Kent's landscape is timelessly lovely, from the tranquil beauty of the Weald, stretched out between the chalk escarpments of the Downs, to the splendid sweep of the coast.
North Kent & Medway
The nautical history of the north Kent coast has played a huge role in the history of England, all of which is outlined in one of Kent’s most popular attractions: Chatham Historic Dockyard. Major towns on or near the coast include Gravesend, Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham, but there are also the wide open spaces of the Hoo Peninsula, which divides the estuaries of the River Thames (to the north) and the Medway (to the south).
Inland, the River Medway carves a valley through the chalk North Downs to Maidstone and towards West Sussex. Sevenoaks is at the heart of this lovely region – one marred only by the network of motorways, but otherwise full of country homes, castles and parkland (many under the auspices of English Heritage or the National Trust). Chartwell, Down House, Ightham Mote, Knole and Leeds Castle are among the stellar attractions.
Things to do
Historic Dockyard Chatham
Britain’s ships have been built, repaired and manned at Chatham from the time of the Spanish Armada right up until the Falklands War, and it’s the most complete example of an historic dockyard from the ‘age of sail’. With three historic warships to explore and galleries bringing 400 years of maritime history to life, there’s plenty to see. Excellent temporary exhibitions range from paintings to a collection of robots. There are indoor picnic facilities (with a soft play area) as well as a restaurant.
Dock Road, Chatham, ME4 4TY (01634 823807, www.thedockyard.co.uk).OpenApr-Oct 10am-5pm daily. Feb, Mar, Nov 10am-4pm daily. Admission £15; £7.50-£12.50 reductions; £42.50 family.
Set on two grassy, interconnected islands on the River Len in Kent, Leeds Castle is often described as England’s loveliest castle. Surrounded by water, it boasts a magnificent and much-photographed medieval exterior, with a mighty gatehouse and tall, crenelated towers and battlements. The interiors are largely the work of the castle’s last private owner, Lady Baillie, who bought it in 1926 and refurbished it in opulent fashion.
The outdoor aviary is remarkable, holding more than 100 exotic bird species, while stately black swans glide around the moat. The grounds take in various gardens; planted with lupins, roses, lads’ love and neat box hedges, the Culpepper Garden is particularly lovely. The yew maze, meanwhile, was planted in 1988; explorers make their escape via a dramatic underground grotto, adorned with eerie carvings of mythical beasts. The castle’s dog collar museum adds a final quirky touch, with a collection spanning five centuries – from no-nonsense spiked iron bands to lavish velvet creations.
Maidstone, ME17 1PL (01622 765400, www.leeds-castle.com).OpenApr-Sept 10am-6pm daily (last entry 1hr before closing). Oct-Mar 10am-5pm daily (last entry 1hr before closing). Admission £18.50; £11-£16 reductions (tickets are valid for a year).
Where to eat
A characterful old pub with a heavy oak door, low ceiling and wonky wooden floors (plus a new extension; try to sit in the old part if you can). The bar serves Shepherd Neame ales and pub grub; more formal meals can be had in the restaurant. The George used to be a court room; today’s car park is where the stocks were set up to punish offenders.
Wrotham Road, Meopham, DA13 0AH (01474 814198).Open 11am-11pm Mon-Sat; noon-10.30pm Sun. Lunch served noon-3pm Mon-Fri; noon-4pm Sat. Dinner served 6-10pm Mon-Sat. Food served noon-8pm Sun.
Co-owned by chef Richard Phillips (who also has Thackeray's of Tunbridge Wells and Chapel Down of Tenterden in his stable), Hengist has gained a reputation for fine dining with such dishes as slow roasted pork belly with parsnip and sage terrine, creamed savoy cabbage and apple and sage compote. The food is superb, beautifully presented and served in elegantly designed rooms that are sympathetic to the 16th century building’s original features. Jazz musicians play on Thursday nights. 7-9 High Street, Aylesford, ME20 7AX (01622 719273, www.hengistrestaurant.co.uk).Lunch served noon-2.30pm Tue-Sat; noon-4.30pm Sun. Dinner served 6.30-10.30pm Tue-Sat.
