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Cherry tree gift allows friendship to blossom

Japanese project gifts one hundred trees to enhance the grounds of Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle has a new oriental addition to its 500 acres of grounds and gardens – 100 blossoming Japanese cherry trees, which have been donated by the people of Japan as part of the national Sakura Cherry Tree Project to celebrate Japan’s relationship with the UK.

Castle visitors will be able to see these beautiful trees in bloom from April. They have been carefully planted the length of the Princess Alexandra Gardens incorporating the Oriental Gardens and a newly landscaped waterside avenue which is an impressive finale to the castle’s extensive cherry collection.

Much like the Leeds Castle Foundation, the Sakura Cherry Tree Project aims to plant a legacy for future generations. The project has donated 6,500 trees to parks, gardens and schools across the country including Leeds Castle, which regularly welcomes visitors from Japan and all over the world.

Helen Bonser-Wilton, incoming CEO Leeds Castle, said: “Leeds Castle is delighted to have been chosen to receive 100 beautiful cherry trees as part of the Sakura Project and we are extremely grateful to the people of Japan for their generosity, which will benefit our visitors for many years to come. The foundation looks forward to welcoming the Japanese Embassy later this year to celebrate the planting of the cherry trees in our historic grounds.” 

Victoria Borwick, Deputy Chairman, Sakura Project said: “The Sakura team are delighted that Leeds Castle is part of the Cherry Blossom tree planting project that will see more than 6,000 trees planted throughout the United Kingdom as a symbol of the ongoing friendship between the UK and Japan.”

During the 1930s, the last private owner of the castle, Lady Olive Baillie (1899–1974) transformed it into one of the greatest county homes in England. Within her private collection, still on display today in the principal rooms are many objects highlighting her affection for Japanese porcelain and furniture.

Notably, adorning the walls of the newly restored ‘blue bedroom’ within Lady Baillie’s private suite (see below), sits a rare pair of 18th century Japanese porcelain cranes, bought in 1930 at the same time Lady Baillie was amassing a collection of exotic real birds in the grounds and gardens.

The three varieties of cherry trees being planted on the Leeds Castle estate as part of the Sakura Project are all of Japanese origin. ‘Beni-yutaka’, ‘Taihaku’, and ‘Somei-yoshino’ have been chosen for their variation in colour, timing and historical significance.

A nursery in Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, is the main supplier of the trees and the renowned Japanese artist, Kenya Hara has provided the design of a commemorative plaque which will be displayed in the castle grounds.

A little more about the ‘blue room’

During the pandemic, significant conservation work has been happening behind closed doors at the castle. Anyone who has explored the magnificent state rooms of the 900-year-old castle will have been captivated by the glamour and luxury of its interior. The Leeds Castle Foundation is investing in its long-term vision to restore and reinstate the last private owner’s stunning early 20th-century interiors for the public to continue to enjoy.

Last year, after 12 months of comprehensive research, work began on a large-scale conservation project in the private suite of Lady Baillie, comprising the master bedroom and dressing room. The unique bathroom, which has walls lined with Russian onyx, was conserved previously in anticipation of the current scheme of restoration.

Lady Baillie’s ‘blue bedroom’, as it is known, is now considered to be one of the rarest and finest surviving examples of a Stéphane Boudin (1888-1967) interior scheme from the 1930s, anywhere in the world. Other examples of his work can be found at the White House in Washington DC, and at the Paris apartments of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but Leeds Castle is the only location where the public can see the stunning designs up close and personal.

Boudin was described as “the greatest designer in the world”, creating stunning 20th-century interiors which drew inspiration from preceding centuries and different countries. He met Lady Baillie in 1933 and their client-designer relationship spanned more than three decades, ending when he died in 1967.

Leeds Castle renovations to the Lady Baillie Bedroom and The Green Bedroom. Picture: www.matthewwalkerphotography.com

The blue bedroom was the first of several important commissions Boudin undertook at Leeds Castle and the 1930s interiors visitors see today are crucial to understanding this great designer’s creativity and artistic practices. Lady Baillie and Boudin began working on Leeds Castle in 1935 and together they created her dream of a castle which would become a playground for the rich and famous, entertaining the likes of the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson, Noel Coward and Bond-creator Ian Fleming.

The blue bedroom, which has remained largely untouched for the past 80 years, had in more recent years begun to show visible signs of light and other environmental damage. The 18th-century style wood panelling and the parquet floors, as well as items of furniture and textiles from Lady Baillie’s collection, all required urgent attention from conservation specialists to prevent any further decline.

Over the past year, Covid-safe work to sympathetically restore and conserve both the bedroom and the adjoining dressing room has continued behind the closed doors of the Castle.

Bonser-Wilton said: “The costs of caring for this internationally significant heritage site amount to almost £5m each year, which is usually covered by ticket and commercial sales. However, like all heritage sites, Covid has had a terrible impact on the castle’s finances and visitor capacities continue to be limited to ensure a safe visit. We would encourage as many people as possible to support us through visiting, staying and booking experiences at the castle so we can continue to care for and share these precious and unique assets with the public.”

Leeds Castle deputy curator Catherine Pell said: “This ambitious restoration project has involved carrying out paint analysis to determine original paint colours and techniques, conserving pieces of furniture integral to the overall decorative scheme and removing later obtrusive fixtures. The specialist conservation of the interiors and collections means they will be preserved for future generations. As a consequence of these preventive conservation measures, they will enjoy a longevity they wouldn’t otherwise have had.”

Leeds Castle’s magnificent 500-acre grounds and gardens currently remain open for local visitors to enjoy healthy strolls in the stunning open space and fresh air. Please visit www.leeds-castle.com for tickets and current opening times and prices.

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past local weekly publications he has worked for include: the South-East London Mercury* covering the Borough of Greenwich as a junior reporter; Orpington-based News Shopper as a sub-editor; and the Kent Messenger when based in Larkfield, Maidstone, as deputy chief sub-editor. He has also worked for the following dailies/nationals: Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor on a car fleet magazine. His first foray into property ownership saw him move from London to Rainham (the Gillingham, Kent, variety). He has subsequently lived in Chislehurst, Petts Wood and Orpington in the Borough of Bromley (which he still regards as being in Kent). In more recent years he owned three different properties on the Kings Hill (West Malling) development.

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