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Cycling trip to Kent

by Bob Barton

Kent -- appropriately called the Garden of England -- is a deceptively large county sitting between London and the English Channel. For any garden lover, this is the perfect place to explore, with some historic ones set in lush countryside with great seasonal variety. Wild bluebell woodlands in spring give way to rich summer colours, becoming a russet, ochre wonderland in autumn.

A glance at VisitBritain’s “Britain’s Gardens” map confirmed that Kent has a good concentration of gardens in a surprisingly compact area. I decided to combine horticulture and history with some gentle exercise and visit them by bicycle (with a little help from the train).

The network of train lines in Kent is good, and services frequent. However, English gardens, like castles and historic houses, are usually beyond a comfortable walking distance from their nearest train station. But bikes can be carried free on most trains (outside commuter hours) so this can be a perfect combination. The winding lanes in the Weald of Kent, with their light motor traffic, make cycling a pleasure.

Just over an hour after leaving London’s Charing Cross, I was on board a little branch line train, complete with bike, rattling past the distinctive conical oast houses and rolling green farmland of the Weald. A few minutes after that, a half-hour cycle ride along leafy lanes from Penshurst station took me to one of the most historic houses and gardens in England: Penshurst Place, near Tonbridge.

The garden is one of the oldest in private ownership, dating from 1346. The house is even older. With its towers and crenellated walls, it has been home to kings and noblemen: the current Viscount De L’Isle is descendant of Sir William Sidney, who was given the house in 1552 by a grateful King Edward VI.

Later, King Henry VIII would stay here while wooing Anne Boleyn, whose family home, Hever Castle lay (as it still does, with its fine gardens and ingenious maze) on the other side of the valley. Penshurst’s rare surviving example of an Elizabethan walled garden – divided into a series of ‘rooms’, with its yew hedges, roses, ponds and herbaceous borders, is older than the one at London’s Hampton Court Palace. 2002 will be a special year, with events marking 450 years of unbroken family ownership.

There was time for a coffee in the comfortable dining room – and to hear the news that a new custom-built cycle route will eventually link the house with nearby Tonbridge – before cycling off to a relatively recent, but equally historic, garden.

When I mentioned that my next stop was Chartwell, former home of wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, I took the comment: “There are lots of hills on your route” with a pinch of salt. After all, it is little more than five miles. In fact, it was only the final climb to this house's hill-top perch that I found a bit of a struggle.

The climb was worthwhile. To stand on the terrace with its sweeping views over the Weald and the garden’s wide lakes; to stroll under a pergola dripping with grapes and past waterfalls splashing into secluded pools, stocked with plump golden orfe, was wonderful.

Both Churchill and his wife Clementine were keen gardeners: he even built a little summer-house for his daughters, named Marycot after his youngest, Mary. You can see the garden studio – a substantial building – with its easel and chair, paints and brushes neatly laid out. The house itself is equally fascinating, including the library with its boxes of Churchill cigars sitting on a table, one cigar balancing on an ashtray, as if the statesman has just left the room.

Across the valley I found Emmetts Garden, a real contrast to the previous two as it appears purely natural, with little interference from the hand of man. This informal, hillside garden is known for its rare trees and shrubs, with carpets of bluebells in spring and, like Chartwell, offering sweeping views across Kent. I did not stay long because I wanted to allow time for the last garden of the day and, for me, the highlight.

The six-mile ride was along quiet lanes fringed with woodland, the peace only interrupted when the road went over the busy A21, traffic below hurtling impatiently to and from London. My ride took me close to Knole, near Sevenoaks, one of England’s ‘treasure houses’ and surrounded by a vast deer park (the baby deer are a joy to see in summer). With an occasional stop to check my Ordnance Survey map, I was soon pedalling up the driveway to Ightham Mote.

A friendly lady from the National Trust, the charity which maintains this property and many other British houses and gardens, suggested a safe place to store the bike and invited me to go on. Ightham, a moated medieval manor house surrounded by a lovely garden, oozes with atmosphere and history. It is made all the more fascinating when you hear that a devastating fire necessitated the most extensive restoration job the Trust has ever done, with painstaking attention to detail.

The house has been built, added to and altered over a period of 650 years and every room is different from the last. Outside, manicured lawns and elegant old trees provide the setting for a wide range of features. These include a neat kitchen garden, and a privy garden (used by the ladies of the house) complete with a pond and cherub fountain.

Ightham, like Kent itself, is renowned for its apples and orchards. A guide told me that the previous day they had celebrated ‘apple day’ with tastings of the different varieties. One variety, Flower of Kent, is reputedly that which fell on scientist Isaac Newton’s head: it has been growing here since the 17th century.

Nearby Ightham is an attractive village, complete with a tea-shop and pub. After a stop there it was an exhilarating downhill ride to the nearby train station of Borough Green and the return to my hotel, exhausted but inspired.