Where to stay
This lovely campsite is named after a breed of chicken, and is a welcoming, unpretentious place. The approach is on small country lanes, but the site is just south of the M20, and conveniently close to a couple of train stations. Welsummer is a small site – two fields and some woodland – dotted with fruit trees. The owner used to camp on this land with her family when she was a child, and it retains an appealingly intimate feel. The atmosphere is laid-back, with helpful staff and few rules – just enough to stop the site becoming unruly. Thoughtful touches include the hand basin at children’s height in the shower block, and the fact that cars are parked in a large field away from the tents.
Starborough Manor offers three smart bed and breakfast rooms (also available as a self-catering apartment). All rooms have lovely views over the grounds. Breakfast includes full english or scrambled eggs with smoked salmon or kippers.
Some of the most beautiful stretches of Kent can be found on the north coast, and there are some interesting towns too. The delights of Whitstable are well known: colourful fishermen’s huts (now trendy accommodation, of course), oysters, independent shops and good restaurants. But less talked-about places can be just as fun to visit. Herne Bay, for example, a little further to the east, is what Whitstable used to be – an unpretentious seaside town. The coast is also generously peppered with fine examples of British architecture, from beautifully preserved pubs to sprawling country manors. A cluster are to be found in Faversham, and include Britain’s oldest brewery, Shepherd Neame. The rest is all about quiet pleasures; historical towns, wild coastline and marshlands, and the kind of flourishing countryside that has given Kent its reputation as the garden of England.
Things to do
Shepherd Neame Brewery
Britain’s oldest brewer the handsome Shepherd Neame Brewery contains a shop and a bar as well as the brewery. The tour reveals Faversham’s 850-year-old brewing history, and explains the brewing process – with tastings, of course.
Read’s restaurant with rooms is based in a lovely Georgian manor, surrounded by equally handsome grounds, and sports a Michelin star, thanks to chef David Pitchford and his team. A typical meal might see roast breast of local pheasant with red cabbage braised with apples, game chips
Macknade Manor, Canterbury Road, Faversham, ME13 8XE (01795 535344, www.reads.com).Lunch served noon-2pm, dinner served 7-9pm Tue-Sat.
Wheelers Oyster Bar
Fish comes fresh off the boats and into dishes such as skate cheek salad, seafood platter and steamed cod. Wheelers has been serving local oysters since 1856; they now come in a variety of ways, from plain to encased in Guinness batter. It’s a quirky place, pink on the outside and small and simply decorated inside. It’s BYO (no corkage charge). 8 High Street, Whitstable, CT5 1BQ (01227 273311).Open 10.30am-9pm Mon-Tue; 10.15am-9pm Thur-Fri; 10am-10pm Sat; 11am-9pm Sun. No credit cards.
This renowned gastropub sits near the sea wall on the old coast road west of Whitstable. Located in the backwaters of the Seasalter marshes, it’s a remote, somewhat bleak location, but the food is so good that people flock here. Expect local, seasonal ingedients in starters such as slip sole grilled in seaweed butter or mussel and bacon chowder, and mains like Monkshill Farm pork belly and apple sauce or seared thornback ray, brown butter, cockles and sherry vinegar dressing. Book well in advance.
Once used for storage by cockle fishers, these ten wooden huts have been transformed into upmarket and very popular holiday accommodation by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company. All (except hut 6) have great sea views, and all are right on the beach – so not for those looking for somewhere secluded. The newest hut (no.10) is bigger than the others, with space for four adults. There’s also the Anderson Shed, a converted boat builder’s shed that can take four adults and two children. Hotel Continental, 29 Beach Walk, CT5 2BP (01227 280280, www.hotelcontinental.co.uk).Rates 2-person hut £260-£400 per weekend. Family hut £300-£500 per weekend.
A welcoming 17th-century alehouse, right by Faversham’s historic Market Square. There’s a bar, and restaurant, a beer garden and eight neat en suite rooms. Traditional fare includes a roast on Sundays.
