It’s known as the loveliest castle in the world – and that’s partly thanks to Belgium.
The magnificent tapestries that adorn the walls of Leeds Castle in Kent are the work of Flemish Masters from way back when but, today, remain, a firm favourite of the thousands of visitors who flock here every year.
They add wonderful ambience to this prettiest of English castles which can, at a pinch, be visited in a day. Better still, though, is to stay the night, in a style not dissimilar to that of Henry VIII’s entourage back in 1520 when they stayed here.
We’re talking about posh camping but not as you may know it. This is glamourous camping, otherwise known as “glamping”, where you get to stay in a traditional coloured striped pavilion, based on a Medieval design, within the one-acre castle vineyard.
By day, you may want to explore the wonderful castle and beautiful 500 acres of grounds, possibly dining in the Castle View restaurant which serves delightful seasonal British cuisine in a converted timber-framed Kentish barn. While it can’t claim to be quite as old as the castle (which was built in 1119) the barn, just across from the castle moat, itself dates back to the 1600s. Whether you’re looking for a light meal or mouth-watering and hearty three-course dinner, this makes for a great onsite alternative to local eateries. With some stupendous panoramic views across the water to the parkland, this is a wonderful setting for excellent dining.
Finish the day off with an evening stroll through the gardens when the grounds are closed to day visitors (very peaceful). The sun setting in the Mediterranean Garden is a sight not to be missed.
At night you sleep “under the stars”, enjoying a comfy 4-poster bed, warming log stove and crisp cotton bedding. Next morning, a short stroll from the upmarket “campsite”, the nearby Knight’s Cottage provides guests with shower and kitchen facilities. You can also order breakfast at reception which is then delivered to you at your tent outside of which, on the decking, you’ve your own pub type table and chairs.
Set in the heart of Kent (and just off the busy M20 motorway to Dover), Leeds Castle, is one of the most visited historic buildings in Britain. It has been a royal residence for six medieval Queens of England and King Henry VIII turned it into a palace for his Queen, Catherine of Aragon.
Keeping a 900-year-old castle as a ‘living house’ and open almost every day of the year costs money, though, and this is an ongoing task for the charitable trust, Leeds Castle Foundation.
It’s a great place for the history buffs and if you’re travelling with kids, there’s an attraction just minutes away that is sure to keep them (and the adults) occupied.
Go Ape, located close to the entrance to Leeds Castle, is one of 31 UK locations for these ever-popular tree top adventures. With stomach-churning swings and electrifying zip wires, this is a great way to while away 2-3 hours on what is one of the biggest such sites in the country. A full safety briefing is given before you embark on your “Tarzan” adventure. Complete with heights of up to 30 metres, it is ideal for young and old alike and also makes for a nice – and very different – contrast with its historical neighbour.
Another top visitor attraction – and equally fun for younger members of the “tribe” – is the Diggerland Kent park. A short and easy car journey from Leeds Castle, it’s one of four, digger-themed UK parks featuring full-size diggers and dumpers and up to 20 thrilling rides, some of them newly introduced. There’s nothing quite like this in Belgium so it’s a great chance for the kids over here to experience something new and fun.
Both attractions are just the job for letting the kids let off steam while parents can relax and watch the fun (or join in).
After expanding all that energy and fresh air your tribe will have worked up an appetite and a good local spot to sate any hunger is The Herbalist, a pleasant restaurant in Maidstone, just up the road from Leeds Castle.
Named in honour of Joseph Banks, one of the great explorers and botanical pioneers of the 17th and 18th century, it’s described as an “exciting pioneering adventure in social dining.”
This is part of eight-strong group in Kent but the first to be located in an urban area. It’s certainly credited with bringing an innovative touch to the culinary scene to Maidstone, the county town of Kent.
Known for its fresh and vibrant cuisine, its chefs (using only fresh ingredients) cook in an open kitchen for all to see – a little bit of theatre to go with your meal.
Either popping in for a coffee or a slap up dinner, it serves food from 8am to eleven at night and (besides tasty food) also boasts lots more, from live music to “cocktail masterclasses.” Look out too for the Czech tank beer (very good), possibly served by the Czech-born waiter.
Getting to the “Garden of England” (so-named for its abundance of orchards and hop gardens) from Brussels and the rest of Belgium couldn’t be easier with the leading ferry operator DFDS a popular choice for travellers from here and elsewhere on mainland Europe.
Northern Europe’s largest shipping and logistics company, DFDS is an award winner (the world’s leading ferry operator in the 2015 World Travel Awards) and has enjoyed a huge rise in freight traffic and passenger volumes on the Dover-Calais and Dover-Dunkirk routes.
DFDS offer daily cross channel ferry services from two ports in the UK, including Dover. The routes connect the UK with three ports across the Channel including Dieppe, Dunkirk and France’s main port, Calais. It operates 30 daily sailings from Dover to Calais all year round and 12 a day from Dover to Dunkirk.For a small extra charge you can upgrade to enjoy the delightful and peaceful on-board lounge and the very useful priority boarding.
En-route to the ever-busy Dover port for the ferry home, you really should try to call in at Canterbury, home of the Anglican Communion and its famous cathedral. This is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England and part of a World Heritage Site.
Also headquarters of the Church of England, this town has been pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages and still lures tens of thousands visitors. Art lovers should make a beeline for the annual Canterbury Arts Festival in October and, while in town, also check out Carluccio’s, an authentic, contemporary Italian restaurant located in the shadow of the historic cathedral.
The restaurant chain founded by the late chef Antonio Carluccio in 1999 and the food here (and at its other UK branches) is still cooked by his “MOF MOF” motto (minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour). Commendably, it also places great emphasis on the sustainability of its business and Carluccio’s has become the first restaurant group to join a new app that aims to revolutionise the dining experience for the visually impaired. The Sustainability Restaurant Association awarded it 3 stars for its work to interact with the environment.
The chain is about to undergo a major nationwide revamp over the next couple of years and this branch, now open for 10 years, remains a firm favourite for its tasty and flavoursome Italian cuisine.
Another great – and particularly historic – spot to eat locally is The Parrot, built on Roman foundations in the 14th century (while the cathedral was still under construction!).
Managed for the UK’s oldest brewer (Shepherd Neame) by the very friendly and welcoming Devonian Francis Williamson, it’s tucked away on a cobbled street and boasts medieval beams, oak floorboards and open fires. While it’s known as the oldest and most historic pub in town, the food is still the main thing and, here, you won’t be disappointed.
Francis, a veteran of pub management, has worked with the same chef for over six years and it shows. Everything in the modern pub grub is freshly prepared inhouse, using Kentish ingredients wherever possible (including the locally-sourced meat for its famous burgers). The history and size of the place also extends to the lovely terraced garden which can seat up to 60. The staff, food and setting at this place really cannot be faulted.
Another nice Belgian connection: the 15th century bricks that line the building on its east side came from Flanders.
This lovely part of the UK is good to visit at any time of the year and Leeds Castle (whose many famous guests include Chaplin, Churchill and JFK) makes for a great base, not least for its lovely tapestries by those Master Flemish weavers.
Looking ahead, the castle is currently gearing up for a very special anniversary in 2019: its 900th anniversary when it will have lots of exciting events and activities planned including a pageant in July. This landmark event promises to showcase the place at its very best.
Little wonder that the castle, a popular choice down the years as a TV and film location, was described by picture postcard historian Lord Conway in 1913 as “the loveliest castle in the world”.