Touring in the Heart of Kent
West from Romney Marsh and you ease inland into genteel landscapes, of rolling hills and wooded valleys, orchards and vineyards. Kent has more castles and historic houses than any other county, and now you’re on the threshold of many of the most famous: Leeds Castle rising from its two islands, Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn, and Knole. Some of Kent’s most glorious 180-plus gardens flourish here, too, from Sissinghurst to Penshurst Place. Simply turn down a few different roads and you’ll also come across a rich variety of lesser-known houses and gardens that offer spellbinding rewards. Here’s a chain of them looping ever westwards.
Hole Park Gardens can be found nestled in the Weald between the attractive village of Rolvenden and Cranbrook. Four generations of the Barham family have created a 15-acre garden for all seasons, including formal spaces enclosed by yew hedges offset by topiary, specimen trees, statuary and dazzling wisteria. Come in spring for the magical bluebell wood, revel in the rose gardens in summer, enjoy a shady amble beneath bright autumn leaves. Tea and homemade cakes complete the treat!
Now forget what you normally associate with museums: our next destination is a one-off treasure trove in a beautiful Georgian manor. Finchcocks Musical Museum near Goudhurst is home to Richard Burnett’s extraordinary collection of more than 100 period keyboard instruments, including pianos, organs and harpsichords. Over 40 are in full working order, so pin back your ears for some wonderful, informal demonstrations. There are special events throughout the year and you certainly don’t need to be a musician to be thoroughly entertained in this remarkable venue.
Nearby, privately owned ten-acre Marle Place Gardens and Gallery, Brenchley, appeals to all the senses – particularly curiosity. Both a plantsman’s and artist’s garden, it’s a mercurial mix of hedged rooms and tree-lined avenues with orchards and woodland, where scented and unusual plants blend with art. The current owners delight in surprises at every turn, including a striking mosaic terrace – no more clues, you’ll have to visit to enjoy the other eye-catchers! The gardens were first created in 1890 and still retain a Victorian gazebo, Edwardian rockery and Italianate walled garden of 1900. There’s a contemporary art gallery, too. And if you’re thirsty, go ahead and make your own tea in the teashop, leaving money in the honesty box. You’re most welcome.
Next up is Chiddingstone Castle, which counts as a new attraction, having re-opened its doors just last year. The Gothic revival pile sits in 35 acres where there’s a lovely rose garden, magnificent woodland and a lake open to fishermen. But the real draw is the superb collections of Denys Bower spanning Japanese, Egyptian, Jacobean and Buddhist art and antiquities. Younger visitors can have fun discovering Samurai warriors, Egyptian tombs and castle ghosts with Alex the Explorer. Then browse the exhibition on the eclectic history of the castle, which dates back to the early 1500s.
Tonbridge Castle fires the imagination, too. ‘Storm’ the massive 13th-century gatehouse that dominates this market town on the River Medway and get to grips with 700 years of eventful castle life through interactive displays, special effects and a personal audio tour. Northwards, medieval moated Ightham Mote hides in a sunken valley: once owned by a favourite courtier of King Henry VIII, it is resplendent with Great Hall, Crypt and a Tudor Chapel. Rather more whimsical is the Grade I-listed dog kennel in the recently re-cobbled courtyard! Neighbouring Riverhill House Gardens on its hillside near Sevenoaks is renowned for its bluebell wood, rhododendrons, azaleas and extensive views.
Go west again to the village of Westerham and choose between Squerryes Court and Quebec House – or tour both. The former is a handsome 17th-century manor house lived in by the Warde family since 1731. Stand back and admire Old Master paintings, furniture, tapestries and porcelain, then unwind in the gardens featuring parterres, herbaceous borders and a lake. There’s a special spring opening for snowdrops and daffodils. Quebec House, by contrast, is notable as the childhood home of General James Wolfe and contains family and military memorabilia. An exhibition in the Tudor stable block tells of the Battle of Quebec, Wolfe’s 1759 victory over the French that ensured British control of Canada.
Round off your journey at Lullingstone Castle and World Garden, Eynsford. The Hart Dyke family has lived here since the 15th century, and Henry VIII and Queen Anne were regular visitors. But this is not simply an historic home with staterooms and family portraits. Outside, modern-day plant hunter and adventurer Tom Hart Dyke has fashioned an innovative garden in the shape of a world map, with exotic plants from across the globe laid out in their countries of origin. Botanical wonders include the Dinosaur Tree (Wollemi Pine), a species that grew when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and the rare Eucalyptus Silver Princess – Lullingstone is home to The National Collection of Eucalyptus. Bring a picnic to enjoy – after you’ve walked all around the world, you might want to sit and relax.