A castle has stood on the same site at Leeds in Kent for 900 years, and in 1280 Eleanor of Castile laid out a Moorish courtyard garden. Over the centuries following Kings and noblemen have developed the landscape, including Tudor viewing terraces and 19th century cascades. The 20th century saw the great wealth of Lady Baillie once again restore and develop the castle and grounds, a tradition continued by the Leeds Castle Foundation today. Great names have included Russell Page, Stephane Boudin, Simon Verity, the Bannermans, Francois Goffinet and Adrian Fisher, and now the pleasure grounds enter a 21st century period of development.
Started in 2017, the 20th century ‘Wood Garden’ is being transformed into the series of six new gardens with very clearly defined styles. This project continues the tradition at Leeds castle of thoughtful yet continual change and development, which on this location began with the making of the pleasure grounds in the early 19th century. The new gardens have been designed by Landscape Designer Matt Jackson at Land & Heritage, who has a long career of working within significant heritage landscapes, and has taken inspiration from the unique qualities of each area.
The oriental garden is the first experience that visitors enjoy when arriving in the castle grounds, and develops upon Basket’s lake and cascade of 1827, then Page’s landscaped ‘Duckery’ of the 1960s. “It is very much an Englishmen’s interpretation of an oriental garden” says Matt Jackson, who has taken inspiration from and included aspects of Chinese stroll gardens as well as Japanese ‘Zen’ gardens.
Designed to be viewed from the outside looking in, there are elevated vistas looking out over the scarlet red Chinese bridge and lake, with large banks of oriental flowering shrubs. A great swathe of over five hundred evergreen Azaleas follows a spring flush of flowering cherries.
Passing through the oriental garden one arrives at the first ‘grand reveal’ of the castle, at much the same point as the historic visitor arriving by carriage. The ‘grand reveal’ was an intentionally designed landscape feature in historic parkland and landscapes, often following brief glimpses on approach. It is at this point that we move into the Cedar Lake area.
The Cedar Lake plays two important roles in the new garden layout; primarily it is a simple but powerful stage for the castle, offering the first grand reveal across neat parkland, and providing a reflective mirror pool with sharp clean edges. It also acts as a simple transitioning area between the Oriental Garden and the Jungle Garden, both of which are very different. The Cedar Lake also celebrates the grandeur of specimen trees, including the great veteran 18th century Cedar.
The mature and younger specimen trees are being added to with a new generation, which also includes a curtain of Liquidambar and Amalanchier along the river. As they mature they will provide show stopping autumn colour, positioned beautifully next to the deep greens of the Cedars.
Reflective lakes work well when they have a very crisp edge, and getting back to this has been no simple project. In 2018 the grounds team had to drain the lake in order to repair the badly eroded timber revetments, but on attempting this found the 19th century sluice was inoperable. Divers then established the problem, and it was found that a replacement was needed, which started a major summer project to pump out the lake, rebuild the sluice and then repair the edges. Conservation works are rarely simple, but the results a well worth the effort, seen today in the crisp, clean edges.
Matt works closely with the grounds team and contractors at Leeds Castle to guide them through the process of installing the new gardens. “It’s a challenging task, very exciting, and such a joy to play a part in the continuation of this great and iconic landscape”. The new pleasure grounds will also include a jungle garden, woodland garden, winter garden and a vast amphitheatre with herbaceous ‘curtains’ lining the bowl. The making of the gardens will continue until 2022, and are now well underway.