Looking at my photos, you can do doubt feel the timid sun and see the drifting cloud… this is true English summer and in a part of the country that for me reflects its soul. Sadly today (2019) it is also a heartland of Brexiteers, so rather far from sweetness and light. With all the UK currently in limbo, ruled by a team of pontificating charlatans and no idea where we’ll be in a few months’ time, it’s a good moment to savour the past.
So another short escape brings me to flag up yet more secrets of Kent, the so-called ‘garden of England’ which spills over the border into East Sussex. And it certainly is one mammoth garden – roadside farm-shops heave with soft fruit galore – cherries, strawberries, plums. greengages, gooseberries and red currants – all tip top quality and punching flavour. Gardens are a mass of flowery borders led by lavender and roses, blowsy and unkempt, while ragged tracks lead past briars with great clumps of blackberries. All the better to forage…
As we drive through soaring tunnels of green edged by high banks that denote former cart-roads, an occasional gap reveals rolling fields of wheat while sheep peer around a corner before scampering away, but above all it’s the mighty oak trees that signal ye olde England.
Over the years I’ve visited numerous historic houses in the Weald – Scotney Castle (arguably the most picturesque – also covered here), Bodiam Castle (a close second), monumental Hever Castle, once home to Anne Boleyn, the gardens of Sissinghurst (one of a kind, nurturing the ghosts of literati Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson), Great Dixter (a horticultural chef d’oeuvre) and not forgetting Batemans – Rudyard Kipling’s evocative old house and gardens. packed with fascinating memorabilia.
There are many more, all within an easy drive of London, but this time it is the turn of Ightham Mote, a moated medieval manor house enveloped by woodland and edged by lakes and gardens.
It’s had a tough life. Although the setting is rather blissful, the interior lost much of the original furnishings when they were auctioned off in the 1950s. Luckily Ightham was saved from demolition in 1953 when bought by a philanthropic American, Charles Henry Robinson, who lived there only 14 weeks a year – for tax reasons! He refurbished much of the interior with English antiques – and installed a striking billiards room.
On Robinson’s death in 1985, Ightham was taken over by the National Trust, given a thorough makeover (in conservation terms) and finally opened to the public about 15 years ago. It was a long haul, but well worth it. I love wandering through the gardens and surrounding woods and taking it easy beside the lake.
Onwards over the border, we head for Battle Abbey on the site of the momentous Battle of Hastings in 1066 – which, despite its name, was in fact 12km inland from the coast. As my French friends would claim, civilisation was finally brought to the British Isles… ah, those Normans! Little did they know about Brexit.
I’ve been to the Abbey only once before, and much has been done since to improve the visitor experience. It’s an impressive, impeccably maintained site, from the imposing 14th century gatehouse to the old monks’ quarters – where rib-vaulting really comes into its own. The fields below are where the main charges of the battle are thought to have taken place – an exhausting, uphill confrontation lasting 8 hours, but allegedly with tea-breaks for the Saxons – and maybe a hit of cider for the Normans?
Poor King Harold, with an arrow in his eye, eventually faded away on the brow of the hill… where a plaque now marks the spot. So William of Normandy (the Conqueror) took over as King of England and a few years later founded the abbey in gratitude for his victory – and in memory of the thousands who died.
As a monument to the last time England was invaded, nearly one thousand years ago, it’s surprising that on a fine August day it’s not more crowded. Maybe the English don’t like defeat?! Anyway – all the better for us.
A last bonus in this part of the world are the delightful old pubs, a few with creaking wooden benches, polished tables, beamed ceilings, pewter candlesticks and craft ale. Plus dried hops strung along the rafter, as above, the basis of local brews.
Some also do very decent food – as in this peerless fish and chips at the Queens Inn in Hawkhurst.
After a night in a welcoming B&B, it’s “Home James” – with a hoard of delicious Kentish goodies.