Battle of Britain Memorial
What strikes most about the Memorial in Capel-le-Ferne is its poignant simplicity. Two aircraft catch the eye first: a replica Spitfire and Hurricane, the two workhorses that saw off the Luftwaffe. Their smallness is surprising, until you remember they needed only to bear a man and a few machine-guns aloft, albeit very quickly. Then there’s the Memorial Wall bearing the names of the 3,000 men involved, a number even smaller than the English army that failed to repel the Normans at Hastings. And finally there’s the Memorial itself, the statue of an airman looking out to sea, set in the middle of a propeller design. Following his gaze takes one’s eye to the French coast, a reminder of how close we came to a repeat of 1066. Even without the ‘Scramble Experience’ indoors for those who need their technological fix, it’s an evocative spot, perhaps best visited when stormy skies capture the mood of 1940.
Bayham Old Abbey
Anyone who likes inspecting old ruins will not find those of Bayham Abbey intrinsically special. Though substantial and ornate enough to merit inspection, they are much like the remains of all the monasteries destroyed by Henry VIII as if to prove there were no limits to his passion for Anne Boleyn. What makes them well worth a visit is their very rural location, right down on the Sussex border, in an area of unspoilt countryside in the Teise valley west of Lamberhurst. They are in fact literally on the border: the front gate opened into Kent, and the back one (which has disappeared) into Sussex. The Abbey was founded around 1207, and housed monks of the Premonstratensian order that originated in the north of France. For the last sixty years, the ruins have been owned by English Heritage, and are free to visit. They lie adjacent to Bayham Hall, an impressive private residence.
Beaney House of Art & Knowledge
The Beaney Institute in Canterbury High Street was set up in 1899 in a new mock-Tudor building to house the city’s museum and library. It was named after Canterbury-born surgeon and philanthropist James Beaney, whose bequest paid for most of it. The Institute was subjected to an extravagant makeover in 2009, designed by various stakeholders to create a more “vibrant” offering. In practice, this meant the modern vogue in civic museums for directing the tone and content towards parties of schoolchildren and their teachers. As critics complained when it re-opened as the “Beaney House of Art & Knowledge”, it missed an opportunity to provide residents and tourists with a comprehensive history of this unique world city. Nevertheless, it is worth seeing both for the eccentric architecture and for the fascinating paintings and exhibits that can still be found serendipitously by inquisitive visitors.
Bedgebury National Pinetum
In the High Weald, south of Goudhurst and east of Bewl Water, the expansive Bedgebury Forest is a stunningly beautiful area that offers endless opportunities for hiking, cycling, and the like. In its north-west corner lies the Bedgebury National Pinetum, a 320-acre arboretum of world importance. The original tree collection was started in the 1850s by Viscount Beresford. In 1924, Kew Gardens and the Forestry Commission developed it as the National Conifer Collection, specialising in cedars, firs, pines and spruces but with an admixture of deciduous trees; many specimens were actually grown at Kew. It now contains ten thousand plants that include 7,000 tree species. Its purpose is in part conservation, over fifty of the species being considered at risk. Most visitors however go for recreation in a setting that, like an arboreal version of a botanical garden, is surprisingly colourful and varied, and especially beautiful when the summer sun lights up its four lakes.
English wine is so often thought of as recent innovation that it’s hard to believe that wine has been made at Biddenden for over fifty years. The Barnes family who founded the business had a 40-acre apple farm in the Weald, and decided to diversify on account of falling fruit prices. From an original half-acre vineyard, the estate has grown to cover 23 acres. The loamy soil and sheltered valley lend themselves to German and French grape varieties. Eleven varieties of grape are grown, most particularly the Ortega commonly used in German white wines. Production now amounts to roughly 80,000 bottles a year. Biddenden Vineyards also produces the strong Kentish cider very familiar in the Weald, as well as apple and pear juices. Tastings are available on Saturday open tours or on arranged private guided tours, although it is normally possible to stroll through the vineyards and visit the shop on any day of the week.
Big Cat Sanctuary
Until 2018, any unsuspecting traveler passing along the road to Headcorn from the Smarden Bell might have wondered what a big cat sanctuary was doing there. Since 2018, they’d be more likely to exclaim, “Wow – it’s the Big Cat Sanctuary!” The difference was made by the appearance of director Giles Clark on BBC’s ‘Big Cats About The House’. The 32-acre site had been used as early as the 1990s by the Born Free Foundation as a bucolic refuge for exotic felines. It was acquired in 2000 by zoo-owner Peter Sampson, who retains ownership today. In 2016 he hired the high-profile Clark to take over management, the latter having worked with Steve Irwin at the Australia Zoo. Though he has raised the Sanctuary’s media profile, Clark still prioritises tranquillity for the 50-odd species of cat. The few Open Days it holds each year to raise funds for its conservation efforts are quickly sold out.
The Black Friars who gave the former Dominican order in Canterbury its name were so called for no more curious a reason than the colour of their capes. Their friary was founded in 1237 with a grant from the pious King Henry III, probably using money he had extorted from English Jews. It covered a sizeable area beside the River Stour, opposite where the Marlowe Theatre now stands. Most of its buildings disappeared after the friary was dissolved in 1538 on King Henry VIII’s instructions; but the two that survive are attractive and even functional. The guest house was originally on an island connected to the rest of the friary by two wooden bridges, all of which have long since disappeared. It was privately restored within the last half century from a state of ruin, and is now the Beerling concert hall. The refectory meanwhile serves as a quaint art gallery for the King’s School.
The North Foreland, Kent’s most easterly promontory, contains a succession of attractive sandy bays sheltered by towering white cliffs. Probably the most attractive is Botany Bay, just north of Kingsgate. Apart from offering the usual facility for swimming, sunbathing or beachcombing, it boasts extensive rock-pools that provide an opportunity for fascinating investigations by young and old alike. It is the cliffs, however, that make Botany Bay so distinctive. First, there is the sea stack at its southern end that stands as the Bay’s trademark. And then there are the prominent caves, which include the remnants of smugglers’ tunnels. It was in fact the appeal of this secluded beach to smugglers that probably provided its name: if they weren’t first shot by excisemen, offenders could expect to spend an extended holiday in the penal colony of that name in Sydney, Australia. The fact that a bloody battle once took place at that most peaceful spot now seems hard to contemplate.
It is only appropriate that the Garden of England should be host to the National Fruit Collection. This is a Noah’s Ark of fruit species: two of each strain growing in 150 acres of orchards. One of the largest such collections in the world, it contains around two thousand varieties of apple, along with lesser numbers of pears, plums, cherries, and others. The Collection, owned by DEFRA, moved to Brogdale Farm near Faversham in 1952. The Farm itself has been owned by Brogdale Collections since 1999, when it was bought from the Duchy of Cornwall. The public has the opportunity to visit, and hear talks about the produce, at Festivals that take place from July to October; they include Cherry, Cider and Apple fairs. Brogdale also provides specialist advice to fruit growers, selling cuttings from particular trees in the Collection for grafting so that classic but unfashionable varieties may continue to bear fruit.
