Leeds Castle – Maidstone, Kent, England
A Magnificent Pile of Medieval Origin
Like a lady of the lake, Leeds appears as if a mirage, its buff-colored stone and crenellated towers reflected in the waters that surround it. Once described by Lord Conway as the loveliest castle in the world, it is historically noteworthy as well as visually striking, a trip through the ages beginning with its earliest construction in the 12th century (replacing a 9th-eentury wooden structure) until its recent bequest to a private foundation in 1975. It gained much favor as a royal residence, not unlike that of Balmoral today, beginning as early as 1278 when it was given to Edward I by a wealthy courtier seeking favor. It eventually passed along to Henry VIII, who loved spending time here, and who invested much effort and money in expanding and redecorating it to resemble more a royal palace and less a military fortress. For many years it was a dower castle: six queens called it their favorite residence.
The distinctive lake-like moat that encircles it is unlike any other water-defense setting in Britain.
Some of the 500-acre parkland is given over to gardens and includes an aviary opened in 1988 that is one of the best in the country. Then there is the unlikely Dog Collar Museum (dogs once played an important role in guarding the grounds): it sounds like an oddity, but winds up being a highlight for most visitors. Spanning a period of 400 years, some of the collars are veritable works of art.