Kent Comes Back

Great Britain

779px-Hever_Castle,_south_frontAfter years in an unloved wilderness, the county of Kent in Southern England is, it seems, coming back to life, but not in the way it once was.

When I was a child it was known as the Garden of England, a hard-to-navigate county of winding roads, impossible-to-find villages and rivers that stood between London and the sea. Country houses like Sissinghurst, with its astonishing gardens, and eight great castles like Hever made for idyllic days out. The farmers provided pickings and meals for passing visitors.

brkent

My grandparents went on hop-picking holidays in Kent – cheap labour and long days, but fun working vacations for the young where everyone ate and drank together in the evenings. The county was held together by beer – filled with conical oast-houses where the hops were ground and dried and peppered with milestone pubs that marked your journey. It was a day out for working class Londoners where the smell of hops and fruit permeated the air.

oast-houses-frittenden-kent

The great coaching inns like the Bull told you exactly how many miles there were left to travel. They were used as they had been a century earlier, when they were horse-watering stops. The sprawling mock-tudor Toll Gate Inn was present on Watling Street by 1824.  It was rebuilt in the 1920s and increased in size to take advantage of its position near a major route.  (It finally closed four years ago.)

With the rise of cheap holidays abroad, the coastal resorts fell out of favour – Brighton, with its arches that had once turned up in s many films like ‘Genevieve’ (below) and ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’ in particular became a run-down shadow of its former self – and the encroaching urban sprawl of London turned parts of the county into shoddily-built retail outlet areas. Mass farming and the importation of foodstuffs saw the end of the Garden of England. 

Genevieve in Brightpn

Worse was to follow. Towns like Rochester and Chatham became associated with poverty and antisocial behaviour. Resorts like Margate turned into refugee centres. UKIP made its home there among the disaffected. The beloved coastal piers mostly burned down (you can see how long the Herne Bay pier was in the opening shot of the film ‘French Dressing’) and the amusements no longer amused.

Yet the new Lonely Planet Guide has now rated Kent as its No.1 family holiday destination in Europe. What changed?

For a start, the resorts began cleaning themselves up. The boring old fishing estuary town of Whitstable (where my parents lived) became the haunt of London trendies on days out. Brighton is still a dump but keeps a handful of its key attractions, Margate is undergoing a transformation, its Dreamland attraction reopening, Ramsgate is sedate and Dickensian, Eastbourne elegant and charming. Improved transport links mean that Europe is just a short train ride away.

Margate poster

But the county fails to match my memories of it; the pretty villages are now commuter towns, oligarchs live behind high-hedges and security cameras, and more crucially the area is no longer a working one in the sense that it is no longer driven by hops, fruit and vegetables. Instead it is a place where the top industry is now hospitality.

But if it restores grace to the County of Kent, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Kent vicarage

10 comments on “Kent Comes Back”

  1. Dave says:

    Brings back good memories of travelling around in Kent with my parents when I was a kid. I still love the place despite the contemporary downsides.

    Lots of great places to visit including Down House which I visited a couple of weeks ago.

    Incidentally, Brighton and Eastbourne are not in Kent.

  2. chazza says:

    When I think of Kent, I think of all the orchards lining the B roads; all those small trees bursting with apple blossom. Hard to find any now!

  3. chazza says:

    I’ve just left the above message at 10.26 a.m. yet it has been registered as at 2.25 a. What time clock do you use?

  4. Jo W says:

    There are still orchards,hop gardens and soft fruit farms around in Kent. But you have to know where to look. Some of the best sightings come from travelling on the train. Agree with you Chris,about the state that a lot of the seaside resorts were allowed to get into. One place that seems to have avoided all that is Broadstairs,where we went just a few weeks ago. Seems to hold onto its family seaside reputation quite well. Looking forward to seeing what they do with the reopening of Dreamland in Margate- hoping it’s better than that grey tin shed they put up as the Turner Art Gallery! Btw I don’t have happy memories of hop picking! Straw stuffed mattresses and pillows in corrugated iron huts, a dug out loo at the end of the field and getting a free shower of rainwater whenever they pulled down the next bines were definitely not my idea of a holiday! One of my brothers had his nose split open in a fight and the younger one caught impetigo! Oh the joys of community living!!

  5. Vivienne says:

    Grew up in Kent – well the suburbs (not great) on the edge of London from age about 7. Always used to go on holiday to Ramsgate: sandy beaches, safe swimming and donkeys! I also did a bit of blackcurrant picking one year: blackcurrants came at me all night long in my dreams. Margate would be greatly improved if only they would knock down the tower block near the station – all that new bit along the front is infill where the river used to be. Much of the rest is still Georgian and enjoying a retro revival.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    the Kent you describe, people, is what I know from fiction so it’s as well I haven’t been there. Eastbourne (in Sussex) is the nearest town in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes stories and we had a lovely railway poster of it in last year’s Railway Journeys in England calendar. That is one advantage to not traveling, places stay however they are portrayed in one’s favourite books. London is Chris’ London and what a mixed bag that is!

  7. admin says:

    My comments in order – you go through Kent to reach Sussex, and Brighton and Eastbourne, so in my mind they’re tied to Kent. That and the pre-motorway Chatham queues…

    I’m on a different clock because I’m not in the UK this week but in BCN this week for the Sonar Festival (anyone else going, shout out!)

    I like the idea of places staying the same in one’s mind, Helen – this winter I’ll be traveling deeper into the Baltics and Eastern Europe, where time has largely stood still…

  8. jan says:

    Hops are very interesting plants aren’t they; (stop sitting with head in hands fowler) i didn’t know much about hops and their role in creating beer till i went to a hop kiln last week. The flowers release a sort of oil that now we use eastern european hops in the main in brewing we use this oil in the cosmetics industry. The plants grow on frames that vary and identify the growing area the golden valley or the Wye in Herefordshire being different from the frames of Kent for eg. Theres a whole lot of folklore including whole areas of the gypsy switch identified in hop picking and this idea of east Londoners travelling down to the country for picking and evening booze ups is just a little part of the story. Very interesting subject altogether.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Hops were grown that way out in the Fraser valley and it was interesting to watch the way they shot up the wires (well, not quite that quickly, of course). I don’t know where they were processed, or how, because there were never any oast houses such as you see in pictures. Those tilted vent things on the roofs always fascinate me. We make lots more beer now but no hops and the brewers have had trouble getting the flavour they want. Walking down lanes in Vancouver you could always find fences overgrown with hop vines run wild. Perhaps I should plant some at the end of our yard.

  10. Alan Morgan says:

    There are also Kent-deniers. Notably in Bromley.

    ‘That’s in Kent.’

    ‘Isn’t, I’m a Londoner.’

    ‘In Kent.’

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