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Is Leeds Castle the Loveliest Castle in the World?

Frequent travelers, Liz and her husband have a keen interest in history. They have visited many castles in the UK and in other countries.

Leeds Castle, Kent.

Leeds Castle, Kent.

The Loveliest Castle in the World?

In 1913, whilst writing about castles in 'Country Life', the explorer Lord Conway described Leeds Castle as the "loveliest castle in the whole world". Much has been made of the comment since. The epithet is an advertiser's dream. But how true is it? Does Leeds Castle deserve this accolade? Read on to find out more.

Leeds Castle, Kent.

Leeds Castle, Kent.

This article covers the following subjects:

  1. Location
  2. History
  3. My Visits
  4. Approaching Leeds Castle
  5. The Layout of the Castle
  6. Visiting Leeds Castle
  7. Exploring the Grounds
  8. Other Facilities

1. Location

The name and location of Leeds Castle have caused confusion for some visitors. The castle is located near the village of Leeds in Kent, southeast England. This is not to be confused with the city of Leeds in Yorkshire, 235 miles to the north.

There are stories of lost visitors phoning the castle for directions from Yorkshire.

Some tales stretch credibility and may have been made up as a joke. Guests went to the wrong venue and missed weddings. Visitors booked accommodation in Yorkshire and then found a taxi the next day to the castle would cost over £500.

One couple traveled to Yorkshire for a concert. Upon realizing their mistake, they took a fast train and arrived for the second half at Leeds Castle.

The location misunderstanding has become so notorious that it has featured as a quiz question in the UK.

Satellite navigation systems have undoubtedly been a great help for visitors to Leeds Castle in recent years.

Leeds Castle, Kent

2. History

Reference to the manor of Esledes on land where the castle stands can be found as far back as 853. 'Manor' refers to the land, rather than a building, and 'Esledes' means 'slope' or 'hillside'. Leeds village is on a slope above the River Len.

The first stone castle was built on an island in the River Len in 1278 by a Norman baron during the reign of William the Conqueror's son.

Royal Owners

Queen Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I, owned the castle in the 1400s. It was a royal residence for 300 years, traditionally being passed to the wives of kings of England. Henry VIII (1509-1547) ordered major alterations. There is a well-documented one-night stay made by him and a large retinue of servants in 1520.

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A portrait of Henry VIII in the Henry VIII Banqueting Hall in La Gloriette.

A portrait of Henry VIII in the Henry VIII Banqueting Hall in La Gloriette.

The American Connection

In 1552 the castle was granted to Sir Anthony St Leger for his services to Henry VIII. There followed a succession of owners, as the castle was transferred through inheritance and purchase to a series of interlinked families.

In 1926 the castle was sold to pay death duties. A wealthy Anglo-American heiress, later known as the Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie (1899-1974) bought the castle. She invested a lot of time and money. She also set up the Leeds Castle Foundation, so that after she died, the castle could be open for the public to enjoy.

A portrait of Lady Baillie and her two daughters hangs in the library.

A portrait of Lady Baillie and her two daughters hangs in the library.

Peace Talks

In 1978, Leeds Castle hosted Middle East peace talks between the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and Israel with the US Secretary of State. These prepared the ground for the Camp David Accords later that same year.

In 2004 the British Prime Minister led talks at Leeds Castle with politicians from Northern Ireland.

When closed to visitors the castle becomes a secure location for events such as these.

The boardroom in La Gloriette, Leeds Castle.

The boardroom in La Gloriette, Leeds Castle.

3. My Visits

The castle opened to the public in 1976. As a child, I used to stay with a much-loved aunt and uncle in the southeast and I recall being taken to Leeds Castle shortly after it opened. They were keen to go and it made a big impression on me. For years I held Leeds Castle in great esteem and compared other castles with it.

I was keen to return. Eventually, over 40 years later, I had the opportunity to visit Leeds Castle with my husband. Would it live up to my memories and expectations?

My first visit to Leeds Castle.

My first visit to Leeds Castle.

4. Approaching Leeds Castle

The car park, ticket office, and gift shop are nearly a mile from the castle. The approach via a woodland walk alongside the River Len was very pleasant. Most of the 0.83-mile walk was in the woods until we reached a clearing with a pavilion. Shortly after this, we saw the gatehouse of the castle in front of us.

It takes around 15 minutes to walk from the car park to the castle. There is a free mobility bus and also a land train at a nominal charge for those who prefer not to walk.

5. The Layout of the Castle

Leeds Castle is on two islands on a lake formed by the River Len. Most of the buildings are on the larger of the two islands. A covered bridge links this to the smaller island.

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

Barbican and Gatehouse

Visitors enter through the Gatehouse on the larger of the two islands. A Norman gatehouse was built here in the 12th Century and enlarged in the 1280s. At the same time the Barbican, an outer fortification was constructed, as an initial line of defense. This now lies in ruins.

The gatehouse was largely rebuilt when Leeds Castle was modernized early in the 20th Century.

Maiden's Tower

The Maiden's Tower stands apart from the New Castle on the larger island. An earlier medieval building was replaced by a late Tudor structure known as the Square Tower. It was renamed the Maiden's Tower in the 19th Century by the castle's owners, the Wykeham Martins. Learning about the 14th Century cell of the religious recluse, Christina Hyde on the site prompted the name change.

The building has had various uses; an accommodation block, brewhouse, estate workshop, and domestic use. It was the home of the last owner's daughter, Susan Baillie until 2001. Now restored, Maiden's Tower is used for conference facilities.