The success of the Norman Invasion owed much to the wholesale slaughter of Saxon nobility at Hastings, which left behind few to organise or pay for resistance. Once he had taken London, William’s main need was to maintain control of the crucial port of Dover and his key connection with it, Watling Street, both in hostile Kentish territory. To this end, he immediately constructed motte-and-bailey castles at Dover, Canterbury, and Rochester, plus of course the Tower of London. Canterbury’s was not the biggest, but still must have overawed the natives. William’s son Henry I added the huge stone keep, which at around thirty yards square, and nearly as tall, was positively intimidating. By the C13 it had outlived its purpose; its subsequent uses ranged from a county gaol to a gas storage facility. The local council took over the ruin in 1928, and it is now a grand though mournful sight for visitors entering Canterbury from Wincheap.
The barbaric Murder in the Cathedral 850 years ago added much to the allure of Canterbury Cathedral, much as the fictional Quasimodo enlivens Notre Dame. Becket’s shrine started drawing pilgrimage from as far afield as Winchester in 1220. It is no unalloyed blessing that visitors are drawn ineluctably to the murder scene, and so risk missing the essence of the place. The cathedral built by St Augustine in 597 was destroyed in the first year of the Norman Conquest, and replaced with a structure modelled on Caen’s impressive Abbaie aux Hommes. Though significantly altered after a further fire, it retains from the Christchurch and Postern Gates the serene air of a great ship. The labyrinth attached to its north side, however, feels like the engine room. It is the walk from Queningate to the Cloisters, especially at dusk, that evokes the true importance of this edifice: as the foundry of the Anglican Church, and so the English nation.
Canterbury City Walls
Although nothing like as complete as the ancient walls of Chester, Canterbury’s still make an impressive statement to newcomers. It was of course those inveterate city-wall builders the Romans who first erected them, placing them atop a rampart with an adjacent ditch around AD 280. There were at least five gates, corresponding to the arterial roads in and out. Although they decayed after the Romans left, the walls provided enough defence to commend Canterbury as the site for the nation’s pre-eminent cathedral. Surprisingly, they were restored not by the Normans but during a lull in the Hundred Years’ War, following a spate of French naval raids on English ports. By 1400, gaps were filled, the gatehouses restored, and 24 towers built. Thereafter, it was mostly downhill again. Two centuries of urban growth saw all the gates bar Westgate demolished, bookended by Roundhead and Luftwaffe assaults on the walls. Nevertheless, more than half the Roman circuit somehow doggedly survives.
On April 3rd, 2020, a tombstone announcement appeared on the website of the Canterbury Tales visitor centre: the attraction was now permanently closed. It felt slightly surreal, like learning that Woolworth’s had stopped trading. The fact that you might not have visited for years, or maybe ever, still left a sense of loss. When it opened in 1985, it was in all honesty somewhat cheesy and wooden, and never changed much even with the advent of the experiential industry and affordable technology. Yet its combination of static exhibits and live performers became a must-see tourist destination, providing a light-hearted introduction to Chaucer’s most famous work. A stroll down St Margaret’s Street would not have been the same without its colourful banners and costumed actors spilling onto the pavement. There had been rumours recently that the business was suffering from the downturn in city-centre footfall. It seems that, as is its wont, coronavirus came along to finish it off.
The Chagall Windows
Tudeley, between Tonbridge and Paddock Wood, is one of those places that you miss if you blink while driving through. It has a church, but only one that looks like a horse designed by a committee. Go inside All Saints, however, and you’ll see something unique in the whole world. In 1963, Sarah D’Avigdor-Goldsmid was killed in a boating accident. Her parents asked the Franco-Russian artist Marc Chagall, whom she had admired, to design a commemorative stained-glass window for the church. When it was installed, he was so impressed that he undertook to redo all the others too. It took nearly 20 years. None is quite as impressive as the first, which casts a magnificent blue light through the chancel. Nonetheless, it is hard not to contemplate the wonder of this moving Christian symbol, magnanimously created by a Jew born in a shtetl under Tsar Alexander III, here today in the Kentish countryside: an outstanding example of human sympathy.
The Chalybeate Spring
Iron-rich water generally looks, tastes and even smells bad. Call it Chalybeate, however – from the Greek for steel – and you may have a winner. Certainly Baron North thought so when he discovered such a spring near Eridge in 1606. A friendly doctor claimed that it remedied various mood disorders, weight loss or gain, worms, and an over-moist brain. Before long, even Stuart queens were coming to try the waters. The locality became a fashionable spa resort for the wealthy, with the Pantiles providing a suitably elegant promenade to the Chalybeate Spring itself. Visitors swore by its waters, and no doubt benefitted from the placebo effect, though that is unsurprising in a world where electricity, magnetism, and even radioactivity have been sold as therapeutic. By 1909, this rustic spot had acquired not one name but three: Royal Tunbridge Wells. Conman or not, we’ve North to thank for one of England’s loveliest towns, right here in Kent.
Chatham Historic Dockyard
In the C18, the new nation of Great Britain switched its attention from east to west, looking out for trouble from France and opportunity in North America. Portsmouth and then Plymouth consequently came to the fore as Britain’s naval hubs. It’s easily forgotten that, until that time, Chatham was all-important. Near the mouth of the Medway, close to both Greenwich and the North Sea, it became England’s capital of ship construction and docking in Tudor times. So essential was it to this nascent sea-power that the dockyard expanded to take over most of Gillingham. When in 1667 the Dutch Republic sought to administer a knockout blow in the Second Dutch War, its fleet headed not for London but the Medway. Today’s ‘Chatham Historic Dockyard’ lacks the blockbuster exhibits of Portsmouth – where, unaccountably, HMS Victory is dry-docked, rather than at its Kentish home port – but Chatham’s organisers have laid on enough activities to provide a memorable day of nautical instruction.
Chislehurst’s famous Caves are not really caves at all, but tunnels dug over a period of a millennium for the extraction of chalk, which was burned in kilns above to create lime. Incredibly, they cover 15 acres and have a total length of 22 miles. After mining ceased in the 1830s, they were used for storing ammunition and cultivating mushrooms. Their heyday, however, came in 1940, when they were used as an air-raid shelter that morphed into a well-equipped subterranean city for 15,000, each paying a penny to enter. Later, as well as providing an atmospheric location for TV production, they became the O2 of the 1960s, featuring such top musical acts as Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, the Yardbirds, the Animals, and local boy David Bowie, who appeared four times. Nowadays public access is limited to guided tours and special events, although the Labyrinthe role-playing club also enjoys a singularly evocative world there.
