Thursday, 21 November 2013

Leeds Castle Renovation: The Courtyard Exhibition Rooms

The Fairfax Courtyard is the site of the Leeds Castle estate stable yard built in the early 20th century which comprised a number of stables as well as grooms’ accommodation and tack rooms. The rooms are currently used for guests and visitor accommodation with the stables serving as catering outlets.
Artist’s Impression – Exhibition Rooms
We are now renovating the south stable block which has housed our renowned Dog Collar Collection in recent years, to provide two separate exhibition spaces, one which will primarily be used to display the dog collars, with the other available for a variety of different exhibitions and activities for visitors’ enjoyment throughout the year.
Puppies in front of the stable yard buildings
The work will be done during winter 2013/14 and comprises internal renovation and refurbishment, together with the creation of new route to the Culpeper Garden.

The project will cost over £100,000 with building work being carried out by Leeds Castle’s own buildings and maintenance crew and interior design and presentation by Designmap.

Lady Baillie with her Alastian, Elsa.
We very much hope the project will not inconvenience you during your visit and are grateful to you all for your support, without which preservation of these buildings would not be possible.

The Leeds Castle Foundation exists to preserve Leeds Castle for the benefit of the public. If you would like to help us, there are donation boxes around the estate or you can donate by texting LCGH01 plus amount to 70070.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Leeds Castle voted the best Heritage Wedding Venue in Kent!

The Kent Wedding Awards are unique to Kent, and focus totally on the couples, venues, services and suppliers involved in organising weddings within our county.

The Hospitaity Team from Leeds Castle, “the loveliest castle in the world” last week attended the gala dinner and awards ceremony at the Mercure Maidstone, having been shortlisted for three awards including: Wedding Venue of the Year, Wedding Venue of the Year – Heritage and Wedding Planner of the Year.

Leeds Castle was up against some of the most popular wedding venues in Kent, but the judges were looking for “the venue that really 'goes the extra mile' for the couple”.

The castle was last week awarded ‘Wedding Venue of the Year – Heritage’ and given the following praise from Paul Ross, media personality and elder brother of Jonathan Ross:

‘Leeds Castle offers all the benefits of a fairytale wedding without missing out on any modern day comforts. Fantastic attention to every detail, delicious menu options and elegant well cared for halls and rooms to marry in that looked equally beautiful in day light or candlelight. Excellent quality presentation that showcased the venue , the staff and the wedding experience’.

Hospitality Business Manager, Debbie Matthews said:

“Winning the historic venue award is an accolade we are very proud of, Leeds Castle is ‘the loveliest castle in the world’ and a magical venue for a wedding celebration.

It takes more than looks to be an award winning venue, we look after the couple and their families during the months of planning and throughout the day to ensure we have exceeded their expectations and given them a day they will never forget”.

If you are planning your wedding, book a complimentary show round of our fantastic venues by calling our Hospitality team today on 01622 767877.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Movember is ‘fan-tash-tic’ at Leeds Castle

Each year, brave and selfless employees in office across the country come together, united in their commitment to fine moustachery and changing the face of men’s health.

The Movember journey requires dedication and members of staff from Leeds Castle “the loveliest castle in the world” have decided to abandon their grooming routines for the entire month and share in the experience of growing a ‘Mo’ to raise money for charity.

The mass ‘moustachiasation’ of the Castle Estate has already begun so look out for the early signs of moustaches appearing on staff members when you visit. Don’t forget to sponsor them!

In support of the Movember prostate cancer appeal, visitors can now see a giant moustache on the side of the scaffolding currently covering the Castle’s Gloriette.

As part of on-going preservation work undertaken by the Leeds Castle Charitable Foundation, a restoration project is taking place this winter and again next winter requiring a major programme of stonework repair, replacing up to 30% of the stone and pointing with lime mortar.

 The restoration project will cost nearly £1.7 million, funded by our visitors. Universal StoneLtd. a company with much experience in restoring heritage buildings will carry out the work for us.

