Day tripping in Kent

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!

31 comments

  1. Thanks for taking me on your journey. I am wondering if most of England truly realizes what they have there. Simply gorgeous. How I wish I could travel throughout for a long visit. I treasure my one 10 day trip in 2000.

    1. You’re welcome, Linda! I know, I’m sure plenty of Brits don’t value this country as much as they should – they’re too busy seeking sun on the Continent! I hope you can make it back for a nice long visit soon๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I enjoyed your account of the beauties of Kent so much. I am about as far away as you can get as I am in new Zealand but my paternal Grt Grt Grt Grt grandparents left Frittenden for New Zealand way back in 1840. I have been researching the family and the area, along with a distant cousin who has just visited there.

    I treasure the memory of a trip in the mid 1990’s to Sissinghurst and Great Dexter and the distinct beauty of Kent. Thank you so much for allowing me to vicariously relive this time.
    Moira

    1. You have Kentish blood in your veins, then, Moira!

      I’m glad you’ve had a chance to visit and you saw two such lovely places I’ve never even been to! You lucky thing! You are very welcome – I’m glad I could help to remind you of such happy memories!

  3. We stayed in Ightham Mote for 6 days back in 2000 – the National Trust has 2 cottages for rent in the outbuildings. It was wonderful and absolutely cemented my love of all things English (despite being a proud Irish-American). The best part was that we had complete run of the gardens after-hours and in late June the skies stayed bright til quite late – it was wonderful to wander around as if it was our own estate.

    It was a great base for visiting Kent – we spent the 6 days covering the entire county from end to end and loved every minute of it. I feel like I know Kent as well as anyplace on earth now.

    1. Ann, how fantastic! I have seen those cottages and I was saying I wanted to stay there – though there wouldn’t be much point as I live about 10 minutes away now! I’m so pleased you had the chance to stay and explore – about time for another trip maybe?!

  4. One day I shall win the lottery and you can help me find the perfect cottage as my bolt-hole. There will have to be a Victorian tea room within strolling distance, of course. But what about this fellow with precious-sounding library books in his house? You can’t write about things like that for a circulation clerk to read without raising alarm bells, Rachel!

    1. Oh Darlene, that would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? You could come and live in Kent, you’d love it! Oh I meant books from his personal library – didn’t make that sentence clear, did I?!๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Love your excursions to Kent and reminds me when I used to live in Oxted on the Kent Surrey border. You are quite correct the countryside and little towns are lovely.

  6. I admire your ability to see beauty in front of your doorstep. Usually, we fail to appreciate what is near and easy to reach and long for far more exotic places. Because we think it must be better, more exciting, more special, and it’s so much more fun to tell others about than to say “I went by bike to this and this church…” Your article makes me want to visit Kent, of course, but also explore my own surroundings. With a camera!

    1. Thank you Martina! You are quite right – so many people obsess about foreign and exotic travel when I really just love exploring my own country most of all – there’s no end of variety here! Go off and explore!

  7. We visited Rye last time we were in England and loved Lamb House. It has a beautiful garden and it made me want to read Henry James. We also visited Batemans nearby which is the home of Rudyard Kipling. We took a train from Rye and had a wonderful day there. His house and garden are gorgeous and well worth a visit. I too loved the cobbled streets of Rye and have a lovely piece of pottery from a gift shop near the harbour which had lots of Richards Adams paintings which are so whimsical. We met him in the shop. I can’t read Mapp and Lucia but I did try.

    1. That sounds delightful, Enid! I must get to Batemans, and I will go back to Rye to see Lamb House – I was so disappointed it was closed. I’m so glad you had a chance to see the area, and sorry you didn’t get on with Mapp and Lucia – I do look forward to trying it one day!

  8. Just remembered it was called Avocet Gallery and tea room and it was great. If I think of Rye I remember the lovely things in that gallery and the delicious tea. They had jewellery made from sea washed glass and wonderful ceramics too.

  9. I would never tire of the scenery either, Rachel, with those rolling hills of green. Yes, you have convinced me that I must, must, must visit Kent someday. It seems to be the Kent of books and beauty, antiques and the history that surrounds it all, all, of course, for the likes of me, tea and gardens. If one can be in a bucolic moon, Rachel, that is what you have put me in. Thank you.

