in white. In some panels are predominantly pink scenes of birds and flowers, which complements the display of Chinese porcelain on the walls.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Leeds Castle Gardens

There are over 500 acres of gardens and grounds to explore. The car park and entry kiosk is carefully sited half a mile away from the castle and is reached by a lovely walk along the River Lee . In spring, the grass is covered with daffodils, narcissi, and anemones. Later, these are replaced by the brightly coloured flowers of azaleas and rhododendrons.

This has traditionally been called the Woodland Garden, but is now renamed the Princes Alexandra Garden as part of a major redevelopment of the gardens into six exciting new gardens.

The following pictures date from 2016 before redevelopment.

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The area by the barbican and water mill has been developed as a colourful rockery

From here there are views along the Great Water with Lady Baillie’s Mediterranean Garden towards the maze and Dark Skies Experience. There are swans, ducks and other water fowl on the lake.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Leeds Castle Gardens cont...

The Culpeper Garden was originally the kitchen garden for the castle. It is reached through an archway that lead to a courtyard with the domestic buildings and barns of the castle These now house the restaurant and exhibition block including the Dog Collar Museum.

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During Lady Baillie’s ownership the walled garden was a cut flower garden providing flowers for the house. In 1980, the great C20th garden designer, Russell Page. transformed it into a large cottage garden. It was named the Culpepper Garden after the family whom owned Leeds Castle in the C17th and not (as some websites state) the herbalist Nicholas Culpepper who had no connection with Leeds castle. It is a classic English garden with low clipped box hedges with roses, lupins, poppies, delphiniums and other brightly coloured plants, designed for colour and scent.

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A short flight of steps leads down to Lady Baillie’s Mediterranean Garden. This is a delightful terraced garden along the shores of the lake and was originally an aviary in Lady Baillie’s time. Facing south, it is a real sun trap and was given a Mediterranean style makeover at the end of the C20th by landscape architect Christopher Carter . It is planted with palm trees, cacti. and other sun loving plants.

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Paths lead from the Culpeppert and Lady Bailie Gardens to a large area of grassland with trees and a small cafe. The Maze was created by Adrian Fisher, the world’s leading maze designer in 1987 with 2400 yew trees.

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Although square in outline, the maze itself is circular. This is believed to be a unique combination and makes it much more difficult to solve. Even its creator got lost in it! At the centre is a limestone grotto which gives good views across the maze. An underground passageway complete with 'macabre forms and mythical beasts', including the Greek monster Typhoeus with his one hundred heads, created from shells, minerals and wood, leads back to the outside.

The Bird of Prey Centre is behind the maze and falconry shows are held in front of the maze, weather permitting.

For the children, there is the Knight’s Stronghold playground and adventure playground based round a wood replica castle. For the tiny’s there is the Squire’s courtyard adventure playground with the option to dress up as knights and ladies.

For the really adventurous, there is Go Ape, back near the entrance.
 
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