London's M25 orbital motorway provides an ideal link to the county of Kent from the capital and all major airports. It is a journey of little more than an hour from central parts of the city to get to the leafy narrow lanes of this beautiful part of the world. Indeed the county boundaries of Kent reach right up to the borders of Greater London.
If one leaves the M25 at Junction 5 and takes the A21 southwards you'll soon be arriving in the south eastern corner of the country, known all around as the 'garden' of England. The county of Kent has received that name not because it provides London with a pretty backyard but because it furnishes the city and nearby towns with home grown produce, such as market gardening, fruit from orchards, vineyards and hop fields for beer. It gives Kent a rather unique look from anywhere else in Britain with its pretty farmsteads nestling under deep green rolling hillsides, ancient churches and timber framed villages down narrow winding lanes, and traditional oast houses used to dry the hops before being taken to the local brewery.
Travelling along the A21 for a short while then head right towards Leigh on the B2027 Hildenborough Road then just after driving through the village continue along the Penshurst Road to Penshurst Place itself. This magnificent house stands within the delightful and photogenic small village of the same name. Built in 1341 for Sir John de Pulteney, the house has been extended and expanded over the centuries and boasts a magnificent Great Hall, fortified living areas, along with traditional walled gardens and parkland. The most famous resident of Penshurst was Sir Philip Sidney, born in 1554, poet and author of "Arcadia", the epitome of a Renaissance writer and a contemporary of a young William Shakespeare.
From Penshurst retrace your journey back to Leigh and the A21, this time cross the A21 and continue up the B2027 towards Hildenborough, taking the country lanes towards Ightham Mote. Follow Riding Lane, Hildenborough Road then turn left on Mote Road for a short journey up to this remarkable medieval survivor, a fortified and moated Manor House dating from 1320. Perhaps one of the most complete ancient houses in the country, built around a quadrangle of timber and stone with the most recent addition being the Chapel, built in the 16th century. A must visit site for any history enthusiast.
It is a short drive from Ightham Mote via Ivy Hatch northwards to the village of Ightham itself. This charming place has a range of timber-framed houses winding along its main street. Pause a while here, call in for a drink at the black and white timber-built George and Dragon pub or visit the 12th century flintstone Church of St Peter. Head northwards out of the village, turning eastwards on the A25, eventually continuing east on the A20 towards Aylesford and Maidstone. Just before reaching Maidstone take a left turn onto Station Road which takes you towards Aylesford, continue until you cross the River Medway, there you will find Station Road car park where you can leave the vehicle for a walk around the delightful village, not forgetting to cross back over the river on the old bridge, now no long used for motor traffic. This bridge gives fine views over the river and back to the town. Explore the narrow streets and antique shops. Enjoy the riverside tea rooms.
From Aylesford head back to the A20 and use this road to navigate around Maidstone picking up the A274 south of the town heading towards Sutton Valence and Headcorn before arriving at the attractive village of Biddenden. This pretty collection of cottages around the village green is worth a stop. Almost all the villages and towns in this part of Kent end with the suffix 'den', its a local word meaning wooded pasture.
After leaving Biddenden, head on the A262 towards Tenterden, the Kent and East Sussex railway runs its steam trains through the station here, and just beyond the town take a left turn on the B2082 Small Hythe Road to the Chapel Down Winery. This vineyard has been in business since 1977 and is the country's largest wine-maker, producing sparking wines, red and white still wines, gin, vodka and ciders. Call in ahead for a tour and tasting!!
Just a little further along the road and you'll come across a beautiful timber-framed house that seems to have changed little over several centuries. This is Smallhythe Place built from the mid-16th century. Hythe means landing stage and there is evidence that the River Rother was much wider and deeper here, and in the time of Henry VIII there was even some shipbuilding evident. Smallhythe Place may have been the Port Reeve's House. It was bought by the Shakespearean actress Dame Ellen Terry in 1899 and there is a lot of information about here life and her actor friends on display if you wish to tour this wonderful historic house.
From here we leave Kent behind, crossing into East Sussex to the historic Cinque port of Rye. Once a major maritime centre on the English Channel, a place of shipbuilding and one of Henry VIII's major naval bases, the receding coastline rendered Rye isolated and useless in a strategic sense. As a result the town never developed and became a sleepy backwater with narrow cobbled streets and old town walls.
Under an agreement with the King, Cinque Ports received a number of benefits in return for being ready to fight foreign attacks at short notice. Rye's fortifications and position along the coast reflects that in its long history. And the silting up of the estuary and decline as a harbour gives us the beautiful old town we see today. This tranquil beauty was shared by the American novelist Henry James who rented Lamb House from 1897. The author of "The Turning of the Screw" and "For the Wings of the Dove" bought the house two years later. The property is open to the public for tours.
The main parking area is down by the railway station and the local bakery lies opposite so you can stock up on snacks before heading on the A259 towards Ashford, bearing north-east on the A2070. By passing Ashford head up the A28 climbing the Weald of Kent, this high backbone that crosses the middle of the country is a huge ridge and gives great views as you head towards Chilham. Two side trips offer you the chance to see a couple more of Kent's most attractive places. Take a right turn on Harville Road to see the little village of Wye, returning to the A28 and head a little further north-east and turn left into Godmersham to pay a visit to this small charming place. Once back on the A28 continue to Chilham.
Climbing up a small but steep hill you arrive in the centre of the village where there is a square with limited parking. The square stands in the shadow of the castle and great house with brick and timber-framed cottages on either side and the church standing at the foot of the square. The Norman Castle dates from 1174 and isn't able to be seen from the village as it hides behind the Jaobean house built in 1616, although this can be viewed from the gates at the top of the village where one can peer up the drive and see some of the grounds. A visit to the church is recommended. Allegedly the burial place of St Thomas Becket, the graveyard doesn't lead you to anywhere remotely claiming to be his grave but you can see the remains of the ancient Yew tree, planted, so it is said, in the year 690 and sadly destroyed in the Great Storm of 1987.
A short drive further along the A28 will take you into the city of Canterbury, which has long been known as the cradle of Christian worship in England. As you arrive into the city you will see the remains of the city wall and the old castle. Head right, following the city walls to the parking area at the Northgate car park. A short walk along the River Stour will take you into the centre of the city where you can pay a visit to its magnificent cathedral. It was here, on behalf of Pope Gregory that Augustine converted King Ethelbert of Kent to Christianity in the year 597. The cathedral built near the sight of his baptism has been rebuilt numerous times and the interior contains The Martyrdom, site of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket who had locked horns with his former friend Henry II over the relationship of church laws and civil laws. He was killed by the King's knights while heading to worship on the evening of December 29th, 1170. Also nearby are the tombs of King Henry IV and his Uncle, Edward The Black Prince.
A pleasant stroll around the town can take you along the High Street to the medieval West Gate passing numerous pubs, cafes and tearooms to get refreshments before heading out on the A2 road towards London, picking up the M2 to take you back to where you started.