Sweeping sandy bays, majestic white cliffs, lush rolling fields; it’s no wonder a succession of conquerors couldn’t resist coming ashore on the Isle of Thanet to lay claim to its charms. The warriors guarded their prize with a liberal peppering of fortifications, some of which still stand. The river that made Thanet an island has long since silted up, but the area attracts plenty of visitors, as it has done ever since the Victorians established a string of resorts along the coast. Their elegant piers and bandstands remain, alongside more modern amusements. Geographically, little separates the three towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, but in character they are a world apart.
Things to do
There’s an old manor house and gardens, but the highlight is the idiosyncratic Powell-Cotton Museum. In the late 19th-century, Major Powell-Cotton hunted down all manner of exotic animals, then had them stuffed and put on display, grouped in approximations of their natural state. At the time, these spectacular dioramas became a standard for natural history museums around the world, and the Victorians flocked to see them. Today, it’s a little incongruous, but fascinating, especially with the eccentric history of Powell-Cotton intertwined with it all – try to take one of the guided tours. After gawping at the surreal displays, take a woodland walk to Waterloo Tower, with its 12 bells. Quex Barn, by the entrance, is an excellent farm shop and café. The Thanet Island Music Festival is held in the grounds.
Birchington-on-Sea, CT7 0BH (01843 842168, www.quexmuseum.org).OpenApr-Oct 11am-5pm Tue-Sun. Nov-Mar 1-4pm Sun. Admission £7; £5 reductions; £20 family. Gardens only £2; £1.50 reductions. Located in Birchington, west of Margate, this is hard to define, but a must-visit.
The Turner Contemporary has a lot of weight on its shoulders: the fortunes of Margate are inextricably tied to its success. When it opens in April 2011, the £17 million project will be the jewel of Thanet – its dramatic silver structure certainly makes it look like one. The opening exhibition, Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens (April-Sept 2011), will use one of JMW Turner’s paintings as the centrepiece for new commissions by Daniel Buren, Russell Crotty, Ellen Harvey and Conrad Shawcross, as well as selected works by Teresita Fernandez and Douglas Gordon. Nothing in the World but Youth (Sept 2011-Jan 2012) will look at Margate’s youth culture and how it is reflected in art. Hamish Fulton (Jan-May 2012) will be the first solo exhibition. The Rendezvous, CT9 1HG (01843 294208, www.turnercontemporary.org).OpenSummer 10am-5.30pm Tue-Sun. Winter 10am-4.30pm Tue-Sun. Admission free.
Where to eat
This is where to come for the best seafood in Thanet, served in the relaxed surroundings of a bustling dining room, above the respected fishmonger of the same name (the owner, Johnny Dunhill, has his own fishing fleet). The fish and chips are cooked in beef dripping, and come in mighty portions. Fancier offerings include grilled Ramsgate lobster with chips, saffron and tarragon aïoli and beetroot salad, or the amazing crispy smoked eel soldiers and soft boiled duck egg.
32 King Street, CT11 8NT (01843 852123, www.eddiegilberts.com).Lunch served noon-2.30pm Mon-Sun. Dinner served 5.30-9.30pm Mon-Sat.
This Indian restaurant, formerly the Indian Princess, is hailed as one of the best in Kent. The freshest ingredients – including Kentish game and locally caught fish – are used in dishes such as Gressingham duck pan-grilled with spices in orange, fennel and cinnamon sauce by head chef Dev Biswal. Prices aren’t low, but flavours are sensational, and the own-made breads have to be tried.
44 King Street, CT9 1QE (01843 231504, www.theambrette.co.uk).Lunch served noon-2.30pm, dinner served 5.30-10pm Tue-Sun.
Peens Gastro Bar
Peens serves the best food in Broadstairs. The interior is clean and modern, and small enough to feel intimate. Owner and chef Matt Peen sources most of the produce locally and makes everything from the mayonnaise to the biscuits that come with the coffee. Whether tapas-style snacks, light bites or a full menu, Peens has all options covered. The breakfasts are exceptional (especially when accompanied by a bloody mary). Main courses include dishes such as slow-braised rabbit with chorizo, ciabatta and fries, and renowned burgers. Bar snacks feature the likes of wild mushroom and poached egg on toast, and whitebait with aïoli. The long bar makes it a pleasant place for an evening drink.
