England’s breadbasket has one of its richest concentrations of historic homes. Some of the jewels in its crown are Petworth House, sprawling Knole, Ightham Mote, and Chartwell. An impressive country manor would be nothing without hectares of romantically crafted gardens to stroll through, and these grand homes don’t disappoint. You can easily spend an afternoon wandering the seemingly endless floral displays of Hever Castle and Chartwell. From medieval fortresses to opulent, architectural wonders, these homes were designed as statement pieces to boast a family’s status. Don’t miss Leeds Castle, Penshurst Place and Arundel Castle if you truly want a taste of the pinnacle of English opulence.
The cities of the south-east are similarly historic. Ancient Canterbury’s spectacular cathedral inspires awe with its soaring towers and flagstone corridors. Along the coast, funky seaside towns have a more relaxed attitude, especially Brighton, where artists and musicians use the sea as inspiration for their work.
Paper mills, stone quarries, brewers and cloth makers all plied their trade and thrived here, with the river allowing easy access to markets. The Len River, which joins the Medway in Maidstone, provided enough water power to drive over 30 water mills. The resultant mill-ponds along the rivers remain one of the landscape’s prominent features.
Today the river is of importance mainly to pleasureboat owners and the considerable number of people living on houseboats. For many years there has been a river festival during the last weekend in July, and a millennium project inaugurated the Medway River Walk, the Medway Park and a new footbridge linking the newly developed Lockmeadow Centre – which includes a multiplex cinema, restaurants, nightclubs and the town’s former cattle market – to the shopping area of Mall Maidstone and Fremlin Walk.
There is as much to explore off the river as on it, and if shopping is your Achilles’ heel, you may be in for a surprise – Maidstone offers more retail space than you might have thought possible.
The city has been the seat of the Primate of All England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, since Pope Gregory the Great dispatched St Augustine to convert the heathen hordes of Britain in 597. The height of Canterbury’s popularity came in the 12th century, when thousands of pilgrims flocked here to see the shrine of the murdered archbishop St Thomas à Becket.
Once one of King Henry II’s closest friends, Thomas fell out of royal favour when he strongly disagreed with the King over ecclesiastical matters. Four knights overheard the King saying he would like to be rid of the Archbishop and, thinking they would win his favour, killed Becket inside one of the cathedral chapels. In penitence for the great injustice done to his old friend, the King presented himself at the cathedral to be whipped by every monk present and be absolved of his sins. Becket was canonised within two years of his murder, and the town became one of the most visited in England, if not Europe.
As the home side of the shortest sea-route to continental Europe, Dover was at risk of being a weak spot in Britain’s great defences against invaders from across the channel. While the location has been fortified in one way or another for the last 2000 years, it was King Henry II who saw the peril of the settlement’s proximity to the continent. His solution was to build the sprawling castle which now dominates the city’s hilltop.
These days, the robust Great Tower is filled with an interactive exhibit that has re-created the castle as it might have been in the times of King Henry II. One of the castle’s biggest drawcards is the series of tunnels and passageways deep within its foundations. First excavated during the Napoleonic wars, they were expanded to include a command post and hospital during World War 2. The tunnels are now home to an impressively realistic reconstruction of the events surrounding Operation Dynamo – the rescue of hundreds of thousands of troops from the French beaches – which was masterminded here.
Since the 1700s the fashionable world has flocked to Brighton to indulge in some restorative sea-bathing. Few places in the south of England were better for it, with Brighton’s broad beach of smooth pebbles stretching as far as the eye can see. It has been popular with sun-seekers ever since.
The next windfall for the town was the arrival of the Prince of Wales (later George IV). His taste for outlandish architecture led him to commission the Royal Pavilion, a mock-Asian pleasure palace that attracted London society. Visitors followed, triggering a wave of villa building, and today the elegant terraces of Regency houses are among the town’s greatest attractions. The coming of the railroad set the seal on Brighton’s popularity: the Brighton Belle brought Londoners to the coast within an hour.
Londoners still flock to Brighton. Add them to the many local university students, and you have a trendy, young, laid-back city that does, occasionally, burst at its own seams. There is great shopping and excellent restaurants, an attractive beach, and wild nightlife.
The Infinity Experience
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