Sunday Life

Will there be breakthrough at the castle?

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

By Laurence White
05 September 2004

LEEDS Castle is steeped in history, intrigue, death and conflict.

How apt, then, that the castle, set on an island surrounded by 500 acres of parkland, near Maidstone in Kent, should be the location for the latest attempt to broker a lasting peace deal.

When the political parties and the British and Irish governments sit down to hard bartering from September 16-18, they will be following in the footsteps of other political leaders who tried to solve seemingly intractable conflicts.

In 1978, it was the venue for a crucial Middle East summit involving Mohammed Ibrahim Karmel, General Moshe Dayan and Cyrus Vance, the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Israel and the USA.

Preliminary talks at Leeds Castle led to the signing of the historic Camp David agreement, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sadly, that agreement did not bring peace - hopefully not a pointer for what lies ahead.

But, whatever the outcome, there can scarcely be a more historic or stunning setting for the talks.

Described as the "loveliest castle in the world", the Northern Ireland politicians, so well used to setting traps for each other, will feel perfectly at home in the grounds, which feature a baffling yew maze.

Some may even raise a wry smile at the fact the maze contains a 'secret' underground grotto - as getting rid of the IRA's arms bunkers will be a central theme of the talks.

The castle is also home to the Dog Collar Museum - although not the kind worn by the DUP leader. It is a collection of canine collars dating back to the 16th century.

There is also an aviary, housing more than 100 endangered bird species - possibly of particular interest to the SDLP delegation.

Henry VIII, the most famous of all previous owners, spent lavishly to transform Leeds Castle from a rugged fortress into a luxurious Royal palace.

He presented it as a home to his first Queen, Catherine of Aragon. The Henry VIII banqueting hall is a memorial to his work, and includes many features dating from 1517.

Superb 17th century Italian walnut tables grace the hall and the Queen's Gallery.

But it was the castle's last private owner, American-born, the Honourable Olive, Lady Baillie, who was responsible for much of the present day splendour.

She bought the property in 1926 for $$873,000.

Lady Baillie made it one of the great houses of England, and a centre of lavish hospitality for leading politicians, ambassadors, international royalty and Hollywood stars - including James Stewart, Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin.

She spent $$485,000 of her oil, real estate and railroad inheritance restoring the moated castle.

Before her death in 1974, she bequeathed the property to the nation, stipulating it should be preserved in perpetuity as a "living castle".

Today, the castle and gatehouse are available to high-powered delegations on an exclusive basis. Facilities include the magnificent dining room and traditional boardroom.

The castle boasts 22 bedrooms, all furnished with magnificent antiques, paintings and precious objets d'art. The state bedrooms are listed on the castle website at £425 per night per couple.

The castle can trace its history back more than 1,000 years.

It takes its name from the village of Leeds, near Maidstone, which was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was known as Esledes.

The motto under the Leeds Castle Foundation's coat of arms - Queen of Castles, Castle of Queens - refers to the habit of successive reigning monarchs who put the building at the disposal of their Queens.

Edward I established the habit, honeymooning there with second wife Margaret, and then giving her the castle.

It was owned by a succession of noble families until the early 1900s, when the Wykeham Martin family were forced to sell it to Lady Baillie to pay crippling death duties.

It has constantly played an important role in British life.

During World War II, it was the location for a secret weapons development project, and it also hosted many meetings of senior military figures plotting the defeat of the Nazis.

This summer, the castle hosted concerts by Pavarotti, Donny Osmond and Sir Cliff Richard.

Sir Cliff, of course, had a big hit with We Don't Talk Anymore. On the brighter side, he also had a number eight, in 1993, with Peace In Our Time.

Take your pick. . .

Location, location, location...

LEEDS Castle is the latest venue for talks about Northern Ireland's future. Previous locations include:

CHEYNE WALK: Secret talks between NI Secretary William Whitelaw and IRA leaders took place at the Chelsea home of millionaire Tory minister, Paul Channon, in July 1972.

Gerry Adams was released from internment to join the IRA team that also included Martin McGuinness.

The meeting was a disaster, with IRA chief of staff Sean Mac Stiofain reading out a list of republican demands, including the withdrawal of troops, and Northern Ireland's quick demise.

SUNNINGDALE: A civil service college in Berkshire was the venue for a groundbreaking deal between the two governments, Brian Faulkner's Official Unionists and Gerry Fitt's SDLP, in December 1973.

They agreed a power-sharing executive and a Council of Ireland, giving the Republic a say in cross-border affairs.

But the executive lasted just five months before being brought down by the Ulster Workers Council strike.

DUISBURG: In October 1988 representatives of the DUP, Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance parties held secret talks in the West German town in a bid to re-start political dialogue.

Unionists had pulled out of "talks about talks" with the Secretary of State in 1987, because of ongoing negotiations between members of the SDLP and Sinn Fein.

WESTON PARK: The Staffordshire stately home was the venue in July 2001 for six days of talks to save the peace process. It ended in stalemate.

The meeting of the two governments and the main political parties was sparked by the resignation of Stormont First Minister, David Trimble, in a protest over the pace of IRA arms decommissioning.

slnews@belfast telegraph.co.uk

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?