A range of moustache themed gifts are also available in the Castle shops, including coasters, mugs, spectacle holders and moustache disguise sunglasses all priced at under £10!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Leeds Castle’s hero conquers Africa's highest mountain

Ian Fagg is the Maintenance Co-ordinator for Leeds Castle, where he has worked for over six years. In September, Ian literally pushed himself to new heights by undertaking the Kilimanjaro Hiking Challenge in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.

After over a year of disciplined training, climbing in the mountains of Cumbria in preparation, Ian flew out to Africa on the 12 September to begin his challenge of a lifetime.

Joined by a group of other dedicated fundraisers, together they attempted the incredible 5900 metre climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the world's highest freestanding mountain.

Ian raised a total of £2500.00 through his JustGiving fundraising page & sponsorship forms.

On returning from the climb, Ian said:

“I decided quite a few years ago that I would love to climb Kilimanjaro, but has taken me until now to get my act together and go for it, I also wanted to raise money for a good cause whilst I did it and so decided on Macmillan Cancer support as I have come to know so many people that have been touched by their work in both small and large ways.

Our trip followed the Machamé Route and we spent seven days on the mountain, instead of the normal six. This gives you more time to acclimatise to the altitude, even so it was a challenge that pushed every physical and mental boundary to the limits.

Although I didn't quite make the summit due to suffering from altitude sickness I did get to roughly 5600m!

The most important thing is that I managed to raise lots of money for an amazing cause, so thanks to everyone who has supported me.” 

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Celebrating Excellent Kentish Harvest Produce at Leeds Castle

As the nights are drawing in and the countryside of Kent turns to the rich hues of autumn, Leeds Castle has teamed up with some popular local food producers and our shops are bursting with delicious autumn goodies made right on your doorstep.

We are celebrating excellent local produce at Leeds Castle with Nip from the Hip Liqueurs, made near Maidstone, honey from a broad range of independent beekeepers across Kent, wines from Biddenden Vineyard and apple and pear crisps from Perry Court Farm, in the Stour Valley near Ashford.

James Sandy, Owner of our newest Kent supplier, Wantsum Brewery in Canterbury, said:

“The Wantsum brewery brand is founded on the rich history of Kent.  We are very excited to be supplying Leeds Castle as it's iconic status in Kent's history fits perfectly.  Further, it opens our product range to a huge demographic as it is visited by people from around the world”.

Nip from the Hip Liqueurs are made near Maidstone by Alison and Joy, a mother-daughter team. The inspiration for the company came from Alison and Paul’s wedding in 2011. Select guests were given hip flasks as a gift, filled with delightful Gin and Vodka based liqueurs made by Alison’s mother Joy.  Having a “nip from the hip” became common place in the day’s proceedings!  The liqueurs are made using Kent grown fruit to ensure the best possible quality.

Blue Bell Hill Apiaries produce honey without blending as other producers do.  Every time you buy from a new batch, it will have a deliciously different flavour influenced by the blooms in the local area at the time the bees were feeding.

Perry Court Farm is located in the Stour Valley in the finest Kent countryside near Ashford, surrounded by traditional apple and pear orchards, fields of fresh vegetables and summer fruits.  Run by Charlie Fermor, the family have been growing wonderful fruit and vegetables in a responsible and environmentally friendly way on the farm for three generations.

Leeds Castle is stocking their sweet and tangy apple and pear crisps, they are just sliced and air dried fruits; and juices from single varieties to show off the unique tastes.

Retail Manager for Leeds Castle, Bob Needham said:

“It’s wonderful to be able to partner with local business at the same time as fundraising to preserve the Castle for our local and international visitors. All of these products are truly excellent quality and ideal to put by for Christmas treats and gifts.

I’m glad to say many are firm favourites already, and our staff will be happy to help customers put together a selection of delicious foods and drink for that hard to buy for friend or family member.” 

