Monday, 26 September 2016

Days out - Leeds Castle

THE long summer holidays can prove a tricky time when it comes to keeping the younger members of the family occupied.
But while there is plenty to entertain them in and around South London there is also much to see and do if you venture a little further afield.
Leeds Castle for example is one such place that is positively bursting with history and as a day out it is hard to beat.
Nestled in rolling countryside near Maidstone in Kent and just an hour out of London it boasts an historic building to look around, spectacular vistas, acres of grounds to explore, an adventure playground, a maze, beautiful and well kept gardens and a multitude of seasonal activities to keep even the fussiest entertained.
It also prides itself on being “the loveliest castle in the world” so to see if it lived up to this accolade,  I took my husband Martin and two children, Lucy and Tom on a day trip to find out.
From South London it is relatively easy to get there. In a car it takes about an hour and is well signposted. But even those without a vehicle can still make a visit thanks to regular trains to Bearstead Station and then a shuttle service direct to the front gates.
Once there it is hard not to see why it has been judged so highly by those who visit, as the castle, although not as big as say Warwick, certainly looks the part with turrets, an impressive facade and its setting on an island in the middle of a lake is spectacular.
In fact it is beautiful and even on the somewhat drizzly day we visited the view across the lake was stunning and quite breathtaking.
It also has a fascinating history - originally listed in the Domesday Book as a Saxon manor, it was subsequently home to many a King and Queen over the intervening years and was latterly lived in by the Angle-American heiress Lady Baillie.
Thanks to her lifelong love of the place, it is now managed by the Leeds Castle Foundation as she wanted to ensure that it should be enjoyed by everyone.
It is the Foundation who have kept it open to the public and they do so throughout the year though opening times vary slightly depending on the season.
Buying a ticket in advance is a good plan to avoid queues at the ticket office. And what’s great about the entrance ticket is that it is valid for a year so you can come back as many times as you like. This makes it extremely good value - not least because, as we found, there was so much to see and do, we didn’t have time to explore everything on offer that day. 
Thus you don’t have to rush and can instead take your time and make a note of all the things you want to see when you come back.
And as well as just a visit during the day, the Castle hosts activities and events throughout the year and especially so in the summer months with classical music concerts and firework displays in the evenings as well as jousting tournaments during the day.
We began our visit with the rather long walk up to the Castle itself. The path takes you from the car park up a winding path through what feels like woodland before it opens out onto the superb vista of the Castle and the lake.
As we walked up we were greeted by swans, both black and white, ducks and their offspring and a whole multitude of other birds. And a word to the wise, make sure you wear appropriate footwear - it can be slippy, muddy and uneven under foot.
We started off by looking round the Castle itself. The first stone castle on the site was built by a Norman baron but in 1278 it came into the possession of Queen Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I and remained a royal residence for the next 300 years. After that it was a private home before it was sold in 1926 to Lady Baillie who set about transforming and restoring it to make it a wonderful if rather large family home.
And these days, as well as a place to visit it also hosts weddings, receptions, meetings and other events throughout the year.
To get into the Castle, you have to walk through the Barbican gate and then down some steps and round by the lake’s edge to the cellar. This is the oldest part of the Castle and it is sunk into the foundations of the original Norman building. 
From there you walk up into the main part of the building and a route which takes you through the state rooms.
A guide is on hand in each to answer questions and talk about the paintings, the furniture or the room itself and there are also helpful guides that you can take around with you not to mention audio guides - all of which bring the visit to life. 
The rooms are grand without being ostentatious and most feature huge open fireplaces and windows out onto the lake. I particularly liked Lady Baillie’s rooms including her amazing bathroom.
The chapel too was another of my favourites as was the enormous and rather grand stone staircase.
Although not huge, it is steeped in history and through a combination of the various guides on offer, it was fascinating to find out about the building, who lived there, what it was used for and how it has changed over the years.
After immersing ourselves in the history of the house and finding out about those who had made it their homes over the years it was time to get outside.
And there is much to see. We had great fun getting lost in the maze - in fact it got a bit nerve-wracking at one stage as we all got split up and none of us could find our way out for a while! 
The maze itself was planted in 1988 and features 2,400 yew trees. To get out you can either retrace your steps or find the middle and then go down to a grotto which was designed by Vernon Gibberd and features a sculpture of the giant Typhoeus. The grotto leads you out back into the gardens.
Then it was a 30-minute presentation by the keepers of the birds of prey who entertained the large crowds with a display of the tricks and dexterity of these fascinating birds. Among those who were shown off were Broc the Harris Hawk, Mercedes the American Kestrel and Mozart the European Eagle Owl.
It was incredible to see them so close, swooping high into the trees and above them and then show off their hunting skills.
As well as all this we just about had time to take a wander around the gardens and for the kids to have an ice cream and run off some steam in the adventure playground before taking in The Dark Sky Experience, a short immersive exhibition about Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt.
It was a brilliant day and although we didn’t manage to see everything - such as having a punt on the moat, a visit the Dog Collar Collection, and explore all the 500 acres of the parkland - we covered most of it and have promised to return.
Although we took our own lunch, there are plenty of places to get both hot and cold food and drink and for those who want something to remember their visit by there is of course a gift shop with all manner of food, toys, games and cards and to suit most pockets.

Leeds Castle is open all  year round. Tickets cost £24.50 for adults and £16.50 for children and are valid for a whole year. Visit for full listings.

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