London is the greatest capital in the world, but we all have to get out of town sometimes to chill & recharge batteries & getting out is a whole lot easier than getting in, as long as you don’t join the commuter rush in the evenings. Travel out south of the M25 orbital motorway & you find a different world of green rural leafiness. The county of Kent has more historic castles and stately homes than any other county in England. Hever Castle near Sevenoaks (just 35 mins on a train out of Charing Cross & 25 miles from central London) is a pocket sized ‘chocolate box’ castle to die for – literally – it was the family home of Anne Boleyn, that ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII (you remember; divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived). More recently a water maze has been added; great fun for kids of all ages – take spare clothes with you. In the summer jousting tournaments take place here, so if you are a fan of ‘Shakespeare in Love’ this is the place for you.
Knole House residing in its 1000 acre deer park in Sevenoaks, is known as the Calendar House because it has 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards. It is said that King Harold marched past here on his way to meet William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Now owned by the National Trust & well worth a visit. Home to some exquisite silver furniture, the original Knole sofa and the childhood home of Vita Sackville West.
Also just off the M25 motorway is Sir Winston Churchill’s country manor preserved just as it was when he lived there – see his collection of water colours – (he exhibited at the Royal Academy), the famous wall he built and the pond by which he sat when he needed quiet thinking time. He bought the house because “the view possessed him” – take a look for yourself.
Further south into rural Kent are the ancient hop fields with their oast houses and apple orchards – all still put to gainful use at the oldest brewery in the country at Faversham, plus new microbreweries springing up where visits and samplings are actively encouraged. Something positive coming out of climate change, is the improvement in English wine, previously viewed as a bit of a joke, the wines are now taking gold medals and the sparkling wines beat many champagnes in blind tastings. Guess which Very Important Wedding they were served at recently!
Continue south to Leeds Castle (no, not that Leeds, this one is near Ledham) to see the castle owned by six queens through history – a real treat – a proper fortified castle with a moat and dungeons, ghosts and quite possibly dragons! If dungeons are your thing then carry on to the coast to see Dover Castle. Seven layers of tunnels and rooms have been cut into the chalk cliff underneath the castle. “He who holds the castle, holds the key to England” – one of the largest, oldest and strongest castles in England. On a clear day you can see across the English Channel to France, just 22 miles away – even if you don’t take a trip over there, your mobile phone will probably pick up the French networks which is the next best thing.
On the Isle of Thanet at the tip of Kent you come to Broadstairs and the summer home of Charles Dickens who spent a great deal of time in Kent. 2012 is the bicentennial anniversary of his birth, you can be certain that there are lots of celebrations throughout the year.
Not everything in Kent is old, in Margate the Turner Contemporary Gallery recently opened with exhibitions of modern art and rave reviews. Turning your back to France now and heading along the north Kent coast stop in at Whitstable, renown throughout the Roman Empire for its excellent oysters, there are still plenty to sample today in a charming little seaside town which appears to be about 20 years behind the rest of the country. There’s something for everyone in Kent and none of it more than 70 miles from central London – perfect!