Kent is one of England’s most popular tourist hotspots with its wealth of castles, country houses, historic towns and seaside resorts.
With the boom in staycations, I decided to take a road trip to discover some of its more unusual attractions, from miniature railways to a submarine adventure and a gardeners’ paradise.
Here are 10 reasons to discover Kent’s historic treasures…
Hythe, Romney and Dymchurch – Miniature Rail Journey
All aboard for a railway mini-adventure across the marshes of Kent!
The Hythe, Romney and Dymchurch railway has been operating since 1927 and has been dubbed “Kent’s Mainline in Miniature” because of its tiny engines and carriages.
One third full size steam and diesel locomotives shuttle along 13½ miles of rail track from Hythe to Dungeness, recalling the golden age of steam.
The railway was the vision of two racing drivers in the 1920s, Captain J. E. P. Howey and Count Louis Zborowski. Both shared a passion for miniature railways.
During its early years, it became known as ‘The Smallest Public Railway in the World’. Today it’s still one of the world’s smallest railways and a great way of seeing the unusual landscapes of Dungeness on Kent’s southern tip.
I grabbed a return ticket from Dungeness to New Romney, and thoroughly enjoyed my ride through the marshes and backyards of Kent. It’s an evocative trip as the steam engine trundles along with its smoke spiralling high into the sky.
Surprising fact – Count Zborowski was famous for owning and driving the Chitty Bang Bang Mercedes car. Sadly, the Count was killed while racing at the Italian Grand Prix in 1924, never to see his railway vision fully realised.
Chatham – Submarine Adventure
Chatham Dockyard in Kent is one of the county’s best tourist attractions, especially if you’re into naval history. There are three tours of historic ships but I recommend taking a trip around Ocelot, a Cold War submarine.
Cloaked in jet black, Ocelot is an impressive ship, a large ‘whale’ of a vessel with an ominous appearance which screams out ‘danger’, ‘clandestine’ and ‘undercover’. Little is known about Ocelot’s adventures because information about its working life is still top secret.
This is a ship which lurked underwater in anticipation of Cold War threats and hid its position from opposing forces. Using the sonar dome on its front end, it was able to map its location and identify any enemies within range.
It’s a very claustrophobic experience squeezing along its narrow corridors. I loved the main control room at the heart of the submarine where I wanted to look through the periscope and shout “take her up, captain”.
Surprising fact – Ocelot was designed to disappear, sometimes for weeks on end. It was not uncommon for its crew to be underwater for six weeks on their top secret assignments.
Faversham – Gunpowder, Plots and Plays
This was my first visit to Faversham and what a revelation it proved to be with its multitude of historic buildings. I was most impressed by the Guildhall, its historic pubs and the Market Square.
The town’s main street is one of the finest and best preserved medieval streets in Britain. The Old Fire Station once housed a horse drawn engine which operated in the 1820s.
There are many impressive old houses but my favourite is the timber-framed 15th Century Arden’s House. It was here where a plot was hatched to kill the Mayor by his wife and her lover in 1551.
Faversham was the first place in England to make gunpowder, and the explosives industry thrived from the 17th Century to the First World War. The self-guided Gunpowder Trail is a great way to find out about the explosives industry and includes a visit to the original Gunpowder Mills.
Surprising fact – William Shakespeare’s acting company – the King’s Men visited the town in 1605. They are thought to have performed in the upper hall at the new Guildhall (above left) which still survives today.
Sissinghurst – The Art of Gardening
Sissinghurst is the quintessentially “English garden” and one of the finest examples of ‘cottage style’ gardens and rustic, vernacular buildings.
It was the home of writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, a famous diplomat, from the 1930s to the early 1960s.
It’s amazing to think that it was once a humble Saxon pig farm called ‘Saxenhurst’. Later, it was used as a prison for 3,000 French sailors captured during the Seven Years War.
The estate changed beyond recognition when Vita Sackville-West, a keen amateur gardener, transformed it in the 1930s with her artistic flair and passion for horticulture.
But this is much more than a garden. It was this wealthy bohemian couple’s ‘bolthole’ where they were inspired to write and think ‘great thoughts’.
