Wanderer at Large: Kent, Surrey & Sussex – Leeds Castle

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area south of London that includes the counties of Kent, Surrey & Sussex.

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle is set in some of the most magnificent countryside in the heart of Kent. With a rich history spanning nearly 900 years, and landscaped with gardens, waterfalls, lakes and a moat, it is not surprising that this idyllic Arthurian Camelot has been described as the ‘loveliest castle in the world’.

Its story dates back to the 9th century, when local Kent warlord Ethelbert built the original fort. Successive kings donated the land to their favourites. The first actual castle was built in 1119 by the Norman baron Robert de Crevercouer.

Leeds became a firm favourite with a number of queens of the English throne who used it as a private retreat, including Eleanor of Castile in the 1290s and Katherine de Valois in the 1420s. Her bedchamber still exists.

But the history is not all sweetness and light. In 1321, Queen Isabella, on her way to Canterbury, stopped at Leeds Castle, whose lord was the rebel baron Bartholomew Badlesmere. His wife, Lady Badlesmere refused to let the queen enter, so Isabella tried to force her way in with small force. The defending troops under Lady Badlesmere’s command shot six royal troops dead. In response, King Edward II sent an army to attack the castle. After a siege, Lady Badlesmere begged for mercy. But none was forthcoming. The castle was captured, and her men were hanged from the walls. She and her children were sent to the Tower of London.

The castle has a number of connections with the Tudor king Henry VIII. He had many building works constructed at Leeds for the benefit of his first wife Katherine of Aragon, and then used it to ‘entertain’ his new love Anne Boleyn. He commissioned the upper floor, the Queen’s Rooms, the Maiden’s Tower for ladies-in-waiting, and the Banqueting Hall with its 75ft long ebony floor and oak ceiling. In 1520, Henry stayed here before welcoming the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V for a summit. In 1527, Katherine of Aragon stayed here during the year of the royal divorce procedure. Her crests are still visible over the gallery fireplace and her prayer book remains in the chapel. Five years later, Henry and Anne Boleyn were visitors. It is possible they held a secret marriage at Leeds, and it is also possible the future Queen Elizabeth I was conceived here. As late as 1544, Henry was still visiting Leeds when he held a council here with his sixth wife Katherine Parr.

During the 17th century, it came into the ownership of the Culpeper family, but a succession of private owners over the centuries saw the castle fall into ruins.

In the early 20th century, it went through something of a renaissance. In 1926, it was bought by Lady Baillie, a racing heiress who spent a fortune in refitting it. She then used it to entertain celebrities with lavish parties. Much of the upper house remains decorated in this era of Anything Goes. Guests in this period included Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Douglas Fairbanks, Ian Fleming, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Gertrude Lawrence, David Niven, Mary Pickford, James Stewart, Robert Taylor and Loretta Young,

The castle’s unique history continued throughout the 20th century. During World War Two it became a hospital. In 1949 it was chosen as the film location for Chalfont, the family home of the d’Ascoynes, in the classic comedy Kind Hearts & Coronets starring Sir Alex Guinness. In the 1970s, it hosted the Camp David Middle East peace talks.  Lady Baillie’s daughter lived here until 2002. The house was then passed to, and is now owned by, Leeds Castle Trust. In a nice historic link, the Baillie flag alternates with the flag of Eleanor of Castile

The grounds are breathtaking. The estate was landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1770s. There plenty for the kids to do, with a playground and a maze. Lots of fun events held here too during the summer. Interesting little features include the Dog Collar Museum and the Culpepper Garden. The terrace of the café is not only a pleasant place to eat on a sunny day, it’s also the best location for stunning photographs of the castle.

The loveliest castle in the world? Yep!

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear next tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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