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

New Castle

Over the years a succession of substantial buildings have been built at the north end of the larger of the two islands. New Castle dates from the 1820s when Fiennes Wykeham Martin had the house built in the early Tudor style to fit in with its surroundings.

New Castle.

New Castle.

Gloriette

Eleanor of Castille had the Gloriette built on the smaller island in the late 13th Century. It was on the site of the original Norman keep. Its present form differs little from the original. It has a central courtyard, a great hall on the ground floor, and two floors of apartments. Seriously damaged in the 17th Century, it was restored in the 1920s during Lady Baillie's ownership.

The Gloriette is linked to the New Castle by a covered bridge, consisting of an upper and lower corridor.

The bridge and Gloriette.

The bridge and Gloriette.

6. Visiting Leeds Castle

After crossing the moat onto the larger island, we found a small exhibition in the Gatehouse about the history of the castle. We followed directions down to the right of New Castle by the water and entered via the wine cellar. We walked over the bridge into the Gloriette.

The Gloriette

It was a strange mix of the very old and early 20th Century. The ground floor rooms hark back to the 15th Century with the Queen's rooms and Henry VIII Banqueting Hall and the Chapel. Whilst the upper floor reflects its use by Lady Baillie with the Boardroom, Seminar Room, and Lady Baillie's rooms.

New Castle

Returning across the bridge, we entered the inner hall of the New Castle. It was fascinating to catch a glimpse of how the castle was used in the 20th Century by Lady Baillie and her family. The decoration of the yellow drawing-room dates from 1938.

Thorpe Hall drawing-room takes its name from the wood paneling, which was repurposed from Thorpe Hall, Peterborough in 1927. The wood dates from 1653.

The library was redesigned in 1938. Lady Baillie had previously used it as a small dining room and a schoolroom, where her daughters were taught.

The dining room too received a make-over in 1938. A version of the carpet, designed by Stephane Boudin was later supplied to the Kennedy White House in the 1960s.

7. Exploring the Grounds

As you leave the Gatehouse and cross the moat, turn left and head south to find refreshment facilities and a great view looking back towards the castle from the terrace of the restaurant.

The View of Leeds Castle from the south.

The View of Leeds Castle from the south.

The Gardens

Beyond the catering facilities are the gardens.

The Culpepper Garden

This is on the site of the castle's kitchen garden. It was made into a large cottage garden in 1980. The Culpepper name comes from 17th Century owners of the castle.

Lady Baillie Garden

The Mediterranean-style Lady Baillie Garden was opened in 1999 on the lower terrace overlooking the Great Water. Formerly the location of Lady Baillie's aviary, the terraced garden is a pleasant setting from which to admire views across the water.

Black Swan Ferry

In high season the Black Swan ferry crosses the Great Water between the maze area, south of Lady Baillie Garden, and the castle drive.

The Maze

Follow the path between Culpepper and Lady Baillie Gardens and head southwest to find the maze. 2400 yew trees were planted here in 1988. Those who make it into the middle are rewarded with views over the park from a raised viewpoint.

The Grotto

The exit from the maze is via an underground shell grotto. Typhoeus, the legendary giant, fought the Greek gods. Zeus defeated him and placed him under a volcano. Typhoeus became the source of fire. The grotto depicts the elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

Leeds Castle grotto.

Leeds Castle grotto.

Exploring the Grounds of Leeds Castle

8. Other Facilities

Food and Drink

In addition to the Castle View Restaurant, there are the Maze Cafe and Grill and catering kiosks near the entrance, by the Great Water, and in the courtyard.

Rest Rooms

Toilet facilities are by the car park, near the catering outlets and also in the gatehouse of the castle.

Play Areas

Children are well-catered for in the Squires' Courtyard Knights' Stronghold Playgrounds, which are south of the maze.

Golf

Grounds to the east of the castle are laid out as a golf course. Adventure golf is between the maze and the Knights' Stronghold Playground.

Dog Collar Museum

This unusual museum is in the courtyard area. It is easy to miss, as we did, but might be of special interest to dog owners.

Birds of Prey

There is a Bird of Prey center east of the maze. Falconry shows take place nearby on a seasonal basis.

Longer Stays

For those who would like to extend their stay in Leeds Castle grounds, there are self-catering cottages available on the estate and also a Glamping site in the southeast corner.

My Leeds Castle jigsaw from the 1970s.

My Leeds Castle jigsaw from the 1970s.

Final Thoughts

Revisiting Leeds Castle after over 40 years was certainly an interesting experience. It had made a big impression on me in my youth. Sadly my much-loved aunt and uncle died over 10 years before my revisit. It brought back memories of happy summer days in their company.

In truth, the castle was not quite as I had imagined. I recalled a white-washed castle on a mound with a moat. Maybe I was getting it confused with somewhere else I had visited in the meantime.

It helps to take a closer look at the man who described Leeds Castle as 'the loveliest castle in the world'. William Martin Conway was born in Rochester, Kent, around 13 miles northwest of Leeds Castle. He was, amongst other roles, an English art critic, politician, cartographer, and mountaineer. He was made a peer, Baron Conway of Allington when he left parliament in 1931. Allington is around 9 miles northwest of the castle. Lord Conway was a local from Kent and probably a little biased towards his home county.

I have visited many other castles in the UK and also abroad since my first visit to Leeds Castle. It is a lovely castle. I would describe it, along with many others, as probably one of the loveliest castles in the world. I leave you to draw your own conclusion.

What Do You Think?

Leeds Castle, Kent.

Leeds Castle, Kent.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Liz Westwood

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