Leeds Castle, often referred to as the “loveliest castle in the world”, has a rich history spanning more than 1,000 years. Once home to kings and queens, it’s now open to the public and makes a wonderful day out.

With origins tracing back to the Saxon era, Leeds Castle has more than 1,000 years of history. During that time, it has been home to medieval kings and queens, a luxurious country retreat and even a rehabilitation centre for wounded airman in World War II. These days it is open to the public to explore and enjoy.

Leeds Castle on a sunny spring day
Leeds Castle on a beautiful sunny day

I’ve visited quite a few castles in my time – both in the UK and abroad. So with a billing of the loveliest castle in the world, I just had to see for myself whether Leeds Castle would live up to this.

The castle is located in the picturesque Kent countryside near Maidstone, about 1 hour away from London. As well as a very well-preserved castle to explore, there are plenty of other activities to enjoy during a visit. Many of these are aimed at children, which makes Leeds Castle an ideal destination for a family day out. In fact it’s actually one of the best attractions to visit in Kent.

I’ve visited there a couple of times now and have put together this article to share my experiences and thoughts. Read on to discover all you need to know for visiting Leeds Castle as well as tips for making the most of your visit.

Brief history of Leeds Castle

Castles are always fascinating places to visit as they’ve been around for so long and have seen so much history. While Leeds Castle hasn’t seen as much military action as some castles, it still has an interesting and varied past.

I won’t go into too much detail as there’s plenty of information on the Leeds Castle website and part of the fun of exploring the castle is to learn about its history during your visit. However it’s useful to give a brief overview to set the scene.

Saxon and Medieval times

The site of Leeds Castle dates back to the Saxon era. Initially, a wooden structure was built on two islands in a lake formed by the River Len, to the east of the village of Leeds (not to be confused with the city of Leeds in the north). The first stone castle on the site was built in 1119 by Robert de Crevecoeur, during the reign of King Henry I.

In 1278, the castle became a royal residence when it was inherited by King Edward I. He continued to improve the defences and transformed it into a more luxurious residence. Over the next few hundred years, the castle was a residence for a number of medieval queens of England.

During this time, the castle saw a lot of change. It was improved and extended, besieged and even used to imprison Queen Joan of Navarre.

Tudor times

In the 16th century, King Henry VIII transformed the castle from a fortified stronghold to a luxurious royal palace.

The end of the Tudor dynasty in the 17th century also saw the end of royal ownership of Leeds Castle. At this point it moved into private hands and became the home of various wealthy owners during the following few hundred years.

20th Century

The castle again saw a lot of change in the 1920s when it was renovated by Anglo-American heiress Lady Baillie. Now a glamorous and luxurious country home, it was the scene of lavish parties attended by film stars and royalty.

Thorpe Hall drawing room at Leeds Castle
The Thorpe Hall drawing room

During World War II, the castle was used to treat injured troops rescued from Dunkirk and also to rehabilitate burned pilots.

After the death of Lady Baillie in 1974, the castle was left to a specially created charity called the Leeds Castle Foundation. The aim of this charity is to preserve the castle for future generations to enjoy.

What is there to do and see at Leeds Castle?

There is an abundance of things to do at Leeds Castle. Not only have you got the castle itself to explore, but the extensive grounds include many other attractions including a playground, 12-hole mini-golf course and a dog collar museum. You can even stay overnight with accommodation options ranging from a glamping tent to one of the castle’s bedrooms.

There really is something for everyone here. Here are some of my highlights:

Explore the castle

The castle itself is obviously the highlight of any visit and well worth exploring. It can get busy, especially at weekends, and there is often a queue to get in as they limit numbers to avoid over-crowding inside. If you want to skip the queues I’d suggest getting there as soon as it opens and heading directly to the castle. It’s worth noting that there is a bit of a walk to get to the castle from the main entrance. If you head straight there it should take around 15 minutes.

