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Posts Tagged ‘Sissinghurst’


My home county of Kent has long worn the accolade of the “Garden of England” lightly but it also boasts an enviable heritage, including many fine castles. Below are photographs and brief descriptions of some of the most celebrated.

There is only place to start – with the great twelfth century Norman keep in my home town of Rochester, beloved of Charles Dickens. Standing on the east bank of the River Medway, it was besieged four times during its first three hundred years, but has survived, if much changed and as a magnificent ruin, ever since. Open to the public all year round, its pigeon poop encrusted turrets offer outstanding views of the river and beyond.

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Romantic Leeds Castle, described by the historian Lord Conway as the “loveliest castle in the world”, is approaching its nine hundreth anniversary, though the modern structure dates largely from the nineteenth century. More than half a million people visited the castle and its maze, aviary, grotto and golf course in 2010. As the third picture illustrates, all the public rooms are beautifully decorated for Christmas.

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Tonbridge Castle, with its magnificent twin towered gatehouse, is another product of the Norman invasion, and whilst it might not attract the volume of visitors enjoyed by Leeds, it occupies a prominent position alongside the River Medway towards the northern end of the high street, and locals and tourists alike enjoy the attached public park .

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The principal attractions of Sissinghurst  Castle are the stunning gardens created by novelist Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, in the nineteen thirties.  The adjoining buildings may not resemble everyone’s idea of the traditional castle (it was originally a mansion set within a working farm), but, along with the imposing prospect tower, the beautiful brickwork and hanging foliage are  a delight. 

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My personal favourite is achingly beautiful Scotney Old Castle, whose ruins are the very essence of the dreamy fairytale English castle. Technically, Scotney Castle is the name of the “modern” house at the top of the gardens, but it is the older, smaller version,   complete with lily pad decorated moat, that entrances visitors.

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These are but a few of the beautiful castles and manor houses that are dotted around the Kent countryside. I am conscious that, on this occasion, I have omitted the mighty “Gateway to England” at Dover, Anne Boleyn’s home at Hever and the neighbour on the coast at Deal and Walmer. And I haven’t started on Knole, Chartwell, Groombridge Place and Ightham Mote.

I can see this becoming a series in its own right.

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You may be familiar with Mr Jingle’s assessment of Kent in The Pickwick Papers: “Kent, sir – everybody knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops and women”. Although the abundance of the first three may have been diminished in recent times (being a happily married man I could not possibly comment on the fourth), this still holds true to a great extent.

An alternative definition that I would subscribe to might be “coast, countryside and cricket”.  It is certainly a triumvirate of glories that make me a proud product of its soil. That pride has been rather dented over the summer months with the dismal displays, both on and off the pitch, of the county cricket club. The cradle of the game, home to some of its greatest ever players and with a tradition of playing cavalier cricket in front of large festival crowds in beautiful surroundings, now reduced to a laughing stock in the cricketing world.

Rising debts, the result of a succession of poor financial decisions, a stalled ground redevelopment programme at its Canterbury headquarters, poor communications with its members and supporters and woeful performances on the field leaving the team second bottom in the county championship, all combined to make the season one of the worst in the modern Club’s distinguished 141 year history.

And in the past few days, the coach and two of the senior batsmen have all departed, leaving the team desperately short of both numbers and experience. With doubts remaining too over whether the player of the season will get the new contract that he deserves, that situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

But in the past week, I have sought solace in some of the county’s many other delights – country walks through the full to bursting apple orchards of haunted Pluckley and the beechwoods and meadows of handsome Harrietsham, a stroll among the bookshops in civilised Tunbridge Wells, and Kentish beer and seafood at the Broadstairs Food Festival, overlooking the packed beach of Viking Bay, basking in the baking October heat and looking like a scene out of the nineteen fifities.