The main entrance to the Precincts of Canterbury Cathedral is worth a visit in its own right. Its location in Buttermarket is itself atmospheric: an unexpected patch of open space with a distinctly Central European feel among a warren of narrow medieval streets. As for the wonderfully ornate Gate, it could easily be from Prague, but for the obviously British crests. It was built in honour of Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne who died soon after marrying Catherine of Aragon. A Puritan iconoclast destroyed the original effigy of Christ in the centre, and the towers were removed by order of an alderman who wanted to be able to see the Cathedral clock from his office; all were fortunately replaced. Buttermarket is an ideal meeting-place, because the party arriving first can while away the time studying the Gate’s intricate and often curious details. It’s free to view from the front, and from the rear too in late-afternoon.
The Darnley family of Cobham Manor found themselves in a difficult position in 1781 when their family tomb at Westminster Abbey was full to overflowing. The fourth Earl of Darnley decided to provide for future generations by having a mausoleum built in the garden. It came out a very grand affair in neo-classical style. The odd thing about it was that, where one might have expected a dome on top, it actually had a pyramid, supposedly because he’d admired such a device in a painting by Poussin. This was undeniably an eye-catching feature of the landscape, and just a pity that no one ever got buried in it. It was abandoned to the elements and, at length, vandals, who set fire to it and generally used it for nefarious purposes. Eventually it was bought by Gravesham Council and restored. Now administered by the National Trust, it can be visited by the public, along with the surrounding woods.
In Canterbury’s Palace Street is one of those sights that every tourist needs to tick off the list, even though there’s little to see. Conquest House looks at first glance like another lovely timber-framed building such as Canterbury specialises in. Unfortunately, it’s fake. The whole frontage was replaced in the C19, which accounts for the thoroughly different appearance of adjacent buildings. It’s not as though viewing the interior will compensate, as it’s closed to the public. A shop is located there selling health foods, so that one can walk away with something tangible; but it’s slightly grasping at straws. The one genuine reason for paying a visit is this: to be able to say you’ve seen the actual building where, back in 1170, Henry II’s four knights met to plan the assassination of Thomas Becket. The fact of his chapel being only 100 yards behind you does bring it home that the infamous act was more real than tour-guide trivia.
The Custom House, Ramsgate
Completed in 1894, the Custom House in Harbour Parade is the natural first port of call for any visit to Ramsgate. It’s a pleasingly simple edifice: a solid two-storey red-brick affair, as befits its original purpose, but with enough civic pride to be sporting a copper dome, topped by a columned drum and weather vane like the feather in a bonnet. At the top of each storey, a smart stone balustrade completes the look. But this is still a functional building, housing not only the tourist information office but also a handy café, a shop and even a restaurant. What’s equally pleasing is the broad vista that greets the departing visitor: the Royal Victoria Pavilion and the Obelisk over to the left, the Ramsgate Maritime Museum straight ahead, and to the right the Marina, with Royal Parade beyond. With seagulls complaining bitterly overhead, it’s a scene that lives on in the memory as the essence of Ramsgate.
Moored at Greenwich since 1954, Cutty Sark has been preserved as an example of the tea clipper, a vessel that shone brightly but was quickly eclipsed by invention. She was built in 1869 to carry cargo to China and bring back the British elixir of life, chai. Speed was of the essence, since the journey was long and traders competed to get the new crop to Britain’s salons first. She had a narrow beam to cut through the water and three masts packed with wind power, so she travelled at a good clip. Cutty Sark’s best tea run was 107 days from Shanghai to North Foreland. Unluckily, the Suez Canal opened in 1869, greatly favouring steamers. Within a decade, the game was up. She spent three decades in Lisbon and three as a training vessel in Greenhithe before retirement. Despite two recent fires, her sleek lines still give a stirring impression quite unlike the usual old sailing ship.
One of the unintended consequences of King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon was the threat of invasion by her enraged nephew the Holy Roman Emperor, with the urging of the Pope and supported by the French. Because the Downs – the sea area west of the Goodwin Sands – provided an excellent anchorage, Henry had three forts built urgently at Sandown, Deal, and Walmer in 1539-40. These were a far cry from the rectangular Norman castles so familiar across Kent. The keep and bastions were designed as overlapping circles that protected better against cannon fire whilst affording flexible offensive capabilities. The invasion never happened; but Deal Castle did see action during the Civil War, when the Roundheads took it back after a six-week siege. It later served also as a deterrent to Napoleon’s invasion plans. After long providing an exotic private residence for the castle captain, it was turned into an evocative tourist attraction, now operated by English Heritage.
Nobody would ever stumble across Dode. It is hidden away somewhere between Snodland and Meopham down the sort of single-track lane that makes drivers pray no one comes the other way. The reason why Dode is literally off the map is that the village was wiped out in 1349 by the Black Death. All that remains is its church. Last used for worship in 1367, it was deconsecrated by the Bishop of Rochester, and fell into ruin. It was restored a century ago by a mayor of Gravesend, and again after 1990 by a Maidstone surveyor who now rents it out as a slightly macabre venue for weddings. You’ll hear the usual talk about the ghost of the ‘Dodechild’ – supposedly the last to die – but there’s little to see. In this day and age, however, it’s instructive in that remote spot to contemplate what happens when humans encounter a microbe that is contagious, incurable, and truly lethal.
There’s a case to be made for the notion that, after Canterbury Cathedral, Dover Castle was the most significant edifice in early English history. If, as Shakespeare says, the sea was England’s “moat defensive to a house”, then Dover Castle was its barbican. It was actually built by the invading Normans as an instrument of oppression, and took on a singularly invincible aspect at the top of the white cliffs once the Great Tower and curtain walls were added in the C12. It played its most significant role in history when, in 1216-7, it decisively held out twice against sieges by the invading Prince Louis of France. Although gunpowder rendered it ineffective as a fortification, it continued to have a military function right up until WW2, when the tunnels beneath provided a secure base for organising the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk. Today the huge site is worth a visit even for the impressive views alone.
When Dreamland opened on Margate’s sea-front in 1920, it must have got the same enthralled reaction as Disneyland in 1955. There was a pleasure garden on the site in the 1870s, including a lake, statues, menagerie, and ‘ruined abbey’. In 1880, the first ride appeared: a ‘Sea on Land’ machine that moved passengers up and down. A permanent amusement park was the brainchild of John Iles who, after visiting Coney Island, had built such parks around the world. His iconic wooden Scenic Railway, plus other smaller rides, made for the big success called Dreamland. The Iles family sold up in 1968, since when the park has had as many ups and downs as a roller-coaster. Its long-term failure was sealed by Margate’s decline as a holiday destination and competition from true theme parks like Chessington. Dreamland folded in 2003, and a public campaign led to a disastrous relaunch. Restarted in 2017, it now operates partly as a concert venue.
