Peter Morrell takes a leisurely ride through the Garden of England
Kent is one of those counties that a lot of people rush through, either on Eurostar, or by car to the ferry terminals but a slower, more relaxed journey will be amply rewarded with a treasure trove of cultural attractions.
I recently spent the day on The British Pullman by Orient Express, the 170 mile rail journey took us past some of England’s most historic sites. When you add to that glorious scenery and the English food and wine on board you quickly realise just how much England has to offer for both the domestic and overseas visitor.
But let’s start at the beginning, I have often seen the Orient Express on platform two of Victoria station and felt the excitement of the people waiting to board. Smart dresses and fine hats always underline the importance of the occasion. Our trip was no different with a stylish group of 150 eager for the train to leave.
The carriages have been painstakingly restored and all have their own unique interior design even to the point of being named. Our home for the day was called Audrey, originally part of the Brighton Belle she was built in 1932. Although damaged by a bomb at Victoria in 1940 she went on to travel 2.7 million miles. The interior of our carriage was a mix of exquisite marquetry, mirrors, mahogany and mouldings, even the loo had a mosaic floor. The decor was entirely fitting for some of its famous past passengers that have included the Queen Mother, the Queen and Prince Philip.
Once under way we settled into our comfortable, chintzy armchairs and our culinary tour of England started. Appropriately our aperitif was a Kir Royale made with sparkling wine from Biddenden Vineyards, Kent’s oldest commercial winery. It was crisp and aromatic and had been bottle fermented using the traditional method, the same as champagne.
As we slowly made our way out of London there was a procession of fine English food, crab from Cornwall, soup made with Suffolk ham hock, Kentish guinea fowl and cheeses from across the country. The courses were paired with another two Biddenden wines, the white Ortega and the red Dornfelder, both good matches.
As the suburbs gave way to lush green fields cows munched, lambs gambolled and pheasants flew and in the background there was always the rolling downs and the greensand ridge. But it was not just the natural environment that provided the interest. Early in the journey we passed near Lullingstone Castle at Eynsford, which was the site of the farm that produced the silk for the Queen’s wedding dress. A few stations down the line was Maidstone, with its stone-age roots it is Kent’s county town and home to the Archbishop’s Palace, a place for His Grace to stay during his journey between Canterbury and London.
A mere four miles to the south is the historic and romantic Leeds Castle which dates back to 1191, the town of Charing is next with yet another Archbishop’s Palace, now privately owned. At Ashford we made a turn north east and the chalk downs at Wye became more dramatic, passing Chilham Castle, an historic house, we were heading towards Canterbury, a UNESCO world heritage site.
From the train the tower of Canterbury Cathedral, a medieval masterpiece, is clearly visible and it has been pivotal in the history of England. Four Archbishops have been murdered there including Henry II’s ‘turbulent priest’ Thomas Becket and Alphege, killed by the Vikings in 1011.
Minister, with its abbey and long history was quickly followed by Broadstairs. It has strong links to one of England’s best loved literary sons, Charles Dickens who was born 200 years ago this year, he found the town a source of inspiration. We made the turn for home, going through Ramsgate with one of the largest concentration of Georgian houses in England and then onto the newly culturally significant, Margate. The Turner Contemporary gallery is already breathing a renaissance into this Victorian bathing town and is currently running a Tracey Emin exhibition.
Running along the coast we see the Reculver Towers, part of a chain of Saxon fortifications, before pulling in to Whitstable. The town has been renowned for its oysters since Roman times so it was fitting that when we stepped onto the platform and were given a glass of Biddenden sparkly and some oysters. Catching the mood perfectly was the yellow jacketed quartet, who greeted us with some upbeat jazz.
Leaving this popular seaside town the last leg of our journey takes us through Faversham, home to Shepherd Neame, England’s oldest brewer, Chatham with its historic naval dockyard, a potential day out in its own right and Rochester. This town, the lowest bridging point on the River Medway, is also full of interest, with connections to Dickens, a cathedral and castle and The Restoration House, which was intended as the staging point for Charles II’s re-instatement to the throne after returning from exile in France and Holland.
Our journey was almost at an end, green fields were being replaced by rows of houses and suddenly we were back in Victoria station with the memories of a day when we had experienced the very best of everything English.
This trip, ‘The Golden Age of Travel’ is available year round from Orient Express, who also offer journeys to many other destinations, click here… for details.