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The Garden of England

Europe » United Kingdom » England » Kent » Royal Tunbridge Wells - 12 September 2013

sunny 17 °C

Sometimes you just need a break, don’t you? The younger generation takes long weekends. Us oldies, well, we take long mid-weeks.

This mid-week, our excuse - as if we needed one, was that I’d finally persuaded my good lady to reduce the ever-growing collection of jigsaw puzzles she’d squirrelled away on shelves in our garage and in almost every cupboard and wardrobe in the house. She had more than 200 boxes of the things, collectables apparently – clever 1500-piece cartoons by a Dutchman called Jan van Haasteren and innumerable tricky ones by an outfit called Wasgij? (the picture on the box isn’t the puzzle you make, hence the back-to-front name!).

Through one of those community websites, my wife found another good lady willing to take 10 percent of these desirable things off her hands for a small consideration and a contribution towards our petrol costs for delivering them. She, the other lady that is, lived with her husband, four cats, two big huskies and some large cupboards near the town of Tonbridge in Kent.

So it was that, on Tuesday morning, we first set off clockwise around the M25, over the Dartford Crossing toll bridge, to Sevenoaks in the county of Kent.

Kent is known as the ‘Garden of England’. Its fertile soil and mild climate help the growing of all things edible. There are apple and pear orchards galore and it was once the country’s centre for hops, used in brewing beer, all of which used to be harvested by hand. These latter were transported to ‘oast’ houses, buildings with strange slanting ventilation cones on top, for drying. Nearly all of the old oasts have now been converted into character homes for the wealthy.


Until the Great Storm of 1987, Sevenoaks was the town that, for many historic years, had seven ancient oak trees. Six were lost in that one night of immense gales. Replacements, vandalism and further replacements have somehow contrived to result in there now being nine oaks!

The reason for stopping off near Sevenoaks was Knole, reputed to be largest private house in England. Now in the safe hands of the National Trust, this vast house and estate had been an archbishops’ palace, a Tudor royal residence and a decidedly aristocratic treasure trove. It sits in the last medieval deer park in Kent, where wild herds of Fallow and Sika deer roam among a thousand acres of parkland studded with old oak, beech and chestnut trees. We saw a few of the deer. Perhaps we’ll come back another time when the rut is in full swing. That would be a great sight.


Originally built as a palace by the Archbishops of Canterbury, it was gifted to King Henry VIII (in truth, he asked for it and, well, with his reputation for chopping off peoples’ heads, it would have been awkward to refuse him). During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Henry VIII's daughter), the house somehow made its way into the possession of her cousin, Thomas Sackville. It's stayed in the Sackville family ever since; present-day members of the family still live in part of the estate, 400 years on.


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A display of the history of Knole in The Orangery includes King Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor monarchs - in needlework!

In 1892, this was the birthplace of author, poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West, the only child of the 3rd Baron Sackville and his wife Victoria Sackville-West, who were cousins. Christened Victoria Mary, she was known as ‘Vita’ throughout her life, to distinguish her from her mother. The portrait below is of her at the age of 18 (it's now displayed at Sissinghurst Castle - read on...).


On the death of her father, the English aristocratic customs of inheritance by only male heirs were followed by the Sackville family; these prevented Vita, a woman, inheriting Knole. Her father bequeathed it instead to his brother or nephew, I forget which. In 1947, she had to sign documents relinquishing any claim on the property and part of its transition to the National Trust. She subsequently wrote that ‘the signing nearly broke my heart, putting my signature to what I regarded as a betrayal of all the tradition of my ancestors and the house I loved.’ I relate all this so you may better understand her later joy at discovering her eventual marital and family home, Sissinghurst Castle, our visit to which the very next day is related farther down the page.

The dozens of wonderful huge rooms at Knole, now kept darkened in attempts to preserve their fragile contents, are stuffed with stuff – hundreds upon hundreds of paintings, tapestries, ceramics and silver objects, collections of 17th century furniture and textiles from royal palaces, deer-hunting trophies and classical statues galore.

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Alas, while all this speaks of vast wealth, much has already suffered the ravages of time, worn by damp, dust and light. Fortunately, the National Trust has deep pockets and good contacts with organisations which have funds for such eventualities, and has set out on a multi-million pound restoration and conservation project. Tapestries and beds, curtains and paintings, and the house’s roof tiles and brickwork have all started to be carefully preserved and strengthened.

This classical bust looks less than pleased about the scaffolding!

It’s such a huge place that the work is likely to continue for ever. However, this doesn't prevent visitors seeing all there is to see. In fact, removal of things like tapestries has revealed plain wooden walls seldom witnessed before and special tours, handling sessions and talks about the conservation were being provided.


