As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Kent Downs, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of castles, gardens, heritage and nature reserves in this glorious Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in south east England.
There are historic castles peppered across the region, halcyon gardens, too, as well as gorgeous parks and manor houses. The Kent Downs is packed with cultural pleasures and spectacular fresh-air delights; our pick of top attractions also includes some of the most striking nature reserves in the area.
This selection has been made to appeal across age ranges – and weather variations too. On a sunny day take the kids to explore the little-known wonders of the Western Heights fortifications above Dover; if it’s raining you could divert to Crabble Corn Mill nearby – a tremendous community project. Over in the west, enjoy the marvel that is Charles Darwin’s Down House, with many of his experiments recreated in the garden, or head to Kent Wildlife Trust’s Tyland Barn near Maidstone, with its absorbing interactive wildlife displays. And take in outstanding, semi-secret gardens such as Great Comp and Beech Court.
Crabble Corn Mill
What a triumph of a community project. Crabble Corn Mill beside the River Dour in Dover is a Georgian water mill that in the 1980s was saved from dereliction by a group of enthusiasts. It is still run by volunteers today. The mill was constructed in 1812 to produce flour to feed the troops defending the Kentish coast against attack by Napoleon. It is now very much a working museum - with a wheel turning and grain being ground. Six floors of exhibits give an absorbing insight into Georgian and Victorian milling. Alongside is a tea room at which you can buy Crabble Corn flour. ccmt.org.uk
Belmont House and Gardens
You might feel you’ve wandered into a Gainsborough painting here. A few miles from Faversham, Belmont is an idyllic Georgian estate: a 1769 neoclassical house designed by Samuel Wyatt (complete with an orangerie) sits in beautifully devised 14-acre gardens (complete with a pets’ graveyard) and beyond stretch about 3,000 acres of rolling parkland. In the early 1800s the estate belonged to General George Harris, famous for his military success in India, particularly his terrific victory over Tipu Sultan in Mysore. He and his descendants filled the house with remarkable collections from their travels – on display are watercolours of the West Indies, Indian silverware and one of the finest ranges of clocks in the country. belmont-house.org
When Charles Darwin moved from London to this house in north-west Kent in 1842, the great naturalist described the solid 18th-century building as ‘ugly’. Yet it became a much-loved haven where he spent the rest of his life. It was here that his seven surviving children were raised and here that he worked on his theories, finally publishing On the Origin of Species in November 1859. To coincide with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth in 2009, the property was cleverly refurbished and innovative, multi-media displays introduced. There’s much to see in the house itself but the real glory is the garden which Darwin used as a natural laboratory, whether watching his bees, observing earthworms, or cultivating gooseberries.
This gracious, mainly 1920s country mansion near Westerham was the much-loved home of Sir Winston Churchill. It has been preserved to look very much as it was in the great man’s day and features much of Churchill’s original furniture and many of his books – there’s even a ginger cat here, Jock VI, named in memory of Churchill’s pet – for when the Churchill family gave the house to the National Trust in 1966 it was on condition that a ginger cat always lives here. Wander the grounds to visit the kitchen garden and see the studio, lined with Churchill’s own paintings. nationaltrust.org.uk/chartwell
This elegant 17th-century redbrick house in Westerham was the childhood home of General James Wolfe, the commander who effectively won Canada for the British in 1759 when he defeated Louis-Joseph de Montcalm in the Battle of Quebec. The house has been devised very much as a living museum of the 18th century: you’re encouraged to handle many of the objects on display and even lie down on a replica Georgian bed. You also learn about the dramatic life of Wolfe – and how he and his enemy Montcalm both died from wounds inflicted during the famous battle. nationaltrust.org.uk/quebec-house
Old Soar Manor
The most satisfying way to reach Old Soar Manor is on foot (there’s even a picturesque seven-mile circular walk you can take here from Ightham Mote). This 13th-century knight’s house is set on the edge of the North Downs, a couple of miles from the village of Borough Green. Not quite a ruin, it is carefully maintained as a beautiful shell of a building which is free to enter. Constructed in Kentish ragstone, it has three rooms to explore. english-heritage.org.uk
