There was a definite ‘morning after the clocks change’ feeling in the air as I set off early on Sunday to accompany a group on a whistle-stop ‘taster’ tour of East Kent. We had to set out from Sevenoaks bright and early to get to The Historic Dockyard at Chatham in time for a highlights tour before coffee and pastries.
The Dockyard is currently providing the sets for Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech) new Les Miserables film which started filming this week. We spotted costumed extras wandering around, but all the stars’ cars had blacked out windows so we could only wave and hope that Hugh Jackman (apparently ragged rather than rugged in his current role), Russell Crowe, Sacha Baron Cohen, Anne Hathaway or Helena Bonham Carter were waving back as enthusiastically.
The historic Victorian buildings also provided backdrops for the BBC’s recent Call the Midwife starring Miranda Hart, and Guy Ritchie’s latest film version of Sherlock Holmes.
Our costumed guide transported us back to the 19th century for an atmospheric tour of the ¼ mile long Victorian Ropery where the group tried their hands at making some rope under his demanding eye. Everyone carefully remembered to address him as ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr’ so we survived without 19th Century style punishment. We then squeezed down into the bowels of a submarine (how did the crew fit into those tiny berths?) before a quick look at HMS Gannet.
There is so much to see that you can easily spend a whole day at Chatham, but we were just getting a feel for it as one part of a possible future tour of the wider area so we had to leave the footsteps of Charles Dickens tour (his father worked there) for another day.
Fortified with coffee and pastries the coach whisked us down through the Garden of England. From the M2 we could see the acres of Brogdale Farm’s fruit orchards but there there was only time for a brief account of Henry VIII establishing his first orchard nearby. We arrived promptly in Faversham, ‘The Market Town of Kings’, for a tour of the oldest brewery in the country, Shepherd Neame –followed by a rather delicious session sampling the Kentish Ales before lunch. Once again, on this occasion we could not stop to explore Faversham’s wonderful medieval streets (it has over 500 listed buildings!), but the group vowed to return.
We then drove to one of my favourite parts of Kent- the Isle of Thanet with its contrasting seaside resorts of Broadstairs, Ramsgate and Margate, each of which has a very individual charm. Dropped off right outside the new Turner Contemporary Gallery the group was particularly thrilled to see the first exhibition of J M W Turner’s work to be put on in the gallery named after him. He would probably have approved of the Gallery’s location right on the site of Mrs Booth’s guest house where he stayed frequently to paint “..the skies over Thanet (that) are the loveliest in all Europe.”
Leaving Margate we caught glimpses of the winding streets of the Old Town, which are buzzing with new shops, artist studios and cafes, and the site of Margate’s iconic Dreamland. Once described as a place that ‘gives happiness at a price that everyone can afford’ it is anticipated that the restored Dreamland will re-open next year as the world’s first amusement park of historic rides.
Our final destination was Canterbury for a very special early evening tour of the breathtaking Cathedral which everyone agreed was a fitting end to an action packed day that had aimed to provide a sense of the sheer variety that this part of Kent can offer groups of visitors.