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 head south west on the B2176 along Rogues Hill, through Bidborough, turning right onto the A26 London Road for Royal Tunbridge Wells. If you follow the A26 through the town to its southern end at the large Sainsburys supermarket you will find the best parking spot for the historic Pantiles district. The tourist car park nearer the centre is quite small and if you make a short visit to Sainsburys to grab a few essentials you'll not feel to guilty about using its parking area for a couple of hours for free. Please pay the charges if you wish to stay longer.
From Sainsburys it is a very short walk over to The Pantiles, noting the steam trains running to Eridge from Tunbridge Wells West railway station on most weekends. At the southern end of The Pantiles you can stroll up this elegant promanade of colonnaded shops and cafes to the former site of the Well House and spring at its northern end.
The Chalybeate Spring was discovered by a local nobleman, Dudley Lord North in 1606, the word chalybeate derives from the Latin meaning iron-rich which is exactly what these waters contain.
News spread to London of the rejuvenating qualities of the water and the village surrounding the well soon became a fashionable resort. Richard "Beau" Nash, well known as the Master of Ceremonies at the spa in the city of Bath undertook a similar role here and Queen Henrietta Maria, consort to King Charles I, spent some time taking the waters in the town. Today the spring stands beneath the early 19th century Dippers Hall on the site of the old Well House. Dippers would provide you with a more dignified way of drinking the water by filling the jugs and pouring a glass on your behalf. On occasions modern costumed guides will do the same for you today!
The name 'pantile' refers to the one-inch thick square clay tiles used as paving. After a fire in 1687 the earlier wooden buildings of The Pantiles were destroyed making way for the Georgian colonaded buildings we see today. Both the Upper and Lower Walks are filled with cafes, restaurants and a good number of antique shops and extend from Dippers Hall for about half a mile back to the car parking area.
Being a popular resort for royalty the town received its 'Royal' prefix in 1909 during the reign of Edward VII. It was his mother Queen Victoria that regularly visited the town, often staying at the Calverley Hotel whose beautiful landscaped gardens were given to the town in 1920. Other open spaces include the hill top park known as The Grove and the large Tunbridge Wells Common that takes up most of the west side of the town.
Return north on the A26 towards Tonbridge. This small market town is an older settlement than Tunbridge Wells and was originally called Tunbridge. Now, as the wells were about 5 miles from here they were Tunbridge's Wells. But in 1870 the Post Office decided it would lead to too much confusion so Tunbridge was renamed Tonbridge. The actual bridge in its name spans the River Medway, no confusion about that!
Follow the signs for the town centre, cross the river and follow signs for the A227 and Shipbourne. Drive through Shipbourne and a short while later you will see a brown tourist sign on the left side of the road indicating a left turn towards Ightham Mote. Turn left on High Cross Road and after a mile or so (2km) turn left again in the village of Ivy Hatch to Ightham Mote itself.
Feast your eyes on 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 and enjoy the ever present 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 guided visit. Tours take about two hours, which consists of an hour around the vineyards and an hour for an in-depth talk on the style of wines and a chance to taste each variety.
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 15th and 16th century even large warships were built here. The breaching of a dam in 1636 caused the river to reroute itself and shipbuilding came to an end. 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. Parking is just below the house right by the now stream-like course of the River Rother.
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 on West Street 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. Just east of Lamb House, crowning the hill, is the 12th century St Mary's church built in local ragstone with an impressive crenellated tower which visitors are allowed to climb.
Walk east of the church down hill to reach the Rye Castle Museum in the Ypres Tower within part of the old town walls. This surviving section of the castle possibly dates back to the early 14th century and now contains the town museum. The building is on three storeys with a portcullis.
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 built of flint and the old castle, of which just the keep remains. 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. The north transcept was the scene of his demise. Also nearby are the tombs of King Henry IV and his Uncle, Edward The Black Prince. The western part of the church features the famous "miracle windows", remarkable 13th century stained glass survivors depicting the miracles associated with Thomas Becket. The dark and atmospheric undercroft contains the largest amount of early Norman architecture within the building and also one can find the Cathedral Treasury here.
A pleasant stroll around the town can take you along the High Street to the medieval West Gate, the only survivor of seven ancient gates that surrounded the city. Although a lot of older buildings, along with the gates, were torn down in the 18th and 19th centuries, a great deal of damage was done in the Second World War. On the 1st June 1942 Canterbury was heavily bombed in an air raid leaving a substantial part of the city in ruins and over 150 people dead. In Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell's 1946 film 'A Canterbury Tale' the destruction and devastation can clearly be seen as a backdrop to the narrative.
Thankfully a great number of old timber-framed buildings survived. One example is the 16th century Old Weavers House where the High Street crosses the river. The weavers were Huguenot refugees from France who introduced silk weaving to the area. On the other side of the road is the 12th century Eastbridge Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr. Although still functioning as an Almshouse today, the building is open to the public. There are numerous pubs, cafes and tearooms to get refreshments along this main thoroughfare before heading out on the A2 road towards London, picking up the M2 to take you back to where you started.