The secret garden

Date Posted: 19/08/2012

Pictured: Chapel Down Winery boasts 22 acres of vineyard.

Kent’s rapid development alongside its heritage and coastal attractions, hidden treasures and verdant countryside, means it’s blossoming in 2012. Mark Henshall reveals all.

A period Bentley pulls out of Maidstone and travels to Kingsdown, on the coast between Dover and Deal, stopping off at Charing Hill and Canterbury along the way. It’s a beautiful drive through the lush Kent countryside, except the destination is the Moonraker plant, the evil Sir Hugo Drax’s devilish brainchild, and the driver sent by M is Special Agent James Bond 007…

Bond author Ian Fleming owned a house by the sea in St Margarets, Kent just along the coast from Kingsdown, so when he was devising the classic 1955 Bond car scene he used Kent to bring in local detail. He wasn’t the first to be seduced here. Kent is currently celebrating the Charles Dickens’ bicentenary - Dickens was inspired by both Rochester and Broadstairs throughout his life and spent much of his time here in the countryside.

Bond and Dickens are among a huge range of group itineraries on Visit Kent’s dedicated travel website with group themes such as: Gourmet Kent; A Royal Progress around the Garden of England; Heritage Kent; Literary Kent; and Coastal Kent. Kent’s long coastline, rich maritime history (this is a land that sent Nelson off to sea from Chatham dockyards), and recent development means the old fishing town of Whitstable, for example, has transformed itself - sampling oysters here on the quayside awash with stalls being part of a great day out.

Produce from Kent’s market gardens provides a delectable garnish, and the county grows copious amounts of hops that are turned into real ales by brewers big and small (hop fields and oast houses are common sites).

Cultivating change

Despite its heritage of castles, beautiful gardens, historic sites and homes (many a legacy of Tudor times onwards where monarchs, noblemen and courtiers acquired estates), Kent isn’t living in the past and is enjoying a huge revival. There has been the re-development of the Secret Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle; the New Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury; the 300-store Glow at Bluewater; playing host to the Paralympic Road Cycling Event at Brands Hatch, Sevenoaks; and Dreamland Heritage Park is due to re-open in Margate 2013.

The star though is the new Turner Contemporary, Margate. A simplistic but stunning white building, it sits on the seafront in the fast-rejuvenating resort town of Margate, on the spot where J.M.W. Turner stayed when he used to paint his mesmeric seascapes. The light here on the eastern tip of England, is sensational and illuminates the building at sunset.

In Margate itself, regeneration is most apparent in and around the old town. Recently-opened Rough Trade Margate (5-7 Fort Road) is home to a number of innovative local businesses selling goods from vintage clothes, second-hand designer clothes and antiques to stainless steel jewellery and reworked furniture. Look out for HOUSEmargate for retro and interiors, Metalman for jewellery and John Bidston's collages.

Elsewhere in the old town, group travel organisers can visit Madam Popoff for vintage, The Greedy Cow deli for food, and Punkaboo for hand-knitted punk rock babygrows and skull and crossbone bibs.

If you do want to step back in the past, groups are simply spoilt in Kent. With two of the country’s oldest cathedrals at Canterbury and Rochester, excellent transport links and coach parking for days out, and an excellent programme of annual festivals and events, there is a glut of options. Take the 13th century Hever Castle, once the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. Set in magnificent gardens, the castle has a homely atmosphere and houses historic 16th century Tudor portraits, furniture and tapestries.

Other artefacts include two Books of Hours (prayer books), both signed and inscribed by Anne Boleyn. For a garden tour try Sissinghurst, which runs exclusive group access, including a meal amongst the roses and honeysuckle using produce grown on the estate.

City and beyond

One option for group travellers in Kent is to mix a trip to the city, town, coast and countryside in one. Canterbury, the ecclesiastical capital of England with one of the country’s great religious monuments, makes a good base from which to hit the coastal towns of Whitstable, Margate and Herne Bay (with unspoiled beaches in between) or go down to where the mighty White Cliffs delineate Dover and beyond.

Travel west and you are at - arguably - Britain’s most gorgeous castle, Leeds Castle, sitting in the middle of a lake surrounded by landscaped parkland. Here groups can stop for a picnic, walk and marvel at the serene sight that has survived for centuries. Further west still is Chartwell, the family home and garden of Sir Winston Churchill.

Also consider Knole, a grand family home for more than 400 years and the inspiration for Virginia Woolf's book Orlando. It contains some superb portraits, textiles and silver, and like many of the other historic sites, homes and gardens, can arrange exclusive access and tours for groups.

Five great group attractions

Chapel Down Winery: The Chapel Down Winery is home to the largest producer of English wines. Designed and built by local artisans, using the materials used in the winemaking process and set in landscaped grounds - including more than 22 acres of vineyards - the winery makes great English wine home.

Kent and East Sussex Railway: The line gently winds its way from Tenterden, through the unspoilt countryside of the Rother Valley, to terminate in the shadow of Bodiam Castle. Beautifully restored coaches dating from Victorian times to the 1960s and operational steam locomotives built as early as 1872, easily combine to recreate many a timeless era.

Secret Gardens of Sandwich: Situated in the heart of Sandwich, encircled by the old stone city walls, the gardens are an oasis of serenity waiting to be explored. At their heart stands the Grade I listed manor house designed by famous English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also devised the 3.5 acres of ornamental gardens.

Shepherd Neame Visitor Centre: Shepherd Neame is Britain’s Oldest Brewer based in Faversham. Enjoy an 80-minute tour of the brewery learning about its history and see how their award-winning ales and lagers are brewed. Return to the visitor centre bar for an enlightening tutored tasting.

Turner Contemporary: Perfectly located on the edge of the Margate seafront, the same location which inspired many of the works of J.M.W. Turner, Turner Contemporary is a modern and dynamic visual arts organisation which opened in April 2011. Enjoy a programme of inspirational, changing events and exhibitions throughout the year.

Five history and heritage visits

Canterbury Cathedral: England’s oldest Cathedral, Canterbury is the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion and one of the great holy places of Christendom. The Cathedral’s history goes back to 597AD. In 1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral and ever since, it has attracted thousands of pilgrims, as told famously in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Dover Castle: Set in a spectacular location high above the famous White Cliffs, Dover Castle boasts an immense history. Visitors to the castle today can step inside the Great Tower and be immersed in the medieval world of King Henry II’s Royal Court, or re-live the turbulent war years through the Secret Wartime Tunnels.

The Historic Dockyard Chatham: A unique, award-winning maritime heritage destination. Your group can explore over 400-years of maritime history from the recently opened No.1 Smithery, a cultural venue for maritime collections, to the three historic warships of HMS Gannet, HMS Cavalier and HMS Ocelot.

Leeds Castle: One of the most romantic and historic buildings in England, has been home to royalty, lords and ladies for almost 900 years. Visitors to the castle today can wander through the castle rooms, enjoy the tranquility of the gardens or attend one of the immensely popular summer concerts or events taking place during the year.

Penshurst Place: Set in the rural Weald of Kent surrounded by picturesque countryside and ancient parkland, this medieval masterpiece has been the seat of the Sidney family since 1552 and still retains the warmth and character of a much-loved family home. Today, Philip Sidney, Viscount De L’Isle, continues the family guardianship of this wonderful old house and garden.

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