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Review: Kent's Gardens, Wines and Railway Lines with Hornsby Travel

Escorted Tour - Coach

United Kingdom

Plus a couple of castles and cathedrals too

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2513 reviews

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  • May 2016
  • Solo

60 people found this review helpful

I should have been going to the Dutch Bulb fields with Houghs of Lincolnshire at the beginning of May, but they cancelled as there weren’t enough passengers. Having arranged to be free of Grandparenting duties I was looking for something to fill its place.

Kent’s Gardens, Wines and Railway Lines run by the local bus company ticked all the boxes. I grew up on the edge of London and this would take me to an area I hadn’t been back to for nearly 50 years. It sounded exciting with included trips to Leeds and Hever Castles as well as a winery and a ride on a steam railway. I couldn’t go wrong.

I’d forgotten how pretty Kent is and how wooded. There is a lot of relief. When I first came to Scunthorpe I used to miss the hills. Having now got used to the wide open spaces and large fields, I did find the landscape a bit claustrophobic. In early may, nearly all the woods were carpeted with bluebells. There are still orchards but these are mostly new with closely planted dwarf trees. The few traditional orchards are looking very unkempt with many dead trees. Hops are no longer grown widely and I only saw one hop farm. Nearly all the oast houses are now expensive homes. Vines have taken the place of hops and orchards and wineries are springing up all over the place.

I was surprised how poor many of the roads were once off the motorways – even A roads between major towns. Many of these are narrow winding country lanes with trees meeting overhead. In fact, many don’t seem to have improved much over the last 50 years. Towns and villages have grown out of all recognition with a lot of new housing. Many seem to be thriving with a lot of small family run shops and few of the chain stores which blight so many high streets. Housing prices are scary. Even a small two up and two down is about £300,000….

We stopped at the"Holiday Inn": at Sittingbourne, a large town which seemed to have little to recommend it although it was convenient for everywhere we went. Rooms were comfortable, breakfast was good although they were very slow to replenish food but dinner let them down. It was best described as mediocre and was excruciatingly slow to be served.

The coach was almost full and the driver was excellent, attentive to our needs and quickly established a friendly atmosphere in the group. Even though I was by myself there was always someone to talk to or sit with. We also had enough time at each of the stops and everyone was very good at being back to the coach on time. I rarely felt rushed and managed to achieve everything I wanted to.

We had a 3 hour break in Cambridge on the way down. I was prepared with a map and list of what I wanted to see – The Round Church one of only five in England has marvellous Norman architecture, St Bene’t’s with its Saxon tower and St Botolph’s with its lovely painted ceiling and rood screen.

The next day we visited Canterbury and Leeds Castle. I last visited Canterbury when I was 15 and still remember the tomb of the Black Prince with his armour above it. This is now being conserved and is replaced by modern replicas. I spent all my time in the Cathedral. I’ve always had a soft spot for the cathedral since being Brother Martin in the “Zeal of Thy House” which we performed at school. Everyone heads straight for the Martyrdom where Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. The Cathedral has some of the best medieval stained glass in England, some splendid tombs, the remains of wall paintings and one of the biggest crypts I have ever seen. It is also very photogenic.

I remember seeing Leeds Castle from the A20 on days out in my youth. It looked a fairy tale castle set on an island in the middle of the river. In those days it was privately owned and very shut. I was excited about visiting and the castle had a lot to live up to.

I ignored the land train and followed the lovely 15 minute walk along the river through the woods to the castle. It looked as good as I remembered. The recommended entry, and more interesting entrance to the castle, is by dropping down through the wall and along the moat before entering through the Norman cellars under the new castle. The rooms in the Gloriette, the original keep of the castle, have been restored to give an impression of what the rooms might have looked like during Medieval times. The Queen’s Bedroom and bathroom have been recreated for Catherine de Valois, the young widowed queen of Henry V. Henry VIII banqueting hall is the largest room in the castle. The rest of the castle has been restored to what it was like when owned by the wealthy American, Lady Baillie in the 1930s, when it was one of the great country houses of Britain and a centre of lavish hospitality. The Thorpe drawing room and the dining room are the most impressive.

The castle is surrounded by attractive grounds with the Culpepper Garden with its low box hedges and cottage garden flowers. Lady Baillie’s Mediterranean is a real sun trap with a series of south facing terraces looking over the lake. The castle certainly lived up to expectation.

The next day we visited Royal Tunbridge Wells and Hever Castle. Tourists have been coming to Royal Tunbridge Wells for 400 years since Chalybeate springs were discovered here in 1606. It rapidly became the place to be seen. The Royal prefix was granted by Edward VII. The Georgian colonnade of the Pantiles with its white columns and buildings is most attractive. The Saturday market was in full swing when we visited. The High Street was built later and is Victorian. It still has a range of small family owned businesses.

Hever castle was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and is surrounded by a moat. It looks stunning in pictures. The castle was a virtual ruin when it was bought by the wealthy American, William Waldorf Astor, later Lord Astor, who began a massive restoration project of the castle and grounds. Traditional techniques were used and he created his dream of what a Tudor castle may have looked like, but with modern plumbing, electricity and central heating. He entertained lavishly and the Tudor village, often referred to as the Astor Wing, was built behind the castle to house the many guests. I have to admit I enjoyed the outside more than the inside and found the American interpretation of Tudor didn’t work for me. This may also have been coloured by the fact the castle was very busy. Everyone follows the same route and it was congested. The grounds, especially the Italian garden, more than made up for the castle and I felt these were the highlight of the visit.

The next day included a ride on the Kent and East Sussex Railway followed by a visit to a winery.

The Kent and East Sussex Railway is a leisurely ten mile trip across the Rother Levels between Tenterden Town and Bodiam. It is a wonderful example of a rural light railway and typical of the many railways developed at the start of the C20th to serve sparsely populated areas. It has its place in the history books as it was the first railway line to be constructed under the Light Railway Act of 1896. This enabled railways to be built more cheaply in areas where standard gauge railways would be uneconomic.

We did the trip from Bodiam and the railway runs through some lovely unspoilt countryside with fields, hedges and sheep, crossing the River Rother several times. I was intreged by the rows of parallel ditches around Wittersham Road which were used to farm freshwater crayfish for the London restaurant trade. Locos and station buildings are well maintained. There is a cafe and shop at Tenterden as well as quite an interesting small museum.

Afterwards we visited Hush Heath Winery set deep in the Kent countryside and reached down a narrow road. The buildings are in a frost hollow and the vines are 30 minutes walk away on top of the hill, along with the cider orchards, so we never did see them. We had a tour of the winery and then given samples of the different wines and ciders they produce.  These were generous size samples and there were seven to try, so it is just as well we weren’t stopped by the police on the way home as the alcoholic fumes from us might have pushed the driver over the limit.

We called in at Ely on the way home. I have always wanted to visit the Cathedral which really does have the WOW factor with its rotunda, Norman nave and glorious painted ceiling. I also enjoyed the Stained Glass Museum in the south triforium although there was more C19th and C20th glass than Medieval.

So, all in all, an excellent trip. I throughly enjoyed myself and probably came out on top with this decision. Hornsby’s are good and the driver was excellent and the passengers soon began to gel into a friendly group. We visited some super places and days were full. I would certainly do this trip again.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 3 Comment(s)

  • NualaColl
    about 5 years ago
    500 Pictures wow
  • ESW
    about 5 years ago
    It was. The weather was glorious too. I felt I'd really achieved something when I got home - as well as over 500 pictures!!
  • NualaColl
    about 5 years ago
    It sounds like a lovely trip all around, lots of history