by Brian Spencer
The only time I have previously travelled through Kent was on my way to Dover for the crossing to France. Even from the motorway it looked an attractive place, well earning its title as the Garden of England. Both Sheila and I had decided that if the opportunity ever arose, then we would take advantage of whatever was on offer. When Slack’s Travel brochure offered a few days in this corner of England, we quickly booked our seats on one of their comfortable coaches leaving from Matlock.
The comfort of well-appointed Bridgewood Manor Hotel outside Chatham was our base for the short exploratory trip to Kent. This is one of the Royal Navy’s bases where warships of all shapes and sizes are maintained and revituled. We tried to include a visit to the extensive dockyards, but as luck would have it, opening times were severely restricted and we just didn’t have the time to do it justice. This was because our planned itinerary was to take us to Leeds Castle; it has nothing to do with anything in Yorkshire by the way, simply a fact of local geography.
Leeds Castle, is rightly dubbed as the ‘loveliest castle in the world’. Maybe that is stretching the description of a castle where time holds its breath. A minor road off the M20 winds its way through woodland centuries old. A slight rise tries to hide the first view of this magnificent 12th – 14th century castle rising in fairy tale splendour from the middle of a lake. Often referred to as the Queen of Castles, it was the home – one could also say prison, of Catherine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII’s wives and his queen until their marriage was annulled, bringing about the King’s schism with the Church of Rome.
Many other queens lived there, including Princess Elizabeth until she was crowned Queen of England. With its history and magical appearance, it is hardly surprising that Leeds Castle was owned by an American heiress and became the popular venue for Hollywood’s finest during the rip-roaring days of the 1930s. To wander inside the castle is like stepping back to a time when only the American society had the wealth needed to maintain and generally run such as Leeds Castle.
We wandered along medieval stone-walled passages, and suddenly enter a wealthy lady’s chambers, with luxurious beds where expensive dresses in the 1920s style were thrown carelessly over silk bed covers; then through another door into a bathroom dripping with mid-century opulence.
Parkland surrounding Leeds Castle has miles of footpaths and Rights of Way, there is also a ferry that can be used to link several of the walks to and from the castle, and one walk has the advantage of passing an attractive lakeside restaurant.
A quick side trip found us in Maidstone, straddling the river Medway, the county town of Kent. As we only had an hour or so at our disposal, we quickly went to the Tudor Archbishops’ Palace next to a 14th-century church with some fine memorial windows. The palace is no longer used by the Archbishops of Canterbury, but the fine panelled banqueting hall has become a popular venue for weddings. Directly opposite the palace the huge tithe barn has been converted into a museum of old carriages.
Rochester was an important town as far back as Roman times, being a place of great strategic importance. It is here that Watling Street still crosses the river Medway, albeit by a modern road. The river Medway opens out here, forming a large natural harbour, in use since Rochester was a major Roman town. In A.D. 604, Augustine founded the third English bishopric here. On the site of his church the Normans raised a cathedral which we thought was a delight, quietly welcoming us into its tranquil beauty. The Normans also built a great castle almost beside the cathedral and the remains of these two buildings are still historic features of the town. Rochester has many associations with Dickens; his home at Gad’s Hill is on the north western outskirts of the town.
The town of Whitstable sits on Kent’s northern coast, where the Thames estuary joins the crowded English Channel. Although oysters were out of season, it was easy to recognise their links with the town; all along the shelving beach, piles of oyster shells speak of their enjoyment by others in nearby restaurants. Strange lines of poles, part of farmed oyster beds are a permanent reminder of this unusual industry. Narrow old timber houses line the shore, some are conversions of tall net drying houses, but being made of timber makes them an ever-present fire hazard. George Stephenson designed and laid the Canterbury-Whitstable railway, the first passenger line to be opened (in 1830). The steam engine which pulled the first train the Invicta, still stands by the south east gate of Canterbury’s city wall.
To visit Kent without exploring Canterbury Cathedral is well on the way to being unforgivable. Approaching the square on which we were expecting to find the cathedral, we began to come across groups of young people wearing gowns – they were there for their graduation ceremony. Were we going to be thwarted yet again? Luckily the cathedral and college authorities had made provision for general visitors, alongside excited graduates. We were allowed access to most of the cathedral, leaving the Nave open for private ceremony.
Canterbury Cathedral is just one of the historic remains left over by previous developers. While St Augustine is credited with bringing Christianity to England in A.D. 597 by way of Canterbury, he found there was already a small church dedicated to St Martin; although this church has been extensively restored, it is probably the oldest in England. Easily missed if you don’t look up when searching for Thomas a Becket’s tomb, the delicate tracery of the fan-like tops of pillars supporting Bell Harry Tower – it fair takes your breath away as they say in Derbyshire. Of the many ancient remains, tiny old houses and small museums, the one that has links with Roman Canterbury was discovered during the blitz when a whole row of terraced cottages was demolished by the bombs. When it came to clearing up the debris, the local authority discovered that the cottages had been built over part of the Roman town. Rather than remove anything of interest, everything of interest, such as a small mosaic floor, has been preserved where it was found and left together with reconstructions of every day Roman Canterbury life. Models wear reproductions of everyday clothes, and we can learn from a full-sized model of an open kitchen, that the inhabitants were avid eaters of fast food!
If there is a convenient restored steam railway nearby, coach operators seem to like to offer a trip along the line, and why not? It must be a well-run railway, because of all things on display in the small museum, we spotted a truck from the Ashover Light Railway! How it got to Kent is anyone’s guess. The Kent ant East Sussex Railway runs between the pretty market town of Tenterden and Bodiam, travelling sedately through the East Sussex countryside, past contented bovines and on the lookout for wildlife, either hiding in the bushes, or flying high above. When we reached Bodiam I looked out over the fields for Bodiam Castle in order to fulfil an ambition. A few years ago, when we visited nearby Battle, we took a trip over to Bodiam, another castle with a moat just like Leeds. I wanted to take a photograph of the castle but couldn’t find the right vantage point. However, over in the distance, across nearby fields, I became aware of tiny figures and the steam of a locomotive: this would be an ideal spot for the view back to the castle. Even though it was possible to reach Bodiam Station, for that is where the train stood, unfortunately I didn’t have the appropriate telephoto lens with me at the time. I would need to wait another day. That day came when we got off the train and looked out over the fields; everything was there, castle, and good light. All it needed was a steady breath and click, there it was safely in the camera.
Bodiam Castle has links with Kedleston Hall, here in Derbyshire. Lord Curzon its owner and one of National Trust’s early supporters was taking his wife for a drive along quiet lanes near Bodiam when he stopped the car beside a convenient gap in the hedge and directed Lady Curzon’s attention to the nearby castle. When she expressed delight at the view, he simply turned and told her he had bought it and it was hers.