Steam trains, vineyards, tea rooms and a surprising maritime history. We take a look at all this and more on offer in tempting Tenterden

Great British Life: St Mildred’s Church is a landmark that has dominated the town since the 12th century (photo: Manu Palomeque)St Mildred’s Church is a landmark that has dominated the town since the 12th century (photo: Manu Palomeque) (Image: Manu Palomeque 07977074797)

Deep in the heart of the Weald of Kent, Tenterden has a reputation as a scenic, well-to-do country town. With its friendly, rural feel, traditional weather-boarded buildings and a High Street so pretty it graces many a postcard, it’s a popular place for visitors in search of some old Kent charm. But that’s not all; this little town also is also packed with some surprising attractions.

It’s hard to imagine today, but its history is linked to the sea. Before the storms of the 15th century silted up the River Rother and when the surrounding marshes were still under water, Tenterden was an important shipbuilding centre and trading port.

As the centre of the Weald’s wool trade, it was a booming town with docks at Small Hythe. Wood from the Wealden forests was used to build ships and, in 1449, Tenterden was deemed so important it became a ‘limb’ of the Cinque Ports. Granted special powers of self-government, it flourished.

Great British Life: Ride one of the vintage steam and diesel locomotives run by the Kent and East Sussex Railway from its pretty station at Tenterden (photo: Manu Palomeque)Ride one of the vintage steam and diesel locomotives run by the Kent and East Sussex Railway from its pretty station at Tenterden (photo: Manu Palomeque) (Image: Manu Palomeque 07977074797)

Now, with the sea some 10 miles away, it’s not easy to understand the area’s maritime past. But some of the fascinating exhibitions at Tenterden Museum keep its story alive, exploring the town’s significance through the years and showing how it would have looked before it was left landlocked.

These days it’s not shipbuilding nor wool production that Tenterden is best known for, having become the heart of the English wine industry over the last few years and a real destination for wine lovers. The leading name in English wine, Chapel Down, calls Tenterden home and from its winery in Smallhythe it produces award-winning white, red and sparkling wine.

It’s even branched out to include a range of beers, ciders, vodka, brandy and gin.

Great British Life: Lots of tempting independents to browse in the wide High Street (photo: Manu Palomeque)Lots of tempting independents to browse in the wide High Street (photo: Manu Palomeque) (Image: Manu Palomeque 07977074797)

Not far away is Biddenden Vineyard, best known for its excellent Ortega and Gribble Bridge wines. An exciting wine trail route can include Gusbourne Estate in Appledore, Hush Heath in Staplehurst and the small but perfectly formed vineyard of Woodchurch, among others. This year has produced a bumper crop of Kentish grapes too, thanks to the prolonged hot weather during the growing season.

And if you choose to end your tour of the area’s wineries at Chapel Down’s visitor centre, you can also visit its shop and have lunch at The Swan at Chapel Down, set on the first floor with a terrace overlooking the vineyards.

But it’s not just wine that this area is known for. Local ciders (see our Postcard from Tenterden), fruit juices and real ales are all booming too. It’s not surprising in a town historically surrounded by apple orchards and hop gardens. Add in a trip to the Old Dairy Brewery’s visitor centre in Station Road, to see how its award-winning ales are made in the heart of Tenterden.

Great British Life: Café culture is thriving in Tenterden (photo: Manu Palomeque)Café culture is thriving in Tenterden (photo: Manu Palomeque) (Image: Manu Palomeque 07977074797)

And that’s just the beginning of Tenterden’s offerings. To enjoy some of the stunning local countryside, what better way than to hop aboard one of the vintage steam and diesel locomotives run by the Kent and East Sussex Railway from its pretty station at Tenterden.

Travel in style along 11.5 miles of track, with stops at Rolvenden, Wittersham Road, Northiam and finally Bodiam, where you can alight to visit the famous castle.

The heritage railway also runs a number of special events throughout the year, including various real ale and cider events, a Fright Night Express on 26 October and Santa Specials throughout December.