The tall gatehouse is one of its most distinctive landmarks – and was one of Vita’s favourite ‘escapes’ with a sitting room, study, and sanctuary (currently closed to the public). The couple also lived in South Cottage where you can still get an insight into their private lives.
Surprising fact – Vita Sackville-West was the friend and lover of writer, Virginia Woolf, who often visited Sissinghurst. They enjoyed a short love affair, and their friendship lasted for nearly 20 years.
Margate – Exploring Turner’s World
I love nothing better than a seaside town with strong artistic traditions – and Margate has that in spades. From Turner to Tracey Emin, Margate has been a magnet for artists for many centuries.
J.M.W. Turner, one of Britain’s most famous artists, loved coming to Margate because of the light, declaring that “the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe”. He painted numerous seascapes in the town.
He first visited in 1786 as a boy, staying with his uncle who was a fishmonger. Later, he was to became a regular visitor, staying at Mr and Mrs Booth’s guest house in Cold Harbour.
After Mr Booth died in 1833, Turner adopted the name Booth and lived at the guesthouse, becoming Sophia Booth’s companion. The Turner Contemporary Gallery is now built on the very same site.
Surprising fact – As a boy, Turner attended the Thomas Coleman’s School on the corner of Love Lane and Hawley Street in Margate Old Town (look for the blue plaque). At the end of Margate Harbour there’s a bronze shell lady looking out to sea. This is supposedly Turner’s landlady Mrs Booth waiting for his return.
Canterbury – Murder in the Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral is one of Britain’s finest but the story of Thomas Becket who was murdered there has always fascinated me. I made the pilgrimage to the very spot where its famous Archbishop was killed.
Thomas Becket was once one of the most influential men in England but King Henry II felt that his power had become too strong. He was assassinated in 1170 by the henchmen of the king in a brutal murder which shocked medieval England and caused a scandal.
Today you can see the scene of the crime. It’s just a shame that the cathedral doesn’t tell the story vividly enough to bring it to life for today’s visitors. I had to hunt around for the actual memorial stone!
There’s also a burning light kept on the very spot where he was murdered at the heart of the cathedral.
Dipping into a history book, I read a fascinating eye-witness account of how Becket held tight onto one of the Cathedral’s pillars to prevent his assassins from seizing him. But one of the knights raised his sword, bringing it down on him, slicing off the crown of his head. Another knight delivered the fatal blow which finished off the Archbishop.
Apparently, the body remained where it had fallen for several hours. Within a few days, his tomb became a place of pilgrimage. Becket was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1173 and his shrine was famous throughout Europe.
It’s a fascinating story of power and inglorious regal behaviour which still resonates today.
Such was Becket’s influence from beyond the grave that King Henry VIII ordered his bones to be destroyed and all mention of his names obliterated during the Reformation in 1540. Today, there’s just a simple stone to mark his death.
Surprising fact – Down in the cathedral cloisters, you can see artist Antony Gormley’s memorial to Thomas Becket. The sculpture, which is made from old iron nails from the cathedral roof, is suspended above the site of the first tomb of the Archbishop.
Knole – House of an Art Lover
Knole is one of Kent’s most famous country houses. Originally an archbishop’s palace, the house later came into royal possession under the Tudors, and then passed to the Sackville family.
Thomas Sackville bought Knole in the early 17th Century – and his descendants lived in the house until it was gifted to the National Trust in 1946. The house has many literary connections which makes it a great place for bookish types like myself.
The writer Vita Sackville-West was born here in 1892 but she wasn’t allowed to inherit the estate on the death of her father due to the ridiculous law of primogeniture. Instead, the house was inherited by her cousin, Eddy Sackville-West.
For me the most interesting building at Knole is the 15th Century Gatehouse which doesn’t even get a mention in early National Trust guide books.
It was the bolt-hole for Eddy Sackville-West who lived in the tower between 1926-1940. He was a fascinating character – a writer, music critic, broadcaster for the BBC and friend of the Bloomsbury Group. He was one of the “bright young things” and a big deal cultural influencer.
‘Eddy’ was keen to give the dark, old-fashioned rooms in the tower a contemporary feel with bold colours, objets d’art and luxurious fabrics. His music room is especially interesting with its old-fashioned gramophone.
