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Kent Champions who had a memorable year in 2023

An honary degree from her alma mater, Canterbury Christ Church University, for hockey star Grace Balsdon -credit CCCU
An honary degree from her alma mater, Canterbury Christ Church University, for hockey star Grace Balsdon -credit CCCU

What better way to end 2023 than by raising a glass to 23 individuals and organisations within the county who’ve enjoyed success this year, helping others and often spreading a little joy in the process.

Top Dog

We’ve all heard of Crufts, but Scruffts is a branch of the prestigious dog-show competition specifically for cross breeds, and this year’s Family Crossbreed of the Year title went to Delila, a two-year-old Spaniel mix owned by Francesca Cairns from Sheerness. Delila is an assistance dog for Francesca, who has autism and a heart condition, and is medically scent-trained to alert Francesca when her heart rate peaks or has high anxiety. Delila also carries out day-to-day tasks, including taking clothes out of the washing machine and opening small drawers.What a dog!

Successful steps

The team at Tunbridge Wells-based law firm CooperBurnett LLP have certainly been nimble on their feet this year. Not only have they fund-raised via their efforts in the Walk Tonbridge festival (see our Social pages), they’ve also raised more than £5,500 for Demelza, the charity that supports children facing serious or life-limiting conditions. The firm’s Partners went on to pound-match the amount raised, resulting in a donation of more than £11,000 to Demelza. All this was achieved via the ‘magnificent seven’ – Partners Victoria Sampson, Joseph Oates, Gemma Gillespie and Sarah Strong; Head of Accounts, Gareth Warner; Associate Solicitor, Ayla Clissold; and PA to the Commercial Property team, Hannah Mashford – conquering two ultra-marathon distances of 50km, along the Monarch’s Way long-distance path from Goodwood and back again.

Award for health group

Back in the summer, the Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics Team, at Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust (KCHFT), won the Sustainability Initiative Award in this year’s Clinical Nutrition Magazine Awards. The award is for a team or person who makes healthcare more sustainable and reduces its impact on the environment - the team set up a virtual cow’s milk allergy group for new parents, and because it's virtual families don't have to travel and fewer letters are sent out.

Kirsty Curry, 32, from Maidstone, joined the group when her daughter Sienna was seven-months old. She said: ‘I was referred by my health visitor and I found it really helpful. I changed Sienna's formula and the group cleared up many questions I didn’t realise I had until the other parents started asking them. The dietitians were full of knowledge and able to answer all of my questions.’

Kent conservation heroes

A Kent producer growing more than 60 different crops has been presented with a top conservation award for its work supporting farmland birds and rare plant species. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents hundreds of farmers, landowners and rural businesses across the county, awarded its Emsden Trophy this year to Watts Farms, a family-run business headquartered in Aylesford, nominated by Kent Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) for its work supporting and improving diverse habitats. It farms over 600 hectares of land, growing dozens of varieties of vegetables, fruits, salads and herbs from asparagus to mint, supplying over 500 restaurants as well major retailers and the NHS.

Food, glorious food (and drink!)

There’s always plenty to celebrate when it comes to the county’s larder, and this year was no exception. The annual Great Taste Awards – now in their 30th year and with over 14,000 entries from one hundred countries - saw a plethora of products from Kent receive recognition, with two out of a possible three stars going to, among others, Zak’s Kombucha from Wye, Sittingbourne-based frozen meal experts Cook, Asian-style food manufactures FreshAsia, based in Erith and, with a glass raised to their success, Biddenden Pear Juice. Cheers, everybody!

Best of the Western Bunch

Good news for the Dover Marina Hotel and Spa: this year it was named as a ‘Best Western Premier’, which puts it in the top rank of the brand’s flagship hotels nationwide. An evening attended by civic dignitaries and business and commercial representatives celebrated the accolade and marked a multi-million-pound investment into the hotel. It also saw the unveiling of a watercolour depicting the whole of the front of the hotel, created by acclaimed local artist Nigel Ward.

Paddle power

We of course have some fantastic sportswomen here in Kent, from tennis US Open winner Emma Raducanu in Bromley, to Maidstone’s Lioness, football star Alessia Russo, but other sports are well represented too. Take Cathy Wynne from Tonbridge, named as a Medallist of the Order of the British Empire (BEM) in the 2023 King’s Birthday Honours List for services to sport. An ‘integral part’ of the domestic and international canoeing community, volunteering for over 35 years, she became involved in sprint canoeing after her two sons started paddling at their local club in the early 1980s and has dedicated a huge amount of time to the discipline since then. Moreover, she’s worked at the highest level at international canoeing regattas including World Championships and several Olympic Games. Go, Cathy!