Great British Life: There's an excellent choice of places to eat and drink in Tenterden (photo: Manu Palomeque)There's an excellent choice of places to eat and drink in Tenterden (photo: Manu Palomeque) (Image: Manu Palomeque 07977074797)

A popular local event this month is the Tenterden Folk Festival, four days of folk song, music, dance, craft and traditions running from 4 to 7 October. It celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017.

The area also has more than its fair share of gardens, with Hole Park Garden in Rolvenden, the National Trust’s Smallhythe Place and hidden-away Boldshaves Garden in Woodchurch (home to the Wealden Literary Festival held in July) all within striking distance. And there are farmyard adventures nearby for the children too, with the Rare Breeds Centre also at Woodchurch.

But plenty of visitors come to Tenterden not for its attractions but for the pretty town itself. Having escaped much of the major development that has changed our larger towns, it remains a characterful and peaceful place to explore a good range of shops, tea rooms, restaurants and historic pubs, and a number of fun annual events bring even more visitors.

The broad, tree-lined High Street is instantly recognisable and behind it looms the tall spire of St Mildred’s Church – a landmark that has dominated the town since the 12th century. And if historical architecture is your thing then don’t miss the Town Hall, erected in the early 1790s.

Eating and shopping

There are no shortage of tea rooms, cosy cafés, pubs and restaurants in Tenterden. Try Montalbano, Ozgur, La Cantina di Tenterden, The Swan at Chapel Down, The Vine Inn, The White Lion, Peggotty’s Tea Shoppe, HunnyBeez, Bluebell Coffee House, The Nutmeg deli, The Secret Pantry, The French Gourmet deli or The Woolpack, to name just a few.

There’s a new alehouse and tapas bar in the form of This Ancient Boro, and a new Judges Bakery. Foodies will particularly enjoy Tenterden’s Food and Drink Festival held 17-19 May next year on the Recreation Ground. Browse the little independent stores and antique shops at your leisure and enjoy such treasures as Webbs of Tenterden hardware store, Handmade Rugs, The Bathroom Shop, Whites Jewellers (established in 1860, it’s the oldest in Kent) and trendy interiors store Kagu.

Getting there

Tenterden is on the A28 between Ashford and Hastings. There’s no station but Ashford International is around 20 minutes away by car, with Headcorn even closer at around 15 minutes away.

Sat nav: TN30 6BW

Property prices

Tenterden is a lovely place to live but its travel connections are fairly poor, keeping property prices quite reasonable. At the time of writing, prices started at £175,000 for a one-bedroom flat, £230,000 for a two-bed house and £270,000 for a three-bed house. At the top end of the market there are a number of large detached properties, priced right up to £1.7million. There are some new developments going on in the town too so new-build properties will also soon be available

Postcard from Tenterden - Nightingale Cider

My name is Sam Nightingale. I am a cider maker and the founder of Nightingale Cider Company, based on my family fruit farm, Gibbet Oak Farm in Tenterden. Nightingale Cider Company started as a hobby with a friend nine years ago, and was then known as Gibbet Oak Cider.

Dad had been making apple and pear juices for several years, so it seemed like a natural progression. Fast forward to 2013 and we released our first bottled cider and perry, and then in 2015 I left my previous career to join the family business full time and grow the drinks brand. We rebranded to Nightingale Cider Company last summer, and we have just launched our newest family member, Night Bird, a delicious sparkling cider.

We are a true orchard cidery, which means that we grow the fruit ourselves. All our fruit is hand picked and then the ciders are fermented using wild yeasts, and we give our ciders time to mature and develop their true potential.

Tenterden is where I’ve chosen to put down my roots. It’s a stunning town, nestled among woodland and rolling hills. I live in town, so I can pop to the shops, pub or out for coffee in minutes, or alternatively put on my walking boots and disappear into the surrounding countryside. As a food and drinks producer, it’s incredibly exciting to be surrounded by orchards, vineyards and hop gardens – all just a stone’s throw away from us.

We are blessed with some fantastic independent businesses here. Favourites of mine are The Woolpack for a beer and live music, Nutmeg deli for the best coffee, Old Dairy Brewery for great beer, Chapel Down Vineyard, the steam railway, and of course my family’s very own Nightingale Farm Shop, for the best home-grown and seasonal local produce.