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Photo Tour: Leeds Castle

I was lucky enough to spend the summer and autumn of 2000 working in a suburb of London, and I tried to explore as much of London and the surrounding English countryside as possible during my sojourn.

One weekend near the end of September, I decided to visit Canterbury (hey, I was an English Lit. major…how could I forgo a chance to retrace the steps of the Wife of Bath?). On the way back to London, I decided to stop off at Leeds Castle.

The previous day had been uncharacteristically warm for England–82F and sunny. Alas, this brief interval of good weather did not last.

Ominously, the further I got from Canterbury, the cloudier it got. By the time I disembarked at Bearsted and hopped on the bus going to the castle, the sun had completely disappeared. I was hoping it was only fog– there’s nowhere in England that’s very far from the sea.

But the stopover proved well worth it. Leeds Castle is acres of eye candy– a postcard-perfect medieval castle in the middle of a lake, surrounded by miles of gorgeously-landscaped grounds.

I took the tour of castle first. Sadly, the foundations that owns the caste does not allow photos indoors, but it was still interesting. The building’s interior was a mix between medieval and modern (it was lived-in until about 1963, when the last owner, Lady Baillie, bequeathed it to a foundation to open to the public, because the upkeep — and the inheritance taxes– would have bankupted her heirs).

The core of the castle is Norman (those guys really went on a castle-building binge after conquering England in 1066), but with lots of later additions.

From the 13th-century on, the castle and the estate was a traditional gift of the kings of England to their queens, and most of the queens of England through Anne Boleyn were listed as owners of the Leeds Castle. From the 16th century on, it was owned by the Culpeper family and their descendents.

Although most of the rooms are furnished in the modern style, two of rooms, the Queen’s Bedroom and the Queen’s Bath, are furnished as they would have been for Queen Catherine de Valois in the early 1400′s. (Interesting tidbit: Queen Catherine, the wife of Henry V, married her Welsh gentleman-attendant, Owain Tudor, after Henry V died. She died in childbirth at the age of 36 or 37; he was executed by beheading for his presumption in marrying the Dowager Queen. Their descendants eventually rose to the throne of England.)

The castle grounds were filled with all sorts of cool stuff. They converted the medieval tithing-barn (where the portion of the crops due the lord of the estate by his tenant farmers was stored) into a restaurant. There was also a maze, a formal garden, and a Jacobean-style walled garden, with all sorts of sweet-smelling flowers laid out in geometric beds, divided by brick pathways.

My favorite, of course, was the exotic-bird aviary, complete with lots and lots of parrots: cockatoos, macaws, eclectuses, Amazons, lorikeets, conures, and toucans. Being off-season… and pouring rain by this time… I had the aviary all to myself. It was a hoot to see how the parrots reacted to the heavy downpour. Instead of huddling in their heated nestboxes, they came out in the large wired enclosures, hung upside down with wings and tails spread wide, and gleefully bathed in the rainshower.

(Lady Baillie, the final private owner of the castle, loved birds, and it was she who established the aviary at the castle. Her suite of rooms at the castle are decorated with paintings of birds and bird statues– a woman after my own heart!).

Soaked to the skin (I’d left my umbrella checked into the castle cloakroom, near the gates, along with my backpack), I decided to head home. It rained all the way back to London, but I was so glad I had decided to make this detour.

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