You do not need an admission ticket for the Leeds Castle Shop at the main entrance and car parking is free. The shop is open daily from 10am – 5pm. Key to the Castle ticket holders can also visit the Castle Island shop daily from 10am - 4pm.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Preserving Leeds Castle: The Gloriette Masonry Repairs

You may have noticed that scaffolding has started to be put up around the Gloriette. As part of the on-going preservation work undertaken by the Leeds Castle Charitable Foundation, a restoration project is taking place this winter and again next winter requiring a major programme of stonework repair, replacing up to 30% of the stone and pointing with lime mortar.

The Gloriette (or Keep) dates in part from the late 13th century and is the oldest part of the main castle building. It was erected in the 1280s by Edward I on the foundations of the original 12th century stronghold, and is built on a D-shaped footprint, following the outline of the small island on which it sits. At that time it would have been a mostly single-storey structure built around a central courtyard and with internal walls of timber. In the 16th century the upper floor was added to the Gloriette when a suite of royal apartments were prepared for Henry VIII.

In the 1660s the Gloriette was severely damaged by fire and had partially collapsed, before its fortunes were transformed by Fiennes Wykeham Martin who rebuilt it as part of his major restoration of the castle in 1822.

1660s Fire - arson by Dutch Prisoners of War 

The Gloriette just prior to the 1822 restoration
The Gloriette is built of ragstone, a local stone which is very soft. Weather and the passage of time impact on buildings of this age and they need attention at regular stages during their history.

The railway line used for the 1927 restoration
The restoration project will cost nearly £1.7 million, funded by our visitors. Universal StoneLtd. a company with much experience in restoring heritage buildings will carry out the work for us.

We very much hope the project will not inconvenience you during your visit and are grateful to you all for your support, without which preservation of these great buildings would not be possible. 

The Leeds Castle Foundation exists to preserve Leeds Castle for the benefit of the public. If you would like to help us, there are donation boxes around the estate or you can donate by texting LCGH01 plus amount to 70070.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Leeds Castle encourages local students to get creative!

Leeds Castle has announced the winner of a design competition, run last year in conjunction with Invicta Grammar School in Maidstone.
Students were encouraged to get creative and design some new characters for Leeds Castle, which would appeal to a younger audience whilst still reflecting the history of the castle.
Hannah Marno, aged 18, was the winner for her excellent creation of a full set of characters, each with their own personalities and fitting the brief exactly.
Retail Manager at Leeds Castle, Bob Needham said:
“We were really excited and impressed with all the entries we received and very grateful for the time, consideration and effort that has obviously gone in to the work. They were all great pieces and there are obviously some budding artists and designers at Invicta Grammar School!”
Hannah’s characters include a knight called Sir John, a Princess ‘with attitude’ called Catherine, Arthur the Peacock, Lancelot the Black Swan and the Merlin the White Swan.
Since the competition ended last year, Leeds Castle has been working with Hannah to adapt and develop the characters, which have been reproduced onto life-size cut  outs, for the enjoyment of younger visitors to the Knight’s Realm Playground at the Castle.
Due to the outstanding quality of the illustrations produced, Leeds Castle also commissioned Hannah to produce more drawings of her characters, which will shortly be launched on a wide range of merchandise in the retail outlets at the Castle. 
The merchandise includes notebooks, mugs, key rings and stationary ranging from £1-£5.
Hannah recently finished her last year at Invicta Grammar School and is about to start College where she will study for a degree in Graphic Illustration, which will hopefully lead to a career in the creative industries sector.
Hannah was also one of only two students from Invicta Grammar School to receive a bursary from the Benenden branch of NADFAS, to support her development as an artist. 
Invicta Grammar School, which specialises in business and enterprise,  has built a successful business partnership with the Castle over the last few years and is proud of this first successful retail venture which has given school pupils the opportunity to work on live commercial briefs provided by business partners – an important aspect of the educational experience.
The retail partnership will continue with two new cushion designs, which will be available in time for Christmas from the Leeds Castle shops.

