Reviewed by Tricia Shaw
So, it’s the summer holidays and what better way to entertain the family than with a day out to Leeds Castle where they are celebrating 900 years of history? Situated not in Leeds but near Maidstone in Kent, Leeds Castle has something to offer everyone. Clearly signed from the M20 it was very easy to find and the free car park just a short walk from the ticket office.
Once inside you have the choice of taking a walk through the woodland gardens (takes approximately 10 minutes) or taking the land train for a small charge. We decided that with the beautiful view across the lake, the gardens looked very inviting, so we set off down the path. Along the way there is plenty to see and a number of panels telling you about the trees, birds and animals that you may be able to spot. Set in the path was a timeline of important events for the castle which we all found very informative. Nearing the end of the woodland path through the willow trees we could see a beautiful Pavilion, unfortunately it is not so pretty close up and looks as though it is in desperate need of repair. Before we arrived, I had downloaded the new Leeds Castle app which has a summer quest. The first key we found was by the Pavilion and we all joined in finding the codes to scan keys as the day went on.
We decided to head straight to the castle and went to the Gate House where there was plenty to read and a fascinating visual display showing how the castle has changed over the years. There has been a castle on the site since the 12th Century but it has been rebuilt and altered many times over the years. This is also the location of the toilets and the information desk where you can hire an audio tour or buy a guidebook. Knowing that my youngest never lets me listen to the audio tour I decided to leave that for another day when I revisit on my own! A quick visit with the children took about 45 minutes but if you have time to stop and read everything you will want to spend a lot longer
We followed the path around the corner and down the steps alongside the moat to enter through the cellar with its wine barrels and racks. Up the stone steps to the first room where there is a detailed timeline of life at Leeds Castle. Here we picked up some information leaflets that we were able to take round with us. They have just the right amount of information for a first visit to give you a taste of the history of the place. In the various rooms there are many things to look at from areas of architectural interest to beautiful paintings and pieces of artwork.
The Queen’s bathroom has an interesting wooden bathtub encircled by a fine white curtain canopy. The Queen’s gallery and The Henry VIII banqueting hall have marvellous 16th century chimneypieces. I loved the wooden spiral staircase that we climbed to get up to the first floor. There are so many other rooms I could mention and each one has something fascinating on display. It is a cross between a traditional castle (with moat and gate house and the “Gloriette” which was built especially for Catherine of Aragon) and an exquisitely decorated stately home. There were plenty of friendly staff who were great at answering the kids’ questions.
Luckily for us we had picked the best weekend to visit as there was a special carnival event on the Saturday and Sunday. We headed up to the arena for the sword fighting and Civil War displays including the cavalry. The kids (aged 11 and 14) were mesmerised. Although I had intended to eat in the restaurant we decided to get lunch from the hog roast van, just one of the various food outlets brought in for the event. It was all very tasty, next time we will definitely use the restaurant as it looked very inviting. Meals were around £11 – £15 for adults and £4 – £6 for the children’s menu. There are a variety of other eating areas spread out around the Castle grounds including the Costa café opposite the dog collar museum which serves sandwiches, cakes and costa drinks. There is also a cafe by the playground, and the Whistlestop cafe which is conveniently placed near the end of the woodland walk. If you want to take your own picnic there are plenty of areas where you can eat. At 3pm we decided to watch the carnival procession. It was such a shame that the weather was miserable, but we still really enjoyed seeing all the extravagant, colourful costumes.
Carnival events finished, there was just enough time to go and visit the dog collar museum prior to heading towards the play area. An interesting display of dog collars ranging from some very old ones with vicious looking spikes to huge gold collars and some really tiny ones. Definitely worth a quick look, but perhaps not to everyone’s liking.
We decided to stop for a quick drink and cake at the café opposite the museum. We were glad to have shelter from the rain outside. Once refreshed we wandered through the beautiful Culpepper Gardens full of a great variety of flowers. Next came the maze. As I had downloaded the app we used it to time how long it took us to reach the middle. Off went the kids in a race to find the middle first; they were much quicker than me at 9 minutes. Leaving the maze we ventured through the grotto listening to part of the Ancient Mariner’s tale where the lighting was used effectively to create a dramatic atmosphere.
Nearing the end of the day we decided to split up a bit, my mum wanted to see the birds of prey, my son wanted to play in the childrens’ play area and my daughter and I chose to play minigolf.
There is a lovely collection of birds of prey and at 2 pm each day they have a bird show. We missed it this time as we were at the carnival events but it’s on the list for a future visit. The crazy golf is probably the best course I’ve played on recently and very reasonably priced (£1.50 for children, £2 for adults). It is a 12-hole course in immaculate condition with some really tricky holes. My favourite has to be the castle where you have to hit the ball along the drawbridge and through the castle. My daughter enjoyed taking the raft to get from hole 4 to 5. Given that the weather was not good it meant that there weren’t many people playing. I can see it being less enjoyable on a hot sunny day as there is no shade and I think it could get really busy.
So, whilst we played minigolf my 11 year old had great fun in the Knights Stronghold playground (suitable for 6 – 14 year olds). It is a large wooden replica of the castle with three levels and includes a zipline, a swing, a little house, a climbing wall and most importantly benches for parents to sit and watch. There is also a smaller playground that is suitable for under 6s which has zip lines, slides, swings and sandpits.
As well as the playgrounds there is plenty of green space for the children to run around and use up some of their energy, there is always the Black Swan Ferry to get you back across the lake if they use up too much!
We had a fantastic day despite the showery weather and I would really recommend this as a great day out for all the family.
Your entrance ticket is valid for 1 year from entry so offers great value for money if you live close enough to keep visiting or are likely to return to the area. You can book slightly discounted tickets via the website where there is currently a choice of family ticket for £70 (for either 1 adult and up to 5 children or 2 adults and up to 4 children) or individual adult tickets for £25 and children for £16.50. With these tickets each journey on Elsie the Castle Train costs £1 for adults and 50p for children (under 4s free) and the Black Swan Ferry is £1 for everyone (under 4s free).
You can choose to buy a freedom pass (adults £34, children £25.50) which includes the ferry and the landtrain (no family ticket available).
There is loads of information on the website including other concessions available and up to date prices, an interactive map and links to the app.
Tickets cost from £14.50 to £74 (book online for discount)
For more information or to book ticket online visit www.leeds-castle.com.
Leeds Castle, Maidstone, Kent, ME17 1PL | 01622 765400