Off the beaten track: Leeds
By Bob Ogley
You really need a nice glorious spring day to go to the village of Leeds. Then you can appreciate one of the country’s most famous medieval castles.
There's the great park laid out by Capability Brown, the lakes, the wildfowl, the daffodils and the not-so-little village a little way up the hill.
The village does have an interesting history and it’s in a marvellous setting, in orchard country east of Maidstone rising above the tiny River Len, which at times is not so tiny.
The church of St Nicholas is an enormous church; in fact the arch between the tower and the nave is so big that a meeting room has been built into it – and the tower itself is massive, not in height but in width. The tower is the second largest in England, Norman in origin and about eight feet thick. There are buttresses on each corner which is puzzling because there is no way this immense construction will fall down.
It’s some way from the castle, on a hill in the village and it is built on the site of an earlier Saxon church. Apparently Saxon windows were discovered there some time in the 19th century and then covered up again.
When the village appeared in the Doomsday Book of 1086 it was called Esledes – an old English word meaning slope or hillside.
There are some wonderful houses in the village. Battle Hall is a restored and enlarged 15th century house and Abbey Farm sits on the site of the old Leeds Abbey which was one of the many victims in Kent of Henry VIII’s sweeping reformation.
Apparently the foundations of Abbey Church were uncovered in 1846 and they actually found the crypt and then covered it up again. So, like the Saxon windows, part of the history of Leeds is not available to the naked eye.
This castle has been described as one of the loveliest in the world and it’s certainly fantastic, striking, magnificent. You can apply many superlatives to Leeds Castle and still not find the right words.
When you approach it from a public footpath it’s revealed as an almost idealised spectacle of the mediaeval castle of tradition. The romantic effect is a credit to the skill of successive owners.
The castle rises from a lake which was created by damming the River Len leaving two islands. The first is reached by an Edwardian bridge and gateway leading to a walled bailey. At the far end is the main building, largely rebuilt, most effectively in 1822.
Beyond this is another bridge with a chapel which leads to the second island and a mediaeval building known as Gloriette - the work of different periods which harmonize delightfully.
The owner of the castle was the Hon Lady Olive Cecilia Baillie who devoted her life to restoring the building and landscaping the surrounding park. Under her care Leeds became one of the greatest castles in England. She actually lived there longer than any owner in history and this includes Edward I and Queen Eleanor, Edward III, Henry VIII and more recently Mr Fiennes Wykeham whose family sold it in 1926.
Lady Baillie stayed at the castle with her two daughters Susan and Pauline during the war and set up a convalescent home for badly burned pilots who had been treated by the famous plastic surgeon Archie McIndoe at East Grinstead. Leeds was an extension of the Guinea Pig Club – a kind of military hospital.
Lady Baillie died in 1974 and left the castle to the nation in perpetuity accompanied by an endowment of £1,400,000. She set up the Leeds Castle Foundation in the hope that medical and nursing conferences would be held there along with research seminars, arts events and conference venues for visiting statesmen.
And Lady Baillie should be pleased. There have been a number of G8 summits on global warming at Leeds. It was chosen as the venue for the Middle East summit in 1978. Imagine what a perfect place it must be for those who organise such events – less than an hour from the Channel Tunnel. Not too far from London and there is the loveliest castle in the world to entertain world leaders – on a lake with a portcullis entrance. All quite magic.
last updated: 20/05/2008 at 12:41