Though I currently live in the “compost heap” of the “Garden of England”, I am no more than an hour and a half, by car, bus or train, from any of its attractions – the castles of Hever, Scotney, Leeds and Rochester, the gardens of Sissinghurst and Emmetts, splendid houses like Groombridge Place, Finchcocks and Knole and what J.M.W Turner called the “loveliest skies in Europe” along the Thanet coast. Throw in two world class animal parks dedicated to conservation, the White Cliffs of Dover, otherworldly Romney Marsh, the rolling North Downs and atmospheric Wealden woodland – the list goes on (my apologies to any favourites of yours that I have missed out).

I count myself lucky in having been born, educated and, after a brief but largely loveless affair with other parts of England, lived in this wonderful county. I’ve been equally fortunate to have grown up hearing and reading  of the exploits of Woolley, Ames and Freeman and watching Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood in their pomp.

But whilst the experience of the cricket, at least at the professional level, has sunk in the past couple of years, there are still those other two features, and much more, to fall back on in the coming months.

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The great German philosopher Nietzsche said it induced all truly great thoughts, Dickens felt it was the only thing that prevented him from exploding and perishing, and Ellen DeGeneres said her grandmother had taken it up at the age of 60 and now, at 93, nobody “knew where the hell she was”!  Moreover, it can boast almost two and a half million “likes” on Facebook.

If you haven’t already guessed, it is walking – simple, old-fashioned, placing of one foot in front of the other, the “first thing an infant wants to do and the last thing an old person wants to give up”.  It is the  most perfect form of exercise – health giving, stress busting, sociable and sustainable.   It is no longer the sole preserve of gaggles of retired teachers and postmistresses hiking from pub to pub, though organised Ramblers trips remain popular, but it has increasingly become the focus for major fund-raising events (witness the many “walks for life” around the globe), and many couples and families view it as a key part of their social life.

It may surprise readers who cannot buy their daily paper from the corner shop without getting into the car that walking is by far the most popular outdoor recreation in the UK – the proliferation of guide books on the shelves of your local WH Smith store is striking evidence.  Even in the home of the enemy  – the internal combustion engine – the number of walking trips has more than doubled, from 18 billion to 42.5 billion, in the last 20 years.

Over the past couple of years my wife and I have, armed with one of those guide books, increasingly devoted our Sundays to a countryside or coastal walk of between five and ten miles in Kent.  Lovely scenery – oast houses, meadow flowers, orchards and hedgerows –   accompanied by birdsong and captivating glimpses of wildlife, all richly compensate for the occasional hardships of mud, barbed wire fences and impossibly steep stiles. A visit to a local hostelry or tea rooms, either en route or at the end of the walk, completes the perfect afternoon. 

Yesterday was a case in point when, setting off from Frittenden church, we took a seven mile walk in the surrounding countryside, the mid point of which was the National Trust owned Sissinghurst Castle, the former home of writer Vita Sackville-West.  Here we sat outside the newly refurbished Granary restaurant with a coffee and a scone before taking a stroll around the acclaimed gardens, designed by Sackville-West herself, and then resuming our adventure. 

No walk would be complete without at least one unplanned detour, adding to the challenge and provoking a temporary raising of voices whilst the map is turned every which way and the book’s author is cursed for his imprecise use of the language.  But we haven’t got completely lost yet!

Walking in the countryside also provides the perfect environment in which, free from the noisy distractions of TV, neighbours and traffic, we can chat calmly and clearly about our plans –  the decisions to get married after 27 years and for me to take early retirement were both made on a cold February afternoon in a muddy field halfway between Shoreham and Otford!

Cynics will accuse me of over-romanticising the subject, of portraying a rural idyll that no longer exists (if it ever did), to which I plead not guilty.  Walking is the perfect antidote to today’s rushing, thoughtless world and an refuge, if only a temporary one, from its bombardment. 

On a more pragmatic level, it supplements the more frenetic gym regime and helps to prepare us both physically and mentally for the challenge of those lung bursting San Francisco hills and Lake Tahoe ski trails!

So, if you haven’t already, try it!  Approach it with an open mind and you might just find it’s the perfect workout and therapy.

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