One cushion will depict the black swan and will be produced using the Invicta CAM embroidery machines. The other design will feature a jacquard fabric, designed by Invicta student Lucy Hennessy, woven in Italy as part of the British Council Comenius partnership with Invicta’s business partner school Enrico Tosi, in Busto Arzizio near Milan in northern Italy.  

Monday, 2 September 2013

Cinema under the stars at Leeds Castle

Tickets are on sale now for two evenings of classic cinema under the stars at Leeds Castle, on Friday 6 and Saturday 7 September 2013.

The Luna Cinema are the country's leading producer of open air cinema, and will present on a giant inflatable screen – “The Blues Brothers and “Casablanca”, two unforgettable films with the stunning backdrop of the 900 year old castle.

On Friday night, sing along to ‘Rawhide’ with Jake and Elwood Blues at our screening of the cult 1980 American musical comedy “The Blues Brothers” starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

Then on Saturday evening, enjoy one of the most beloved American films, “Casablanca”. Follow the WWII romance of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, from that infamous Moroccan gin joint.

The whole family will enjoy these late summer evenings of outdoor cinema. Bring a picnic rug and try some spatchcock chicken or hickory smoked rump beef from official caterers Cock 'n' Bull Rotisserie.

The Luna Cinema 2013 season is proudly sponsored by Haagen Dazs.

Gates open at 6pm for both events and tickets must be pre-booked. They cost £15 for adults and £12 for children aged 5 – 15 (Casablanca only). Visit

Monday, 12 August 2013

Are you a brave Knight or a beautiful Princess?

Are you looking for something fun to do with the kids during the summer holiday? Why not send them back to school….at Leeds Castle

Visit Leeds Castle from the 24 to the 26 august and enrol your brave knight’s and beautiful princesses at our very own ‘knight and princess school’.

Children aged 2 to 10 years old can dress up in chainmail and helmets in the armour zone and try out their combat skills in a foam sword battle.

Sword fighting lessons using wooden training swords and real medieval techniques will be available, plus an interactive mini warrior battle show for the whole family which will re-enact the battle of Agincourt with the children cast as English archers.

The princess show will teach the etiquette needed to meet a prince, with the opportunity to try on beautiful dresses and learn a medieval courtly dance.

Your key to the castle ticket is valid for the knight and princess school event. Tickets cost £21 for adults; £18.50 for seniors and visitors with disabilities (carer goes free); £13.50 for children (under 4’s free). Tickets are valid for 12 months so you can pay once and visit all year round.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Make the most of the summer holidays at Leeds Castle

Are you looking for ways to entertain the family over the summer holidays? Join us at Leeds Castle for fun daily activities, competitions, tours and trails as we celebrate the 6 weeks of freedom! Get up close and personal with our feathered friends, get hands on with woodland crafts or become a fair maiden of brave knight at our knight and princess school. Along with our daily falconry displays, maze and grotto, the Knight’s Realm, Elsie the Land Train and The Black Swan Ferry they will be kept entertained for hours. Check out all of our summer holiday events and activities below:

Kent Wildlife Trust

Date: Monday 29 July to Thursday 1 August

Time: 10am to 5pm.

Where: Outside the Falconry Office

The Kent Wildlife Trust will be celebrating all things that live in the sea! Join in with free marine themed activities, an anagram challenge and quiz the on hand experts with any questions you may have about sea-life or nature. 

The Quest For The King's Key

Date: Friday 2nd August, Tuesday 13th August, Tuesday 20th August & Friday 30th August

Time: 11.30am, 1pm & 3pm

Where: Storytelling sessions start and end at the Pavilion and last approx. 30 mins

King Henry The Eighth is a little distracted as he has lost the key to a chest containing his favourite and most valuable ring. Join Raggedy Jack on your quest to find the Kings key. Hear about the magical creatures that live in the castle grounds and discover some of the secret and strange places they live.   