  10. My grandfather worked in the coal mines in Kent in the 1920s (like many Scots he had to travel far to find work). But he always spoke fondly of his time there, particularly learning to play cricket, a sport very popular with miners.

  11. When you lived in New York I was impressed with how much you got out and about and saw so much. I am even more impressed that you do the same thing now that you are home. After your year in the US you must find the distances in England shorter than you did before. As for Lamb House, there is not much to see inside, most of the house is leased out to private tenants. So unless you are a die hard Benson or James fan, you shouldn’t feel bad about missing it.

    1. Thanks Thomas! I certainly have tried to continue my spirit of adventure now I’m back, and things are so much closer that I don’t have an excuse not to go exploring! I’m glad that I didn’t miss much – you’ve made me feel better about it now!

  12. Rachel, you have to promise to have a go a the Lucia books. The first n the series is not the strongest but they really take off when Lucia moves to Mapp’s town which is Rye in disguise, with her friend Georgie. The BBC series is perfect and I can lend you the DVDs. Geraldine McEwan is Lucia and Prunella Scales is Mapp. Perfection!! It is my favorite British humor series. By the way, I have read to first two of the Cazlet Chronicles and have the others in my huge TBR stack. I loved them but it was so long ago I may have to go back to the beginning.

    I will post your package tomorrow. Have you read The Lacquer Lady and/or Farewell Leicster Square? I appear to have acquired 2 copies of each, a real hazard for the book obsessive.

    Of course, I have now added Kent to my travel fantasy list. We visited England so many times and never got down that way. Ah regret, regret. Last night Anya was using her British accent for no particular reason. She and her Mum and Dad say they would move back in a minute. xxoo

    1. Ok, I promise! I will hunt them down and give them a go when I get some time in my busy reading schedule!๐Ÿ˜‰ Oh I thought you might have done – if you loved them I know I will and I have to get hold of them!

      Bless you! I haven’t read The Lacquer Lady but I have read Farewell Leicester Square. But don’t send me more books, the postage will be a fortune!!

      You’d love it here, Ellen! There’s a place for you to stay any time!๐Ÿ™‚ Oh little Anya, you must send me a photo! xx

  13. You do write well, Rachel. Loved the opening to your tribute to Kent.

    If you were actually born in that county, as I was, you’ll know that girls born in Sidcup are Maids of Kent. I think that’s right. I was brought home straightaway to New Eltham and grew up in London but my passport tells that I originated in Sidcup. Does yours? (If I may enquire).

    Had a look at Thomas’s pics – excellent! I’ve stayed at the Mermaid Inn – did you go past it? Anyway, you’ve shown some lovely places. I haven’t been back to Kent for a very long time but your report made me nostalgic for that very gentle undramatic countryside. The cherry orchards are lovely and worth visiting for the blossom as well as the luscious fruit.

    1. Thank you Chrissy! You are very kind!๐Ÿ™‚

      I wasn’t born in Sidcup, no – I was born in classy Tooting Bec so my passport says Wandsworth – I’m a London girl! My parents were living in Surrey when I was born and I didn’t get to Sidcup until I was about 2.

      Yes I did go past the Mermaid Inn! It looked lovely! Kent is a beautifully gentle countryside and I hope you will have a chance to come back and visit soon!

  14. A really inspiring piece, thank you. I would be very grateful if you could help my girlfriend and I. We have decided to move to Kent and we are very fortunate to be in a position to get a large mortgage to buy a lovely house. We are desperate to find a very quaint traditional picturesque English village, possibly cobbled streets, butchers and postoffice and country pub for example. Where your mum lives sounds lovely, where is that? We would really appreciate your help with a list of the best villages in Kent and any information on how to find out about these beautiful villages, websites, magazines, et. Thank you very much for your time.