8 Victoria Parade, CT10 1QS (01843 861289, www.peensgastrobar.co.uk). Open 10am-10pm Mon-Thur,Sun; 10am-midnight Fri, Sat. Food served 10am-9.30pm Mon-Thur, Sun; 10am-10pm Fri, Sat.
Where to stay
Distressed, slate-blue walls, huge La Maison beds and antique chandeliers feature in the three rooms of this fabulous B&B. Massive bathrooms boast roll-top baths, walk-in showers, Ren toiletries and marble floors. Breakfast – freshly squeezed apple juice, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and own-made muesli – is brought to your room in the morning at a time of your choosing. It’s the best place to stay in Margate, and could be classed as a destination in itself.
Belvidere Place offers excellent boutique-style B&B accommodation. Each of the five double rooms is originally and individually furnished, with contemporary art on the walls and an emphasis on classic design items, such as lamps and upholstered furniture. Breakfasts feature locally sourced products. It’s a highly popular weekend bolt-hole, so you’ll need to book well in advance.
Strategically positioned between London and the major seaports, Canterbury has serious tourist appeal. Top of the cathedral city premiership, it also has ludicrously picturesque streets and a winning position on the eastern bank of the River Stour. Canterbury’s compact nature and antique charms make it irresistible to city breakers and overseas visitors, so it’s elbows out on the High Street in high season (and far from quiet in low).
Things to do
Canterbury Cathedral is the centrepiece of the city – and, as the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the heart of the Church of England. Thousands flock each day to admire its towering, intricate architecture and contemplate the tombs of the great and good. As light pours through the magnificent stained glass windows, the oldest of which date from the early 12th century, it is wonderfully atmospheric, despite the hordes of visitors.
From the depths of the 11th-century crypt (the oldest part of the building) to the soaring arches of the 14th-century Perpendicular Gothic nave, the Cathedral reverberates with history. A modern memorial marks the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170; made of jagged steel swords, it casts a sinister shadow on the bare stone wall. In Trinity Chapel, meanwhile, a single candle burns at the former site of the martyr’s shrine, which was ransacked and destroyed in 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII
This first-rate animal park has an impressive array of furry, leathery and feathered inmates, from snow leopards and Bengal tigers to Red River hogs and Iberian wolves. If that wasn’t enough, it’s also home to the UK’s largest herd of African elephants, and all sorts of primates; look out for the stunning apricot and white-coloured banded leaf monkeys. What sets Howletts apart, though, is the space afforded to the animals, with generously proportioned enclosures designed to replicate their inhabitants’ natural habitats. Along with its sister establishment at Port Lympne, ten miles west of Folkestone, the park also runs a successful breeding programme for the endangered black rhino.
For a scenic shopping experience, stroll down the historic streets of Canterbury’s ‘King’s Mile’ (www.thekingsmile.com), to the north-west of the Cathedral. Comprising Northgate, the Borough and Palace Street, it takes in all manner of independent shops, where you can find everything from a dolls’ house to a vintage camera.
Chris and Les Harper’s Siesta (1 Palace Street, 01227 464614, www.siestacrafts.co.uk) started in 1983 as a market stall selling handicrafts from Mexico and Guatemala. It now imports stock, especially musical instruments, from all over the world.
Old-fashioned sweets are the speciality at Sugar Boy (31 Palace Street, 01227 769374, www.sugarboy.co.uk), where coconut mushrooms, toffee crumble, aniseed balls and other confections are dispensed in little stripey bags.
Just around the corner on Burgate is Hawkin’s Bazaar (no.34, 0844 573 4508, www.hawkin.com), filled to the rafters with great toys such as Make-your-own-Morph sets and spud guns.
