Leeds Castle

Maidstone Kent ME17 1PL

Set half on an island in the middle of a lake and half on the mainland, surrounded by 500 acres of landscaped park, Leeds Castle is a major paying concern, with a raft of family attractions and activities beyond the castle itself. Originally a Saxon manor house, and then a Norman fortress, Leeds went on to be owned by six queens and was used for a while by Henry VIII. Over the next few centuries the castle was passed between various noble families before being bought in 1926 by the wealthy Anglo-American socialite Lady Baillie. Much of what you see here today is down to her:  she who introduced the castle’s now iconic black swans to the grounds, and the interior owes much to her renovations in the 1920s and 1930s. Self-guided tours lead you through two main sections of the castle. The keep, or Gloriette, which housed the royal apartments, is of most interest, with rooms restored to resemble their medieval or Tudor appearance. The Queen’s Room, for example, originally belonging to Eleanor of Castile (Edward I's queen), appears as it might have done in 1422. Another standout is the lovely wooden chapel, dating from the nineteenth century, which features a superb fifteenth-century Flemish tapestry. The other main area to explore is Baillie's personal apartments, and looks much as it did when she lived here, crammed with all manner of precious works of art, china, and objets, though it's the overall look of the place that's most interesting, the work of eminent Art Deco designers Armand Albert Rateau and Stéphane Boudin (who went on to work with such eminents as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor).  

The grounds, which you can wander through freely without paying admission (note, though, that dogs are not permitted) are lovely. With tickets you can check out Baillie's exotic aviary, a fiendish yew maze (they say it takes twenty minutes on average to get to the centre), and an astonishingly kitsch grotto, all shell-encrusted mermaids, animal skulls and pebble mosaics, and apparently based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with strange creatures based on Greek myths. Why the grotto also includes a doomy soundtrack of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is less clear. There's a dog collar museum, too, with some surprisingly scary-looking specimens on show. Kids’ play areas include the Knights' Realm Playground – a wooden scale model of the castle – a designated toddlers’ space, and there are falconry displays most days of the week. A roadtrain will trundle you from one area to another if you’re getting footsore (50p), while a dinky Black Swan ferry can take you across the lake from the castle to the maze (£1).

There’s also a branch of the country-wide Go Ape! experience here; kitted out with harness and safety gear, you get around three hours to rampage through the treetops in a kind of airborne adventure playground, swinging through the canopy and whizzing along zip wires around 40ft above the ground. All great fun.

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