Since the British (2016) and American (2019) movies called ‘The Lighthouse’, it’s been hard to see any such structure as simply a device for showing ships the way. Dungeness, as Kent’s southernmost point, was always the obvious place for an entrance light to the Dover Strait, the world’s busiest shipping channel. The problem for lighthouse-builders, however, has always been the same: the coastline will not sit still. The current operational lighthouse, operational since 1961, is the fifth. It succeeded the ‘Old Lighthouse’, opened in 1904, which now serves as a tourist attraction. Aside from providing fabulous views of the sea, the nature reserve, the power station, and of course the ‘New Lighthouse’ 300 yards away, a visit gives rein to the imagination. What would it be like to be shut up in one of these for months, with just one other person for company? Sadly, many more people now know the answer before Covid-19 struck.
Dymchurch Martello Tower
It’s easy to look at a Martello tower and wonder what possible use it had. It was in fact a cleverly designed structure, around 30 feet high, that accommodated a cannon on the roof, soldiers’ quarters on the first floor, an armoury at ground level, and storage in the basement, all encased in brick walls up to thirteen feet thick. 75 of them were built along the coast of Kent and East Sussex in the early C19, when the threat of a Napoleonic invasion was serious. Fortunately, the towers never had to be put to practical use. Number 24, at Dymchurch, was neither demolished nor sold off as a private residence, but conserved for public inspection at weekends. Visiting the circular interior, still essentially in its pristine state, feels rather like entering a converted oast-house. The name, incidentally, did not come from their designer, but was a misnomer for the original such tower, near Punta Mortella in Corsica.
Eastbridge Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr
The familiar C12 knapped-flint building in Canterbury High Street was not designed as a hospital, but a hostel for impoverished pilgrims visiting the shrine of St Thomas Becket. It was only after two centuries that Archbishop de Stratford had the idea of commercialising the operation, charging fourpence to every able-bodied guest. He made an exception for sick pilgrims, however, allowing them a bed for free and even providing female nurses, who were necessarily aged over forty. When pilgrimages fell out of fashion, it remained a hostel for the poor but also housed in the chapel a school that endured until 1879. The site is now occupied by the Society of Saint Francis, an order of Anglican Franciscan friars. Behind the austere exterior, the site is an oasis of calm, embracing the Greyfriars Chapel and Franciscan Gardens in addition to the Hospital itself. Wikipedia helpfully informs us that the Hospital offers no Accident & Emergency facility.
Considering how unfamiliar Faversham Abbey is among Kentish people, it may come as a surprise that it was in its prime an imposing edifice, even longer than Rochester Cathedral. It was founded in 1148 by King Stephen, at a time of great instability when he and his wife Matilda seemed set on establishing Faversham as a new royal capital. Certainly its proximity to Dover and Canterbury was beneficial, given the imminent threat of invasion from France. When they and their eldest son died in quick succession, all three were buried at the Abbey. It didn’t survive Henry VIII, being dissolved in 1538; and, when it was demolished, their bones were irreverently tossed into Faversham Creek. The site now lies in the playing fields of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School. Little is left apart from two barns, now at Abbey Farm, and the guest house which in 1551 became the murder scene of ‘Arden of Faversham’.
Faversham Stone Chapel
There isn’t much to see of Faversham Stone Chapel. It’s a short walk along a footpath from where the Doddington road joins the A2. Parking is difficult, and when you get to the site it’s a small patch of ruins that takes minutes to exhaust. The open fields are nice, but speeding cars interrupt the peace. This is one of those ‘been there, done that’ experiences. But that’s not to deny the site’s specialness. The scant remains of the medieval chapel known as Our Lady of Elwarton rest on top of a mausoleum from the Roman period. It’s believed to have been a mausoleum, anyway, because it had no windows and a stone for a door. The builders of the flint church commandeered it as a chancel and added a nave; but it was abandoned to the elements in the C16. The site is now cited as evidence that Faversham was the site of Durolevum.
The devastating Dutch raid on the Medway in 1667 had people saying “Never again!” Marine defences were improved; but the threat to the dockyards did not come only from that direction. If Kent were invaded and Chatham occupied, England’s own naval might could be turned against it. In 1755, a huge fortification was built along the dockyard’s exposed eastern edge. It consisted of six bastions, each named after a royal. Together with a set of ditches, they became known as the Chatham Lines. A large fort was added at either end, Fort Amherst being the southern one. Named after the prominent C18 general, it was equipped with fourteen 42-pounder guns and twenty smaller ones. The defences were never tested, even by Napoleon; yet, though formidable, they were rendered obsolete by 1820. The fort is now a free-admission tourist attraction. It offers paid-for events targeted at schoolchildren. A tunnel tour is interesting, and the view from the top is neat.
The scale of the ruins alone gives an idea of what a mighty edifice St Augustine’s Abbey must have been. For its splendour, however, we have to take our guide from one slender relic: its ornate former main entrance, now usually called the Fyndon Gate. Named after the Abbot who built it around 1300, this battlemented stone gate just off Broad Street is now part of The King’s School. A visit entails passing through Lady Wotton’s Green, home to one of Canterbury’s loveliest draws: a spot in the garden where one can see a statue of Queen Bertha against the backdrop of the Gate and, in the opposite direction, King Aethelberht with the Cathedral tower over his shoulder. Many who are familiar with Fyndon Gate are unaware that, along Monastery Street, it has a companion called the Cemetery Gate. Just walking the short distance between them gives an impression of the sheer size of the Abbey site.
Sidney Bernstein was determined to make cinemas as luxurious as theatres. Following the success of his first Granada Theatre in Dover in 1930, he commissioned a design template for a ‘Standard’ chain of cinemas. His interior designer was an exotic choice: Theodore Komisarjevsky, a former impresario in Moscow who’d fled Russia in 1919 when Lenin abolished theatres. Now a London director, he’d become such a notorious philanderer that Dame Edith Evans nicknamed him ‘Come-and-seduce-me’. His prototype Granada cinema opened in 1934 at the foot of Gabriel’s Hill in Maidstone. Seating 1,600, it was a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance: all friezes, gilt and drapes. Obviously Bernstein loved it, because it became the model for a dozen cinemas, and misled Maidstone’s baby-boomers into thinking all cinemas must emulate tsarist palaces. Disastrously, it never recovered its grandeur after a flood in 1968. It stopped showing movies in 1999, and is now used only for bingo on the ground floor.
The Grand Hotel
When the Metropole Hotel was opened in 1897 in a secluded position overlooking the sea, at the Sandgate end of the Leas in Folkestone, its owners must have been overjoyed. They reckoned however without Daniel Baker, the builder who’d been snubbed for the construction work. He threw himself into a project to erect an even smarter edifice right next door. His pioneering techniques included cavity wall insulation and suspended ceilings. While the Metropole got embroiled in disputes with the community, the Grand Mansions emerged as the desirable residential block for gentlemen. After converting to hotel status in 1903, it became the fashionable haunt of King Edward VII and his mistress. Later, Agatha Christie wrote ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ there. The hotel was badly damaged by German shelling in WW2, and in 1975 came close to being demolished by foreign owners who wanted to build flats. It was mercifully saved by local man Michael Stainer, who still owns it.