Date: Saturday 3rd August – Sunday 1st September

Time: 10am – 5pm

Where: Outside the Falconry Office

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will be offering fun wildlife activities including; identification challenges, quizzes, and the chance to use a pair of binoculars and telescopes. Experts will be on hand to answer any questions you may have about birds and other wildlife.

Woodland Crafts

Date: Saturday 3rd – Sunday 11th August

Where: Pavilion Lawn

Have a go at making woodcrafts this summer holiday. With natural materials found from Leeds Castle grounds, enjoy building mini rafts, necklaces and pinecone creatures on the Pavilion Lawn. There is a small additional charge of £2 for this activity. 

Meet the Wildlife Warden

Date: Every Wednesday in August

Time: 11.00am – 11.30am

Where: Outside the Falconry Office

An opportunity to ask the wildlife warden about black swans, meet a British owls and use a pair of binoculars to enjoy the castle’s beautiful wildlife.

Knight & Princess School

Date: Saturday 24 August - Monday 26 August

Join Leeds Castle’s Knight and Princess School. Brave knights can dress up in chainmail and helmets in the Armour Zone and try out their combat skills in a foam sword battle (suitable for ages 2 to 10).
Sword fighting lessons using wooden training swords and real Medieval techniques will be available plus an interactive Mini Warrior Battle Show for the whole family which will reenact The Battle of Agincourt with the children cast as English archers. The Princess Show will teach the etiquette needed to meet a Prince, with the opportunity to try on beautiful dresses and learn a Medieval courtly dance.

Meet the Falconer

Date: Friday 31st August

Time: 12pm – 12.30pm

Where: Outside the Falconry Office

Come and meet the Castle Falconer and get up close to one of our birds of prey. This is a fantastic chance to learn more about these amazing Leeds Castle birds and to ask questions to our expert handler.

So what are you waiting for? Bring the whole family to Leeds Castle to enjoy our many activities and events. Remember that if you pay once you can visit as often as you like! 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Five day total falconry course at Leeds Castle

Ever wanted to keep your own bird of prey? Keen to learn more about falconry? Our new five day course will provide you with the training you need to become an approved falconer! 
Our Head Falconer Mark Brattle is an approved Lantra assessor and will provide you will all the training you need plus your final exam to become an approved falconer.  
This exam is nationally recognised and so this course is ideal for anyone wishing to keep birds as a hobby, to learn more about the art of falconry or to continue into a career in the falconry industry.
During the week, our Falconry team will teach you how to feed, care for and handle a variety of birds.  
This course will help you with all the practicalities from how to choose and look after the right bird for you to basic bird first-aid.
You will cover both theory and practical activities, enabling you to approach the training of a bird with confidence.
The weeklong itinerary also includes learning the rich history of hawking and practising handling techniques and flying skills across the beautiful castle parkland with our Harris Hawks.

Each day will run from 10am – 4pm and the total price of £550 includes a delicious hot lunch from the 17th century Fairfax Restaurant with views across the moat to the castle.
Advance booking is essential. Please visit or call 01622 767861 for more information.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A royal visit to Leeds Castle: Henry VIII and the Field of Cloth of Gold

On this day in 1520 King Henry VIII stayed at Leeds Castle with Queen Catherine of Aragon and an entourage of 5000 people. This was the best-documented royal visit to Leeds Castle and was a stop off between Greenwich and northern France for a ceremonial meeting with Francis I of France. This meeting became known from its magnificence as the Field of Cloth of Gold and was part of unsuccessful diplomatic attempts by Francis to woo the English away from their alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

King Henry VIII travelled from London to Dover with an entourage of 3,997 people set out from Greenwich Palace on Sunday 21 May, 1520 and reached Leeds Castle on Monday 22nd May on the way to France. Queen Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, travelled in the same cavalcade accompanied by a personal suite numbering 1,175. Obviously not all of this vast concourse would have found quarters in the Castle, but the King, Cardinal Wolsey and nine other Bishops would have.  The entire upper floor of this part of the Castle was exclusively reserved for the Queen and her closest household staff, indeed the fireplaces decorated with her royal coat-of-arms and the symbols of Castile, a castle and a pomegranate, remain to this day.