Accolade for KWT

Great to see our friends at Kent Wildlife Trust walk away this autumn with the trophy for Animal and Environmental Charity of the Year at the 2023 Kent Charity Awards. The Trust shared the evening with its long-serving volunteer Bill Hickmott, who was shortlisted from over 35 nominees in the Volunteer of the Year category. Bill, who is now into his 80s, has been volunteering with the charity since the 1990s and commits his time on a weekly basis to the Wild About Gardens project, in addition to his other volunteering duties.

Youth ambassador

Having been nominated by Kent Football Association, Ashford United FC player 12-year-old Callum Pollard enjoyed a dream trip to Switzerland recently. He went as a Football Association Youth Ambassador for the EURO 2028 host country announcement, which went to the UK and Ireland.

Callum, from Kingsnorth in Ashford, is a pupil at Homewood School. He plays left wing for Ashford United U13s team in the Kent Youth League and is helping the newly-formed Ashford United Disability teams with training sessions, taking the lead in some drills. He also attends a monthly disability tournament and helps coach two teams, along with helping set up a new sensory football club along with his mum Laura.

Says Callum. ‘My brother has autism and I want to help everyone to enjoy playing sports. I also wanted to give something back to the local community. It was great fun going to Switzerland and when I met Gareth Bale I was pretty nervous because I’d never met a famous player before. He was great, absolutely lovely.’

While Callum was proud to wear his Ashford United kit on the trip he was thrilled when the FA presented him with an England kit, branded coat and other goodies. And once he got back, what did his school friends and teammates think of his dream trip to Switzerland?

‘They think that I’m really lucky,’ he says.

Global recognition

Boys Hall hotel in Willesborough just outside Ashford has ended the year on a high: National Geographic Traveller (UK) has rated Brad and Kristie Lomas’s passion project not the best Country House Retreat in Kent, or in the UK - but in the world! The award is just one that they’ve bagged this year – they’re also just one of 12 UK hotels to receive a Cesar - an award that’s been described as the Oscar of the hotel-keeping world - from The Good Hotel Guide as Best Hotel in The South of England. Find out more about stays there in our feature on Twixtmas Breaks on page 72????

King’s Awards for Enterprise

Two Kent businesses have been awarded the prestigious King’s Award for Enterprise 2023 – the first issued by King Charles. In the Innovation category, eXroid Technology of Sandwich won in recognition of its important electrotherapy technology and service, which offers treatment for internal haemorrhoids without the need for surgery. TPS Logistics of Aylesford, meanwhile, won in the International Trade category. The company provides worldwide services including air, road, rail and sea freight transport plus IT, Broadcast and Event logistics.

Gold LEAF Award

Secondary school Brockhill Park Performing Arts College, at Saltwood near Hythe, became the very first Gold Demonstration School of leading agri-education charity LEAF [Linking Environment And Farming]’s this summer: the Gold Demonstration School, an accolade in recognition of its commitment to using food production, farming and the environment as part of its curriculum. Via its on-site farm – home to animals including sheep, pigs, cattle and hens - students have first-hand experience of the farm-to-fork journey, and they work, too, alongside staff, LEAF Education and the school’s catering team to raise awareness of local, sustainably-sourced produce. Brockhill was launched at the Gold Demonstration School by the charity’s President, the Duchess of Edinburgh, who grew up in the Kent village of Brenchley, when she visited the school in the summer.

Honorary Doctorate for Gold Medallist

Olympian, Commonwealth Games gold medallist and Canterbury Christ Church University alumna, Grace Balsdon, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the university in recognition of her achievements in hockey and contribution to women’s sports. Kent-born Grace was an Elite Christ Church Sport Scholar from 2011- 2014, receiving a bursary and support from the University to help her balance her studies in Physical Education and Sport and Exercise Science alongside her sporting schedule. Grace made her senior international debut in 2014 and has gone on to successfully represent both GB and England hockey, becoming a key figure in their defences. She’s proved to be threat from penalty corners too, scoring the winning goal to secure England the bronze medal in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Says Grace of her Honorary Doctorate: ‘When you receive honours such as this it is a lovely moment to take the time to pause and reflect on the journey you have been on and what you have achieved; the resilience and the determination you have shown to overcome barriers and ultimately achieve great successes.’

‘Gongs’ for Deputies

Two Kent Deputy Lieutenants were included in the King’s Birthday Honours list this year, the first of his reign. Brigadier Nick Baveystock was awarded an OBE for Services to Engineering, and Professor Thirunamachandran an OBE for Services to Higher Education. The first British-born Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) Vice-Chancellor of a mainstream UK university whose achievements include spearheading the establishment of the new Kent and Medway Medical School and promoting women in engineering, the honour coincided with Professor Thirunamachandran’s ten-year anniversary as Vice-Chancellor of the university.