Of all that was lost to London in 1889, the bitterest pill was Greenwich. Steeped in history, the town had at its core the 200-acre Greenwich Park that still today is one of the finest recreational areas in the South-East. It started as the property of the Abbey of St Peter in Ghent, but passed to Henry VI as a vast hunting estate. After his move south, King James I had the park enclosed in a wall 12 feet high that still delineates much of it today. It wasn’t until the C18 that it first became open to the public. Now a Royal Park, it provides superb views across to Canary Wharf. The one great building within it is the Royal Observatory, but it is also flanked by the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House to the north, Vanbrugh Castle to the east, and Blackheath to the south. Unsurprisingly, the area is a World Heritage Site.
Greyfriars Chapel & Gardens
The tranquillity of Greyfriars is so cunningly concealed in the heart of Canterbury, just steps away from the High Street, that few visitors realise it is there. Reached by a bridge over the Stour, it is an oasis of bucolic calm. Part of the site is Binnewith Island, of which half is privately owned; but the rest is taken up by meadows and lawns that can be visited any day of the week. There one has a remote view of the Cathedral, whose throngs of visitors seem a world away in the silence. The area was once occupied by the large Greyfriars Priory, which survived around 250 years until the monasteries were dissolved. All that remains, sitting astride a stream, is the Greyfriars Chapel, whose stark interior is suggestive of quiet piety stripped of ornament. Though the Chapel’s visiting hours are limited to afternoons, excluding Sundays, it’s a pity not to drop in for some quiet contemplation.
Rochester’s Guildhall Museum fails every test of a C21 municipal museum. It is housed in a Grade 1 listed building that no one has troubled to improve with an inclusive modern entrance unit. Its interior still displays original murals and frescoes unobscured by vibrant posters, banners and audio-visual presentations. Its displays altogether fail to provide the enhanced accessibility afforded by pitching everything to the minds of 10-year-olds. And the messaging does not concern itself with global issues but with the history and culture of the Medway region. In short, this Museum will appeal to no one but local residents, county history enthusiasts, visitors from the rest of Britain and international tourists wanting to entertain themselves by learning about the rich nitty-gritty history of Rochester. The perpetrators will be no doubt be dealt with in due course. Meanwhile, those wanting to witness this spectacle for themselves are advised to pay a visit as soon as possible.
The home of Ann Boleyn is one of Kent’s truly unmissable visits. A crenellated C13 manor house, it is the quintessential English castle in having not just a moat, a maze and ornate gardens, but also a gruesome history. It was home to Baron Saye and Sele, the man who earned the particular displeasure of Jack Cade’s rebels in 1450 and was parted from his head. Two centuries later it was the turn of Thomas Boleyn, who evaded the axe himself but saw two offspring dispatched by Henry VIII. Expropriated as a royal residence, the Castle was next occupied by Anne of Cleves. Thereafter it decayed steadily until it was rescued by Lord Astor, America’s wealthiest man. Today, aside from welcoming wide-eyed visitors, the castle offers bed and breakfast. There is nothing so unforgettable as an after-dark tour, followed by a night in a room where an apparition carrying her head on her arm would be no great surprise.
High Elms Country Park
So glorious is this 250-acre expanse of woodland and parkland on the North Downs near Farnborough that Men of Kent might ask: why didn’t Kentishmen put up a fight before letting London pinch it? In the C11 the estate was granted to Bishop Odo, no doubt for hunting. It was purchased around 1800 by banker Sir John Lubbock, one of whose grandsons, Lord Avebury, was a personal friend of Charles Darwin on the other side of Downe village. Sold to Kent County Council in 1938, it became a training centre for nurses. In 1967, just two years after falling under the auspices of London County Council, the Lubbocks’ mansion mysteriously burnt down. To be fair, London is doing a decent job of looking after its charge. Now a nature reserve, High Elms provides a marvellous leisure facility, laying on various types of country terrain in addition to formal gardens and an ecologically conscious visitor centre.
The Hop Farm
How do you solve a problem like the Hop Farm? It was once the high temple of the hop industry, its 30-odd kilns dominating the skyline like a picturesque Kentish riposte to the Drax power-station. All was fine until it stopped operating in the 1980s. It subsequently offered visits to exhibits concerning hop-drying, shire horses and the like, alongside occasional family events. In the 1990s, however, owners Whitbread decided to pull out of brewing. Soon, having seldom changed hands in its 450 years, the Hop Farm became a hot potato. Successive owners struggled to find a winning formula, and the offering varied bewilderingly. Annual events like ‘War & Peace’ still draw big crowds, but tend to come and go: the Music Festival looked a winner for five years, but one poor season scuppered it. The Farm is now marketed as a Family Park whose £3 admission packs the crowds in, though in truth without satisfying everyone that it’s worth it.
Horne’s Place Chapel
To be honest, a trip to Horne’s Place north of Appledore doesn’t yield a lot to do. The house itself, a private residence, is unavailable to visit. Built in the C13, it was granted to Ralph de Horne in 1276 by Edward I. The de Hornes remained a prominent family for 200 years, providing two Sheriffs of Kent, but returned to Kenardington in the C15. Their house is worth seeing for its interesting construction; but more significant is its adjacent chapel. This was constructed as a private affair to save the de Hornes having to travel to Appledore church. That they were allowed to do so says much about the family’s status; the Archbishop of Canterbury himself licensed it for worship in 1366. By the C19, however, it ended up being used as a barn. Small but perfectly formed, the chapel is now fully restored and available to visit free of charge as an English Heritage property.
The House of Agnes
The House of Agnes in Canterbury got its name from a Dickensian character: Agnes Wickfield, second wife of David Copperfield, who supposedly lived there. The house, thought to date from the C15, stands just outside Westgate. It’s on the site of a former Roman kiln in St Dunstans Street, down which Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims would have proceeded, and is worth a look and a photograph for its authentic olde-world charm. Despite modernisation, its interior retains much of its medieval flavour, with dark timbers and brickwork that make one wonder what the builders were drinking. That is not to say that it is unsightly. The current owner, a former hotel inspector, has done it out as a series of nattily themed rooms, each named after a world city – Mumbai, Tokyo, Marrakesh, etc – and styled appropriately. Members of the public can get to see one close up by booking bed and breakfast.
Howlett’s Wildlife Park
John Aspinall had two passions: gambling, and wild animals. He indulged the first with his own casino in Mayfair, and the second with the private zoo he started at Howletts House, Bekesbourne, in 1957. The latter was largely funded by the former; but, after the Lord Lucan affair, ‘Aspers’ opened it up to the public. It was never a conventional zoo, insofar as staff were encouraged to form close bonds with the animals. This had some negative consequences, particularly when no fewer than three keepers were killed by Siberian tigers. Aspinall took his respect for the animals as far as providing habitats so authentic that visitors sometimes struggled to see anything. And, when activists decided that zoos were unacceptable, Aspinall did not slaughter the animals or return them to die of disease, predation or poaching in the wild. Instead he nonchalantly changed the name on the door to ‘Howletts Wild Animal Park’, with an emphasis on conservation that satisfied everybody.
