Yesterday I made a dream come true that I didn’t even know that I had until last year, when I read online that Leeds Castle was throwing a 1930s themed party. But that’s not all. You could also sign up to sleep over in the castle. Last year I stayed in one of the cottages on the properties and I thought it was the most amazing thing ever to walk out of the cottage, head down the road and 5 minutes later see the outline of Leeds Castle come into view. But to actually sleep in the castle? I couldn’t even imagine it.
We arrived a little late from London (missed a train, and had to call a taxi once we arrived at Bearsted station) and entered the property in a taxi through the special guest gate. The Leeds Castle property has lots of gates and very tight security. Our name wasn’t on the list (probably because most guests entered through the main gate) so after calling mission control (or someone on the walkie-talkie) we were eventually admitted. From the reception house another car arrived to drive us up to the castle door. There were still some tourists walking around (the castle closes to the public at 5:30pm) so we had to go slow but I couldn’t help feel a little special. Buckingham Palace is probably easier to get into.
When we arrived at the front door of the castle (which is actually the exit for the tourist route) we were greeted by an army of staff who took our luggage, helped us out of the car, and escorted us to our room. I knew that I’d been too late in booking to score one of the state bedrooms so my expectations for a room were set low. However, when we were escorted to a bedroom named after Edward I, in between the first conference room on the second floor of the Gloriette, and the Yellow Bedroom where Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII used to stay, I was happily dumbfounded. The room was the perfect size, not too small, not too large. The views of the moat, complete with ducks, geese, and golfers just beyond was stunning. The bathroom was almost floor to ceiling marble.
We headed downstairs into the Library for tea, sandwiches, and scones. Because we were late were late, we were able to enjoy our tea alone in the library. We watched outside on the front lawn as croquet and falconry were set up. And I was pleased that they had moved the portrait of Lady Baillie and her daughters back into the room which is where it had been originally commissioned for.
Lady Baillie was born Olive Cecilia Paget in 1899 in the United States to Pauline Payne Whitney and Almeric Paget, later Baron Queenborough. Olive and her sister Dorothy inherited their mother’s vast fortune when Olive was only 16 and a few years later she inherited her uncle’s fortune as well. Olive could clearly have her pick of eligible bachelors and in twelve years she picked three of them. With her second husband, Arthur Wilson Filmer, she bought Leeds Castle as a country home and spent most of the rest of her life restoring it, spending over £20 million ($30 million). I love the fact that a (half) American lady devoted so much time, effort, and money renovating a castle that had previously been owned by six different queens. It really brings a lovely feminine aspect to the castle.
Lady Baillie was a famously great hostess. In the 1930s Lady Baillie made sure that anyone who was anyone was spending the weekend at Leeds Castle, and not say down the road in Kent with the Astors at Hever Castle, or the Churchills at Chartwell.
Lady Baillie hobnobbed with the movers and shakers, politicans, aristocrats, Hollywood stars, and the all-round rich and famous. But Lady Baillie was also a very private person and she paid the press to stay away from her. She even had her own private staircase built from her suite of rooms at Leeds Castle directly into the Henry VIII banqueting room just so that she could arrive and depart from her parties with optimum efficiency and discreetness.
After we finished our tea, we took the main stone staircase back up to our room to change for dinner. Once we were all glammed up, we returned downstairs to the various drawing rooms where cocktails were being served. I indulged in a few champagne cocktails with a sugar cube and bitters. Yum. Then we went for a spin in a vintage Rolls Royce up the hill for some amazing views. The other guests had been driven up from the parking lot in the vintage car and due to our late arrival we’d missed the opportunity. However, David the Catering Manager, made sure that we didn’t miss out completely. Then we were taken on a tour of the castle in three groups. Although I’d visited many times before it was a treat to get an actual guided tour.
Before heading into dinner, we got to meet some of the owls that live in the castle aviary. They were pretty friendly, you could pat them. We watched as other guests finished up their last game of croquet on the front lawn and then we went into the Henry VIII Banqueting room for dinner.
Seated at two long tables, all seventy of us took up our seats according to the seating plan. It was a nice opportunity to engage in conversation with the other guests. I sat next to a lovely man from Leicestershire who had driven over three hours to be there and who also won the best dressed man award for the evening. His prize was a bottle of Laurent Perrier, one of my favourite champagnes. For dinner we had beef bresaola, sage honey and butternut squash soup, and chicken supreme cooked in a red wine sauce with smoked bacon and shallots. For dessert we had a summer pudding with fresh berries and Chantilly (whipped cream).
After dinner, we had tea and coffee in the Thorpe Drawing Room. Here we took a more modern approach as the socialising continued with both men and women. In the 1930s, the men would have gone into the Yellow Drawing room where Noël Coward would compose on the piano, and the ladies would gossip and do lady things in the Thorpe Drawing Room. To round off the evening, Corrinne Williams sang tunes from the 1920s to the 1940s in the Heraldry Room where some of the more daring and graceful guests danced.
By the stroke of midnight we were all turned back into pumpkins and Cinderella had fled the ball. As I snuggled under the covers in the admittedly draughty Edward I bedroom (it is a real castle afterall,) I couldn’t sleep. I just didn’t want the dream to be over. After we’d turned out the lights, I realised that the silence was almost deafening. From time to time I thought I heard the faint sound of an amorous couple, only to realise it was the sound of the birds.
The morning sun greeted me when I woke up. As I peered out of the windows, I could see that both the birds and the golfers were ahead of me. I ate breakfast in the Dining Room really slowly, just to linger over the final moments before check out. But the impending departure couldn’t be avoided forever. When we had no other option but to be houseguests who had overstayed their welcome, we got a car back down to the main parking lot where the tourists were lining up to be the first onto the property at opening time.
It’s hard to summarise and wrap up such an amazing experience. I’m still a little in disbelief that the dream actually happened. I would love to go back and spend the night again and next time I’d like to go with you, if you’ll come with me? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let’s go together. Let me know which castles, which royal women, and which activities interest you the most. Horseback riding anyone?
Leeds Castle and the Medieval Queens will be released later this year on Amazon.