"The small but intense pleasure of walking through dry leaves and kicking them up as you go... they rustle, they brustle, they crackle... "

From 'Walking Through Leaves' by Vita Sackville-West

While the house was truly remarkable, for me and other keen gardeners the highlight has to be Lord Sackville’s private garden. Only open in the summer, on Tuesdays (another reason for our mid-week break), this is a remarkable 29-acre space. It's made up of walks, vistas, herbaceous borders, herb gardens, vegetable beds, azalea groves, a medieval orchard, lime-tree avenues, rose arbours and the longest wall of wisteria in the country, nearly 200 years old (it would have been stunning earlier in the year when in bloom). Even now, as autumn approached, there was abundant colour in these well-maintained grounds. I hope my pictures of these gorgeous gardens will compensate for the lack of photos of the inside of the house (which are not permitted for reasons of security).

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Our visit was followed by what should have been a short drive to our hotel. However, the circuitous Tonbridge By-Pass proved our undoing and confused our SatNav. We saw some places more than twice on the way!

The lucky recipient of my wife’s jigsaws was next – she’ll be busy for many months, doing the puzzles and sorting out her cupboards. Then it was off to the town of Tonbridge for a bit of window shopping.

Tonbridge was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1087 as Tonebrige. It’s possibly a contraction of ‘town of bridges’ because of the large number of streams crossed by the High Street. Even today, there are pretty streams crossed by little bridges and the wide River Medway crossed by the Big Bridge. Until the coming of the railway in the 1840s, the Medway was navigable here, allowing coal and lime to be shipped to the town, and hops, timber and gunpowder to be carried downstream to the Thames. Only remnants of wharves and warehouses remain.

The modern town was much like any other town, hence the lack of photographic memories here. However, it’s had a chequered history since a castle was built by William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Richard Fitz Gilbert, in the 11th century. The castle changed hands several times – King John around the time of the Magna Carta, Edward II in the 13th century and, in the 16th century, the Tudor King Henry VIII took it over when its then owner, the Duke of Buckingham, was executed (wouldn’t you know it!).

You might know the town for other reasons:
Its eminent public school for boys, a member of the Eton group, was cleverly named Tonbridge School!
Tonbridge was where the UK’s first speeding fine was imposed when, in 1896, one Walter Arnold was fined a Shilling for driving his Karl Benz car at eight miles an hour and was apprehended by a policeman on a bicycle.
Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK (on 13 July 1955 in Holloway Prison) was married at the registry office in Tonbridge in 1950.
And the largest theft of cash in British criminal history, with a heist of over £53 Million, was from the Securitas depot near the High Street as recently as 2006.

Until the late 19th-century, the town's name was actually spelt Tunbridge but this was changed to Tonbridge by the postal authority of the day to avoid confusion with nearby Tunbridge Wells.

And it was Royal Tunbridge Wells that called us on Wednesday morning. This now sprawling town owes its early existence to the discovery in around 1600 of the Chalybeate Spring by a young nobleman. He enjoyed the iron-rich water and, declaring it to have rejuvenated him, he encouraged his aristocratic friends to join him in imbibing the stuff.

Word spread about these powerful waters (which today look unappetisingly gungy!) and soon visitors flocked to the settlement that had developed alongside the ‘wells’. Celebs and royalty of the day became regular callers and the town became fashionable. It wasn’t until 1909 that the town was given its ‘Royal’ prefix from King Edward VII, who granted it in recognition of its many past royal visitors.

The Chalybeate Spring is still there. A ‘Dipper’ dressed in period costume invited the brave to drink a ladle-full of the water for a quid and posed for photos with foreign students on sightseeing trips. Apparently, the spring water doesn’t have the bad-egg, sulphur taste of, for example, the water at Bath, but a tangy, iron flavour instead. I wasn’t one of the brave, so can’t confirm this, one way or the other.

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Chalybeate Spring - and a group of happy or bored foreign students, the 'Dipper' and, held by the lady on the left, his dipping ladle.

The spring is at the entrance to the pretty, flower-bedecked, old part of town called The Pantiles. This colonnaded walkway was once the place for visiting gentry to be and to be seen. It's now home to a swish hotel, an Indian restaurant with a royal crest over the door, and an array of high quality shops selling everything from greengrocery and butchery to furniture and furnishings, clothing and flowers. Our favourite, Mottram’s, was an Aladdin’s-cave of all things cookery and kitchen.