Where to eat
An old railway freight store turned foodie emporium, this lofty Victorian building buzzes with activity. At the heart of the operation is the farmers’ market, featuring traders from local organic fruit and vegetable farms, apple juice squeezers, a butcher, a baker and a sandwich-maker, craftspeople, cheese and olive sellers and many more. Above the market, diners sit at scrubbed wooden tables and choose from the chalkboard specials. Impressively, every dish is made from ingredients sourced from the stallholders below, whether it be yellow courgette, mint and lemon soup, braised ox cheeks with creamed shallots or hake wrapped in ham with pea and tarragon broth.
Station Road West, CT2 8AN (01227 459153, www.thegoodsshed.net). Breakfast served 8-10.30am Tue-Sat; 9-10.30am Sun. Lunch served noon-2.30pm Tue-Fri; noon-3pm Sat, Sun. Dinner served 6-9.30pm Tue-Sat.
Soothingly lit and decorated in understated chocolate brown tones, this is one of Canterbury’s smartest eateries. Like other ABode hotel restaurants, it bears the name of two-Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines, whose influence is evident in the ambitious, polished menu. Expect elaborate fine dining: roasted saddle of Godmersham rabbit with hazelnut and green bean salad and roasted almond purée, perhaps, followed by monkfish wrapped in parma ham with creamed leeks, tomato fondue, mussels and saffron velouté. If you’re on a budget, the set lunch and early dinner menus are affordable alternatives to the evening à la carte
ABode Hotel, 30-33 High Street, CT1 2RX (01227 766266, www.michaelcaines.com). Lunch served noon-2.30pm daily. Dinner served 6-9.30pm Mon-Sat.
Where to stay
The third outpost in a small chain of smart hotels, ABode has a prime city-centre location, close to the Cathedral. It’s glamorous but markedly unstuffy, with a lavish champagne bar and an upmarket Modern British restaurant overseen by Michael Caines. The 72 rooms feature comfortable, handcrafted beds with cashmere throws, pale wood floors and furniture, enamel baths, wet rooms, enormous LCD TVs, DVD players and Wi-Fi. Rooms are graded by price and size, from ‘comfortable’, through ‘desirable’ and ‘enviable’ to ‘fabulous’; book the latter and you’ll find yourself in a swish penthouse with a private rooftop terrace and a bed the size of a tennis court.
On the edge of the town centre, this tiny 15th-century cottage has been beautifully renovated to become a chic, one-bedroom B&B. There’s a private sitting room, decorated in cool creams and heated by a cosy wood-burning stove, and a modern, mosaic-tiled wetroom; up the steep staircase is an equally stylish bedroom. The attention to detail is what marks this place out: the king-size bed has a hand-sprung mattress and plump down pillows, for example, and there’s an iPod dock in the living room and Wi-Fi access throughout. Breakfast brings all manner of good things, from home-made yoghurt with fruit coulis to top-notch cooked breakfasts. If you’d rather self-cater, the owner also rents out a three-bedroom Victorian cottage, 14 Love Lane, which is just next door.
7 Longport, CT1 1PE (01227 455367, www.7longport.co.uk). Rates B&B from £90 double incl breakfast. Cottage from £500 per wk.
Sandwich to Hythe
The east Kent coastline offers secluded bays, rolling hills, fishing towns and the magnificent White Cliffs of Dover. Dover’s iconic cliff faces are the striking centrepoint of the coastal strip that runs between the former medieval port of Sandwich, via the peaceful seaside resort of Deal, to the small market town of Hythe. Facing France, at the narrowest part of the English Channel, this vast chalk wall flecked with black flint is often a visitor’s first glimpse of England; ferries still nip across the Dover strait to and from the French ports of Calais and Dunkirk. Together with Hastings, New Romney, Hythe and Sandwich, Dover is one of the Cinque Ports. This once meant considerable military and trade responsibilities (but no national tax), but today the Cinque Ports banner is wholly symbolic.
Things to do
Dover Castle & Dover’s Secret Tunnels
Dover has always been an important defensive point and Dover Castle is one of the most impressive castles in England. Beneath the castle lies a network of tunnels, parts of which date from the Middle Ages. Expanded to form subterranean barracks during the Napoleonic War, they became the nerve centre for secret military operations during World War II and the Cold War. See the dimly lit underground hospital, and peer into the atmospheric command centre, telephone exchange and anti-aircraft operations room. In addition, English Heritage has refashioned the Great Tower to appear as it would have for the arrival of Philip of Flanders in 1184, together with an absorbing exhibition. The castle grounds also house the oldest Roman lighthouse in Europe.