At the time, Sir Henry Guildford was the Constable of the Guard at Leeds and as such was responsible for preparing the Castle for the King’s visit. It was his job to ensure food and sleeping places for everyone. He was paid £66-3s-3D (approx. £25,500 in today’s money). And given that the King had already paid some £860 for the necessary repairs and alterations to the Castle, the visit was an expensive undertaking; especially considering the Royal party only stayed for one night before moving on to Dover Castle. 

From the castle, they moved to Charing for their next night’s stay.  They reached Canterbury on the 25th of May, from where they moved on to Dover, before proceeding to France on the 31st of May, probably on board the flagship of the fleet, the ‘Henri Grace de Dieu’, or ‘Great Harry’.

Embarkation from Dover
Henry VIII rested in Priory while all the 27 ships were loaded, sailed across to France, unloaded, returned and reloaded. The hulls of the ships were too deep to come right inshore and so, small rowing boats were used to take the people to the ships, and they then had to climb up rope ladders to get on board. Once on board they hung their coats of arms on the side of the ship. This represented the passenger list and was a record of who was on which ship.

A copy of the painting of the “Embarkation from Dover” hangs in the Henry VIII Banqueting Hall at Leeds Castle. Henry VIII commissioned the paintings and in all probability the artist had not even visited Dover. They were pained around 1540, at least 20 years after the event.

The Field of Cloth of Gold
The kings spent huge amounts of money, wanting to outshine the other. Tents for people to stay in were made of gold cloth and there were wresting competitions, fountains which ran with wine, jousting tournaments, and much feasting and dancing. On the last day there was even a firework display.

They took all of their own food to eat during the 17 day meeting. Royal records show that venison from the Leeds park and butter from the dairies were supplied. We also know from Royal Household accounts that their fish menu included; 9100 plaice, 7836 whiting, 5554 soles, 2800 crayfish, 700 conger eels, 3 porpoises and a dolphin.

The original painting of the Field of Cloth of Gold is in Hampton Court palace.

Do you fancy sleeping under canvas just as Henry VIII’s entourage would have done in 1520? Leeds Castle has launched a new glamping site based on Medieval design to form a ‘village’ on the one-acre castle vineyard.

Bookable until September, Knight’s glamping offers guests a spectacular setting and the luxury of a four poster bed, warming log burning stove, crisp cotton bedding and cosy fur throws. Book your tent here!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Knight’s Glamping at Leeds Castle: Get the Glamping look

For those of you who hadn't noticed a new trend of glamorous camping (or glamping) has emerged. More and more people are deciding to brave the British weather and take their holidays in the UK but still want a little glamour and luxury during their stay. With luxury camping accommodation and resorts offering every amenity imaginable you can enjoy the great outdoors and the camping lifestyle without sacrificing luxury.

Leeds Castle has just launched a Medieval themed glamping site within the grounds. Families and couples can now escape to the countryside for a glamorous camping holiday with the luxury of a four poster bed, warming log burning stove, crisp cotton bedding and cosy furry throws.

Camping doesn't mean you have to sacrifice style and there are a number of ways to look your best whilst out in the great outdoors. Here are our tips on how to get the glamping look and pull off the countryside chic style:

Wrap up warm

The nights around the ‘glampsite’ might get chilly so wrap up warm in a big knit cardigan or oversized jumper. Leggings with a bold print like this season’s Aztec trend with some chunky socks will keep legs and toes toasty by a camp fire. Layer up your outfit with a chunky scarf and add stylish accessories such as beaded bracelets and chain necklaces to keep you on trend.