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The motto 'semper vigilans' on the coat of arms above right is nonsensical Latin for 'always vigilant'.
The English translation is a pun on "always wear underwear", so I guess this may once have been an underwear shop!

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There's a ‘new’ town too with a partly-pedestrianised area and all the major high-street stores, plus a clean and tidy 100-shop mall with major department store names and well-known retail outlets.


The High Street is home to a lovely little tea-shop called Juliet’s. It serves excellent tea in an intriguing miscellany of individual teapots with pretty, non-matching china cups and saucers. It also had the biggest Victoria Sponge cake we’ve ever seen. The salad bar was scrummy too. Look at the photos. Juliet and her lady helpers were charming and their busy café was clearly the most popular in town.

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We liked gentle, tranquil Tunbridge Wells.


The last day of our mid-week break took us to Sissinghurst Castle Garden, another fabulous National Trust place with Vita Sackville-West connections.

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In 1913, the 21-year-old Vita married 27-year-old Harold Nicolson, a son of British diplomat Arthur Nicolson, 1st Baron Carnock. The couple had an open marriage and they both had same-sex relationships, as did many of the people in the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, with whom they associated. Probably the best-known of Vita’s many women lovers was prominent novelist Virginia Woolf, whose book ‘Orlando’ was based on Knole. Nonetheless, Vita and Harold had a loving relationship - and two children. In the 1930s, the family acquired and moved to Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, Kent.


This painting of Vita Sackville-West at 18 by Philip de Laszlo (1910) is hung in the Big Room at Sissinghurst Castle.
I think it's quite beautiful but she disliked it and it was not displayed in her lifetime.

Sissinghurst Castle began life as a Saxon pig farm, later a small moated manor, then a magnificent Renaissance house, a prison camp for French sailors during the Seven Years War (1756 63), a poor house, and in the 1800s a large family home and estate. It transpired, that Thomas Sackville (1536-1608) had been married to Cicely, a daughter of Sir John Baker, the owner of Sissinghurst in the 16th century. This connection with her ancestors gave it a dynastic attraction and pleased Vita immensely after her loss of Knole.

Together, Vita and Harold happily set about creating the wonderful gardens that are now run by the National Trust and which we thoroughly enjoyed today.

"What happiness you and I have derived from that garden - I mean real deep satisfaction and a feeling of success. It is an achievement - assuredly it is. And it is pleasant to feel that we have created a work of art. It is all your credit really. Mine was just rulers and bits of paper."

Letter from Harold to Vita, 1955

These gardens are meticulously maintained, in keeping with their national importance, by gardeners and volunteers who look after everything exceptionally well. There are wide expanses of neatly-mown lawns, colourful herbaceous borders, a vegetable allotment area, an English apple orchard, a boat house that has access to only the silted-up remains of the ancient moat, and lots of lovely garden ‘rooms’, each with a different character, colour or scent.

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A barn was converted by Vita and Harold to a library they called the ‘Big Room’. Today, it’s much as they left it and houses some of the National Trust’s valuable collection of first editions, particularly of course, those by Vita Sackville-West. Inevitably, there are shops – for gardeners and the usual National Trust gifts and memorabilia, a coffee shop and a restaurant in the old Granary, near some well-restored oast houses containing exhibitions.

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We didn’t have the energy to head to two large lakes down the hill, nor to take the Farmland Walk or visit the Wildlife Hide. I did, however, manage to climb the tower, with 78 steps (and, thankfully, two landings with little exhibitions and another with Vita’s personal study). From the roof, there are expansive views over the grounds and to the Wealds of Kent beyond.

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Back home, I’m determined to return the now-empty shelves in the garage to their proper purpose and, new jigsaw collections permitting, to putting clothes into wardrobes!

The economy Premier Inn on Pembury Road, Tonbridge (it could have been a Premier Inn almost anywhere - they’re usually clones) was decent value for money and you always know what to expect from one of this chain.

Rooms were of a reasonable size with comfortable king-size beds, duvets and a choice of firm and soft pillows, an en suite bathroom with bath and shower, tea and coffee making facilities, blackout curtains, and a flatscreen TV. There was 30 minutes' free WiFi daily. Room only: around £80 a night, but there are often special offers from around £35.

Breakfast wasn't included but, beware, the neighbouring restaurant-come-pub (not in the Premier group) was awful - don't even think about going there! Go instead for the eat-as-much-as-you-like English breakfast at the Premier group's Hilden Manor Beefeater on London Road, Tonbridge, just a couple of miles away.

Posted by Keep Smiling 03:06 Archived in England Tagged england kent knole tunbridge_wells sissinghurst tonbridge Comments (5)

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