There’s a free audio guide which is well worth using. It gives interesting commentary as you walk through the various rooms which adds to the experience. You can pick this up from a little hut to the right just after you go through the Gatehouse.

Leeds Castle audio guide
The free audio guide is well worth having

There is a route through the various rooms inside the castle, starting on the ground floor. As you explore you’ll discover more about the history of the castle and the people who lived there. If you’ve picked up an audio guide, it automatically plays when you’re in the relevant room so you don’t need to remember to click play.

The library at Leeds Castle
The tour of the castle begins in the library

As the castle was extensively renovated at the start of the 20th century, it has a much more modern feel than other historic castles.

The Salon at Leeds Castle
You can imagine lavish parties here in the 1930s
Yellow drawing room at Leeds Castle
The Yellow drawing room

There’s also a cinematic film that tells the stories of seven of the queens who lived at the castle. This isn’t in the main castle building, but is located just to the right of the entrance after you cross the moat, near the toilet block.

Walk through the grounds

The first thing you’ll notice as you walk to the castle from the car park is how extensive and beautiful the 500 acres of grounds are. The pathways meander past lush shrubs, under the canopy of ancient trees and alongside streams and ponds.

There's plenty of woodland to enjoy as you wander through the grounds at Leeds Castle
There’s plenty of woodland to enjoy as you wander through the grounds

If you visit during the spring, your senses will be tantalised by the bright and fragrant blossom, looking and smelling amazing. Autumn is another great season to visit, as the leaves of the trees transform into a patchwork quilt of stunning autumnal colours.

As you wander through the grounds you’ll likely meet some of the wildlife that lives there. During the spring you’ll almost certainly see baby geese and swans following their parents around as they glide across the water. Keep your eyes open and you may even spot kingfishers, grass snakes and maybe even a Sparrow Hawk soaring above.

There's plenty of wildlife to see in the grounds of Leeds Castle
There’s plenty of wildlife to see in the grounds

There are three self-guided walking routes, ranging in distance from 1 to 2.5km. These are designed to showcase the best views in the grounds and of the castle.

Enjoy spectacular views as you wander through the grounds of Leeds Castle
Enjoy spectacular views as you wander through the grounds

If you prefer to give your legs a rest, you can take the Black Swan Ferry across the Great Water. There are two docks, one near the Boathouse cafe and the other near the maze. This costs £1.50 each way for an adult (£1 for a child).

The Black Swan Ferry at Leeds Castle
The Black Swan Ferry

You can also take Elsie the Castle Train from the main entrance up the castle and back. Tickets cost £1.50 each way for an adult (£1 for a child).

Let Elsie the Castle Train take the strain
Let Elsie the Castle Train take the strain

Enjoy the beautiful gardens

As well as the impressive grounds, there are also a couple of gardens you can enjoy. The first is the Culpeper Gardens which can be found near the restaurant block. This is filled with plants, hedges and at the right time of year beautiful blooms. It’s also a haven for local wildlife including some rather industrious bees when I was there. You can wander along the pathways or sit at one of the benches and take in the sights and smells of this wonderful garden.

Culpeper Garden at Leeds Castle
Enjoy the sights and smells in the Culpeper Garden

The other garden area is the Lady Baillie Mediterranean Garden Terraces. This can be found just below the Culpeper Gardens, overlooking Great Water. With a sun-drenched location this garden features large palms, firs and even a few cacti.

See birds of prey in action

If you continue through the gardens and past the maze you’ll discover the Bird of Prey centre. Here you’ll find a variety of stunning birds, ranging from owls to a Russian Steppe Eagle. Each bird has an information board so you can find out more about them.

Owlfie the Spotted Eagle Owl at Leeds Castle
Owlfie the Spotted Eagle Owl
An owl during the falconry display at Leeds Castle
Owlfie during the falconry display

While here I’d recommend watching the flying display in the Falconry Arena. These are held daily at 2 p.m. (April to September) or weekends and school holidays (October to March). Lasting 30 minutes, you’ll see a selection of the birds flying – if you’re lucky one might even perch next to you!

