Fairytale home, cultural icon

The loveliest castle in the world,” enthused Lord Conway, an 18th century English soldier and statesman, after visiting Leeds Castle. His Lordship was a trifle biased, but not much.

Among the oldest and most romantic of England’s “stately homes,” Leeds Castle certainly ranks among the world’s most splendid castles. Set on two small islands in the middle of a natural lake near Maidstone, Kent, it’s a dignified and graceful centrepiece of some 500 acres of exquisite parkland.

The site was first occupied in 856 AD by a manor house, one of the principal residences of the Saxon royal family. The manor was probably built for Ethel-bert IV, the King of Kent, who four years later became King of England.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the victorious William the Conqueror ordered the construction of a stone fortress on the islands to subdue the defeated Saxons. It was an imposing structure, even in those days. Massive walls and battlements set in a lake which measured depths of 10 metres. Not an easy hurdle for an invader.

Lord Leyburn, one of England’s great fighting barons, gave Leeds Castle as a gift in 1278 to “the august prince and my most dear Lord Edward thnoble King of England and my fair Lady Eleanor Queen of England.”

Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile, loved Leeds, using it as a place of rest and for hunting when they needed a break from the affairs of state. And so began the royal ownership of the castle — Edward III, Richard II and Henry V all held court at Leeds, which was still a rugged fortress.

Henry VIII, monarch of many wives, spent a large fortune transforming the fortress into a lavish Royal palace. He enlarged and reconstructed the buildings and grounds into a comfortable royal playground. The present-day “Henry VIII Banqueting Hall” bears testament to Henry’s work and contains many features and artifacts dating back to 1517. However, the castle passed out of royal hands in 1552 when Edward VI gave the castle and its lands to Sir Anthony St. Leger for helping to subdue the “quarrelsome” Irish.

The castle then passed through many owners who in turn neglected the property. By 1926, the once-royal residence was a shambles. The family of the owner, faced with heavy death duties, put it up for sale. American newspaper millionaire William Randolph Hearst planned to buy it but his English agent cabled: “Needs expenditure of large sums to make it habitable. Not a bath in the place. Only lighting by oil lamps. Servants’ quarters down in dungeons.” Hearst went house-hunting elsewhere.

Around this time, Mrs. Wilson-Filmer, who later became Lady Baillie, saw through the mess to the castle’s real charm and character. She purchased it using an inheritance from the U.S. and then spent the next 48 years — and millions of dollars — restoring the castle to its former glory. By the mid-1930s, Leeds Castle had been transformed into one of England’s great houses and once more became a social hot-spot, well- known for its lavish hospitality. Lady Baillie entertained kings and queens, plus Hollywood stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and Jimmy Stewart. However, Lady Baillie disliked publicity, so the regal parade at Leeds was seldom in the news. During World War II, the castle was used as a military hospital.

After the war, Lady Baillie lived a quieter life and conceived the plan for a charitable trust to give the castle to the people of Britain forever.

Upon her death in 1974, the castle and extensive grounds were willed to the Leeds Castle Foundation to preserve it in perpetuity “for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.” Leeds Castle receives no major grants or government funding — income is raised from the thousands who visit the castle each year, international medical conferences and special events.

Today, Leeds Castle is a panorama of architecture from the 12th to the 20th centuries. From the Norman gatehouse to Henry VIII’s “Maiden’s Tower,” it’s an historical charmer. Inside, it’s a treasure house of art, antiques and objects d’art.

It’s also home to an impressive calendar of cultural events, including ballooning festivals, open-air concerts, flower shows, food and wine festivals, vintage car exhibits, art festivals, one of the most spectacular fireworks displays in southern England, and special Saturday evening Kentish dinners in the timber-framed Fairfax Hall.

Everyday attractions at the castle include the “Duckery,” a collection of unusual ducks, geese and swans; the Wood Garden, a tranquil area for a pleasant stroll past streams and lakes; the Culpeper Garden, a classic English country garden; the Aviary, home to more than 100 rare species of birds; and the fascinating Maze consisting of some 2,400 yews. There’s also a 9-hole golf course, constructed in 1930.

But the star attraction at Leeds Castle is its series of open-air concerts, held on the last Saturday of June and the first Saturday of July. This year marks the 21st anniversary of the concerts. At the premiere, 36,000 people crowded in the grounds, but since then the crowds have been limited to 16,000 and prices raised to £22, with £2.50 added if you want a seat rather than find a spoton the lawn — and it’s a quick sellout every year. It’s quite an experience, with many concert goers bringing with them the most lavish of picnics — complete with candelabras, champagne… the works. And to top it all, the event goes out with a bang — lots of them — as the cannons of the Royal Artillery join in the rousing finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Like the castle itself, it’s simply breathtaking.