Leeds Castle Revisited

Being a complete skinflint I noticed that our free admission to Leeds Castle was about to expire (when you buy a ticket it’s valid for a whole year) so we decided to get the car out and head for Kent.

We crossed the Thames by means of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge,

I’m getting into this motoring photography

which links Essex with Kent. The bridge is 812 metres long and rises to 137 metres above the Thames. Completed in 1991, it’s the 44th longest cable-stayed bridge in the world and the second in the UK after the Second Severn Bridge, so there must be room for a whole host of trolls to live underneath it. Speaking of trolls, the toll to cross the river has just gone up to £2 for a car which is a bit steep. As I wasn’t driving I took a few snaps as we passed over.

The Bridge is a pretty amazing piece of architecture

I won’t go into the history of Leeds Castle and why it isn’t in Yorkshire, as you can read all that in my previous post here. On arrival I was disappointed to discover that since our last visit the aviary had been closed, but we were lucky enough to catch the last part of the Birds of Prey Show with Oreo the Great Grey Owl.

Oreo the Great Grey Owl

Found in Arctic Russia, Canada and Norway the great grey owl is very fond of eating lemmings, which it can spot from afar with those eyes. As the handler was bringing Oreo around to meet the spectators I heard a honk from behind my back, I turned around and found this fellow, who was hoping I had a bit of old sandwich for him.

Hopeful black swan

Sadly I had already had lunch so he was disappointed, as was this jackdaw.

‘What are you looking at?’

There were still plenty of wild birds to see on the castle moat, lake and ornamental canals, including some whooper swans who had already arrived from their summer home of Siberia.

Whooper Swan

Whoopers are slightly smaller than the UK’s native mute swan and have a yellow rather than an orange beak. I was also very pleased with this photo of a black headed gull in his winter plumage.

Black headed gull

The only remnant of his chocolate-brown head is the spot behind his eye. It’s odd when you think that in the UK we now have two species of gull (the little and the continental) with a black head and the one we call the black headed gull actually has a brown head, but then we call them seagulls when most of them seem to live in supermarket car parks!

Other birds spotted included: Canada geese, barnacle geese,

Barnacle goose

greylag geese, moorhen, coot, magpie, mallard, blue tit, feral pigeon, great crested grebe and mute swan.

Mute swan and cygnets ‘Call me an ugly duckling and I will break your arm!’

Some of the black swans were still on their nest.

Domestic bliss

Of course the black swans originally came from Australia and were introduced to the park as ornamental birds like the peafowl.

‘Don’t even think about sticking an electric tail on me!’

Who were still looking lovely despite having lost their display plumage.

Leeds Castle – It’s not in Yorkshire

It’s actually near Maidstone in Kent, so not a difficult trip by car, if you fancy a day out from London.

The castle was built in 1119, on the site of an original Saxon fort, by the new Norman overlord Robert de Crevecoeur. It was built on islands in the River Len close to a village called Leeds from which it takes its name.

Leeds Castle on the River Len

Edward I made Leeds Castle a royal palace in 1278, but it’s most famous past royal residents must be Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Incidentally not far from Leeds Castle is Hever Castle, which was in Henry’s time the home of second wife, Anne Boleyn’s family. After Henry, the castle passed into private ownership and survived the English Civil Wars, thanks to the new owner’s, the Culpeper family, siding with both sides.

Moat Bridge, Leeds Castle

More recently the castle has played host to peace talks for both the Middle East (1978) and Northern Ireland (2004) as well as becoming a major Kentish tourist attraction in its own right. Aside from the castle and its grounds, there is a maze and grotto, the rather magnificent Culpeper Gardens and an aviary full of parrots, toucans and other birds, including this magnificent pair of African Crowned Cranes.

Crowned Cranes

The red makings on the throat are the inflated vocal sacs since the pair of them were making quite a racquet at the time. They share their enclosure with some Black Swans, Baikal Teal,

Baikal Teal

Red Eared Terrapins and this fellow.

Shoveler

Now he’s a Shoveler, this is one of the UK’s rarer ducks and so named after its shovel shaped bill, which is used to strain food particles from the water. I’m not sure that he was supposed to be in the aviary, since there are quite a few of these ducks to be seen on the lake, although none of them were quite so obliging for the camera.

Grounds, Leeds Castle

Another highlight of Leeds Castle is the Dog Collar Museum. Aside from some quite fearsome studded and spiked collars belonging to hunting hounds and watchdogs you can see the collar belonging to Sooty’s pal Sweep.

In the extensive grounds the trees were ablaze with the reds and yellows of the British autumn.

Blazing reds and Yellows

On and around the water  we saw Mallards, Mute and Black Swan, Canada and domestic Emden Geese, Black Headed Gulls, Feral Pigeons, Jackdaws, Magpies, Coots and Moorhens. We also came across this more unusual pair of swans.

Whooper Swans

These are Whooper Swans, which are a bit smaller than Mute Swans and have a yellow bill with black markings. From October they start arriving in the UK from the Arctic, for the winter.

Mute Swan

We paid £18.50 each (child £11) for our tickets which are valid for a whole year. This includes entry to the castle and grounds. For food there is a sandwich bar and the self service Fairfax Restaurant (named after Thomas Fairfax, the great grandson of Parliamentarian general Thomas Fairfax defeater of the Royalist forces at the Battle of Maidstone in 1648, who was born at Leeds Castle in 1612). Like many tourist attractions the food is a bit pricey, (I paid £8 for a cheese platter of four cheeses, salad and bread) but it is made on the premises to a high standard.

Sherlock Holmes and Arty Films – Must be Groombridge Place

Just outside Tunbridge Wells on the Kent and East Sussex borders is Groombridge Place.

Groombridge Place

Designed by Philip Packer, with some help from his pal from the Royal Society, Sir Christopher Wren, its a wonderful piece of Restoration architecture. Unfortunately the house is not open to the public but the gardens and woodland are (£9.95).

Formal Gardens Groombridge Place

In fact the gardens may well look familiar having featured in the most recent big screen version of Pride and Prejudice, while this view will resonate with anyone who has seen Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtman’s Contract.

The Draughtsman's View

We took the boat (an extra £1) from the house to the Enchanted Forest, where we encountered some furry Mangalica pigs from Hungary.

Mangalica pigs

and a zedonk, one of only two of the zebra-donkey hybrids in the UK. I thought he was rather handsome with his stripy legs.

Zedonk

There were also lots of birds, including both greylag and Canada geese with goslings and herons, as well as Groombridge’s resident peacocks.

Heron

And some more mystical creatures, that we ran into before getting back to the house,

Forest dweller

via the vinyard, bird of prey centre and the alpacas

Alpaca

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a frequent visitor to the house during the later years of his life when he became obsessed with spiritualism. He lived nearby at a house called Windlesham in Crowborough and used to attend seances at Groombridge held by the then owners, Louisa and Eliza Saint. The house even features as the setting for his 1914 Sherlock Holmes mystery The Valley of Fear, although it takes the title Birlstone Manor.

A chalet by the entrance to the formal gardens has been set aside as a small museum to Doyle’s memory.

Conan Doyle Museum