A pretty, light-filled bistro, which uses produce from nearby allotments in its quality dishes. Sit inside amid shabby-chic decor or in the courtyard garden for a menu that runs from breakfast (sourdough pancakes with syrup, eggs benedict with own-baked ham) to dinner. The main menu changes daily, but typical dishes are braised pork in cider and pannacotta with roast rhubarb.
Charles Lakin heads the kitchen at this contemporary restaurant with rooms. Lunch (£22.50 for three courses) might be rillette of Alkham Valley rabbit and prunes with pickled red cabbage, followed by butternut squash and sage risotto with white truffle oil and shavings of Twineham Grange cheese, topped by apple soufflé with caramel ice-cream. There’s also a six-course tasting menu for £50. There are seven spacious luxury rooms (£95-£235 double incl breakfast), all equipped with LCD flat screens and Wi-Fi. Also for hire are two recently refurbished cottages next to Chalksole Estate Vineyard (about 20 minutes’ walk from the restaurant). Alkham Valley Road, Alkham, CT15 7DF (01304 873410, www.themarquisatalkham.co.uk). Lunch served noon-2.30pm Tue-Sat. Dinner served 6.30-9.30pm Mon-Sat. Food served noon-6pm Sun.
Where to stay
This ten-room guesthouse is by far the most modern in town: simple decor is accompanied by Aveda products and crisp white linen. It is situated on the edge of a small public park, near both the Leas and the centre of Folkestone.
Reclaimed from the sea over centuries, the windswept wetlands of Romney Marsh stretch from the coast out to beyond the crescent of the Royal Military Canal, dotted with Romney Marsh sheep and crosshatched with ditches. It has a bleak beauty, but is an unsettling place, and nowhere is this more true than at Dungeness. Here, a roughly made road separates the shingle beach from a barren hinterland, where clapboard cottages lean into the breeze. With its treacherous tides, vast expanse of shingle and nuclear power station, Dungeness can seem like a hostile place to holidaying humans. For birds, it’s heavenly: fish and sealife flourish in the power station’s warm waters. At Dungeness RSPB reserve you can spot warblers, waders and widgeons; in June, there are fluffy cygnets and goslings.
Directly north the terrain barely rises above sea level, the flatness pierced only by a Norman church or a wooded hillock. The biggest town in the larger area is Ashford, from where the Eurostar ducks under the English Channel to France and Belgium. To the west is Darling Buds of May country, with cosy pubs in the villages of Pluckley and Biddenden appearing out of the wooded land. North-west of Romney Marsh is the Low Weald. This is the Kent of oast houses and white weatherboard-clad buildings. At its heart is the county’s prettiest town, Tenterden, known for its fine shopping and beautifully preserved High Street. Beyond that, Cranbrook is another quaint town with a hop sack full of charm. The Low Weald is also vineyard territory, and home to two of Britain’s best wineries: Biddenden Vineyards and Chapel Down.
Things to do
Dungeness National Nature Reserve
The strange landscape at Dungeness is as alluring to birds as it is to humans. Through a picture window at the visitor centre you can watch an avian spectacular unfold in the large gravel pit, and hides are dotted around the nature trail. The National Nature Reserve also harbours 600 species of plants, moths and newts.
Dungeness Road, Dungeness, TN29 9NB (01797 367934, www.dungeness-nnr.co.uk).Open 24hrs daily. The RSPB manages various parts of the site, including its hides and nature trails, and has a visitor centre here (01797 320588, www.rspb.org.uk).
Chapel Down vineyard is a slick, modern operation. The on-site restaurant is a class act, while the wine and food shop offers tastings and sells local produce alongside Chapel Down wine. Guided tours – book ahead – last just over an hour and include a tasting. The vineyard produces some superb wines, notably the award-winning sparkling whites. Ales are also being produced.
