In many ways, visiting the heart of the county of Kent, in the south-east corner of the English landscape, it is hard to believe that the nation’s capital is but thirty minutes distant. Yet, getting away from the centre and its racket is what visiting the heart of Kent is all about. The benefits of accessibility, from the M2 and M20 motorways, are myriad. You can be whisked home within minutes of departing the centre of this outstandingly beautiful county. Not that you would wish to leave the florid beauty of Chartwell, Penshurst Place, or Sissinghurst, which burst with seasonal colour during the year.

Epitomised by the Kent Downs in the north of the area and by a line drawn from Royal Tunbridge Wells to slightly beyond Ashford in the east, this is a pocket of England that is packed with fascinating historical artefacts, buildings of considerable note and unchanged hamlets of unerring beauty. The place names suggest an aura of curiosity and mystery,  rom Three Chimneys and Four Throws, to Warmlake and Stelling Minnis.

If you love animals, The Aspinall Foundation has two zoological facilities that are worth closer inspection, not least because of their unusual stance. Sustainability of wildlife is the key to the animal parks at both Port Lympne and Howletts, near Canterbury. Animal husbandry is the focus and returning rare, wild animals to their natural habitats, following captive breeding programmes, has given these facilities world fame.

For the ultimate wildlife park visit, you can also chose ‘glamping’ at Elephant Lodge, an authentic African Safari from the Livingstone Lodge, or a genuine VIP experience at Livingstone Cottage. Guided safaris and sleeping under the stars, albeit in the lap of luxury, could create a most memorable overnight stay.

Ashford and environs

Historical arguments about this ancient town’s name suggest that is derived from either an ash tree near a ford, a water course of some description, to a ford, or crossing, over the River Eshe, a tributary of the River Stour that rises at Lenham, another delightful Kent village. In fact, the Stour Valley Walk, which is 51.5 miles in length and is marked with green signs featuring a heron, a bird spotted frequently in the area, not merely by twitchers, offers innumerable archaeological, agricultural, architectural and historical features to add greater interest. (Log onto www.ldwa.org.uk.)

The same walking route also incorporates elements of the Pilgrims Way, a route liberally doused in history, as the faithful made their procession from Winchester, in Hampshire, eventually reaching the Kent Downs and crossing them into the City of Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas a’Becket, murdered (at the age of 52 years, in 1170) by followers of King Henry II, in the medieval  Cathedral. After Rome, Canterbury was the chief shrine in Christendom.

To dip into and out of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ is an undoubted literary pleasure, should your visit take you to the northern reach of the Heart of Kent. Yet, at Kent’s centre is the market town of Ashford, which manages to meld old and new with alluring charm. Yet, just 25 miles due east is the historic centre of Royal Tunbridge Wells.

High Weald

As with so many of the UK’s spa towns, a strong Victorian influence remains largely unsullied in this outstanding municipality. The Victorians were such tremendous explorers of their homeland and places, where the local, health-giving waters could be taken, soared to the top of their choices. Interestingly, just four miles north is Tonbridge, which is actually the older town and has an 11th Century castle worth visiting.

Should you be driving west from Ashford to Royal Tunbridge Wells, you might pass through the gorgeous medieval town of Cranbrook, many of the buildings of which date from the 15th to 19th centuries. Promising annual programmes of events, plenty of local bed and breakfast accommodation, in some wonderfully historic surroundings, plus the opportunity to peer back into the  area’s commercial past, some of its attractions are definitely ‘must visit’.

The Union Mill is one of the tallest smock windmills in the country and continues to grind corn today. The Parish Church of St Dunstan, often referred to as ‘The Cathedral of The Wealds’, is an unusually large place of worship, a prosperity factor arising from the growth of the local cloth industry, between the 14th and 16th centuries.

Maidstone

Also known as the county town of Kent, Maidstone has a role for tourists and visitors beyond its municipal duties. Apart from Neolithic discoveries, which provide a valuable guide of how long the area has been populated, both the Romans and Normans left their indelible marks on the town and its surroundings. It is a useful gateway to the Heart of Kent.

Naturally, the River Medway has played its part in establishing Maidstone’s history as a centre of Kent’s trading past and paper mills, stone quarries, brewing and the cloth industry all flourished in this area. Within easy reach of the centre are some of the UK’s most attractive and important historical sites, such as the spectacular, moated Leeds Castle, where there is plenty to see and experience.

In the surrounding countryside, there are ancient manor houses, such as Boughton Monchelsea Place  (book in advance to visit), Ightham Mote and Old Soar Manor, with garden attractions aplenty. The Hop Farm Family Park, located just south of Beltring, offers 450 years worth of local history, having been once owned by the Whitbread beer-making family.

A life-size recreation of a period village (not that there is any shortage of the ‘real thing’ across Kent) offers a museum and artefacts experience, while the comprehensive story about beer, hops and oast houses is explained in graphic detail. There is plenty for all the
family to do in this country theme park.

Broader interests

The simple fact is, the Heart of Kent offers an immense mix of opportunities for day-trippers, weekend visitors and holidaymakers throughout the year. The Kent & East Sussex Railway is probably one of the best examples of a rural light railway in the UK. A journey can commence at Tenterden, ‘The Jewel of The Weald’, and run for ten miles through the unspoilt Rother Valley countryside, to the Bodiam Castle, which is actually in the adjoining county of East Sussex.

However, a visit to this area is not complete without going to The Colonel Stephens Railway Museum. Described as a ‘quart in a pint pot’, it sums up rural Kentish life in a nutshell. Using train, bus or travelling by car, this charming part of SE England offers such a colourful mix of opportunities. Whether searching for herbs at Iden Croft, picking flowers, cherries or windfall apples at farms and orchards, delving into history or visiting a cavalcade of historical churches, castles and manor houses, the Heart of Kent will provide memories in abundance.

Heart of Kent facts

Getting there:

By car, the area can be reached readily from the M25, M20 and M2 motorways. By train, there are mainline services from London to Ashford, Maidstone and Royal Tunbridge Wells
(www.southeasternrailway.co.uk).

Getting around:

By bus, Stagecoach, Fastrack and Arriva all operate bus services around the Kent area. Local train services are also available that connect the various towns.

Accommodation:

All depends on budget and expectations but the choice is wide Visit Kent and includes the delightful boutique hotel at Elvey Farm, holiday cottages that include oast houses and other speciality stays (www.webcottages.co.uk/kent), bed and breakfast properties (www.toprooms.com/Kent-B&B), as well as more conventional hotels from our partner Laterooms.

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you visit the Heart of Kent.