Kent & East Sussex Railway
The original Kent & East Sussex Railway was a commercial line opened in 1900 for both passengers and freight, running about 22 miles from Headcorn to Robertsbridge. It came about after a number of failed attempts to connect Tenterden with the Tonbridge-Ashford and Ashford-Hastings lines that bypassed it. A local action group pushed through the Robertsbridge line under the 1896 Light Railways Act, and it was constructed under the direction of the legendary Colonel HF Stephens. It stopped taking passengers in 1954 and closed altogether in 1961. A few years later, a section was reopened as a heritage railway. Accounting for nearly half the original length (10 miles), it runs from its headquarters at Tenterden across the border to Bodiam, reviving the nostalgic sight of steam trains sending up a plume of smoke over the Weald. Much of its appeal is to the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ age group, but it does still offer events interesting to grown-ups.
Kent Battle of Britain Museum
Hawkinge was a spiffing choice of site for the Kent Battle of Britain Museum. Not only was RAF Hawkinge Britain’s most forward base in the Battle of Britain, but the Museum is also handily placed for combining a visit with the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne. Whereas the Memorial is a moving experience, the Museum is a feast for anyone wanting to get an in-depth knowledge of what it was all about. Outdoors you can get close up with four RAF aircraft, resplendent in their camouflage; but it’s inside that, rain or shine, a tremendous collection of exhibits is spread about, from photographs to machine-gun shell casings. Included are numerous other planes, including several Luftwaffe ones. The one slight disappointment is that, unusually for museums, photography is not allowed, ostensibly for security reasons. However, a visit does bring back to life Britain’s “finest hour”, already 80 years into the past.
Kent County Show
The Kent County Show’s origins lie in the 1923 merger of the East and Mid Kent Agricultural Societies. The new combined society held its first Kent County Agricultural Show at Gravesend. It was primarily a competition for prize livestock – cows, pigs, sheep, horses – with some musical and sporting entertainment thrown in. It lost money; and so began an odyssey that took in Ashford, Sevenoaks and Canterbury. After WW2, it returned for 16 years to Mote Park in Maidstone, until eventually in 1964 a permanent home was acquired at Detling. Whilst retaining a strong agricultural component, including horticulture, the event has increasingly become a big day out for families, embracing all kinds of events such as military displays that give it the flavour of a fair. Though not cheap, it’s an attractive enough package to draw around 100,000 every July. The show has been attended by several royal personages, including the Queen, and counts Winston Churchill among former prize-winners.
In 1934, the 12-times Mayor of Maidstone, Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, began allowing the public in to see his collection of wild animals at Cobdown Manor estate, north of Maidstone. He closed ‘Maidstone Zoo’ in 1959, but some years later left the whole estate to the Borough Council. It was decided in 1984 that part of it, Sandling Farm, would be designated the ‘Museum of Kent Life’, preserving an extraordinary collection of its agricultural buildings in addition to others imported from elsewhere in Kent. Despite being adjacent to Cobdown Manor Park, a large children’s playground, it has lately been rebranded by its new management as ‘Kent Life Heritage Farm Park’, a “vibrant” facility for whosoever wishes to “let off steam”. Whether it will teach any grown-ups about Kent’s unique agricultural traditions remains to be seen; but meanwhile Kent can doubtless rest assured that youngsters will have plenty of opportunities to have their faces painted like tigers.
Kit’s Coty House
One can only wonder how many people have turned up at Kit’s Coty House expecting to see a Kentish counterpart to Anne Hathaway‘s Cottage, but found themselves in a remote field with only some megaliths for company. Kit’s Coty House is the remains of a long barrow – a mass grave – said to be over 5,000 years old. Such dolmens are commonplace in the West Country, but so rare in the East that you might think it’s a folly. However, other neolithic sites also north-east of Aylesford testify to its authenticity. Various suggestions have been made to account for its name, though none seems better than guesswork. It’s free to visit both Kit’s Coty and its companion nearby, Little Kit’s Coty House, but not as affecting as it would be if the stones weren’t surrounded by unsightly railings. There’s no harm in visiting when the weather is bad and the elements lend the experience some stone-age atmosphere.
Leas Cliff Hall
Folkestone’s Leas Cliff Hall claims to be the No. 1 concert venue in Kent, despite Margate’s Winter Gardens enjoying seniority in both age and capacity. Nevertheless, it has some advantages, not least its location just off the M20. Built in 1927, it sits on the clifftop near the centre of town. It is a plain rectangular box that would be inconspicuous but for the unmistakable pagoda-shaped box office, added in 1980, that can easily be spotted from some distance away along the Leas. The auditorium, down a grand staircase, is rather broader than it is deep, which can restrict the view of the stage. The Hall did in fact serve as a dance-hall throughout WW2, and still today the seating can be removed. Its idiosyncrasies have been no bar to the variety of entertainment it provides; nor the quality, not least in pop music. Previous performers it has hosted include the Rolling Stones, T Rex, and Stereophonics.
To be honest, the Leas Lift will not be on anyone’s bucket list. It’s a simple funicular railway devised for getting the public down from the Leas to the beach. The view is nothing special, and the journey too short to be worth mentioning. Nevertheless, it’s a must-do experience on the same basis that, if you go to Blackpool without seeing the Tower, you haven’t really been there. The lift was built in 1885 at a time when the Folkestone seafront was becoming a major draw for holidaymakers. It has subsequently carried over 36 million passengers. For a decade it has been beset by problems, as issues with restoration and maintenance have mounted, and with them the attendant costs. While efforts continue to raise the funds, the two carriages remain symbolically parked next to each other halfway up the cliff. It might be a good idea to take a look while you still can.
Lullingstone Roman Villa
Visiting almost any Roman site in Britain is like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs: it’s not great, but you’re surprised to see it at all. The Roman villa at Lullingstone, built in the C1, is pitiful alongside, say, the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, particularly when you consider that the major upgrade it underwent around AD 150 was probably for the benefit of the Governor of Britannia. Even so, it’s up there amongst the best of Roman British archaeology, with a couple of decent mosaics, an extensive bath block, and the first Christian painting found in Britain. Two marble busts were also found in the basement; one of them perhaps portrays the future Emperor Pertinax, who very likely stayed and may have lived there. The Villa burnt down in the C5, when the Roman Empire was imploding. It is open to the public as an English Heritage site.
