Maidstone, Kent: Leeds Castle

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Yes, you read that right.  Leeds Castle is not in Yorkshire, but in Kent (though maybe everyone else already knew that)!  I don’t actually know why it’s called Leeds Castle, and no explanation was forthcoming at the castle.  The relevant information here is that it bills itself as “the loveliest castle in the world,” complete with quotation marks, but no source for that quote (and if you’ve seen Father Ted, it is nigh on impossible to call something the “loveliest” without attempting an Irish accent), and that they charge a whopping £19 for admission (or £25 for an annual pass, but do people actually revisit this sort of place multiple times in a year?  I know I never get around to it (plus I have to always find new things to blog about, which puts me off repeat visits)).  Leeds Castle isn’t affiliated with the National Trust or English Heritage or anything either, so you’ve no hope of getting a discount unless you take a train out and get a National Rail 2 for 1.

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There was a pretty massive queue to buy tickets when we got there, as we’d unwittingly showed up in the middle of the “Festival of Flowers,” which meant that the rooms of the castle were decorated with autumnal arrangements, ostensibly in tribute to the poems of Kipling and Keats, but honestly, every arrangement looked identical, and more like they had taken tips from a generic fall Pinterest board (is that what they’re called, boards?  I could never really get into Pinterest.  It’s easier just to bookmark stuff) than poetry.  To get to the castle, you have to wander for quite a while through the landscaped grounds, which are crowded with waterfowl and peafowl (you can feed the birds, but it’s a lot bloody more than tuppence a bag).  Geese and swans make me uneasy (I don’t trust anything with the ability to peck my eyes out), so I kept my distance, but even I have to admit that the baby peacocks (peachicks? cocklets?) were adorable.

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The castle does have a proper moat around it, and is thus impressive looking, even if to enter it you have to go through the wine cellars instead of the front doors, which made me feel like an invader at risk of having boiling oil dumped on my head.  All the pathways were roped off so there was a clear route through the castle;  it cut back somewhat on people congregating in one area, so navigating the rooms wasn’t too bad.  They are a mix of the medieval (the castle was built in the 12th century, but repeatedly renovated over the years; the last major reconstruction was in the 1820s) and the modern – Lady Baillie, an Anglo-American heiress, bought the castle in the 1920s and modernised some of the rooms to her standard of opulence.

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The “Festival of Flowers” arrangements didn’t really add or detract anything from the rooms; they were kind of just plunked down in them as an afterthought.  I enjoyed the medieval part of the castle more as Lady Baillie’s rooms just resembled those of many other stately homes bought up by Americans in the Jazz Age, when all the English aristocrats could no longer afford the upkeep.  Leeds Castle was home to six queens over the years, starting with Eleanor of Castile (wife of Edward I); Joan of Navarre was in fact held there under duress after her stepson Henry V accused her of witchcraft – fortunately, he later retracted the charges, and she was allowed to go free (and she was able to purchase a ring worth £40,000 in modern currency during her imprisonment, so conditions couldn’t have been that harsh).

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There were some awesome sculptures within the castle.  One of the owners requested busts made of Henry VIII and his children, which took pride of place in one of the rooms, and I also loved the statue of Edward III on horseback, which is the earliest surviving example of an English equestrian sculpture, made around 1580.

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There was a small museum outside the castle walls with information about some of its history, and some objects belonging to the six aforementioned queens, and Lady Baillie herself.  Lady Baillie appeared to have quite a few famous friends, particularly Errol Flynn (when he was still hot, and not a gross old pervert) as well as a real fondness for dogs, which brings me to the Dog Collar Museum.

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One of my main motivations for wanting to visit Leeds Castle was to see the Dog Collar Museum, because it obviously sounds weird and awesome.  Unfortunately for me, the museum closed last year for renovation, and isn’t due to open until 2015 sometime.  So, because I didn’t research this well enough, all there was to see was two small cases of dog collars shoved in a general exhibition gallery.  I mean, they were still unusual dog collars, but I was disappointed to miss the museum in all its glory.  The other half of the exhibition space was given over to Henry VIII and his armour.

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The castle also had a few formal gardens, in which a surprising amount of flowers were still in bloom (I visited in late September, it’s just taken me a while to get the post up).

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However, I find it hard to get excited about flowers when a castle has a maze!  This one wasn’t particularly difficult, or maybe it would have been if some little twerp ahead of us didn’t keep jumping up and sticking his head over the hedges to get directions from his friends who had reached the centre, but we were stuck behind him and it seemed stupid to go another way when he was clearly on the correct path.  Still, this maze had a grotto in the middle, in the vein of the Forbidden Corner.  Whilst not as awesome as the complete Forbidden Corner experience (and how could it be?), it appeared to be based on Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and had a cool sea monster thing inside, so gets a thumbs up from me.

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I have to give a big thumbs down to the facilities at Leeds Castle though (and I’m not just talking about the toilets, though those were gross too).  Throughout my travels to historic homes in Britain, I’ve come to expect, nay, eagerly anticipate the very British tearoom that is inevitably tacked on to these attractions.  I don’t always partake, but I like to know it’s there.  Well, it just so happens that I was madly craving a piece of chocolate fudge cake (which they didn’t have at Leeds Castle) and a cuppa that day, and if there’s one thing the National Trust and English Heritage reliably provide, despite their many failings, it is chocolate fudge cake, or at the very least, some lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge.  Not Leeds Castle! All their cafes are operated by Costa, so you can’t just get a pot of tea, it is overpriced Costa tea.  And there were definitely no homemade cakes.  I had to settle for “Kentish scoop ice cream” that was sub-par and not at all what I was in the mood for, so that part of the experience was upsetting.  If I pay £19 to get into a castle, I expect a decent tearoom!

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So I’d say Leeds Castle was a mixed bag.  The grounds were indeed lovely, but I very much doubt it is the” loveliest castle in the world,” as I’ve seen plenty of castles that were just as nice, and offered chocolate fudge cake to boot (sorry, but when Jessica gets denied cake, Jessica gets angry!).  Bonus points for the maze and grotto, but that still doesn’t justify the excessive admission cost, and I also didn’t like how the optional “donation” was automatically included in the ticket price.  It wasn’t terrible, but I’ve had better days out at other palaces, and the interior of the castle wasn’t anything special for the most part, so I feel the middling score is justified.  3/5.

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4 comments

    1. Ha! I like to think I can’t be bought, but the truth is, if museums offered me free cake, I might be more kindly disposed towards them when it came time to review them. It wouldn’t guarantee a good score, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt! Unless it was bad cake.

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