Leeds Castle, near Maidstone in Kent, is said to be the most romantic and beautiful castle in England. It is built on two adjacent islands on the River Len, and is set in 500 acres (200 hectares) of wonderful gardens.
In 857AD the Saxon royal family built the original earthwork enclosure with wooden palisades. After the Norman invasion in 1066, the manor was built in stone. In 1278, the castle became the royal palace of Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile. Major improvements were made at this time, including the medieval keep or stronghold called the ‘Gloriette’, in honour of Queen Eleanor.
From 1278 to 1552 it was customary for the castle to be part of a queen’s dowry and was retained during widowhood. Queen Isabella, Anne of Bohemia and Joan of Navarre all lived in Leeds Castle. It was also a residence for King Henry VIII, who transformed and beautified the castle for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII added many of the Tudor windows and was responsible for much of the castle’s splendour. Henry’s portrait hangs in the castle, as well as the famous painting ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’, which commemorates the meeting in 1520 between Henry and the French king, Francis I.
Leeds Castle was home to the St Leger, Culpeper and Fairfax families, and was owned for over one hundred years by the Wykeham Martins. In 1926, it was purchased for $873,000 by Olive Baillie, an American heiress. Later known as Lady Baillie, she devoted the rest of her life to restoring the castle. As a society hostess, she entertained many famous guests, including film stars Jimmy Stewart, Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin. On her death in 1974, she bequeathed Leeds Castle to the nation in perpetuity under the charitable trust of the Leeds Castle Foundation.
The first aviaries at Leeds Castle were established in the late 1950s to house Lady Baillie’s collection of small Australian finches. She also developed a special interest in parakeets, particularly the Australian and Ringneck varieties.
The Aviary, built as a memorial to Lady Baillie, is set in a walled garden overlooking the Great Water. Officially opened in 1988 by Princess Alexandra, the Aviary houses over 100 species of birds from around the world. Cameras and monitors enable visitors to take a peek inside the nests of some rare species, such as Toco Toucans (Ramphastos toco), Crowned Hornbill (Tockus alboterminatus), Von Der Decken’s Hornbill (Tockus deckeni) and the Queen of Bavaria or Golden Conure (Guaruba guarouba).
Parrots make up 1/4 of the species exhibited. They include hyacinth macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), New Zealand keas (Nestor notabilis) and red-fan or hawk-headed parrots (Deroptyus accipitrinus).
The charming Lady Baillie garden features interesting plants such as palms, euphorbias and Mexican orange blossom. Don pointed out a palm tree thriving in the garden, even though in this part of England it often snows and the lake freezes over. The Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is quick growing and very hardy.
Euphorbia wulfenii (Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii) has erect stems, blue green leaves and green flowerheads which appear in winter and last for many weeks. It is frost hardy, and likes a sunny position in cold climates. In warmer areas it needs a little shade.
In front of the euphorbias Don spotted a golden form of choisya, or Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’). People living in cooler zones of Australia (Melbourne and south) should consider planting the frost hardy choisya instead of murraya. Choisya is a similar looking plant, which also has white, fragrant flowers.
The Culpeper or English cottage garden was built around 1978-79 and designed by Russell Page. It has brick paving and neat box hedges enclosing beds filled with colourful perennials and fragrant annuals, such as roses, iris, lavender, pinks, poppies, lupins and granny’s bonnets. The Culpeper Garden houses collections of catmint (Nepeta sp.) and bergamot (Monarda sp.), reflecting the Culpeper family history and their ancestor, herbalist Nicholas Culpeper.
Don showed a particularly nice walk along the edge of the garden, featuring English yews (Taxus baccata), all beautifully trimmed by hand.
Leeds Castle is situated 4 miles (6.4 kilometres) east of Maidstone, Kent. For more details, visit the Leeds Castle website: www.leeds-castle.com