There is only one way the stunning beauty of Leeds Castle can be enhanced – their Flower Festival which this year focuses on ‘Autumn Glory’. The last owner of Leeds Castle – Lady Baillie – adored flowers. So much so, she employed a French designer to create the displays within Leeds Castle – her weekend retreat – as well as within her London home.
Today Leeds Castle is still a place of natural beauty and their Flower Festival – running until Sunday – combines the beauty of nature with the beauty of history, architecture and human inspiration. I was invited along to the preview evening and loved my sneak preview within the Castle. I was in good company with a fantastic turn out for the Festival launch including Sir Ian McKellen. I’m not sure what I was more excited about the truly stunning flower displays making this great Castle even greater or walking in the footsteps of Lady Baillie, King Henry VIII and Sir Ian McKellen!
The Festival is a triumph and it is clear that a lot of hard work has gone into it’s design. Louise Roots is Head Florist at Leeds Castle and the Flower Festival is a culmination of 9 months of Louise’s working life – planning, organising and designing the festival alongside the successful and highly sort after designer Mig Kimpton.
Known for winning seven awards at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and his theatrical one man flower show, Mig has a passion for floristry which is hard to match. Although a successful Floristry designer, Mig’s career started in the theatre, in the front of house and when he moved to the backstage he found more time to indulge his love of floristry. He starting by exhibiting and competing at shows which led to corporate events, snowballing onto larger schemes and in 2012 Mig was asked to design flowers for an event at the magnificent Southwark Cathedral.
Louise Roots has enjoyed working with Mig to create the Flower Festival: “With our work in the Castle being so busy already, I knew I needed to work with someone who had great experience and who would design the Flower Festival within the Castle sympathetically” Louise enthused.
Louise designed the flower arrangements within the Castle’s entrance which was created, along with the Leeds Castle floristry team, within a 2 or 3 hour time slot on the last end of preparations due to the time pressures: “We knew our design had to show off the splendid roses from David Austin, who sponsored the display, and we had to ensure it had a water source that would last a week and I wanted to give people the scent of roses as they walked in. The look is more of a ‘stately home country garden’ showing off the Garden of England and within the display I wanted to include a wrought iron garden gate. I couldn’t find a gate anywhere and in the end we got it from our Chief Executive’s garden!”
The humble garden gate is currently embraced by roses, cuddled by thorns. Louise is an artist and to conjure up such elegant and extravagant designs under pressure is part and parcel of the job but they are never off the cuff designs: “I’ll pick the flowers knowing the design in my mind’s eye. Sometimes the flowers lend themselves to the design and in this instance we used a lot of roses – 6 different varieties – combined with foliage from the Castle’s grounds and some Café Au Lait Dahlia’s.” She is passionate about the flower festival and the hard work that has gone into creating the displays within each of the Castle’s rooms.
“The castle will look bare when it is all over!” Louise remarked, but for now the festival is in full swing. Mig and Louise invited 20 designers to take part in the festival and introduced a competitive element by engaging with local florists to exhibit and prizes have been given out to them.
The preview night went well with all the designs enthusiastically spoken about. I was struck by the colour and grace of the flowers, the sculptured perfection and the detail which each intricate design brought to the overall look of the festival.
Each window sill was graced with pieces of floristry which easily counted as works of art and the rooms were filled with autumnal beauty embracing the coppers, gold, burnt oranges and wood colour shades the season conjures. Within Lady Baillie’s Family Room I could have sworn I saw fairies weaving in and out of the forest-like design, sitting on the miniature pumpkins and skipping over the wooden tree rings but that is what is so exquisite about this venue – Leeds Castle is romantic yet vast, is soft on the eyes but leaves a strong love for the four (or so) walls in your heart.
The display that was deeply thought provoking was created by Sam Wiesbauer and Natalie Nixon, the gardeners of Leeds Castle. Based on the poetry of Keats and Kipling the display takes over the Castle courtyard and twins the Indian and Italian influences of both poets within the design. As Sam and Natalie pose for photographs they ask us to ‘mind the conkers!’ which are laid out in the courtyard as part of the design.
