The Kentish Kingdom of the Weald
With the days getting longer and a hint of spring in the air, why not kick off the winter blues with a weekend away in Kent's historic and green heartland - the wonderful Weald
Wealden countryside features rolling grassland hills, ancient bluebell woods, and landscapes of small fields fringed with hedgerows, and part of the High Weald is designated to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Kentish part of this huge chunk of southern England has four major historic towns, six of the ‘Seven wonders of the Weald’ (all mentioned below) and a host of other outdoor attractions, a variety of stately homes and castles, fine restaurants and hotels, not to mention quaint ‘Darling buds of May’-type villages, with typically white weather-boarded cottages. This Kentish Kingdom stretches from just below a line underneath Sevenoaks, Maidstone, Ashford and Folkestone, right down to the Sussex border. The ‘Low’ weald refers to areas in the northern part (Tonbridge, Paddock Wood, Staplehurst), whereas the remainder is in the ‘High’ Weald, plus there are Wealden borderlands: Sevenoaks Weald, Sundridge and Boughton Malherbe Weald.
Originally covered in dense forests, clearances for pig breeding formed the nucleus of today's towns and villages, and notable examples of the latter include ‘haunted’ Pluckley (12 ghosts and counting), fruit-farming centre Paddock Wood, Goudhurst, Lamberhurst, Biddenden and Hawkhurst. The choices of what to do are so vast that we’re giving you enough ideas to fill an entire summer of weekends! Note, some attractions below are closed until early April, so always phone before visiting.
Cowden, on the northern slopes of the Weald, south-west of Tonbridge, has a lovely old High Street with Grade II listed cottages and village houses and the 13th-century church of St Mary Magdalene with its slender, wooden shingled spire
DO THE TOWNS
Cranbrook and nearby Tenterden are known respectively as the ‘Capital’ and the ‘Jewel’ of the Weald. The former has lovely St Dunstan’s church, a grandly sweeping High Street, and masses of white weather-boarded houses, as well as Cranbrook Union Mill (01580 712256), and Cranbrook Museum (01580 712475). Tenterden has Tenterden and District Museum (01580 764310), and an incredibly wide and famous, tree-lined High Street, packed with every type of shop imaginable. Tonbridge is actually much older than neighbouring Tunbridge Wells, where there’s the lovely pantiles colonnaded walkway, fantastic shopping facilities, superb historic buildings plus a variety of wonderful parks.
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RAILWAY RIDES OR WINE FROM THE VINE
Kent and East Sussex Railway (01580 765155) is England’s finest rural light railway, and runs steam and heritage diesel trains from Tenterden to Bodiam. Attached to the Tenterden end is Colonel Stephens Railway Museum. Alternatively visit Biddenden Vineyards (01580 291726), Kent’s oldest commercial vineyard, where you can walk through vines, taste wines, and browse in the vineyard shop (free admissions and tastings).
Apicius (01580 714666) in Cranbrook has won a Michelin star, 3AA rosettes and is in the Good Food Guide, while the Great House (01580 753119), a 16th-century beamed inn in Hawkhurst, serves traditional English cuisine and regional French brasserie style food.
AT THE HOP, CASTLE OR MARLE PLACE MAGIC
Hop Farm Family Park (01622 872 068) has thirty rides and attractions, the UK’s first magic factory, a Victorian carrousel, animal farm, children’s play areas and exhibition ‘The World of Hops’ within three oast houses. Opening in April are Chiddingstone Castle (see my town) and Marle Place Gardens and Gallery (01892 722304), a fantastic 10-acre Wealden garden with a serious of colourful garden ‘rooms’.
GREAT GARDENS, WORLD-CLASS CONIFERS
Sissinghurst Castle Gardens (01580 710701) were developed by Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s, and there’s splendid wildlife and walking facilities, plus a restaurant (gardens close at 5.30pm in summer). Bedgebury National Pinetum (01580 879842) has the most complete collection of conifers in the world, in 350 acres of rolling countryside.
The Dering Arms (01233 840371), Pluckley – a beautiful ex-hunting lodge in the most haunted village in England – specialise in seasonal seafood. The Mulberry Tree (01622 749082), in Boughton Monchelsea, was Kent Restaurant of the year in 2009.
WELCOME TO THE WEALD
Bull Farm Oast (01580 714140), Cranbrook, is an oast house, with lovely surrounding gardens. Proprietors Andrew and Prue Fleming have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area and are happy to help you plan your stay. “Guests like the fact that we’re really central to all the local gardens and the National Trust properties,” says Andrew. “And of course Cranbrook is a very quaint village with some excellent restaurants. We offer something a bit different because ours is a square oast, rather than round. I think guests keep on coming back because we’re very friendly and make everyone feel welcome.”
The Old Inn B & B in Wittersham (01797 270528) is a magnificent historic Grade II Listed property in the centre of the village, and in summer offers a heated outside swimming pool. The English Tourist Board have awarded them 5 gold stars, and the ‘Gold’ and ‘Breakfast’ awards. “Our house has a huge history attached to it, and it’s furnished with genuine antiques,” enthuses Lorraine Hope, who owns and runs the Old Inn, helped by her husband Gavin. “People really appreciate the quality of our accommodation and the fantastic historical features, which absolutely blow our guests away: for instance the dining room has a hand-painted ceiling, the guest drawing room has a massive inglenook.”
Ali Ditzel is marketing director for Chiddingstone Castle (01892 870347), where she leads a small team of staff and volunteers, and she lives nearby. The castle is one of the Seven Wonders of the Weald, and exhibits include Egyptian and Buddhist artefacts, magnificent Japanese armour, and exquisite Jacobean paintings, and is set in wonderful grounds including a lake (with fishing facilities) and Rose Garden. The castle is open on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays after 5 April, apart from a one-day opening on 18 March, Mothering Sunday.
What do you like about the castle and your work there?
Everything. The grounds are absolutely breathtaking in all seasons, 35 acres and nothing too formal, apart from the central Rose Courtyard. I think I love the changing seasons in the grounds best of all.
Which artefacts interest you most?
The Samurai armour, which is so lifelike it’s almost scaring! My 13-year-old daughter loves the Egyptology section most – it’s inspired her to become an Egyptologist when she’s older.
Is anything exciting coming up?
To augment our original Victorian kitchen, we’re going to recreate an authentic ‘Upstairs Downstairs’/‘Downton Abbey’ scenario, with a servants hall with a flagstone floor, then in the attic at the top of a ‘secret’ spiral staircase there’ll be a servant’s bedroom.
Tell us about the castle as a wedding venue
The bride can really feel like a princess in her castle, because wedding parties have exclusive use of the entire ground floor of the castle and the grounds for the day: honestly, there are no bland soulless rooms here, they’re all full of life. In addition we cater for birthday parties, coach trip visitors, film locations and conferences, and guests are surrounded by antiquities. For instance the Great Hall has a gallery of beautiful paintings and part of the wall panelling is said to be have been Ann Boleyn’s bed head.
Do you have any interests connected with the Wealden countryside?
Yes, my biggest passion is horse riding around the local area.
Do you have any favourite restaurants or pubs?
The Rock (01892 870296) in Chiddingstone Hoath is an excellent pub and serves great food, as is The Castle Inn (01892 870247) in Chiddingstone village, with its fine restaurant.
What do you like most about Weald?
The hills, the views, its variety of landscape and convenient access to London.
What would you say to potential visitors to the castle?
Please come and give us a try. We’re the hidden gem of the weald, we’re quite special and we have so much to offer. By the way, our cream teas are second to none!