Maidstone is an odd location for a castle, and Leeds Castle is a curious name for a fortification in the heart of Kent. Still, set aside these perfectly reasonable quibbles and you will find it is the most spectacular architectural patchwork of a building, sited on two islands on the River Len, with Norman foundations, a medieval gatehouse a Tudor tower and extravagantly decorated interiors.
In short, it is sheer historic house heaven. Best of all, Leeds Castle is an easy day trip, an hour or so out of London (Junction 8 of the M20, or from London Victoria by National Express coach).
The castle was built by one of William the Conqueror’s lords in the 12th century and was the home of six royal queens from the 13th century. Later, it was a favourite with Henry VIII and his court as a stopover on the way to France.
In its 1,000-year history it has been a royal residence, garrison, prison and convalescent home, and finally the private home of the irresistible Lady Olive Baillie.
The true heroine of Leeds Castle’s story is Lady Olive, the thrice-married daughter of an English lord and heiress to an American fortune, who combined eccentricity and wealth in perfect proportions.
She bought the castle in 1926, in a neglected state, and completely refurbished both its interiors and gardens, working with the celebrated Parisian interior designer Stéphane Boudin (decorator to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Jackie Kennedy).
As well as antiques, she collected zebras, llamas, black swans and peacocks, horses and dogs. Her passion for canines is reflected in an engaging collection of more than 100 collars, from iron ones bristling with spikes to exuberant Baroque collars decorated with metalwork and velvet, displayed in the castle’s Dog Collar Museum.
* For opening hours and more details, visit www.leeds-castle.com.