Countryside chic footwear

Nothing screams countryside chic more than some stylish wellington boots, especially if the weather isn’t quite as nice as you’d hoped. You can find fun and floral wellies almost anywhere and they just add that touch of cool to your look. Not a fan of wellies? Go for a pair of boots like Doc Martins, Timberlands or Cowboy boots with some colourful long socks underneath. If you are lucky with the weather and it is just far too hot for wellies then opt for a pair of gladiator sandals. If you want to glam it up for the evenings then a pair of lace up boot heels are both practical and on trend.


Jazz up a causal block colour dress with some bold accessories such as a chunky watch or bracelet, a statement necklace, a pair of large cat-eyed sunglasses, a large floppy hat or a headband. Complete the boho look with a vintage leather satchel or tassel bag.

Luxury nightwear

Bring a fluffy bathrobe with you for around the tent to enhance that glamorous and luxury experience.

Go long

A maxi dress or long skirt are very bohemian and can look really glamorous. If it is a bit chilly then wear a shirt over the top tied in a cute knot at the bottom. Add a chunky necklace or belt for some added flair.

The Medieval Glamping tents at Leeds Castle are available from the 25th May to the 29th September 2013. The tents sleep a maximum of 2 adults and 2 children. We have a 2 night minimum stay at the weekend; individual nights can be booked Sunday to Thursday. Book here!

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The real Gatsby was a woman: Lady Baillie and the glamorous 1920s

In the late 1920’s and 30’s when F Scott Fitzgerald created the immortal character of Jay Gatsby, America was going through times of great wealth and great poverty in equal measure.  Strict moral codes of the Victorian era were a thing of the past. The war was over, corsets were thrown away and wild dances swept the country.  The character of the Great Gatsby epitomised the mood of the times – a mysterious and incredibly wealthy man, he was pictured as the aloof and enigmatic host of wondrous parties thrown every weekend at his mansion in West Egg, Long Island.

Meanwhile in Britain, albeit in a slightly more discreet manner, a similar change in mood was under way - amongst the rich and powerful there was a new thirst for hedonism.  The era of the great House Party had come about and Lady Baillie, a wealthy Anglo American heiress, was a pivotal player, becoming one of the most influential hostesses of her day.

In 1926 Olive Wilson-Filmer (still in her second marriage) had her first glimpse of Leeds Castle, known as the loveliest castle in the world, and for her it was love at first sight.  She set about with characteristic determination and drive to save the gently decaying castle.  With help from the greatest French designers of the day, she redesigned the interiors to the very height of comfort and art deco fashion.  Almost unheard of luxuries were installed in the castle, including under-floor heating, onyx en-suite bathrooms with new-fangled American washing facilities - her guests’ enjoyment and entertainment were paramount.  At weekend parties they were able to partake of the new swimming pool (incredibly for the day, with a wave machine), tennis, squash, croquet, riding, boating, zebras criss-crossing the grounds; and then in the evenings after a sumptuous dinner, they could repair to the velvet lined Grand Salon, where a specially laid ebony dance floor was ready to welcome them.

And no one, no matter how rich, famous or powerful would miss a chance to enjoy the hospitality laid on at Leeds Castle.   Whilst she herself was a reserved and discreet person, Lady Olive Baillie found her greatest pleasure in bringing together fascinating and influential people.  Like a great casting director, she would combine Royalty – George, Duke of Kent, Queen  Marie of Romania; with stars of the silver screen – Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplain, Errol Flynn, David Niven, Noel Coward; and powerful politicians, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. 

Pamela Harriman (one of the castle’s more infamous house guests) once described Olive Baillie as restrained in behaviour compared with many of her much more notorious contemporaries”.  “Above all”, she said “she was discreet, which many were not.  She didn’t need to seduce rich men, her special aphrodisiac was power”.   But like Gatsby, Lady Baillie could be enigmatic and shy.  When Margaret Sweeny, the ultimate 1920s “it” girl and later Duchess of Argyll, was first invited to the castle, she was warned by a regular visitor that she might not even see Lady Baillie, who often kept to her rooms rather than joining in the party.  In the event, they had tea together and she continued to visit for over 30 years.