A kestral flying during the falconry display at Leeds Castle
A kestral flying during the falconry display

It’s impressive to watch and educational too as they give a running commentary on each bird as it flies.

Toddy the red x black hybrid Kite flying during the falconry display at Leeds Castle
Toddy the red x black hybrid Kite

Get lost in the maze

If you enjoy puzzles then definitely pay the maze a visit. Made from an impressive 2,400 yew trees, it’s set in a square yet the maze itself seems circular from inside. This adds to the challenge in solving it as it isn’t that easy (or maybe I’m just not very good with mazes). There are a couple of clues inside the maze if you get stuck but it still takes around 20 minutes to complete.

The maze at Leeds Castle
Try to find your way out of the maze

Once you do manage to make your way to the middle, you’ll be rewarded with a climb to the top of the grotto where you can look out over the maze you’ve just completed. The fun isn’t over yet though, as you exit under the maze via a magical underground grotto featuring mythical creatures.

Inside the Grotto under the maze at Leeds Castle
Inside the Grotto under the maze

Watch thrilling displays and exhibitions

As well as all the standard attractions available to anyone with an admission ticket, Leeds Castle also puts on a number of special events throughout the year. These include jousting contests, a summer concert and Christmas light trails.

Knights in armour prepare to joust at Leeds Castle
Knights in armour prepare to joust

A full list of these events can be found on the Leeds Castle website. Some of these events are included with the standard entrance ticket, while others are not so double-check before booking. These events are usually rather busy too, so bear this in mind if you’re planning on visiting other areas of the castle.

Knights jousting at Leeds Castle
Knights jousting during a special event

What’s it like to visit Leeds Castle?

I’ve really enjoyed my visits to Leeds Castle. It has a great mix of history, attractions to enjoy and beautiful scenery to admire. There’s more than enough to see and do to fill up a whole day which makes it a great destination for a fun day out, either as an adult or family with kids.

From the moment you enter the 500 acre estate, you’re immersed in beautiful woodland with an abundance of wildlife. The castle is the main focus and well worth visiting, however there is so much more there to enjoy.

Certain areas like the castle and restaurant can be busy at weekends and during school holidays, although it is possible to avoid most of the crowds by getting there as soon as it opens.

If you go for one of the special events it’s likely to be busier than usual so bear this in mind if you want to explore the whole estate. The great thing about Leeds Castle though is that the standard entrance ticket allows you to go back as many times as you’d like over the next 12 months. So, if you don’t manage to see everything in one day, you can always go back again for free.

So is Leeds Castle the loveliest castle in the world? I’m not sure I’m able to judge that, but it certainly is a lovely place to visit.

Food and drink at Leeds Castle

There are several places to eat and drink located in the estate, offering a variety of culinary options. You can have anything from a sandwich to go, to a Sunday roast in the restaurant. You can even indulge in an afternoon tea!

There are several food kiosks dotted around the estate, selling snacks, drinks and ice creams. There’s also a larger cafe near the maze which offers a few more options including pizzas.

Drinks and snacks at Leeds Castle
Drinks and snacks are available

If you prefer to sit down and enjoy a proper meal, you can opt for the Castle View restaurant. On a nice day it would be worth asking for a seat outside on the terrace overlooking the castle.

Interior of Castle View Restaurant at Leeds Castle
You can eat inside at the Castle View Restaurant
View from the Castle View Restaurant terrace at Leeds Castle
Or enjoy the views from the terrace outside

You always expect food to be on the pricey side at tourist attractions and Leeds Castle isn’t any different. However I found the food to be fresh and tasty.

If you’d prefer to bring your own food, picnics are allowed, although you aren’t permitted to use BBQs. There are some picnic benches available around the estate. However these can get busy, so make sure you bring a rug just in case.

The extensive grounds are an ideal location for a picnic at Leeds Castle
The extensive grounds are an ideal location for a picnic

There are also a few water refill stations located around the grounds too.