  15. local born and bred. I never tire of writing to my pen pals and any one who is interested in knowing of this beautiful country and our southeast corner. The tribal divide of men of Kent and Kentish men, I think went back to the Jute period. I am a Kentish woman being born west of the R Medway, My late dad was a Man of Kent. I remember my late aunt had a mention at her funeral as being a member of a group as a Maid of Kent. Not sure if it is going still . Must have a search. Of course Kent is the oldest Kingdom in England at least and said to be the most tree growing county too. I recall going to Norfolk one year for a week and got so homesick for all the ups and down and trees. I will let them keep their big skies. Just love oast houses and sheep in old orchards in blossom time or even chickens delighting in their activities. Sad to say many Oasts are homes now and the character setting lost of barns that are also sheet glass buildings etc. But we still have loads of interesting buildings from red brick and hung tiles to Downs chalk land flint and of course like my own the white weatherboard and sandstone cottage with roses around the door! I officially live over the border into Sussex, but we were told we could choose between Sussex or Kent postal address, so there was no question what I wanted and with my little iron ore stream joining the Medway I had to keep my Kentish link. When I hear of people saying they want to come to England. I always say forget about London, get out into the countryside and see us for real, find a rental cottage and car hire and you will love what we have to offer. Of course our south east corner has tons to visit, the gateway to Europe also meant it had to be protected and we have many castles and quaint towns too. Some very small like Goudhurst. I just love that drive through and the heart stopping sharp bend at the top which may be a blessing to know has a church yard if needed! Pretty but tiny Cowden street in the west and Hartfield has 2 nice streets. I was born in Cobham north Kent actually on the land belonging to the Darnleys, an ancient family and Hall is often open when not used as a school, but fame has blessed it as being the original cricket ashes prize home, one Darnly married Mary Q of Scots and met his death with her, the Bligh family are also same and that name goes with the Ship mutiny of the Bounty, Charles Dickens lived at Higham and his home will be opened up any time now as it was also a school, but he walked to see friends at the Hall and drink in The Leather Bottle inn and honey mooned in Chalk village at Picwick cottage and is thought to have used the old Forge as Pips home in Gt expectations, all are there still. Cooling marshes and church with it unusual grave stones are there and Rochester a small city, well may get that title back having forgot to renew it has the old castle keep where HenryVIII met his Flemish mare and survivor wife Anne of Cleves. It has a Dickens festival and lots of sweeps and Morris dancers. Back to Cobham the church has a large quantity of floor brasses of church tombs of the de Cobham family in side. Chatham was where the Victory ship for Nelson was made but also the home town of Chavs now I think from the word of Chatham. Gravesend is on the Thames as was always a large shipping port along with Tilbury in Essex. The Indian Princess Pochontas was buried in St George’s church yard. Not far away is Swanscombe where the Romans had a large settlement is also where the oldest (I think) in UK, skull of an ancient woman was found in the chalk/cement pits. Now the home of Bluewater shopping complex and near by is Ebbs fleet station for the Tunnel train to Europe. Yes I do love my Kent and reading about times before industry took over especially how the tribes settles and their way of life and what names they gave to places is fascinating, the dens that formed villages that started as a swine fattening are in the forest, the hams and tons of Roman towns settlement, hursts ,steads and bury;s etc all have their own meaning and yet we take it for granted without a blink that it is just a place name. I was fascinated once when visiting my sister in Cornwall and her mention of the Emmets. This means ants and is applied to all the tourist stuck in traffic jams heading in and out of the county on Saturdays in summer. I came across the old English word of Ammet in Kent and it has to be the same.
    Which also brings me to this funny question. When I drove through Meopham (Mepham) I came across a street name which I have now forgotten but it began with Sc and was ugly to say and it got me thinking, how come a lot of the sc words are not nice really. Scab, Scratch, Scrub etc as a small sample. I wonder if they are old English and kept on by a conquering tribe to make the former lot seem unpleasant and themselves as the nicer ones.
    I had better stop now and get my self back to bed. I has my cancer removed today and slept too well afterwards so am wide awake now. Hope you enjoyed reading this write up, we really do have so much to love about our area and we want you all to come and enjoy it too. Lots of nice walks, steam trains are all thrown in so something to appeal to everyone who loves history and beauty.

    1. Thanks for all this, Polly! I loved reading all that information. Hope you are feeling better soon, and yes I heartily agree that Kent deserves to be visited by all!

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