Tenterden Vineyard, Small Hythe Road, Smallhythe, TN30 7NG (01580 763033, www.englishwinesgroup.com).OpenTours June-Sept 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3pm daily. May, Oct 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3pm Sat, Sun. Shop 10am-5pm daily. Rates Guided tours and tasting £9; £2-£8 reductions.
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson came to live at Sissinghurst in the 1930s, and planted a series of extraordinary gardens around the remains of the Elizabethan manor house. In the hands of the National Trust since the late 1960s, it remains a wonderfully evocative spot. The only part of the house open to visitors is the pink-brick tower that stands guard over the gardens; halfway up, you can peep into Vita’s comfortably cluttered, book-filled study, preserved exactly as she left it. The gardens, meanwhile, are among the loveliest in England: a series of lushly planted, intimate spaces that are themed by season, making them worth visiting at almost any time of year. Biddenden Road, Sissinghurst, TN17 2AB (01580 710701, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-sissinghurst-castle). OpenEstate dawn-dusk daily. Garden, shop & restaurant Mar-Oct 10.30am-5pm Mon, Tue, Fri-Sun. Vegetable garden May-Sept 10.30am-5pm Mon, Tue, Fri-Sun. Admission £10; £5 reductions; £25 family.
Where to eat
The kitchen at this thimble-sized eaterie produces the sophisticated likes of pan-fried sea bream with roast leeks, sweetcorn and vanilla purée and chanterelle mushrooms, and a selection of tempting desserts such as iced fig mousse and passion fruit rice pudding. The presentation is beautiful, and prices are surprisingly affordable given that the chef has a Michelin star. 23 Stone Street, Cranbrook, TN17 3HF (01580 714666, www.restaurant-apicius.co.uk). Lunch served noon-2pm Wed-Fri, Sun. Dinner served 7-9pm Wed-Sat.
Chef Graham Garrett’s cooking is worthy of its Michelin star, but his restaurant, housed in a 15th-century weaver’s cottage, is without airs and graces. The decor mixes old and new to pleasing effect, while the short menu is both inspiring and comforting. Dishes might include warm haddock carpaccio with bacon dressing or pickled rock samphire and pea shoots to start, followed by roast partridge with honeyed quince, potato pancake and rosemary butter. With 24 hours’ notice, the kitchen can create bespoke vegetarian dishes.
28 High Street, Biddenden, TN27 8AH (01580 291341, www.thewesthouserestaurant.co.uk).Lunch served noon-2pm Tue-Fri; noon-3pm Sun. Dinner served 7-9.30pm Tue-Sat.
A tiny old pub with incredibly low ceilings and open fires in winter – find yourself a corner tucked beneath the beams and soak up the atmosphere. There’s a fantastic terrace for alfresco drinking, beautiful gardens packed with herbs and lavender, and a conservatory if it’s a little nippy. Top-notch pub food uses locally sourced ingredients (from herbs to meat) where possible, and there’s a fine choice of ales.
Nine rooms are spread across an oast house, a stableblock and a farmhouse. There are four suites in the stableblock, three with a living room and one with two extra family beds. The most intriguing rooms are the two in the oast house; the Appledore room is in the roundel. The Canterbury Suite has a four-poster bed and a private outdoor hot tub. The restaurant (in the 16th-century barn) is open every evening and for Sunday lunch, and has a wholly seasonal Kentish menu, accompanied by local wines
On the upper end of the Weald – a Saxon name for wood – is the elegant spa town of Tunbridge Wells. Its grand architecture and tranquil parkland are the legacy of its Regency heyday, when the rich and royal flocked to sample its healing waters and giddy social scene. Today, it is the area’s principal town, and still exudes a quietly prosperous air.
Until the discovery of the celebrated spring, Tunbridge Wells was just forest and fields. By contrast, Tonbridge (now overshadowed by its famous sister town) has existed since medieval times, and has the craggy remains of a motte-and-bailey castle to prove it. In much better shape is the Tudor Hever Castle, near Edenbridge. With its moat, portcullis and crenellated towers, it’s the sort of castle that children draw – and as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, is steeped in history.
