My emotional attachment to the county of Kent in the south east of England is hard to over-stress. We moved out of London when I was just three years old, and my sister and I grew up in a small medieval weaving village called Smarden.
In many ways it was the perfect country childhood. Our mother would open the back door during the school holidays and we would disappear for hours on our bikes to explore the surrounding countryside.
For a naturally curious child like me it was heaven: on one hand we had the natural world to explore and, on the other, the extraordinary stories of the past in every house, church and farm we passed. Kent, situated between the English Channel and London, is in many ways the cradle of English history: its jewel in the crown is the venerable City of Canterbury, with its cathedral, archbishop and centuries of religious life, and it’s not uncommon for most villages to have houses with parts dating from the fourteenth century – or even earlier; most Kentish villages have their origins in settlements mentioned in the great land survey of the British Isles, the Domesday Book of 1086.
The afore-mentioned countryside is ravishing– it’s easy to work out that most of Kent was once covered by trees by the suffix –den on many place names, (think Smarden, Tenterden, Rolvenden, Biddenden and so on), which means ‘a clearing in the woods’ and, whilst many of the trees are long gone, there are still plenty of woods to explore and public footpaths along which one can wander.
Chief amongst those footpaths is the North Downs Way, along part of which runs the ancient Pilgrims Way, which took supplicants to the cathedral in Canterbury, and from which sprang the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Parts of the Way are designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in particular the stretch above the village of Wye, and both my sister and I know it well, not least because we hiked our Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Bronze Expedition along its route when we were at school.
When I was asked by Southeastern Railway to pick a so-called Hidden Gem (#SEhiddengems) to promote anywhere along their network it felt like I was choosing from an embarass de richesses. But with a criteria for my Hidden Gem of no more than a fifteen minute walk from a station my options narrowed a little, and eventually I decided to focus on beautiful Wye, just fifteen miles from Smarden.
Whilst Wye itself is beautiful, there are several other good reasons to visit: On two Saturdays a month there is a lovely Farmers Market, with local produce – not for nothing is Kent known as the Garden of England, there is a lovely dog-friendly gastropub called The King’s Head for lunch, and one can work up a serious appetite for their excellent menu by hiking up to the top of the Wye Crown, a local monument high above the village on the North Downs Way.
So last weekend my sister Holly and I, accompanied by Lettice and Maisie our Miniature Dachshunds, hopped on one of the High Speed Javelin trains from St Pancras International.
The journey to Wye is almost exactly an hour, with a quick change at Ashford International, onto a local train for a single stop to Wye.
Lettice assumed her alerti-dog position and off we went.
I’ve always loved Wye Station – it’s a traditional red brick Victorian railway building, with a proper waiting room, manned ticket office and, joy, a level crossing.
It’s a brisk ten minute walk in to Wye from the station, past all manner of pretty period houses.
Our first stop was at The Kings Head to check out their tiny vintage market, before heading to the bi-monthly Farmers Market across the road.
I bought a lot of cheese from the Cheesemakers of Canterbury. One of each, in fact, including their flagship cheese Ashmore.
I bought Holly an alpaca beanie from the Boughton Alpaca Farm lady.
The Kings Head very kindly let me store my 2kg of apples and vast cheese supplies under their coat rack (we had a later reservation for lunch), and we set off for our brisk round trip walk along the North Downs Way to the Wye Crown.
Even without a GPS-enabled phone or an Ordnance Survey map and compass, it’s not hard to find the entrance onto the Way. Just look for the signpost at the entrance to the Churchyard.
(Next to this plaque – history is always around you in Kent.)
In fact there are signs pretty much all the way along the route.
I’m not going to say it’s impossible to get lost, but you’d have to be trying pretty damn hard.
There is a longer three hour round trip from Wye which takes in the Devil’s Kneading Trough, a deep crack in the local chalk formation, and we shall return in the summer with a picnic to do it justice. But this time we wanted to get back before lunch so decided to just do a third of the walk instead.
Our walk took us past allotments, up through farmland, rising always towards a beech wood.
It’s a steep pull up through the wood. (We were wearing wellies and it was fine – a longer trip might require hiking boots.)
After about ten minutes you turn right (clearly marked) into a silver birch glade
and then over this stile and onto open hillside to reach the Wye Crown.
It’s cut into the chalk hillside to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII by college students, on the Wye college estate on 12th June 1902.
Then we turned around and bolted for the pub.
I so deserved this pint of delicious local lager after all our exertions.
The menu reads very deliciously, with a focus on seasonality and local provenance, and we ordered flatbreads with Ashmore cheese and hazelnut butter, a mushroom tart with poached quails’ eggs and hollandaise for me, and a rainbow chard gratin with salt baked celeriac and potato and cheese croquettes, and ham and cheese beignets and turbot for my sister.
Not really a gratin, but very nice all the same. We finished with an excellent apple and blackberry crumble with almond ice cream and custard (two spoons).
We took so long over lunch – service is utterly charming but slooow, that we had to rush for the train. We took a different route back, passing the village sign, and a first world war memorial.
After all that rushing we still had ten minutes to wait on the platform.
Do share your #SEhiddengems on social media too – I’ll be very interested to see where you all recommend, and you can also find great ideas from other users on this hashtag. To find out more about offers and destinations on the Southeastern network head to their website here.
Sasha paid £56 + £12 tip for lunch at The Kings Head, Wye for two people, and travelled by train from St Pancras International to Wye, Kent as a guest of Southeastern Railway
This post was written in collaboration with Southeastern Railway to publicise their winter Hidden Gems campaign in November 2016.