Maidstone, Leeds. No, we are not in the Leeds in the north of England, but rather in Kent, an hour’s train ride out of London. The object of our desire for the day was Leeds Castle, dubbed “the loveliest castle in the world” by its PR firm.
A castle has existed on the site since 1119, the first being a simple stone stronghold which served as a military post to guard against those rapacious Normans. In the 13th century it came into the hands of King Edward I, whose wife Eleanor of Castile had actually owned it; Henry VIII used it as a dwelling for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon and stayed there for one night on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting in France in 1520. Lots of previous kings also gave it as a gift to their wives, so it was like a diamond necklace to compensate for some husbandly mischief or other, in today’s terms, or to just keep the Queen busy out of town.
During the early part of WWII, the castle was used as a hospital where Lady Baillie and her daughters hosted burned Commonwealth airmen as part of their recovery. Survivors remember the experience with fondness. Upon her death in 1974, Lady Baillie left the castle to the Leeds Castle Foundation, a private charitable trust whose aim is to preserve the castle and grounds for the benefit of the public. An estimated £1.4 million was invested and a further £400,000 was retrieved from the sale of the furniture to make improvements to the Castle and attract paying corporate conferences. However, it was quickly understood that it could not support the ongoing costs of running the estate, so in 1975 the gardens were opened to the public, and the following year the Castle was also made available to visitors.
Now some of the rooms have titles like “Board Room” and “Seminar Room.” Oh well.
There are some lovely moments inside and outside the castle, Disney-fied as it might be. The weather was dramatic and added to the sense of history and violence that has surrounded the buildings that stood here for centuries. (Oops, can’t forget the stunning display of dog collars through the ages.)