To the east of Tunbridge Wells, the Weald rises up to Goudhurst, offering sweeping views of the Kent countryside, dotted with oast houses and Norman church towers. West of Tonbridge, tiny villages such as Penshurst and Chiddingstone are timelessly lovely, with their crooked Tudor cottages and cosy village pubs. The green valleys, dense forests and rocky outcrops of this part of Kent also attract increasing numbers of adventure sport aficionados. Mountain-bikers hurl themselves around the tracks at Bedgebury Forest, while climbers scale Harrison’s Rocks and High Rocks. More genteel activities include a ride on the Spa Valley Railway steam train, or a walk around the Pinetum at Bedgebury.
Things to do
Not for suffers of vertigo, this Go Ape! outpost offers a high-wire forest adventure. Between the tree trunks of Bedgebury Forest is a network of ladders, walkways, bridges and zip-lines. Once you’re safely harnessed and hooked on, and have been given a half-hour safety briefing, you’re free to clamber, swing and swoop through the trees. Bedgebury Road, Goudhurst, Cranbrook, TN17 2SJ (0845 643 9215, www.goape.co.uk). Open times vary; phone for details. Admission £30; £20 reductions.
King Charles the Martyr
Although the church’s unassuming red-brick façade is easily missed, it is the oldest building in Tunbridge Wells. It dates back to 1676, when there were no other permanent structures in the area, and was funded by wealthy visitors to the famous spring: a list of the great, good and just plain rich can still be seen in a roll call by the stairs. Princess Victoria was among the worshippers, sitting demurely with her mother in the North Gallery. The church’s spectacular plasterwork ceiling was the work of Henry Doogood, chief plasterer for Sir Christopher Wren.
London Road, TN1 1YX (01892 511745, www.kcmtw.org). Open 11am-3pm Mon-Sat. Admission free.
Where to eat
This smart little restaurant serves as a suitably polished showcase for the talents of chef Richard Phillips, whose CV includes stints as head chef at the Criterion and Mirabelle. Built in around 1660, Thackeray’s Grade II-listed premises retain plenty of character: the restaurant takes its name from the author of Vanity Fair, who lived here in the 19th century. Lavish decor and a low-lit ambience make for an intimate meal, while the modern French menu makes excellent use of seasonal ingredients, from wild mushrooms to game. If you can’t afford to go à la carte, the lunchtime menu du jour is a steal.
Filled with a glorious jumble of colonial artefacts, stuffed stag heads and inexplicable odds and ends (including a shark’s jawbone), the Wheatsheaf is a fantastic sight. It was built at the end of the 14th century (a rare crown post was uncovered during alterations a few years back), and has an exposed section of wattle and daub wall that reads ‘1607 Foxy Holanby’ – thought to be the name of a local squire. The meat on the menu is sourced locally, mostly from within a few miles, and all the game is shot hereabouts too.
Hever Road, Bough Beech, TN8 7NU (01732 700254, www.wheatsheafatboughbeech.co.uk). Open 11am-11pm Mon-Thur, Sun; 11am-midnight Fri, Sun. Food served noon-10pm daily.
Where to stay
Built in 1810 and set on a cobbled road just off the High Street, this quietly dignified red-brick house is a lovely place to stay. The double room is en suite, while the single has its own private bathroom; both are nicely decorated, and have free Wi-Fi access. The artist owner cooks up superb breakfasts, while a friendly resident cat adds to the home-from-home feel.
The Tunbridge Wells outpost of the Hotel du Vin chain occupies a fine sandstone mansion, built in 1762; back when it was Calverley House, the young Queen Victoria often stayed here. There are 34 large, well-appointed bedrooms (hand-sprung mattresses, Egyptian cotton linen and freestanding baths), each with its own character. The best are at the back, with views over Calverley Park. The snug Burgundy Bar has an impressive collection of whiskies, and there’s also a bistro. Crescent Road, TN1 2LY (01892 526455, www.hotelduvin.com).Rates £105-£300 double incl breakfast.
Time Out guide
This feature is an extract Time Out's Kent & Sussex guidebook. Visit the Time Out shop.