Swimming record

Still to be ratified as we go to press, but an incredible success story by anyone’s standards: after set-backs, technicalities and controversy, the extraordinary One Foot in the Wave 3 six-strong swimming relay team looks to have finally secured the World Record for the oldest team (with an average age of 77 years, 3 months and 4 days) to have swum the 21-mile Dover-Sangette stretch of the channel. Completing the journey in 17 hours and five minutes were swimmers Kevin Murphy, 74, Robert Lloyd-Evans, 80, Chris Stockdale, 79, Don Riddington, 78, Bob Roberts, 75 and Andy Nation, 73. Good on them!

All Power to Rose!

Actress and winner of Strictly Come Dancing 2021, Rose Ayling Ellis topped The Shaw Trust Disability Power 100 in 2022 (at time of writing the 2023 list is yet to be released), recognising her as one of the most influential disabled people in the UK. Rose, from Hythe, learnt British Sign Language (BSL) as a child, after her mother was motivated to improve their ability to communicate with one another and to immerse Rose in the deaf community. Rose not only took Strictly by storm, she starred in Eastenders until 2022, the first deaf character to use BSL on the BBC soap, and has gone on to pursue a range of projects on stage and screen. We can’t wait to see what she does next!

Big-Up for Barry!

As the recent Sevenoaks Business Awards, organised by Sevenoaks Town Team, local legend Barry Dennis received the Judges' Award, given to a business or person that has provided a significant contribution to economic development and the local community. This was won by Barry Dennis. The landlord of The Anchor pub in the heart of the town centre, Barry has been behind the bar for over 40 years and is renowned for welcoming everyone who comes into the pub, creating the friendliest of atmospheres and with the pub playing host to regular music nights.

Bloomin’ marvellous

Living up to its 'Garden of England' moniker, Kent towns and villages have thrived in this year’s prestigious Britain in Bloom competition. Royal Tunbridge Wells received a Gold Award, with Faversham taking silver and the village of Eynsford recognised with a silver gilt award. Rachel de Thame, presenting the awards, said ‘Britain in Bloom gardening groups give selflessly of their time and energy to make their communities better for everyone to enjoy. From engaging with young people, helping to grow food for those in need or providing plant displays to inspire a sense of pride - these groups are the heroes of our villages, towns and cities and keep our country blooming.'

Top Teachers

The Kent Teacher of the Year Awards 2023 received almost 1,600 nominations, with 14 overall category winners announced, including Sarah Kelley-Day of Tymberwood Academy Gravesend, named Headteacher of the Year 2023. Organised by Social Enterprise Kent, the awards are, they say, ‘An excellent way to appreciate the dedication and hard work of educators and school staff in Kent.’ For the full list of winners and to see how you can nominate for 2024, see sekgroup.org.uk

Culinary star of the future

Move over, Jamie: there are new Kent cooks on the rise, and their expertise has been tested, celebrated and rewarded this year. The Young Cooks Live Final, organised by Social Enterprise Kent, took place at Broadstairs College in the summer and was a highly competitive event with 16 finalists vying for the top spot. Winning that accolade in the Further Education category was Megan Marvier of Broadstairs College, who wowed the judges with her maturity and skill – not to mention her main course of succulent haddock, followed by a mouth-watering chocolate tart. Winners prizes included lunch and work experience at The Dog in Wingham.

Cheers for Chatham

Anyone who’s visited Chatham Historic Dockyard knows what a brilliant day out it offers, with everything from a deep dive into every aspect of our rich naval heritage to Call the Midwife Tours on offer. Now the Trust that runs the Dockyard is celebrating winning a prestigious Sandford Award for high achievement in heritage education, with the assessor calling the quality of the team’s teaching as 'extremely high', and praising the content and high standard of the learning programmes delivered at the site. So if you want to have fun and learn at one and the same time, we'll see you at the Dockyard this winter!

Seeing the light at Rochester

It can’t be easy lighting one of the UK’s loveliest cathedrals both for religious and secular occasions, but Rochester Cathedral has been honoured with the International Lighting Design Award (IALD) of Excellence for its recently-installed new lighting system - considered to be one of the highest accolades in the lighting industry. Good to know that Rochester is set to continue to shine brightly, within the town and beyond.

Raising a glass to Balfour

Only 91 attractions in the whole country receive Visit England Visitor Attraction Accolades, with a Gold award as good as it gets. And the team at Balfour Winery have yet another reason to raise a glass this year, having earned one for themselves. Over 15,000 people visit its beautiful Hush Heath estate and winery each year, lured by the beautiful setting, warm welcome and the chance to discover some of Kent’s finest wines and see how they’re made. Balfour’s Commercial Director, Sarah Easton says, ‘The recognition from VisitEngland is really fantastic for us at Balfour. To be listed amongst some of the most popular and renowned attractions in England is really exciting, and shows just how far we are coming as an industry. It’s a massive testament to the team’s hard-work on our famous Balfour hospitality.”



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