Since 1900, an estimated 1,200 country houses have been demolished in England, while proportionately even more have been taken down in Scotland. By the 1955, more than one such property per week was being demolished, according to the Victoria & Albert Museum. One such estate that managed to escape demolition was Leeds Castle, located in the village of Leeds at the foot of the North Downs in Kent.
Upon the death in 1974 of the last owner, wealthy Anglo-American heiress Lady Olive Baillie, the castle was bequeathed to a charitable trust to preserve it and to enable it to be open to the public. On the estate, perfectly rising above the moat is Leeds Castle, which hosts visitors in a variety of sublime surroundings. These include the bed & breakfast Stable Courtyard and Maiden’s Tower, various holiday cottages, eight Knight’s Glamping tents, the Manor House and Battle Hall, complete with an adjacent oast. Inside the latter, the De Gournay morning room leads onto charming extensive gardens and floral borders, ideal for open-air drinks, high teas and croquet. Overlooking beautiful private gardens, this two double-bedroom apartment can be booked in conjunction with the main manor house or on its own. It is recommended by the hotel for extended family and friend staycations, anniversary stays and couple retreats.
Collaboration with local business
Located in a rural region of Kent, some six miles southeast of Maidstone, Leeds Castle has won a reputation for supporting many local businesses and suppliers. The castle’s marketing spokesperson Nicole Moor says, “Ever since the Leeds Castle Charitable Foundation was formed in 1974, we are fortunate to have worked with a wonderful selection of local suppliers and businesses, who are able to add to the already exceptional experiences created for our guests at Leeds Castle.” For example, as part of their visit guests may enjoy the castle estate out of hours, access to the grounds and parkland and, crucially for many families, access to children’s play areas.
As well as hosting accommodation for guests visiting the castle, Leeds Castle accommodates anniversaries, weddings, corporate meetings, conferences and events. Nicole says, “We have a breadth of amazing attractions including various children’s play areas, a magnificent Birds of Prey Centre, a challenging Maze complete with an underground Grotto, the cinematic Queens with Means experience, and of course the glamorous 1930s Castle.”
She adds, “There’s also a great selection of accommodation and delicious food and beverage outlets, including The Castle View Restaurant, which boasts stunning views of the Castle and serves locally sourced produce.” Whenever relevant, she says, they recommend local businesses to their guests depending on their needs and interests during their visit.
On occasions when guests are looking to use Leeds Castle as a base to explore Kent’s wider offering, the estate offers recommendations from local partners, past guest reviews, as well as the municipal department of tourism, Visit Kent.
Weddings and events
The grounds of the estate also comprise Leeds Castle Hotel, which benefits from a variety of committed local services such as taxis for visitors who arrive by train to the nearby town of Maidstone, to local florists, who are able to provide decorative floral arrangements for events such as wedding and anniversaries. Nicole says, “We have relationships with local taxi services that serve our guests exceptionally well. We also work with local florists, who help to enhance guest’s experiences at Leeds Castle, namely at weddings, whether it’s creating floral displays and designs both inside the castle or in one of our other wedding venues on site.”
In addition to its in-house catering team, Leeds Castle works with local catering services to support guests’ events such as weddings, while in the estate’s Battel Hall accommodation, guests are able to add a private chef experience to their visit. Battel Hall itself accommodates up to a total 14 guests in five ensuite bedrooms, with a number of reception rooms and a private kitchen. It also features a private dining room, private outdoor space with a peaceful and beautiful garden, and five double, ensuite guest rooms, Nicole explains. “It is a really magnificent property enriched with character and charm, linking to historic interiors with a 21st century design and amenities. We worked with a local interior designer to create these amazing interiors, which also threads across our other accommodation options. Our Bed & Breakfast Stable Courtyard interiors take inspiration from the countryside and the adjacent Culpeper Garden, complemented with contemporary style,” she says. For instance, whereas the Maiden’s Tower features eye-catching, period stylings. The Culpeper Garden is named after the Sir Thomas Culpeper who bought the castle from Lady Elizabeth Thornhill in 1632.
Leeds Castle, which stands as part of the castle’s own grounds across the moat, is a popular retreat for groups attending luxury dine and stay packages in the castle itself. Among several events coming up includes their themed Live & Let evening: a James Bond-themed murder mystery in the castle where guests can come and experience exceptional hospitality, entertainment and a night in one of the castle’s luxury rooms.
Unsurprisingly, the castle attracts guests from all over the world. When Luxury BnB Magazine visited in early January, for example, there was a noticeably high number of North American visitors as well as British, Asian and European.
Business has picked up since the pandemic. “We are starting to see groups from all over the world re-visiting Leeds Castle again, as well as from other locations across the UK,” says Nicole. “This is great to see, following the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We offer a great groups program full of unique experiences and attractions to visit whether in peak or low season.”