Visiting Leeds Castle

If you’d like to visit Leeds Castle for yourself, here are a few useful details:

Opening hours

Leeds Castle is open 7 days a week all year round, with the exception of Christmas Day and a handful of other dates. These are listed on their website so it’s a good idea to double-check they aren’t closed when you intend to visit.

They have different closing times depending on the season. During Winter (October – March), it opens from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last entry is at 3 p.m. During Summer (March to September) it stays open until 6 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.).

The castle itself and other attractions have slightly shorter opening hours – these are all listed on their website.

Booking tickets for Leeds Castle

You will need an admission ticket to get into Leeds Castle. While it is possible to buy tickets in person, it’s easier and cheaper to buy them in advance online.

Standard tickets cost £35 (£31.50 online) for an adult, £25 (£22.50 online) for a child and £83 (£74 online) for a family. This may seem rather expensive for a day out, but is similar to what it costs to get into the Tower of London.

What makes this ticket really good value though is that you can visit as often as you like for a whole year. If you live relatively close by then this makes it a great deal, however if you’re only planning on visiting once it isn’t quite as good value for money.

They offer a more expensive ticket called the Ultimate Explorer. This is only really worth getting if you think you’ll make use of the extra benefits which include 6 trips on the Black Swan Ferry or Castle train plus a round of Adventure golf.

When you arrive at the main entrance you’ll need to exchange your e-ticket for a physical ticket before you get in.

How to get to Leeds Castle

The first thing to point out to avoid any confusion is that there are two Leeds in England. Leeds Castle is located near the smaller village of Leeds in Kent, just a few miles east of Maidstone in the south east of England. It isn’t anywhere near the more well-known Leeds in Yorkshire.

It’s easy to get to Leeds Castle by a variety of transport options.

By car

The easiest way to get to Leeds Castle is by car. It’s located just off the M20 motorway and there’s plenty of parking. Driving from London takes around 1 hour, and it’s about 25 minutes from J3 of the M25. Look out for the brown and white signs as you get close – these will direct you to the main entrance.

If you’re using sat-nav then entering the postcode ME17 1RG will direct you to the main entrance. Once there, you’ll find plenty of car parking with friendly attendants to help guide you to a space.

By train

The closest train station to Leeds Castle is Hollingbourne. You can take a direct train from London Victoria (towards Ashford International), which takes around 75 minutes.

Once at the station, it’s a 5-minute taxi journey or 30-40 minute walk to the castle. There is no taxi rank at Hollingbourne station however, so you’ll need to book one in advance.

If you show your train ticket on arrival you can get 20% off your admission tickets if you buy them on the day.

By coach

There are various sightseeing tours to Leeds Castle run by companies such as Golden Tours.

How long do you need to see Leeds Castle?

This really depends on what you want to do and see there. You can spend a few hours there just visiting the castle and a couple of other attractions, or you could make a whole day of it. If you want to see and experience everything the estate has to offer then you may even need more than one day.

Facilities at Leeds Castle

If you need the loo during your visit, you’ll be glad to know that the toilet blocks are clean and well maintained. There are several located around the estate, although there can be a bit of a walk between them.

There are also several gift shops – the biggest one is at the main entrance. These sell a variety of gifts and souvenirs from tasty treats to Christmas decorations.

There are several well-stocked gift shops at Leeds Castle, selling treats and souvenirs
There are several well-stocked gift shops

All you need to know

Opening hours: Open 7 days a week (excluding Christmas Day – see website for other exclusions)
Winter season – 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entry 3 p.m.)
Summer season – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last entry 4 p.m.)
Check the Leeds Castle website for opening times for specific attractions.
Nearest station: Hollingbourne
Address: Broomfield, Maidstone ME17 1PL
Cost: £35/31.50 (adult), £25/22.50 (child), £83/74 (family) – onsite/online prices
Suggested duration: several hours to a whole day
Website: https://leeds-castle.com/

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About the Author

An award-winning travel and landscape photographer from London.

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