Step into the ‘Garden of England’

Date Posted: 02/08/2011

Jeannine Williamson takes a fresh look at Kent, England’s oldest county, where groups can explore thousands of years of heritage.

Renowned for its countryside filled with fruit orchards, oast houses and more castles and historic stately homes than any other county, plus a long stretch of coastline lined with historic Cinque Ports, Kent is a captivating destination for groups.

Visit Kent has a dedicated trade website where GTOs can find sample itineraries, information on coach parking, accommodation, places to eat and forthcoming events. In addition to a new Dickens bicentenary itinerary there is also a royal themed itinerary to mark this year’s royal wedding and the Queen’s 2012 diamond jubilee. Kent has a wealth of royal connections and groups can discover how the ‘Garden of England’ has provided England’s kings and queens with country escape and entertainment, a route to travels on the continent, and a beautiful place for their castles and fortresses on the frontline of coastal defence.

Have a Dickens of a time

In 2012 Kent will be celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. The year will bring many activities and events to commemorate the 200th anniversary of one of Britain’s best-loved authors and his associations with the county and a full programme will be available shortly on the Visit Kent website (you can also read a more in-depth article about the anniversary by going to the Group Leisure website).

In the meantime GTOs can plan itineraries around a host of Dickens attractions, be it the Victorian magic of cobbled streets and seaside haunts that inspired his tales or hi-tech surprises that will enthral younger visitors. Charles Dickens moved to Chatham with his family in 1817 when he was five-years-old and Dickens World includes a Great Expectations boat ride, Peggotty’s Boathouse 4D cinema show and other exciting interpretations of Dickensian life.

Rochester entranced Dickens and inspired settings for his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, to his final unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. GTOs can pick up a map from the visitor centre to follow his footsteps in Rochester and further afield. Similarly, Dickens spent summers at the quintessential seaside resort of Broadstairs, where he worked on Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. He was so amused to observe Miss Mary Pearson Strong chasing donkey boys from in front of her cottage on Victoria Parade – now the colourful Dickens House Museum – that he put the episode into David Copperfield.

Take a look at the Turner Contemporary

In April the much anticipated Turner Contemporary opened in Margate. The eye-catching gallery designed by award-winning architect David Chipperfield was inspired by the legacy of celebrated British artist J.M.W. Turner and is on the same seafront site where Turner stayed while visiting the town. The new gallery is at the forefront of ambitious plans to revitalise Margate, one of Britain’s oldest seaside resorts.

Boasting the largest exhibition space in the south east outside London, the accessible gallery features specially commissioned works by modern artists as well as works by Turner. From 4th October to 2nd September 2012, your group members will have the opportunity to see Rodin’s world-famous life-size marble statue The Kiss. The life-size marble statue was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1953 and is normally on display at London’s Tate Modern. Admission to the Turner Contemporary is free and 60-minute guided group tours are available for £2.50 per head. There is also a coach drop off point in front of the gallery.

What’s cooking at Chiddingstone?

Groups can enjoy an absorbing view of ‘downstairs life’ at Chiddingstone Castle where the Victorian kitchen has recently been refurbished and an authentic scullery has been recreated. The kitchen was in use from the 19th century until 1955 and in the early years up to 20 servants worked there, including a cook, housemaids, nursery maids and footmen. Groups can see the original range, three cake ovens heated by their own fire, larders used for drying hams and a fascinating display of kitchen utensils, including early labour saving gadgets.

The Victorian tea room, with traditional treats served on fine china and crisp tablecloths, has also been revamped. Chiddingstone, which can trace a history back to the 1500s, includes an eclectic collection of Egyptian and Buddhist artefacts, Japanese armour and Jacobean paintings, and offers discounted entry and exclusive guided tours for groups of 15 or more.

Go straight to gaol

One of Canterbury’s most distinctive landmarks, the medieval Westgate Towers, has been given a new lease of life. Boasting the UK’s largest surviving medieval gateway, the historic site of the former city gaol was relaunched in May with a brand new cafe and, revealing for the first time in 150 years, the original entrance and prisoners’ route to the towers.

As well as providing one of the best views over the city and its old Roman wall, visiting groups can hear the inmates’ stories, experience the dark life of those who were imprisoned and witness the changes brought in by the Victorian prison reform movement. Westgate Towers is also home to a fascinating collection of guns and weapons dating from the Civil War to World War Two and special tours are available for groups.

Striking sculpture

Best known for his Angel of the North, Antony Gormley has created a stunning sculpture using medieval iron nails removed from the roof of Canterbury Cathedral during restoration work. Entitled Transport, the sculpture that was unveiled earlier this year outlines the shape of a floating body and is suspended above the first tomb of Thomas Becket, the archbishop murdered at the cathedral in 1170.

Pilgrims have made their way to Canterbury Cathedral since the Middle Ages and this year the cathedral has been commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. Groups can experience fascinating aspects of cathedral life with exclusive behind-the-scenes tours.

Curtain up

Built on its existing but extended site in the heart of Canterbury, the new Marlowe Theatre is due to open in October. A good place to take your group after a day’s sightseeing, the riverside theatre will feature an extended programme of musicals, plays, opera, modern and classical music and a new 150-seat smaller auditorium, Second Space, will host innovative performances and arts events.

Five great group attractions

  • Chapel Down Winery: The UK’s largest producer of English wines offers group tours and tastings and combined visits with nearby gardens and attractions.
  • Historic Dockyard Chatham: The world’s most complete dockyard of the Age of Sail spans 80 acres of naval heritage and 400 years of maritime history.
  • Kent & East Sussex Railway: Winding its way from Tenterden to Bodiam Castle the ten and a half mile heritage line also offers joint itineraries for groups taking in other attractions such as Bedgebury Pinetum and Biddenden Vineyard.
  • Penshurst Place: A magnificent stately home with a history stretching back more than six centuries, group benefits include a visit with cream tea and special winter house tours.
  • World Garden of Plants at Lullingstone Castle: One of the country’s oldest family estates, the current heir and modern day plant hunter Tom Hart Dyke has created an amazing green map of the world with plants collected from around the globe.

Five captivating castles

  • Dover Castle: With a history dating back to Roman times, this summer English Heritage reopened the Secret Wartime Tunnels evoking more recent times. Dramatic sets recount the story of Operation Dynamo, and your group will walk through the actual tunnels where the Dunkirk evacuation was masterminded.
  • Hever Castle: This enchanting 13th century double moated castle near Edenbridge was home of the Boleyn family and in particular sisters Mary and Anne, both of whom caught Henry VIII’s roving eye Meet costumed figures of Henry VIII and his six wives in the Long Gallery. Groups benefits include private castle and garden tours.
  • Leeds Castle: This fairytale castle that was the residence of six medieval queens is a breathtaking sight, rising from a lake in 500 acres of parkland. Groups can embark on both guided and non-guided tours and there is coach parking close to the visitor reception area.
  • Rochester Castle: This imposing fortress, guarding an important crossing of the River Medway, has a tense history of destruction and rebuilding. Visitors can climb the massive Norman keep for superb views across the river and surrounding area.
  • Walmer Castle: Built during the reign of Henry VIII as part of a chain of coastal artillery defences, the Queen Mother enjoyed many summers at Walmer in Deal. Groups can view some of the rooms she used and walk through the delightful garden created for her 95th birthday.

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