She continues, “During the pandemic, travel had slowed down, and as the lockdowns lifted we saw lots of domestic visitors using our 500 acres of beautiful seasonal parkland. Fast forward to 2023, and it’s great to see larger groups come back. More recently we’ve met visitors from Northern America, China and many Europeans, it’s fantastic to welcome them into our glamorous castle and estate.”
Given the wide variety of guests that the castle attracts, Leeds Castle runs mixed marketing and advertising campaigns to cater to the many different experiences available there. “Our marketing plans depend on what our audiences like to experience, so we tailor print and digital advertisements and out of home,” she says. “We have grown a great community across our social channels and love to see their own Leeds Castle experiences when they tag and share their posts with us. Since there is so much to experience at Leeds Castle, and many opportunities to experience something new every visit, we love to share different stories from within the estate so guests can learn more about our wide offering and, that if they purchase a visitor’s admission ticket for the day, they can visit time and time again free for a year.”
Seasonal and international visitors
Channeling the varying peaks and troughs of domestic and international visitor numbers is a challenge for any such establishment, but forecasting methods using historical data help to smooth such challenges as staffing numbers for the rooms, for the bar and for the Castle View restaurant. Nicole says, “Having been operating as a charitable foundation open to the public for nearly 50 years, we have a great understanding of our visitor traffic. We also consider the weather and seasonal changes when it comes to planning our staffing.”
The busiest times of the year are the school holidays, she says, both in terms of visitor numbers and of course staffing. “The Leeds Castle team are fantastic brand ambassadors, always making every guest feel welcomed and part of the family. No matter if it’s a quieter day in January compared to the busier summer season during the school holidays, they always take the time to get to know our visitors and help create those amazing experiences that Leeds Castle is known for.”
Events to draw visitors
Leeds Castle runs seasonal events throughout the year, a good number of which carefully tie into the school holidays (see BOX). This is one aspect of online advertising that helps draw the crowds, with each event featured on Leeds Castle’s own website. In addition to fun-filled event targeted to families, the also offer events that in the quieter months, such as their Design Month in September. “Each year our amazing events team craft an exceptional program of events tailored to our audiences interests,” says Nicole. “There are lots of different experiences for guests to enjoy. This may be a family day attending The Queen’s Joust in May, or events more focused on Lady Olive Baillie and her love of design at the September Design Month, as guests learn all about the castle’s interiors, collection, and architecture.”
After enjoying a Friday evening dinner at the Castle View Restaurant overlooking the floodlit castle itself followed by a night’s bed and breakfast in the converted Stable Courtyard and with free admission as a guest at the hotel, on a grey and overcast Saturday morning in early January we approached the moat bridge leading into the castle just as it opened for the day. Already ahead of us were dozens of visitors making their way into the stunning, historical property.
The tragedy of the lockdown that hammered hospitality is truly behind us.
Upcoming events to lure the crowds
Leeds Castle has a series of thrilling events already planned for 2023. These include:
- Easter at Leeds Castle – 1stto 16th April 2023
- The Queen’s Joust – 27thto 19th May 2023
- The Leeds Castle Concert – 8thJuly 2023
- Leeds Castle’s Design Month – September 2023
- Sculptures at Leeds Castle – September 2023
- Halloween at Leeds Castle – 21stto 29th October 2023
- Leeds Castle’s Fireworks Spectacular – 4thto 5th November 2023
- Christmas at Leeds Castle – November 2023 to January 2024
- Christmas Lights at Leeds Castle – November 2023 to January 2024
In the 1920s Anglo-American heiress Lady Olive Baillie acquired the large, moated property, which is mentioned in the Doomsday Book, and which had since been home for the same family for hundreds of years.
It is the 20th century history of the place, however, that makes up much of the story told today. Lady Baillie renovated the property over the years, for example converting the gatehouse stables into a squash court and installing a swimming pool on one of the gardens. She used the elegant castle as her weekend retreat, where she would entertain royalty, politicians, movie stars and playwrights, including John F Kennedy, Edward and Wallis Simpson, Winston Churchill, David Niven and Noel Coward, who would enjoy croquet fishing, tennis or private cinema screenings at the property.
On 18 September 1928, The Daily Mail reported, “The perfect place in which to spend a weekend is undoubtedly Leeds Castle.” This timeless quote is featured in the brochure guests read upon visiting the castle itself.
In keeping with the attraction of the castle for famous film stars, since passing into the hands of the charitable trust in the 1970s the castle has been the site of a number blockbuster films and TV productions including The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, starring Benedict, Judy Dench and Jeremy Irons (2016), ITV two-part drama Henry VIII (2003), Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett, Joseph Fiennes and Richard Attenborough (1998) and Lady Jane (1987) starring Helena Bonham Carter and Patrick Stewart).