I asked them how long the display took them to design “about 1 week, which included buying the plants and planning the design” Natalie told me. Sam explained the display to me “…because the display is about Keats and Kipling it’s a representation of both of them – we included the hot colours and saris of Kipling’s India and we took inspiration from ‘An Ode to a Nightingale’ to include in the display of Keats.” It is a superb installation with book pages fluttering overhead in the guise of birds and floating flowers.
Sam was particularly pleased to receive praise from Sir Ian McKellen: “He described the display as intuitive and intelligent” Sam smiled.
The next room on the Flower Festival tour is the room Mig chose for his design, ‘The Queen’s Gallery’. On the 14ft long table is the most remarkable display – a floristry display arranged within dozens of small brass vessels making the display vary in depth and density, height and light and somehow it added to the sense of history within the room.
I spoke to Mig about his design “at first I thought about creating a single structure or using lots of urns but then I turned things upside down and started getting together a collection of brass that could create a sway of flowers in an autumn pallet. I began my brass collecting via EBay and bootfairs! I have been a bit obsessive in my collecting in the last eight months.”
Mig’s love of flowers started when he was a chorister at Tewkesbury Abbey “The overriding smell of the Achillea flowers was always around” this triggered an interest in floristry for Mig and he has included Achillea within his Leeds Castle display which includes about 120 brass vessels including bells, vases, a brass crown as a nod to the Queen’s Gallery and a brass swan to represent the Castle itself.
We walked through the Castle and Mig showed me his second display situated under a portrait of Sir Edward Cary, “I originally designed this for the World Flower Show last June but when we came to the final walk through we felt there was room for another design so I pulled it out of the bag!” Mig jested. This sculpted flower design was far from pulled out of the bag. Fed by test tubes of water this grand design includes orchids and Cala Lillies “…the Cala Lillies drink more water than the orchids so it’s important to keep an eye on the water levels” Mig tells me as he spots a test tube who’s water levels are getting low.
We are hopefully going to see more of Mig Kimpton as he revealed to me that he is about to sign contracts on a studio just outside of Deal which will host pop up workshops and courses, art gallery and all sorts of creative ideas “In the long term I want to live in Kent” Mig admits. Leeds Castle has obviously made a big impression on him.
There is no getting away from the history of the castle and thanks to the late Lady Baillie’s love of floristry, flowers are interwoven into that history. Alison Hudson-Small works as a tour guide at the Castle and was asked to deliver a talk about Lady Baillie’s love of flowers as part of the Flower Festival.
As she wrote the talk, she uncovered the depth of Lady Baillie’s flower obsession: “When I was asked to deliver a talk I started my research and chatted with the floristry team, the curator and the gardening team as well as Lady Baillie’s original gardener, Derek. I was lucky enough to be invited to his home where he showed me photographs from when he worked at Leeds Castle and I discovered from him that Lady Baillie put just as much importance on the flowers within the castle as she did upon the antiques!”
Alison peppered her talk with humorous tales from the Castle and read out one of the original flower design briefs for the dining room, which covered everything in minute detail. It seems Leeds Castle always commanded the respect it deserved from the Baillie family and in turn gave them a beautiful place to call home.
I dare anyone to visit the Leeds Castle Flower Festival and not feel a sense of wonder as you walk into ‘The Banqueting Hall’ or a sense of intrigue from Mig Kimpton’s design in ‘The Queens Gallery’. It is wonderful to know that this glorious castle never goes long without being adorned with flowers – true nature goes hand in hand with the true beauty of Leeds Castle.
The Flower Festival isn’t just about the Castle itself, visitors can expect workshops and demonstrations throughout the week, a children’s fun flower trail and afternoons of floral designs. For full details go to www.leeds-castle.com/events