Discovering  the Garden of England

Discovering the Garden of England

Kent has never really figured on my radar as a tourist destination. I’ve always viewed it more as a place you drive through to get to Dover, and thence to Europe. But as I’m sure many Bondholders know – and as I should have realised – Kent is absolutely beautiful. Why else would HPB have a home there – the magnificent Sibton Park.

Country towns

Kent’s “Garden of England” soubriquet is, to my eye, well deserved. Soft colours, a gently undulating landscape, ancient oast-houses (this is hop country, remember), picture-postcard towns and villages – Kent has all this and more.

The town of Tenterden, for instance, is well worth a look. Known as the “Jewel of the Weald”, Tenterden offers the best of all worlds – fascinating history, a wealth of architecture and excellent shopping – all within everyone’s idea of a typical country town and surrounded by Kent’s tranquil countryside. Georgian buildings share the streets with tall Victorian houses and tiny cottages; brick and stucco blend easily alongside traditional Kent tile and weatherboard, creating a timeless air.

Historic sites

Meanwhile, nestling in the heart of the inspiring Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Beauty, the historic village of Elham is truly one of the most picturesque in East Kent.

Elham’s 43 listed buildings embody a long history, from the late medieval Church of St Mary and fine timber-framed houses from Tudor times, to the former coaching inn of the Rose & Crown. And whilst Charles II may not have hidden in the chimney at the Abbots Fireside Hotel, there is plenty more fascinating history to be uncovered on a short walk around the village.

Halfway along the meandering valley that bears its name, Elham has become rightfully known as a centre for walking. The well-marked paths wind through unspoilt villages, ancient woodland, pastures and chalk grassland, allowing stunning views across the valley.

Walk finished, you can sample fresh local produce from traditional pubs and restaurants, local farm shops, the twice-monthly farmers market, or perhaps visit the nearby Elham Valley Vineyard for Kentish wines. But whatever you decide this is a lovely place to relax and enjoy an unspoilt corner of Kent.

I suppose no visit to Kent would be complete without a trip to Canterbury, which, while not the county town of Kent – that honour goes to Maidstone – assuredly boasts the most illustrious history.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is home to the oldest cathedral in England. Thomas Becket’s murder at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 led to the cathedral becoming a place of pilgrimage for Christians worldwide. This pilgrimage provided the theme for Geoffery Chaucer’s 14th-century literary classic The Canterbury Tales.

Many historical structures remain in the city, including a city wall founded in Roman times and rebuilt in the 14th century, the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and a Norman castle, and perhaps the oldest school in England, The King’s School.

Historic defences

Given its proximity to Europe, Kent is not just the Garden of England, but has often been seen as the gateway to it. Much effort has been expended over the centuries on repelling invaders. As a result, Kent is one of the most fortified counties in England. Since Roman times, Kentish castles and other defences have been built, rebuilt and augmented in response to one perceived threat or another.

Nowhere exemplifies this more than Dover Castle, which dominates the skyline above the famous port. For over 2,000 years these fortifications have protected the English coast. Henry II built the present castle in the 1180s, and over the next 800 years its buildings and defences were adapted to meet the changing demands of weapons and warfare.

This defensive role continued right up to World War II, when secret tunnels, dug into the cliffs beneath the castle during the Middle Ages and expanded during the Napoleonic Wars, were home to the Admiralty High Command. The 60-minute Tunnel Tour is highly recommended and offers a fascinating insight into our ‘island story’.

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