Leeds Castle – in Kent, not Yorkshire as some people apparently think – is justly proud of Lord Conway’s comment that it is the ‘loveliest castle in the whole world’. It’s origin dates from 1119, and has been the home to six queens – Eleanor of Castile, Margaret of France, Isabella of France, Anne of Bohemia, Joan of Navarre, Catherine de Valois. Another queen, Catherine of Aragon was a regular visitor.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that water paid such a large part in my visit to Leeds Castle, not just because of the water features in the park but because it seems to have done little else but rain recently. The weather has its advantages though. The parklands around the castle glistened and glowed, like a teenager tossing back freshly washed shiny shiny long hair.
Forget the famous queens, it seemed to me that it’s the waterbirds that rule Leeds Castle today. I tried to walk sternly past them, but the couple behind me screamed and threw all the food they had purchased at the entrance just to make a getaway. These geese meant business.
Given their very obvious sense of entitlement, I wasn’t surprised to learn that birds are a deliberate feature in the garden. The most recent ‘lady’ of Leeds Castle was Olive, Lady Baillie, who left the castle to the Leeds Castle Foundation when she died in 1974. She loved birds of all kinds, and developed part of the parkland as an ideal environment for waterfowl. She also introduced the black swan, the symbol of the castle, to the United Kingdom, importing them from Australia.
She seems like quite a woman. During her time at Leeds Castle, it was a centre of parties and innovation. She built the first wave swimming pool in the grounds, turned the gatehouse into a squash court (now a dog collar museum!), and a cinema in the Maiden’s Tower. Not surprisingly, it became the place to visit, and as I walked round, I tried to picture some of the guests over the years here… Noel Coward, Errol Flynn, Edward and Mrs Simpson, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and David Niven who would apparently desert his fellow guests to play cards with the servants. I bet they made a few trips down to the wine cellar too.
But during the second world war, like many grand houses, the castle opened itself up to other ‘guests’. It was used for secret meetings with senior military figures, but continuing the female theme, was mostly a centre for the VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments). Then, as a military hospital and convalescent home for airmen, when during the Battle of Britain some arrived still harnessed to their parachutes.
But it was another group of visitors I was interested in, the so-called ‘guinea pigs’ – war burns survivors who had been treated by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald McIndoe, at nearby East Grinstead. I think this British Pathe News clip below must have been taken at the Queen Victoria Hospital although records show that reunions were held at Leeds Castle too.
RAF GUINEA CLUB
It is a coincidence obviously that, although much of the original furniture remains, there are so few mirrors in the castle. Instead every room I entered, every corridor I walked down, had windows which drew you to look out to the parkland beyond.
These are from the ‘Gloriette’ where the Royal Rooms are. Gloriette is a Spanish term for a Moorish garden building, and indeed there was a Spanish feel to this part of the building. Maybe an influence from Eleanor of Castile?
Or perhaps they got down the oldest book in the collection, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, printed in 1638… look, the guide got it down for me to see! Sir Philip Sidney was, of course, the owner of nearby Penshurst Place. Perhaps it was a gift between neighbours.
Later, I had a walk round the maze. On my own, thinking it would be easy. 2,400 yews, yes! Bring it on. A stroll in the park. I got lost at the first turn. And then again at the second. My heart started to pound like a cartoon character. I began searching for sticks and things I could wave over the top of the hedges because I wasn’t sure anyone had seen me go in. I tried to retrace my footsteps and got lost again.
And then just like that, I was out. And heading for the grotto as my treat. Two seconds later and I was cursing myself all over again for going in on my own. This is scary wonderful gothic stuff based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses…
Here’s the poem I wrote for the ‘Guinea pigs’ at Leeds Castle.
A work of art, the nurses call you,
the stitching on your cheek as fine
as tapestry. You’ll have me hanging
in the Gloriette, you play the castle fool,
but the rough stones under your fingers
could be a self-portrait, your hand a brush
paused on your chin before you remember why
the castle’s windows are angled for defence:
it’s important to keep looking out,
You head to the mirrored lake, reflections
are a maze you tiptoe through to reach
the heart, each glance becomes a needle
until finally you’re sewing a new picture.