Last week I took a French friend back to Kent to see the joys of the garden of England. I love playing tour guide, and put together an action packed schedule of activities that took in the glories of my home county, along with a few neighbouring attractions. At this time of year, rural Kent is at its best; the country lanes and hedgerows are brimming with Queen Anne’s lace, there are stalls selling cherries and strawberries on the side of every road, the cottage gardens are overflowing with gorgeous, colourful flowers, and there is a haze of green everywhere you look. It doesn’t have the drama of the Yorkshire Dales or the Lake District, but it has its own quiet beauty of undulating green hills, chalky escarpments, and rolling fields of yellow rapeseed, golden wheat and purple lavender. If you go high enough, you can even see the glitter of the London skyline, hazy on the horizon. Nestled in amidst all of this nature are dozens of interesting places to visit, from quaint villages to medieval castles, and Roman villas to Victorian mansions. In fact, there is so much to do that we couldn’t quite fit everything in!
Our first port of call on arrival was Knole, childhood home of Vita Sackville-West and famous for being the inspiration for her novel The Edwardians, as well as Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando. It’s a seriously impressive stately home that has existed since the Tudor period, and is situated within one of England’s last remaining deer parks. I’ve been many times before, but this time I was delighted to find that the National Trust have been doing a huge amount of restoration which has enabled new parts of the house to be opened to the public. We were able to go into one of the towers, and see the rooms of Vita Sackville-West’s cousin Edward, who was a very active figure on the cultural scene in the 20s and 30s and wrote a number of now forgotten books. You can also climb to the very top of the tower, from which there are magnificent views of Knole’s rooftop, grounds and the surrounding countryside. Seeing those views was worth the visit alone!
The following day we went to Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn, and heavily restored by Lord Astor in the Edwardian period. It’s a gorgeous building, surrounded by a waterlily filled moat and a beautiful series of gardens that Lord Astor designed to complement the setting, including a beautiful Italian garden that’s filled with his collection of Italian statuary. The gardens are the main attraction, but inside the castle there’s plenty to see, especially if you’re interested in Tudor history. The tragic story of Anne Boleyn is told through some of her personal belongings, and it’s also very impressive to see the skilful restoration programme carried out by Lord Astor, which made what was a crumbling castle into a comfortable home. The church next door to the castle is worth popping into on your way out, as you can see the Boleyn (or ‘Bullen’) family graves, and do stop at the Henry VIII inn opposite for lunch; the food is delicious.
Not content with seeing only one house connected with Vita Sackville-West, the next day we went on to Sissinghurst, which is one of the most breathtaking places I have ever been and would definitely be where I would live if I had the chance. Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson transformed the dilapidated remains of an Elizabethan castle and some Victorian farm buildings into a magical garden and beautiful home, where roses and wisteria climb the mellow red brick walls, the scents of hundreds of different colourful varieties of flowers fill the air, and every nook and cranny is crammed with delight. It is a truly magnificent spot, surrounded by beautiful, unspoilt meadows filled with wildflowers. You could wander amidst the flowers for hours, though it does tend to get quite busy, so going early is best. My only wish is that they would open more of the buildings so that it was possible to see how Vita and Harold lived, but their library is open to view, as is Vita’s tower study, and you can climb to the top of the tower and take in the incredible views of the surrounding land and an aerial view of the garden, so there is still plenty to see. Sissinghurst is definitely a must-visit if you’re in the area, and don’t stay and eat in the cafe; the village contains an excellent restaurant, The Milk House, or you can go on to the beautiful neighbouring village of Goudhurst, where there is a lovely pub and an impressive church with a tower you can climb for free.
Within a short drive of Sissinghurst is Scotney Castle; a very interesting blend of Victorian gothic manor house and ruined medieval castle, nestled amidst more beautiful gardens and gorgeous countryside. I love the house; its last owners only left it to the Trust ten or so years ago, and it was in the same family since it was built, so there is much of the original decoration preserved, which makes for a really interesting insight into changing fashions in interior design. In a hollow at the bottom of the garden are the remains of a medieval castle, half overgrown with nature and half still perfectly useable as a dwelling; it’s a magical sight and slightly surreal to think that this was ruined on purpose by the man who had the new house built in 1837 – it was perfectly habitable until then!
Our final ports of call before heading back to London were actually in the neighbouring counties of Sussex and Hampshire. I couldn’t resist taking my friend to Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, which I’ve written about before and found just as delightful on this, my third visit, as I have done every other time I’ve been. It’s so wonderful to be able to see the world Austen inhabited and understand the range of people she would have interacted with on a daily basis – it adds so much richness to the reading of her work. It’s a beautiful place and makes me so happy whenever I go, as I can imagine how much pleasure Austen took in living there. On our way back to Kent, we stopped off at the Watts Gallery in Compton, near Guildford. The Victorian giant G F Watts, a painter and sculptor who achieved enormous fame during his lifetime, built a house and artist’s village here with his sculptor wife Mary in the late 19th century, and it has all recently been refurbished and opened as a wonderful series of museums that give a fascinating insight into the life of Watts, his wife and the community of artists who worked with them. There is a vast collection of Watts’ paintings and sculpture, and though he is not so well known nowadays, it is easy to see why his heavily symbolic, often sentimental images spoke so strongly to the Victorian imagination. The highlight for me, however, was the Watts Chapel, situated up a country lane and perched atop a hill. Designed by Mary Watts in a very unique art nouveau style, it is a breathtaking piece of architecture, and the decoration inside the chapel truly is astounding (impossible to photograph – it has to be seen to be believed). In the surrounding graveyard there are some excellent examples of the work of the pottery the Watts’ founded, and you can also see Aldous Huxley’s grave, which was a pleasant surprise! The Watts Gallery deserves to be better known and offers a fantastic and fascinating day out; I highly recommend it.
So, we had a whirlwind few days, taking in so much historic, cultural and natural beauty. Now I’m back in London, looking out of my window at chimney pots, tower blocks and cranes (view below), I’m missing those green hills and orchards already!
ps. I’ve joined twitter! You can follow me here.