Maison Dieu, Dover
In 1203, the Maison Dieu – ‘House of God’ – was built in Dover. It was a hostel catering for pilgrims from overseas who’d crossed the Channel on their way to Canterbury, but also accommodating permanent residents in need of shelter. Incorporating a hall, a kitchen, and living quarters, it was administered by monks who later added out-buildings. In 1227, Henry III came to open a new chapel, which is presumably when he got the idea for his own Maison Dieu at Ospringe. The institution operated charitably for over 300 years until Henry VIII ejected the monks and requisitioned the building as a military store. It wasn’t until 1834 that the Corporation of Dover bought it for use as a town hall, and later converted its chapel to a courtroom, with a gaol underneath. The building is still actively used today, whether for concerts, conferences or weddings. Special tours are conducted by the Dover Society and Dover Greeters.
Maison Dieu, Ospringe
In the days when even kings couldn’t often muster more than one horse-power for travel, the journey from the coast to London was a slow affair. Consequently, it became necessary to create resting-places along the way. King Henry III found it most convenient to build one at Ospringe: the Maison Dieu, erected in 1234. He had his own King’s Chamber there, where he could lodge on his way from Dover or Canterbury to London, or vice versa. But it did not serve only as a royal motel. The handful of brethren who staffed it were obliged to provide hospitality to needy visitors, particularly pilgrims travelling to and from Canterbury. Like Eastbridge Hospital in Canterbury, it served as a hostel, a hospital, and a place of worship. The house is highly visible on Watling Street (now the A2) at the corner of Water Lane, and as an English Heritage site can be visited by the public at weekends.
The story of the seas around Britain is a complex topic by any measure, so there can’t be many bigger tasks than relating the maritime history of the east coast of Kent. That however is the remit of Ramsgate’s Maritime Museum. It’s not a slick affair – on the contrary, it’s all a bit higgledy-piggledy – but that’s unlikely to deter the sort of visitor who’ll enjoy the nitty-gritty of the subject matter. It divides into four sections, covering fishing, navigation, shipwrecks, and Ramsgate harbour. Each is populated by a wealth of more or less interesting exhibits. As much as anything, the location makes it special, right down by the Royal Harbour where you really get the smell of the sea in your nostrils. The Museum is actually situated in the clock-tower that used to be the reference point of the old Ramsgate Meridian, which was the same as the Greenwich Meridian except nearly six minutes fast.
The origins of Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre, named of course after its most famous son, go back to the pre-WW1 period. A small theatre was opened in St Margaret’s Street that before long was converted to a cinema; but, having failed to compete, it reverted to amateur dramatics. In 1949, the Council bought the property and established the first Marlowe Theatre there. The building was demolished in 1982, and a new Marlowe Theatre established in The Friars on the site of a former cinema, opened in 1984. This lasted 25 years until, getting a bit jaded, it was in turn closed in 2009 and demolished. A new £26 million purpose-built theatre was built on the site, and opened in 2011 to great acclaim. It now offers a broad spectrum of entertainment to audiences of up to 1,200, presenting anything from tribute bands and stand-up comedians to National Theatre on Tour drama and world-class opera straight from the Glyndebourne summer season.
To modern ears, a chantry sounds a batty idea. It was expensively erected to house choristers paid to sing for their sponsor’s soul. As usual, however, there was method in the madness: it was a conspicuous way for the rich to announce their piety. The chantry at Milton, Gravesend is a fine example. It was founded in 1322 by Aymer de Valence, a powerful individual close to the throne. For good measure, it was attached to a leper hospital. Since its heyday, however, Milton Chantry has drifted from job to job. In the C15 it housed priests, but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the C16 it became a domestic dwelling. In the C17 it was a tavern. From 1780 to WW1, it formed part of the New Tavern Fort’s barracks. Between the Wars, it was converted to a public leisure area, and after WW2 became the Chantry Heritage Centre, where a few local-history exhibits are displayed today.
No abbess can have a more unlikely name than the founder of Minster Abbey in Sheppey: Saint Sexburgha. She had it erected on land left to her by her son King Eorcenberht of Kent in 664, using stone quarried at Boughton Monchelsea. It was badly damaged by the Danes, who habitually landed on Sheppey in the C9. Not until the C12 was it seriously improved, when Archbishop de Corbeil rebuilt it in something like its current form. In particular, he constructed the distinctive churches – one for the Abbey, one for the local community – that, having a shared wall, were semi-detached. This helped save the Abbey Church from destruction during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, along with the Gatehouse, which was a private residence. It was fortunate, because the Church contains some interesting features, notably the de Northwode brasses and several stone monuments that provide an interesting catalogue of medieval armour.
The priory west of Sandwich is a story of Mercians, Danes, Normans and, would you believe, Bavarians. According to legend, it was founded by Ermenburga of Mercia, who came to demand restitution for the murder of her two brothers. She was allowed to let her pet deer wander, and the territory it covered in a day was granted to her for a nunnery. This thrived until ca 850, when the Danes turned up and killed everyone. In 1027, however, King Cnut allowed some Canterbury monks to rebuild the formerly wooden abbey in stone. Things again went pear-shaped when the invading Normans laid waste to Thanet so that it could provide no succour to raiding Danes. It gradually recovered, but the kiss of death was the Dissolution of the Monasteries. A large part of the abbey survived nevertheless, and in 1937 was occupied by a Bavarian chapter of Benedictine nuns. They still permit short but interesting guided visits today.
Maidstone’s Mote Park is named after a moot, or debating place. The Woodvilles purchased it in 1370, sparking future royal interest; Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn visited in 1531. In 1690 it was acquired by the Marshams. They upgraded its gardens and, in the 1790s, replaced its crenellated manor house with a splendid Palladian affair; they even invited King George III down to inspect it. A lake was created by damming the River Len and in 1830, when its ‘Great Bridge’ was crumbling, expanded to its current 30 acres. In 1929, the 440-acre estate was sold by Lord Bearsted to Maidstone Borough Council. Mote House was put to several uses, including a Cheshire Home, and now is a retirement block. The Park still accommodates Mote Cricket Club’s ground, once described on BBC2 as England’s loveliest, as well as a leisure centre, pitch-and-putt course, and model railway. In 2014, Mote Park was voted the second best in the country.
National Maritime Museum
The National Maritime Museum is arguably the jewel in Greenwich’s crown. Surprisingly, it was not established until 1934, when it took over the building that had been occupied by the Royal Hospital School, next door to the Queen’s House. What makes it so special is of course that Britain dominated the world’s seas for about two centuries, making its maritime history uniquely interesting to anyone from around the world. Greenwich, a naval centre since Roman times, was an obvious location for it. The Museum displays a rich selection of the two million or so artefacts it holds. The highlights include exhibitions on polar exploration and the Battle of Jutland, as well as set pieces like Nelson’s uniform from Trafalgar; but many hours can also be whiled away inspecting its many paintings, maps, manuscripts, and instruments. Being free to enter, it naturally draws large crowds, typically amounting to nearly 2.5 million a year.