Set in a magnificent deer park near Sevenoaks, the huge seat of the Sackville West family developed from a 15th-century bishop’s palace and is sometimes known as the calendar house because it reputedly has 365 rooms, 52 staircases and seven courtyards. The family still lives in part of the property, while the National Trust opens show rooms to the public. These are hung with paintings by Reynolds and van Dyck among others and contain 17th-century tapestries and a breathtaking collection of royal Stuart furniture and silver. nationaltrust.org.uk/knole
This fabulous medieval moated manor house near Sevenoaks was given to the National Trust in 1985. It is said to be the most extensive conservation project ever taken on by the trust, which spent about £10m painstakingly setting it to rights – work was finally completed in 2006. There’s a great deal to see and explore, from a wonderful Great Hall to ornate painted ceilings and even a listed dog kennel in the atmospheric courtyard. The grounds, with terraced walk, orchards and ornamental lake, are a delight. nationaltrust.org.uk/ightham-mote
This fascinating house in Cobham has recently been restored to show the life and achievements of Sir Herbert Baker. An architect of enormous renown at the turn of the 19th/20th century, Baker was a major force in British Imperial architecture, most notably in South Africa and in India: his major works include the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the Secretariat Building in New Delhi. In Kent he designed Port Lympe Mansion - in Cape Dutch style. He was born at Owletts in 1862 and, remarkably , this was his base until the mid 1930s. It is still full of his possessions – and inhabited by his descendants who recently moved back to act as custodians of his heritage. nationaltrust.org.uk/owletts
Tyland Barn Wildlife Park
How entirely appropriate for an organisation committed to protecting the environment: when Kent Wildlife Trust wanted to create new headquarters it opted to restore and convert a historic Georgian barn. Set in Sandling, north of Maidstone, the centre houses interactive exhibits on wildlife and conservation in the area while the land around it has been nurtured to create Kentish habitats in miniature: so there’s a wildflower meadow, a big pond, chalk bank, hedgerow and more. Look out, in particular, for common frog, bee orchids and wasp spiders here. kentwildlifetrust.org.uk
Sladden Wood Nature Reserve
There are seven hectares of woodland at this reserve near Alkham, presenting a wonderful mix of hazel, ash, hornbeam, maple and more, with bluebell, yellow archangel, wood anemone and green hellebore coating the floor in colour in spring. That this is all thriving is a triumph of regeneration: Sladden Wood became known locally as ‘Horizontal Wood’ after it was largely felled in 1978. Today it is peaceful and burgeoning, ideal for walks and taking in great views across the Alkham Valley. kentwildlifetrust.org.uk
Ranscombe Farm Nature Reserve
On the slopes of the North Downs near Rochester, this 560-acre site is both a working farm and a nature reserve run by Plantlife. From arable land to chalk grassland and woods it has a wide mix of habitats – and supports rare plant species including meadow clary (which is officially near threatened) and rough mallow. Come for bluebells and early purple orchids in spring; lady orchids in early summer, while in later summer the arable areas are awash with poppies (of which there are four species). plantlife.org.uk
Lydden Temple Ewell Reserve
This 90-hectare reserve stretches across terrific chalk downland and marginal woodland; it’s a very rural area for all that it lies on the fringes of Dover. The views here are spectacular – but you may also want to examine the ground closely, for the grassland supports orchids (about 15 varieties), milk wort, celandine, and abundant wild herbs. Butterflies thrive here; reptiles too – they’ve recently reintroduced the wart biter cricket very successfully. It’s rich in birdlife as well: skylarks, buzzards, green woodpeckers and more. kentwildlifetrust.org.uk
Kent Wildlife Trust
The Kent Wildlife Trust looks after 3,000 hectares of nature reserve land, promoting conservation and wildlife protection and generating awareness of Kent's natural heritage through events, campaigns and courses held throughout the region. Their packed events programme includes things such as beaver evenings and butterfly craft events - great ways to get children involved in nature, whilst their Living Landscape and Living Seas projects aim to reconnect local residents with their natural surroundings. Their work in managing nature reserves has seen some great results, notably the return of the Adonis blue butterfly.
