Friday, August 9, 2013

A Day in the Kentish Countryside--Leeds Castle & Bearsted

Thursday, August 8, 2013
Leeds, Kent

We could not have asked for a better day for gamboling in the Kentish countryside—I mean it was a beaut. All that oppressive heat and humidity of four weeks ago has given way to the lovely cool summer for which England is known—and, of course, it has to happen when I am getting ready to leave. Trust my lousy luck! Still, as the English say, Can’t Complain…so I will not!
            I did get to 8.00am Mast at St. Paul’s Cathedral with Cynthia (Michael was saying it), had a quick granola breakfast with lemony tea and was off on the Tube to Northolt where my friend Bash had instructed me to meet him. We were on one of our habitual jaunts into the country to which Bash always treats me because he has a car and is a very compliant driver. Over the years since I have known him, we have scoured Kent, the Cotswolds, Sussex, with Wiltshire thrown in for good measure. This time, I was excited as he was bringing along his new lady friend Kim and I was the happy witness to their new-found togetherness. Once I was introduced to Kim who turned out to be a fun person and very jolly compatible company indeed, we set off on our longish drive to Kent. We were headed to Leeds Castle where we intended to spend the day. I felt honored as both Bash and Kim had taken the day off from work to accompany me on this excursion.

Leeds Castle was Mobbed:
            A very easy drive on motorways throughout with just a few traffic glitches got us to Leeds castle by midday. I was simply stunned to see the number of cars in the car park—clearly Brits are enjoying ‘staycations’ this year as their weather has never been so warm and hospitable. And, as I said, today was blissful. We strolled from car park to ticket booth past glorious parkland for such ancient piles come with massive packets of land in real estate gifts that were bestowed long centuries ago by royal edict for services rendered.
            The entry fee was steep: 21.50 pounds per head—but it is valid for the year. So it makes sense to reach there at 10.00 am if possible to truly enjoy all that the day out at Leeds Castle can offer. And there is plenty. Apart from a Grand Tour of the Castle, there was the vast grounds in which to picnic—some very sensible people had brought along those typical English hampers that are so quintessentially a part of an English summer. There are golf courses, lakes on which large craft ply for the amusement of kids, trains that ferry passengers from ticket booth to castle entrance as the walks to and fro can be pretty exhausting, falconry displays and get this…even punting on the castle moat for a skinny 5 pounds. Had we arrived earlier and brought a picnic, we could have included this lovely activity in our agenda. But, of course, as always, we were hard pressed for time to fit it all in.
A Brief History of Leeds Castle:
            The history of Leeds Castle is long and complicated—suffice it to say that it is mentioned already in the Domesday Book of 1076. It is named agfer Esledes, the original owner of the castle and property. Title deeds changed hands several times until Richard II becomes involved. Once in royal hands, the castle was extended and spruced up, Its most notorious owner was Henry VIII who gifted it to his first wife Katherine of Aragon who took occupancy and cozied it up. In the 18th century, it fell in the hands of the Fairfax family who eventually moved to Fairfax, Virginia. In the 20th century, when the owners were bankrupt, they sold it to an American heiress named Bailie who was subsequently made a Baroness. She hired the French interior decorator Stephane Boudin to modernize the place and make it livable. His touches are very distinct and her living spaces are the most warm and friendly.
From the medieval to the Tudor to the contemporary, a tour of the castle presents a fine contrast in exterior and interior decorating styles and a history, one might say, of the manner in which the rich and privileged have lived through the centuries. There is a medieval fountain, for instance, set in a gabled courtyard that is lovely and four carved marble busts of Henry VIII and his three children: Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I and Edward VI. There are red boxes containing official papers that were used in important international conventions such as the Camp David summit in 1978 as Leeds Castle was often used as the venue for such high-level meetings and negotiations. There is the oldest life-size equestrian sculpture in the world and a strong box that dates from medieval times. And, above all, there are the stunning views of the property and the moat from every window on every level that give the entire place a most glorious feel.
            And it is in the moat that the punting takes place. You can sit and allow yourself to be rowed in the bucolic environment past vistas of the castle and under arched bridges that must be simply fabulous. Alas, we did not have the chance to do that as we were simply starving by the time we finished touring the castle and had to get lunch urgently.
A volunteer guide suggested we skip the castle restaurant which was pricey and go instead to the Village of Leeds to a pub named The George Inn. We complied quite readily, took the train for 50 p per head, got back into our cars and headed to Leeds Village. We found The George Inn easily enough, poked around inside, ordered our drinks (Pimms, of course, as it was the perfect day for such indulgence) and then sat outside on the picnic tables under jolly red umbrellas to pig out on pub grub:  fish and chips (for me—can’t leave England without it), steak and ale pie for Kim and hot toasted sausage and caramelized onion sandwiches for Bash. Indeed it was a memorable lunch and we spent a grand hour lingering over it all.

Cricket on the Bearsted Green:
            My guide book 25 Day Trips from London had recommended that we do not miss Bearsted Village when we visit Leeds Castle and so I passed on the recommendation to Bash. We decided to forego punting on the moat at Leeds Castle and instead made our way to the car after lunch to go in search of Bearsted. It took some seeking as the Green which is the heart of the village is approached through a discreet side street. But find it we did and we spent the best couple of hours just lingering in this lovely gracious Kentish village which is the stuff of which poems are written.
            So all the elements that make the perfect English village are in place here: St. Mary’s Church, the village watering hole, a small but classy restaurant (The Oak on the Green), loads of Tudor style houses (some so higgledy-piggledy they could actually belong to the Tudors), and of course, the distinctive Oast houses of Kent in which hops were placed for drying to make Kentish beer. These were all very much in evidence and what’s more, they were all placed, as if by deliberate design, around a gorgeous Green—a vast expanse of green compound on which kids rode their bikes, played cricket with their Dads, mums walked babies in strollers and guys brought their dogs out for a run (one looked suspiciously like Ferris—I simply had to pinch myself to believe it wasn’t him!). The Green happened to be named after Alfred Myns, a Victorian cricketer who hailed from this village and as a left-hander had brought batting glory to these parts. The village sign bears a portrait of this cricketer playing the game on the Green in a top hat (which, my cricketer friend Bash informed us—he captains the Kenton Eleven team) was how the game was played in Victorian times when it was only the pursuit of Lords! How very interesting.
Tea in the Local:
            By them, as Kim put it, we could all murder for a cup of tea—and so in we went to the pub right behind us for a pot of Earl Grey. And how very welcome it was too! More chit chatting in a gastro pub filled with fresh flowers saw us while away some more time. When the village clock chimed seven o clock, we reluctantly raised ourselves up from the coziness of our sofas and returned to the car for the lovely drive home.
                Bash and Kim stopped briefly at Amen Court to say Hello to Cynthia and Michael before heading back to Harrow.

Dinner Chez Colclough:
            It was a quiet but companionable dinner: fish cakes with salad and hummus with ice-cream for dessert. After dinner, we sat with my PC so Cynthia could see some of my cruise pictures and then it was time to go to bed after an amazing day.
            Until tomorrow, Cheerio!

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