On 6 April my boyfriend and I embarked on a coach trip to Leeds Castle, Dover Castle, and Canterbury with Luxury Travels and Tours, a small London-based company that operates tours across the UK. Together with Stonehenge & Bath and Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon & the Cotswolds, this is one of the most popular day trip options from London as it takes you to two fairytale castles and a marvellous historic cathedral town.
On the morning of the trip we woke up to overcast skies and left our East London flat early so that we could make it to the pick-up point at South Kensington. We reached the South Kensington with 15-minutes to spare and were greeted by pouring rain as we make our way down the street to the awaiting coach.
The coach took off bang on time at 8:30. Prior to boarding our guide checked our names and collected our entry fees for Leeds and Dover castle. It’s worth nothing that coach tours generally do not include the price of admission into their fares. This caught a few of the passengers of guard, but it’s stated quite clearly on Luxury Travels’ website.
The advantage of paying admission through the guide was that all the passengers qualified for the group rate, which was £15/person/castle. The normal prices of admission to Leeds Castle and Dover Castle are £19.00 and £17.50, respectively.
(10:00 – 12:15) Leeds Castle
After an hour of driving through London traffic, the coach finally made it out onto the motorway and headed southeast through the countryside to Leeds Castle. We arrived promptly at 10:00, which is precisely the time the vast gardens surrounding the castle open, though the castle itself doesn’t open until 10:30. It took about 15-minutes for our guide to get our tickets sorted after which we were let loose in the gardens.
Black swans at Leeds Castle
Even on a chilly, misty spring morning, the gardens of Leeds Castle were enchanting. At the entrance you have the option of purchasing a small container of bird food for £1 and I strongly suggest doing so. The castle’s gardens are famously home to beautiful black swans as well as a host of song birds, ducks, geese, and peacocks. Before making my way around the bend to the castle I ran into what may just be the most adorable family of ducks ever.
Ducklings at Leeds Castle
After tearing myself away from all the cute ducklings, I walked over to the castle entrance. Leeds Castle is set up in such a way that visitings are led on a one-way path through the structure. You’re free to walk through at your own pace, but there’s not doubling back in order to keep the flow going.
I think what surprised me most about Leeds Castle is how modern it was. Its exterior is very much that of a castle you’d imagine from the middle ages, but the interior more closely resembles a stately manor, whith only a few rooms paying homage to its medieval heritage. The library struck me as the prettiest room in the castle with its rows of neatly aligned books and gold trim.
Tudor-era room in Leeds Castle
Leeds Castle Library
Leeds Castle Chapel
Depending on your personal pace, it takes anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes to finish a complete tour of the castle. With the coach taking off as 12:15, we left the building with plenty of extra time to explore the grounds. Our first stop was the maze, which is located about a 5-minute walk from the main building. The maze was nothing special, but it bizarrely ended at an underground grotto decorated with seashells. It was too dark to take pictures, but my boyfriend did manage to get one decent shot in.
Leeds Castle Grotto . . . ??
After our excursion to the grotto we started heading our way back to through the gardens towards the car park. Before leaving I gave my last bit of bird food away to a very friendly peacock.
Peacock at Leeds Castle
In total we got to spend just over 2 hours at the site of the castle, which felt like the right amount of time for what I wanted to see and do. However, I tend to move through historic sites and museums pretty quickly. If you prefer taking things in at a slower pace, two hours might feel a little rushed to you.
(13:00 – 15:15) Dover Castle
The drive from Leeds Castle in Maidstone to Dover didn’t take very long, but I was disappointed to see the town’s famous white cliffs shrouded in fog. At Dover we were given the option of exploring Dover Castle or the town of Dover itself. I had always been more interested in the castle and have to say that as we drove through the town, it looked a little worse for wear.
I made a big mistake by not eating lunch at Leeds Castle, because by the time we reached Dover I was starving and could think of nothing but getting something in my stomach. With only 2 hours to spend at the site, I spent more than half an hour eating! That left us with only enough time to visit the main tower of the castle (called the keep), which to its credit was pretty well preserved and adhered to its Norman roots.
View from the top of Dover Castle
Inside Dover Castle
What we didn’t really get to see were the World Ward II era tunnels that were dug into the chalk cliffs near to the castle. Entrance into the tunnels and a laundry list of other separate sites is all included in your admission price into Dover Castle, but you need half a day at the very least to really see everything here. If in the future I ever take a ferry from Dover to France, I’ll be sure to pencil in some time to re-visit the castle and check out what I missed.
(15:45 – 17:00) Canterbury
Canterbury is a quick jaunt from Dover and it felt like we arrived in no time. The coach dropped us off at the edge of the old part of town and our guide led us to Canterbury Cathedral, which he warned would probably be closed. Normally the entrance fee into the cathedral, one of the oldest in Britain, is £9.50. Luckily, we arrived just as they were opening their doors for an afternoon Sunday service and were able to pop in for free. If you’ve been to other cathedrals around Europe the one in Canterbury will now blow you away. It has a long nave with an intricate ceiling and some fancy stained glass. There is an interior cloister that is quite beautiful as well as a few separate rooms and buildings to explore.
Inside Canterbury Cathedral
I think what I found more impressive than the cathedral was Canterbury itself. Its historic centre oozes charm, even when it’s loaded with tourists. I caught word from our guide that Canterbury tends to be packed on Saturdays, but the crowds thin out on Sundays. The street adjacent to the cathedral and the main shopping street are pedestrian zones covered in worn cobblestones. There are lots of great historic buildings to look at here and I really thoroughly enjoyed the visit.
Canterbury Cathedral peeking through a narrow cobblestone street
Canterbury Public Library Museum
Back to London
We were warned by the driver that the journey back to London on a Sunday evening could take 2 hours or more, putting our arrival time at 19:00. Because the route back to S. Kensington would take us quite literally past our apartment in E. London, we asked our guide if we could arrange for a special drop off. He passed our request on to the driver and they came up with a plan to schedule two drop-offs: one in E. London and one in S. Kensington.
We made it to the border of London around 18:00 and 15 minutes later the coach driver very kindly dropped us off about a block away from Tower Gateway station, which is just a few stops on the DLR from where we live. We were back home at 18:30 and I had managed to make dinner, eat, and get ready for bed in the same time it would have taken us to drive all the way down to S. Kensington, then take the Tube all the way back to East London. I’d like to thank our guide Jeremy and the driver Ray for saving us all that extra time!
It was a long, yet satisfying day. The tour delivered on everything it promised, which is all you can really ask. My only major grip about the trip was the fact that we had to line up outside in the rain for a while to board the coach because we were asked to pay for our admission upfront. It probably would have been easier to collect the money on the coach. The weather could have also been better, but that just goes along with living in England. As I believe I’ve mentioned previously, while I’m a firm believer in being an independent traveller, there are times when coach tours such as these are just more convenient and cost effective. This would have been a difficult and expensive trip to do by rail and we ended up saving £20/person using a coach rather than hiring a car.
Our guide was helpful and took care of all the logistics for the passengers, but didn’t accompany us into the sites. We were left to explore things on our own, which I strongly prefer. The driver operated the coach safely and I was really happy with the service at the end of the day.
I’d recommend the trip for anyone staying in London for more than a week or so. If you like to take your time when you travel, then opt for the itinerary that hits two of the three sites and visit the third site on your own on another day.
- To get to Leeds Castle by rail, take the train to Bearsted station, where there is a shuttle service from March to October that will take you directly to the castle.
- To visit Canterbury, you can take the train from London to Canterbury East or Canterbury West. Trains operate frequently and the journey time is 90 minutes.