Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmas At Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle on a frosty morning
Nothing gets me into the holiday spirit more than seeing a house that is beautifully decorated for the season. And if it is a house that I didn't have to decorate myself, it is all the better. And while we're at it, why not make it a really big house, or even a castle? So to give myself a jumpstart on the holidays that is exactly what I did last weekend when I visited Leeds Castle in Maidstone, England.

Located in Kent, southern England, Leeds Castle bills itself as "the loveliest castle in the world" and while I haven't visited every castle around the globe, the grounds at Leeds are perhaps the most beautiful ones I've ever seen. It was crisp but sunny on the morning of my visit and the grounds were encased in a thick layer of frost which only added to the magical feel. Sidney, having never experienced real snow, was mesmerized by both the sight and feel of the white grounds. And even without foliage on the trees, the grassy expanses, ponds -- complete with the castle's iconic black swans-- and pathways were unbelievably beautiful. The grounds are expansive and include numerous gardens, a vineyard, aviary, maze, grotto and 9-hole golf course. You could hours, perhaps even days, wandering the grounds and not see everything.

Frosty grounds

And of course there is the castle. Set in the middle of a moat in the center, the first castle was built during Norman times during the reign of William the Conqueror's son Henry I. In 1278 it became the residence of Queen Eleanor of Castile and remained in royal hands for 300 years. The castle continued to be passed down from one generation to the next with changes, additions and renovations taking place. Although the castle is currently owned by a private foundation whose mission is to preserve the castle and grounds, the last private owner was actually an Anglo-American woman named Lady Olive Baillie. Lady Baillie purchased the castle in 1926 and essentially modernized it to what it is today while preserving its rich heritage.

Each year during the holiday season the castle is decked out with Christmas decorations with a Christmas market being held on the grounds. This year's theme is "A Gingerbread Christmas" and we could see and smell the theme throughout the castle. Each of the castle's grand rooms was decorated with tasteful yet spectacular decorations reflecting the room's specific color schemes. A towering tree, decorated with ornaments, many made of gingerbread, served as each room's focal point. And then there was the giant replica of the castle made entirely gingerbread. Here no detail was too small as even the most ornate tapestry was painstakingly portrayed in gingerbread and icing. It was truly an impressive sight to behold.
The gingerbread castle...

...and a very detailed bed chamber

Between the spicy scent of the gingerbread and the woodsy pine smell from all of the trees, you just knew that you were in the midst of a Christmas wonderland. I'm not sure what part of the castle was our favorite. Sidney loved the scavenger hunt that was especially designed with children in mind. While all of the rooms were impressive I think I was most partial to the library where books lined the shelves from floor to ceiling and if you looked carefully, you could see miniature gingerbread men peering down at you.

The library tree
I loved every minute I spent at Leeds Castle and want to go back again in the spring. And the summer. And the fall. Because I am sure that each season brings its own beauty and I would love to experience it all.

The black swans of Leeds Castle

If you go:

Leeds Castle, Maidstone, Kent ME17 1 PL
+44 (0) 1622 765400
19 pounds, adults
11 pounds, children ages 4-15
Grounds open daily at 10.00, castle at 10.30

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