Doddington Place Gardens
The approach to Doddington Place is through parkland dotted with sheep and featuring fabulous oaks and horsechestnuts; it’s a magnificent prelude to a magical horticultural act. Enter the 10-acre gardens and you’re in a dreamy world of green artistry. Set around a Victorian-era redbrick mansion (not open to the public) are extensive avenues fringed by terrific (and terrifically clipped) yew hedges; a woodland garden (particularly spectacular in May and June when the rhododendrons are blooming); an Edwardian rock garden; and a sunken formal garden with great displays of herbaceous plants. Open from May until the end of September. doddingtonplacegardens.co.uk
Brogdale National Fruit Collection
This is a halcyon place for visitors quite as much as being a serious scientific centre at which fruit is studied. The public is welcome to wander along marked paths to see the many and varied trees here of which there are some 2,300 varieties of apple, 550 of pear, 320 of cherry and more – spring, awash with blossom, and autumn being the most beautiful times. There’s a picnic area, there’s a miniature train that runs on Sundays, there are guided tours to take with experts. A complex of shops includes a nursery from which to buy fruit trees, a store stocked with apple juice and more, a café and a butcher. brogdalecollections.org
Great Comp Garden
Close to Sevenoaks and Wrotham Heath, this exceptional garden offers a picturesque combination of romantic ruins, sweeping lawns and phenomenal displays of magnolia, azalea and salvia. The adjoining 17th-century farmhouse (not open to the public) is the home of Roderick and Joy Cameron who laid out much of the surrounding seven acres in the 60s, largely creating an Italianate look. For about the last 20 years the garden has been run by plant curator William Dyson who maintains great bursts of colour here from April through to at least October. Dyson also offers a nursery, which is especially rich in salvia. Don’t miss, too, the tearoom in the old dairy. greatcompgarden.co.uk
Beech Court Gardens
Shady paths are lined by azaleas, hydrangeas, viburnums and magnolia at these charming, informal gardens laid out in the late 40s around a medieval farmhouse (not open to the public). There’s an impressive variety of trees in the nine-acre grounds, including acers, Kalopanax and the tallest Eucryphia in Kent. It’s a bucolic place with rare-breed chickens wandering around, two pygmy goats (Fed and Wilma) at the entrance, and a tea room in an old oast house. beechcourtgardens.co.uk
Lullingstone Castle and World Garden
Tom Hart Dyke is a plant hunter and gardener extraordinaire. His family has owned Lullingstone Castle, near Sevenoaks, since it was built in 1497 and in its grounds he has created The World of Garden Plants which includes the national collection of eucalypts. The project is the result of a nine-month ordeal when Hart Dyke was kidnapped and held prisoner in Colombia; his plans for the garden back home kept him motivated to survive. Along with the grounds, the castle’s state rooms (visited by Queen Ann among others) are open to the public on Fridays and at weekends. lullingstonecastle.co.uk
Presiding over Dover, this amazing landmark was a military key to England, hence its stalwart looks and enormous size. It offers a dizzying wealth of intriguing history and sights – so set aside a day or at least several hours here. Explore the medieval Great Tower built by Henry II in the 12th century and walk down medieval tunnels; see the remains of a Roman lighthouse; and probably most interesting of all, visit the wartime operations – the secret tunnels of WWII. Don’t miss, too, the underground hospital built in 1941. english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/dover-castle
Complete with moat, towers and crenellations, Leeds Castle looks as if it might have stepped off the pages of a fairy tale. Just a few miles outside Maidstone, it’s not only fabulously picturesque, it’s been a significant setting of powerplay, too. Dating back to the reign of William the Conqueror, it has been a royal residence of Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile; a palace of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon; and home to the aristocratic Culpeper family in the 1600s. It’s well worth spending a full day here to explore not only the building but the grounds, the maze and underground grotto, the knights’ playgrounds – there’s even a dog collar museum. leeds-castle.com
These imposing fortifications hover over the western side of Dover, but despite their size they aren’t much on the mainstream sightseeing radar. So you’re almost certain to be free of crowds here, and can enjoy unhindered a stroll around the moat and the walls. The Western Heights were built as a bastion to protect Dover, and England, during the Napoleonic Wars. Today it is open as something of a country park and quite apart from exploring the immediate site you can follow footpaths into the Western Heights Nature Reserve beyond. Please note, the Fort is accessible on Open Days and tours can be booked on specific dates throughout the summer and autumn months. english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/western-heights-dover
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