Old Royal Naval College
The Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich was finally closed down in 1869. The four wings of its building were taken over four years later by the Royal Naval College, which remained there for 125 years. With the Government actively winding down the Royal Navy, the decision was taken to close that too in 1998, meaning that this magnificent group of buildings became redundant. They were taken over by a charitable foundation tasked with finding uses for them. The most visible beneficiaries have been TV and film production companies, which make lavish use of the dramatic site. It also stages metropolitan entertainments intended to satisfy diverse tastes. The best reason for visiting, however, is to admire the buildings themselves, both without and especially within. Their interiors were decorated palatially, and the Painted Hall is a masterpiece. It is instructive to contemplate the efforts made back then to give Britain’s indomitable sailors the comfortable retirement they deserved.
Old Weavers House
The great pity about the Old Weavers House is that it is not sitting beside the Stour a few miles out of town, surrounded only by fields, so that its delightful architecture can be admired from all angles. That is not to say that its actual location, next to King’s Bridge on Canterbury High Street, is without interest. The Stour flows against its walls, and there is a ducking-stool behind to remind us that human stupidity is never far from becoming lethal. The House nowadays is misleadingly labelled as having been founded in 1500; it is in fact at least a hundred years older. It gained its name as the headquarters of Flemish weavers who first set up shop in the C16, and brought the city considerable prosperity. Nowadays it is possible to eat there, inside and out, or have a drink with the crowds swarming past; and the location is handy for booking a river tour.
The most conspicuous reason for visiting Pegwell Bay, south-west of Ramsgate, is to see the marvellous replica Viking longship, the ‘Hugin’. She was gifted to the British nation by the Danish government in 1549 to celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of Hengist and Horsa’s arrival. She initially landed at Viking Bay in Broadstairs, and had to be moved to this unique site that used to be the preferred landing-place for invaders from the Romans onwards. There are two equally good reasons, however, more easily overlooked by strangers. Pegwell Bay contains another of those chalk-framed sandy beaches, ideal for beachcombing, that dot the Thanet coast right around to Cliftonville; and it abuts Pegwell Bay Country Park, home to both wildfowl and waders. There was once a further reason for coming, when Pegwell was the site of a hoverport. The fast but unprofitable service to Calais that commenced in 1968 was finally put out of business in 2000 by the Channel Tunnel.
Port Lympne Safari Park
Port Lympne Safari Park, opened in 1976, is really Howletts, Part Two. It was in fact specifically opened because of a lack of space at John Aspinall’s first zoo at Bekesbourne. The 600-acre site, formerly the estate of Sir Philip Sassoon’s Port Lympne Mansion, has since developed very much its own personality. It has the feel of a zoological theme park, offering jeep safaris to zones that include African, Asian and South American collections. Additionally there are carnivore and primate territories, and a Dinosaur Forest displaying numerous life-sized models. The Park is home to 700 animals, including impressive collections of African elephants and gorillas that are the largest in the UK and the world respectively. Upholding the Aspinall commitment to conservation, Port Lympne occasionally releases zoo-bred animals into the wild, inevitably incurring negative publicity if they fail to survive. The Park contains various eateries, and offers several adventurous accommodation options.
In 1863, a railway tunnel was dug to connect Ramsgate Royal Harbour with the main line. It became defunct in 1926 when the new town railway station was built, but was later recycled for a narrow gauge railway running to the seafront. The tunnels again came in handy during WW2, when Ramsgate was directly in the Luftwaffe’s firing line. In August 1940, 500 bombs were dropped on the town within five minutes, but the population sheltering underground was largely saved. There was nevertheless serious damage to housing, and 300 families took to living in an improvised troglodyte town incorporating shops, canteens, and a hospital. The 2½ miles of tunnels are now being redeveloped as a visitor attraction. Well-regarded 90-minute tours are conducted daily, and underground exhibitions are staged. The Tunnels maintain a steady 11 degrees, and so can be handy for warming up on a cold day or cooling off in the summer.
The sea-side spot immediately east of Reculver’s landmark Towers feels so remote that a visit seems like time travel. The place was once immensely important as the site of Regulbium, the fort built by the Romans at the mouth of the Wantsum Channel. Remnants survive and can still be inspected; but its ruination is symbolic of Reculver’s lost purpose since the Wantsum silted up. The site was always subject to coastal erosion, and much of its once wealthy village has disappeared into the sea. In the C7, long after the Romans left, the monastic church of St Mary’s was built. The Towers were added to it five centuries later. They survive only with the help of solid sea defences. Still in excellent condition, they are echoed at the otherwise ruined church’s eastern end by two ragged uprights, which in the right light create a Daliesque impression. The ‘Twin Sisters’ still provide a warning to distant sailors to stay clear.
An hour spent inspecting the remains of the fort at Richborough, known to the Romans as Rutupiae, leaves a lasting impression. For one thing, they are large in terms of both their extent and the height of the walls and ramparts. For another, it is impossible to walk under the wide seaside skies without projecting oneself two millennia into the past. This was after all the Romans’ front door to Britannia. It is still possible to stand on the site of the four-way Triumphal Arch through which all visitors to the island had to pass. Conjuring up the famous personages who must have passed through – not to mention the countless legionaries charged with impressing rule from Rome on the British – is alone worth going for. The Castle evolved into a substantial town in peacetime, but this reverted to a Saxon Shore fort in 277, a time of anarchy. English Heritage now maintains the site.
Riverhill Himalayan Gardens
The Himalayan Gardens at Riverhill House near Sevenoaks might be thought of as the botanical counterpart to Port Lympne Safari Park. Their origin lies back in 1842, when the owner of the 12-acre area, John Rogers, planted numerous specimens that he had brought back from the Far East. The gardens are still owned and run by a direct descendent and his wife. The appropriately hilly gardens are now zoned, and include a Walled Garden, Jungle, Rose Walk, Wood Garden, and Edwardian Rock Garden. Even for dedicated visitors of botanical gardens, they bring a new dimension. The exotic shrubs and trees have been arranged to create a spectacular display of colours and shapes on a much grander scale than flower beds, although there is naturally a wealth of those too. No visit is complete without climbing to the top of ‘Mini Everest’ and taking in the spectacular view across the Weald towards the Ashdown Forest.
Pace the Cathedral, Rochester Castle is the city’s most familiar icon. It was a crucial structure from the very beginning of the Norman occupation on account of its strategic position, the point where Watling Street crossed the River Medway. The first castle was built shortly after the Conquest. It was owned by Bishop Odo, and did not survive the 1088 siege that ended his uprising against William II. The new King immediately got the Archbishop of Canterbury to build the famous stone keep, which still survives in remarkably pristine form today. For 90 years the Castle remained in the hands of the Archbishop before reverting to the monarch. It underwent two further sieges in 1215 and 1264, during the First and Second Barons’ Wars respectively, in both of which it suffered serious damage. The Castle was made a public utility as long ago as 1870, and can now by visited under the auspices of English Heritage.
All text © Old Bunyard 2020. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.