In fact Lady Baillie shied away from any publicity and her discretion, coupled with the natural security of a castle set on an island, ensured that celebrity guests, many of whom were on public show for much of their lives, were able to totally relax without fear of press intrusion.  A rare appearance in the papers occurred when the Profumo scandal broke and Profumo was a weekend house guest: “but all the waiting journalists saw was a weed-clogged moat.”  Indeed, the castle’s great privacy has led to many global conferences taking place within its secure walls over the passing years, including in recent times the Irish Peace Talks.

Lady Baillie died in 1974 after a full and fascinating life and her greatest love, Leeds Castle, she left to the Nation. 

Monday, 15 April 2013

The UK's weirdest museums for an alternative day out

From lawnmowers to dog collars, Britain is home to some of the quirkiest exhibitions you will ever see! If you are looking for something a little more off-the-wall for an alternative day out then here is a selection of Britain's most bizarre and unique museums:

1. Dog Collar Museum at Leeds Castle, Kent
Dog fans will love this unique collection of historic and fascinating dog collars. The collection which spans 400 years has been built up over time and is now the largest collection of dog collars in the world. Dogs have always been present at Leeds Castle: hounds for hunting, gundogs, huge mastiffs to guard the gates, and lap dogs to grace the apartments of widowed queens. Olive, Lady Baillie, the last private owner of the castle always had several dogs and it is therefore fitting that Leeds Castle should be home to this unique museum. 

Most of the collars were generously presented to the Leeds Castle Foundation by Mrs John Hunt in memory of her husband, a distinguished Irish scholar.

After closing for refurbishment the museum will be open to visitors daily so make sure you pop in on your next visit to Leeds Castle!

Visit the Leeds Castle website for more information.

2. British Lawnmower Museum in Southport, Merseyside
If you are a bit of a lawn perfectionist then this showcase of lawnmowers could be right up your garden path. Set up by former racing champion and lawnmower enthusiast Brian Radam, the museum houses an astounding number of exhibits, from Victorian-era garden machinery to lawnmowers of the rich and famous including; Brian May and Prince Charles.

For more information visit the website.
3. The Gnome Reserve in Devon
If you are looking for a completely unique and fun experience for all the family then throw yourself into the magical world of gnomes at The Gnome Reserve.  Set within 4 acres of rural countryside comprising of a woodland, stream, 30 yard pond, meadow and garden the Reserve is home to over a thousand gnomes and woodland creatures, and hundreds of species of wild flowers, herbs, grasses and ferns.

As not to embarrass the gnomes, guests are loaned free red caps and fishing rods. Don’t forget to take your camera to get lots of photographic evidence and memorable photo album material.

For more information visit the website.

4. Lock Museum in Willenhall
Are you fascinated by the mechanical forces behind the everyday lock and key? The Lock Museum boasts a great variety of locks, bolts and keys, and their materials and finishes. The museum is located in a typical Victorian locksmith’s house and workshop in Willenhall which is the heart of the lock making industry since the industrial revolution. Visitors not only experience the living and working conditions of a locksmith’s family around the turn of the last century but get to see demonstrations of lock making on original blacksmith’s hearths, flypresses and belt driven machinery. 

Visit the website for more information.

5. The Pencil Museum in Cumbria
Perhaps the quirkiest of all the museums mentioned is The Pencil Museum which shows the journey of the pencil from its invention by shepherds in the 17th Century to modern day art equipment.
The museum was set up in the canteen building of the UK’s first pencil factory. The pencil factory has been producing pencils for 180 years and is the only graphite mine in the country. As well as telling the history of pencils, the museum offers a wide range of workshops for everyone to enjoy!
Visit their website for more information. 
If you know of any more unusual museums that should feature on our list then please let us know by commenting below.