There’s a strong 1920s vibe throughout his rooms in complete contrast to the main castle. It feels intimate rather than palatial, the home of an ‘art lover”. His decadent rooms bring Eddy and his lifestyle vividly to life, helped by an excellent display about him.
Surprising facts – Knole has a strange mathematical geometry with seven courtyards (corresponding to the days of the week), 52 staircases (weeks of the year) and 365 rooms (days of the year)!
Knole was once a royal hunting ground and palace for King Henry VIII, and boasts an extensive deer park. Today the Roe Deer and Sika Deer can be spotted lazing around the park.
Whitstable – ‘Oyster Town‘
I’ll be brutally honest. I only came for the oysters. But there’s much more to Whitstable than its famous shellfish delicacy.
The town is experiencing something of a revival although it’s still pretty authentic with a mix of regenerated quayfront, a vibrant high street and a working harbour.
The Lobster Shack on the East Quay is a bit of a hidden treasure because it’s not the easiest place to reach, tucked away on the far side of the harbour. Instead we opted for the street food oysters which were delicious but less posh.
It’s wonderful to enjoy a plate of this delicacy on the harbour front as the fishing boats go back and forth.
But I was surprised at how few places were open on the harbour front, given my visit was in early September. Perhaps the impact of the lockdown is to blame? There are also relatively few other attractions although it’s worth a wander around the town’s characterful, quaint streets.
Whitstable was quieter than I expected, although this is probably a bonus if you’re thinking of doing a beach walk. Sadly, I was a little disappointed by the beaches, mainly because we have better ones back home.
Don’t miss – Look out for Gamecock, a traditional oyster boat, being restored on the quayside by Whitstable Maritime. Built in 1907, Gamecock is one of only two or three remaining examples of a Whitstable Oyster Yawl still capable of going to sea.
Reculver Twin Towers
On a clear day, you an see the twin towers of Reculver for miles across the Kent countryside. I could even see them from my campsite in St Nicholas-at-Wade six kilometres away.
Reculver is all about location, location, location. Its coastal position was once perfect for defence and sea transport. But much of the land has been lost over the centuries due to coastal erosion.
It’s something of a miracle that the twin towers survive together with the ruined remains of an early Roman fort. The fort once stood on a promontory at the north end of the channel where it joined the Thames estuary.
After the Romans left, a Anglo-Saxon monastery was built in 669 and the church of St Mary was also constructed near the centre of the earlier fort.
The medieval towers of the ruined church of St Mary are all that remain today. They were added in the late 12th Century – and still look magnificent towering high into the sky.
Today Reculver is a small but intriguing historic site which has managed to survive the ravages of time and nature.
Surprising facts – Reculver’s coastline was used by the crews of famous 617 Squadron to test prototypes of Barnes Wallis‘s Dambuster ‘bouncing bombs’ during World War Two.
Tenterden – Vineyards and Oast Houses
Kent has long been known as the “Garden of England” but it’s also a producer of beers and wines.
Driving through Kent, it’s hard to miss its many historic oast houses with their conical roofs and red brick ‘barns’. These rustic buildings were once used as kilns to dry hops for beer. Many have been converted into houses or holiday rents.
If you want to visit an oast house, it’s worth a trip to The Hop Farm Park in Beltring which has the largest collection of oast houses in the world. It was a major supplier of hops to London breweries in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Today it’s a family park and heritage centre with shire horses, a breed once used by the industry. They also put on major music gigs and events.
Even more surprising is the number of vineyards which you’ll see on your travels through the Kent countryside.
It might surprise you but there are more than 50 vineyards in Kent and the quality of their wines is right up there with the best in the world.
Chapel Down has led the renaissance in English wines and its Tenterden winery produces everything from sparkling to still wines. It’s well worth taking a tour and enjoying a tasting session.
Also making waves is Gusbourne Vineyard in Appledore village near Ashford where old traditional techniques are bring used alongside modern technology.
Not far away is Bidddenden, one of Kent’s oldest vineyards which produces red, rose and white wines as well as cider. What could be better than a glass of their dry Ortega wine or the Gribble Bridge fizz?
Surprising fact – Chapel Down vineyard is the official sparkling wine of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. It was also the first English wine to be served at Ascot racecourse.