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Monday, 22 June 2009

By royal appointment

If you have tuned into The Tudors on Showtime, you will probably be familiar with the romantic castles and estates of England. On a trip to London recently, we took a detour to Leeds Castle. It was almost like revisiting history textbooks from my university days in the most romantic way. Days of intrigueSet on an island in the heart of the Kent countryside, this moated castle has a history framed in romance and intrigue, conflict and majesty. It is a great holiday destination for lovers of history and a must-visit for those with a penchant for dog collars. Built in 1119, it became the palace of King Edward I in 1278 but its most famous royal connections are with Henry VIII. In the times of the Tudors, Henry VIII transformed the castle into a palace to rival the beauty of French counterparts. The classic era was followed by the austerity of the Second World War, when the castle was turned into a military hospital and secretly employed to develop weapons and safety systems. The monument is a marvellous piece of art and reflects the English heritage.Henry VIII had the castle refurbished for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. His daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, was imprisoned there during the reign of her sister, Mary I.‘Loveliest’ of the lotIt was Fiennes Wykeham Martin who redesigned the castle frontage, turning the Jacobean portion into the style Henry VIII wanted. The result prompted Lord Conway, the famous castle historian, to comment that this was “the loveliest castle in the whole world”.The last private owner of the building was Lady Baillie [also known as Olive, Lady Baillie], who bought it in 1926 and established the Leeds Castle Foundation, the objective of which is to preserve the castle and the park for the enjoyment of the public and enable its use for national and international meetings, particularly for the advancement of medical research and the furtherance of peace. The castle was opened to the public in 1976 and since then, visitors have thronged every year to the monument, which includes an aviary, a maze and an annual hot-air balloon festival. The museum was a surprise. The Dog Collar Museum at the castle’s Fairfax courtyard houses a huge collection of antique dog collars. It has almost 100 collars spanning five centuries and traces the history of canine neckwear from the medieval to the Victorian times and later.It was originally assembled by the medieval Irish scholar John Hunt and his wife, Gertrude. It was Gertrude who presented the collars to the Leeds Castle in 1979 in memory of her deceased husband. The museum is also a tribute to the castle’s last private owner, Olive, Lady Baillie, whose love for dogs inspired Gertrude to make the offering.Spike protectionCollars dating back to the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries were designed keeping in mind the dangers hunting dogs had to go through. Wolves, bears and wild boar roamed the forests of Europe then. The collars — broad iron bands with spikes — acted as shields for the throats of the dogs.One of the notable exhibits are German and Austrian Baroque leather collars from the 17th and the 18th centuries, decorated with metalwork and velvet. The collection includes a typical example from the mid-18th century, which bears the emblem of the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. Also on show are engraved silver collars from the previous century, some designed by leading silversmiths of the day. These bear some interesting inscriptions.Getting married there would be a dream come true. Rising majestically from the still waters of its moat, with its beautiful black swans, Leeds Castle is an idyllic setting for the romantic event. A choice of venues both inside the castle and outside, on the grounds, are available for marriage celebrations.Photographer’s delightLeeds Castle is a photographer’s delight. Set in the valley of the River Len in the heart of the Garden of England, as Kent is also known, the castle is unrivalled in its spectacular scenery and backdrops. A trip on the hot-air balloon provides magnificent aerial views of the castle. However, I had to miss out on the opportunity because we were running late for an event at the castle, Music on the Lawns — The English Chamber Orchestra, that evening. Leeds Castle is undeniably the perfect holiday destination to make this summer regally special in your memories.Go there ... Leeds Castle ... From the UAEFrom DubaiLondon is the closest airport.Virgin Atlantic flies daily. Fare from Dh2,825Qatar Airways flies daily via Doha. Fare from Dh2,655From Abu DhabiEtihad flies daily. Fare from Dh2,035— Information courtesy: The Holiday Lounge by Dnata. Ph: 04 4380454Getting there
By road: Leeds Castle is located near Maidstone at Junction 8 of the M20 between London and the Channel ports.
By rail: It takes approximately an hour from London to Bearsted Station. A connecting service is available at a small charge.
Sea: Dover, 61km; Ramsgate, 77km
Channel Tunnel: Eurotunnel Folkestone Terminal, 40km (www.eurotunnel.com)Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) has connections to Lille, Brussels and Paris.
Satellite navigation users: If you are using a satellite navigation system, please follow the brown and white tourist signs once you reach the A20.
Timings and booking
Leeds Castle is open throughout the year. Please check the website for possible closures during the year.Till September 30
Opens: 10am daily
Last ticket sold (last entry): 4.30pm
Gates close: 6pm
Castle open: 10.30am-5.30pm
Last entry to the castle: 5pmOctober 1, 2009- March 31, 2010
Opens: 10am daily
Last ticket sold (last entry): 3pm
Gates close: 5pm
Castle open: 10.30am-4pm
Last entry to the castle: 3.30pm
The office is open 9am-5.30pm on weekdays.
Pre-booking is recommended. There’s no payment required to made prior to the visit.
Things you just can’t miss
The gardens and grounds Relax in 500 acres of parkland, woodland walks and gardens, including the quintessentially English Culpeper Gardens and the Mediterranean terraced Lady Baillie Garden, which has exotic and subtropical flowers and plants.The AviaryThe Aviary, which offers free tours daily at noon, is an international breeding and conservation centre for rare and endangered species of birds. It is home to approximately 100 species of birds.The DuckeryA peaceful environment for the castle’s ducks, swans, geese and birds, visitors can also feed ducks.Falconry displays There are free falconry displays daily throughout summer, in which visitors can watch the birds of prey demonstrate their power. Weekend displays are available only from October to March. The Maze and Grotto This is great for visitors of all ages. Lose yourself in the yew maze as you spiral towards an underground grotto of myths and legends.The Dog Collar Museum This is the world’s finest public collection of dog collars, which features exhibits that date back more than 500 years.The vineyard Four acres of grape vine are located near the original vineyard site listed in the Domesday Book in 1086. ShoppingTwo traditional gift shops offer a wide range of products, which reflects the attractions and events at Leeds Castle.The golf courseThe scenic 9-hole pay-and-play golf course allows spectacular views of the castle. This is suitable for societies, corporate golf days and residential golf weekends.ArcheryThis is a new addition. With the castle as the stunning backdrop, archery provides an ideal group activity. Pre-booking is now allowed. The Castle Craft CentreDiscover your creative side at the new Castle Crafts CafĂ© near the Knights' Realm Playground and try your hand at T-shirt and pottery painting. These activities can be enjoyed by young and old alike.
HighlightsEvents to look forward to this year at Leeds Castle:Food and Drink Festival: September 5 and 6Tudor Flower Festival: October 7-11Half-Term Heraldry Event: October 24-30Festive Fair: November 21 and 22Christmas at the castle: December 12-24

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