Following the river Swale in Kent
Ease along the north Kent coast for the wildlife-rich Isle of Sheppey curls around one side of the River Swale, while market towns and villages, orchards and farmlands stretch to its south. It’s a singular area rich in heritage and countryside, sometimes bypassed by whistle-stop travellers between Canterbury, Rochester and London. Pause for a break and make the most of diverse attractions that together give a characterful sense of place.
Faversham, known as The King’s Port from when its tidal creek bustled with trade, is a delightful starting point. Follow the town trail to intriguing nooks like the location of the open-air theatre where Shakespeare acted, and a scene of murder on one of England’s most quaint medieval streets that may have inspired his playwriting.
Also delve into Faversham’s colourful past at the Fleur de Lis Museum and Gallery on Preston Street, a beautifully presented cornucopia of artefacts and local life. From early archaeological finds, through the grip of Faversham’s medieval monasteries to Elizabethan prosperity, you can build a rich picture of this market town. Visit the Victorian schoolroom and kitchen, share the magic of lantern-slide entertainment, and find out just what the local sports of goal running and rink hockey entailed. You’ll probably be surprised to learn that for 400 years Faversham was a centre of the country’s explosives industry – perching on large gunpowder barrels to watch a video on the theme is one of the more offbeat ways to appreciate England’s past!
Curiosity ‘fired’, cue a trip to nearby 18th-century Chart Gunpowder Mills. The oldest of their kind in the world, they made powder for Nelson at Trafalgar and Wellington at Waterloo. There were once six factories in town and, while they served military uses, their gunpowder also powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution, blasting routes for canals and railways, plus stone quarried for building. Where would the country’s heroes and pioneers have been without Faversham’s now largely forgotten contribution?
If you’ve worked up a thirst, then you’re in just the right place to quench it because Britain’s oldest brewer, family-run Shepherd Neame, is based in Faversham. Beer has been made in the town for over 850 years and when you tour the Shepherd Neame Brewery on Court Street you get a genuine feel for the working processes actually going on around you. From barley to beer, hop to hand-pump, your guide will spill (although not literally) the secrets. Taste the natural mineral water from the brewery’s well, sniff the aromas of local hops – and what’s behind the names of handcrafted Kentish ales like Spitfire and Bishop’s Finger? Crown your visit with a tutored tasting and tempting browse around the brewery shop.
Then how about a taste of country house living with a timely twist? Head a short way south from town, where the rolling North Downs begin to rise, to Belmont House and Gardens. Samuel Wyatt, one of the late 18th-century’s most progressive architects, built the house in typical understated neo-classical style. However, it’s noted even more for its collections by the Harris family, owners since 1801. Best of all is the clock collection, reputedly the finest in England. Time certainly flies on specialist horological tours! But do keep some moments spare to enjoy the gorgeous grounds, including the walled garden, pinetum with shell grotto, kitchen garden, and a cricket pitch that once was pre-eminent in the sport – visit to discover why!
With tastebuds still buzzing from earlier on your tour, it’s a good excuse to indulge in another of Swale’s unique and unusual offerings, rooted like its beer in the lush surrounding countryside. Heading back up towards Faversham you’ll find Brogdale Farm, home of the National Fruit Collection. Over 2,000 apple varieties, 500 pear varieties, 350 plum varieties, 320 cherry varieties, plus bush fruits, nuts and vines are all here. Learn lots of juicy facts on a guided walk, come for fruity festivals, and sample seasonal fare – naturally, the Orchard tearoom sells delicious homemade goodies. Kent, the Garden of England, is always a tasty place to be. Which is just as well, to keep you fuelled for great adventures around the county’s hidden gems.