Whenever I shuttle between London and Kent on the M25, I always chuckle a little when I pass the sign that says ‘Welcome to Kent: The Garden of England’. It never fails to call to mind the fraught exchange between Emma and Mrs Elton in Emma, when each argue over which county is commonly known by the moniker ‘The Garden of England’. Emma rightly says that many counties could be called so; Kent claims the name due to its abundance of orchards, but scenery-wise, it is no more garden-like than any other of the home counties, which all have plenty of beautiful countryside and historic places to visit once you leave the raggedy straggle of the London suburbs behind. However, I do find Kent to be a particularly lovely place, especially where my mum lives, which is in the extreme East of the county, bordering on both Surrey and East Sussex. Behind our house stretches the Weald, which is a specific geographical phenomenon which I am totally lacking in any ability to explain properly, but basically it’s a big hill that runs all the way from Kent to Sussex, between the North and South Downs, and is spectacularly picturesque. There is still a huge amount of open countryside and farmland here, unrolling like patchwork at your feet when you look down upon it from up high; there are swaying yellow fields of rapeseed, villages filled with tudor timbered houses, thatched cottages and Victorian estate cottages still clustered around the gates of their stately homes, oast houses (my dad lives in one!) whose turrets topped with little white wings can be seen popping up above the trees, a relic of the days when Kent was the biggest hop producer in the country, and a dramatic coastline dotted with some charming seaside towns that are yet to be ruined by tourism. Whenever I drive around, along the sort of hedged-in single track country lanes with hare pin bends that give many people nightmares, I frequently gasp at how beautiful the scenery unfolding either side of me is, as the sunlight chases across the rolling hills and fields and cows and horses wander around unfettered. This is the England people fought and died for, spurred on by patriotic images of these very fields, these cows, these church spires, these thatched roofs and orchards dripping with apples. Unlike London, this is a landscape that has changed very little over time, and will continue to be the same long after I have left it behind. It’s truly timeless, and I never tire of looking at it.
My enthusiasm for Kent must be working, because I’ve managed to recruit quite a few day trippers to come exploring with me over the last couple of weeks. My first destination was Chiddingstone Castle, a rather eccentric early gothic stately home in a nearby village, whose last owner was an antique dealer, and bought the castle as a place to showcase the collection. When he died he left the house to a trust, and the trust now opens the house to the public. Inside there is the usual parade of silk wallpapered drawing rooms and four poster beds, but there was also a fascinating glimpse of a Downton Abbey style Edwardian kitchen and butler’s pantry, a fantastic library and some truly amazing collections of Japanese, Stuart and Edwardian artefacts. My favourite aspect of the house was actually the garden, though; I am no gardener, but I do appreciate flowers, and Chiddingstone has the most beautiful courtyard rose garden that is absolutely heady with the sweet scent of the different varieties of the flower. It also helps that there is a Victorian tea shop selling delicious homemade tea and cake amidst the aroma of roses; a perfect way to spend an afternoon, if you ask me!
Another day saw a visit to Ightham Mote, a medieval moated manor house just outside of Sevenoaks, and now owned by the National Trust. I’ve been before and I absolutely love it; it’s such a tranquil place, and the interior of the house is just beautiful. From a medieval banqueting hall and 16th century chapel to an elegant 18th century drawing room and cosy 1930s bedrooms, there is so much to see and enjoy. It’s the little details I loved; signatures etched onto the diamond window panes, the painted ceiling of the chapel, the original dustjacketed library books belonging to the 20th century owner, and the miraculously preserved handpainted 18th century wallpaper. There are so many layers of history, and wandering through these rooms, whose uses have changed hugely over time, I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of those who had lived here, and whether they had been happy amidst all of this splendour and beauty. The gardens are wonderful, too; there is a large apple orchard, a miniature formal water garden, and acres of lawns and meadowland that offer gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside. The cafe also deserves a mention; they specialise in home made puddings, and they do a very good job! If you’re ever in Kent and fancy seeing something a little different, Ightham Mote is definitely a good place to go.
Finally, last weekend, some friends and I drove just over the border of Kent to Rye, in East Sussex, which I had been inspired to visit after seeing Thomas’ beautiful photographs from his trip a couple of months ago. Rye is a very literary town; once home to Henry James (who also spent a Christmas at Ightham Mote, coincidentally) and E F Benson, it is the setting of the Mapp and Lucia books, who everyone but me has read. It is unbelievably quaint; the steep cobbled streets form a maze of little alleys off the main high street, filled to bursting with a charming mixture of historic homes, many of them centuries old. There are loads of antique shops and book shops and shops selling lovely things that you don’t need but soon find you want desperately, as well as tea shops galore. It is paradise for potterers; you could wander through the streets for days and still find a fresh vista to charm or a new shop to enjoy. Lamb House, where both Henry James and E F Benson lived, is set a little behind the main street, and is a beautiful building now owned by the National Trust. I wish I could have gone inside, but it wasn’t open,unfortunately; nevertheless, it’s situated in a lovely position, with a church and two streets of gorgeous houses with picture-postcard cottage gardens just in front of it. I could have quite happily moved in, but the lure of the sea was calling to us, and we went on down the road to Camber, which is a glorious sandy (but very windy!) beach where I spent a lot of childhood summers. There’s nothing to see here, and it’s always packed, so it’s no Aldeburgh, but it’s still a lovely place to soak up some sunshine and have a paddle.
Have I convinced you to visit Kent?! I hope so. As much as I miss London, I do find country life very appealing. Fresh air, fields, farm animals…it’s a different world out here!