Our Slow Guide to Kent

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Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

5 min read

On a trip to Kent, we meet owners of historic art shops, fabulous wineries, and impeccably seasonal restaurants. We explore bustling wetlands, go antiquing, walk beneath crumbling chalk stacks and climb towering country houses to survey the beauty of the surrounding gardens. As ever, we discover that even a modest itinerary makes us feel like we have far too little time to enjoy all that Kent has to offer.

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Margate, Canterbury, Sheppey , High Weald

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On the back of several recommendations from the team, we’d decided to base ourselves in Margate and explore mostly the north-eastern corner of Kent. It would mean not visiting the south coast, only passing through the Kent Downs and dipping briefly into the High Weald, but it’s always better to see less in more detail than charge around ticking off a long list 


Arriving in Margate for lunchtime made our first decision easy – find food. We had it on good authority that The Good Egg, a pitta place on the high street, would not only take care of hunger but also give us an introduction to Margate’s colourful, arty side. It delivered on both counts and we headed off, well fed and curious, to our first official stop, the art shop and gallery Lovelys 

Lovelys dates back all the way to 1891, when the first location opened as a framer and art supplier. It’s survived wars, recessions and of course Covid, throughout which it remained staunchly open in modified form, to become a beloved institution of the art community. Tracey Emin is a passionate supporter and regularly brings her students there. The gallery is a superb showcase of local art in all forms – sculpture, glasswork, ceramics, painting and more – without the prevalence of “watercolour seascape with boat” that you find in a lot of coastal galleries.  

Speaking with owner Caroline, who’s been running the shop since 1994, we realised how vital art has been for Margate as a town. Or rather, for Cliftonville, an important distinction we were soon informed of. She told us how, over the past few years, Cliftonville has started to reassert its identity as the coastal town it once was. The Turner Contemporary gallery, which opened in 2011 and faster rail links have led to an influx of new residents and fueled the growth of the local community.  

They have also helped bring back the Margate summer season, which had all but vanished in the preceding years. Visiting on a Monday, we found many shops and sites, such as the famous Shell Grotto, were closed, but it’s clear how much there is to do and see here on weekends and, as Caroline told us, interesting new places are opening every day. The whole town has the sense of being a place at the start of something and we made a mental note to come back soon and see what had sprung up.  

View all our special places to stay near Margate >

Canterbury at a canter & Faversham

Before we headed to Canterbury, we said goodbye to Margate with a walk along Botany Bay, at the foot of the white cliffs, with chalk stacks standing alone where the sea had slowly carved them out. While the weather wasn’t the finest, we’d timed the stroll (by chance) for low tide and walked right round to Kingsgate Bay, which is a pleasant cobweb clearer with some lovely views along the coast.      

Although it’s only a 45-minute drive to Canterbury we were feeling time slipping away from us and made a quick stop that came nowhere near doing the place justice. The weather had brightened a little and the Abbey looked spectacular, as did Westgate Gardens down by the river. We saw a healthy profusion of independent shops, such as The Veg Box Café, The Crooked Bookshop and a lovely looking wine bar called Corkk. Sadly, it was more the hour for tea and cake, so we pushed on towards Faversham and hopped out at Sondes Tea House, which many people had pointed us towards. A few vegan chocolate cookies later (although proper lunches looked delicious) and we could see why.  

Arriving in Faversham, we headed straight for Standard Quay, unknowingly following an informal “Sondes Trail” from the tea house, as Lord Sondes had acquired and rebuilt the quay in the late 1600s. Back then it was a commercial port, but it has now become an antique shop of antique shops, where you rummage through the establishments themselves, of which there are more than 20, before you start rummaging within them. We staged our own mini version of Bargain Hunt, dashing off to pick out a few favourite items, before reconvening to compare notes of what we’d found in the many crammed corners of the old warehouses. 

View all our special places to stay in Canterbury >

Sheppey & Elmley Nature Reserve 

Once we’d finished antiquing, we decided to get some fresh air and visit a Kentian curiosity, the Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey, another 40-minute-or-so drive from Standard Quay. Elmley is the only family-run nature reserve in the UK, a triumph of vision and conservation that stretches over 3,300 acres and provides an immensely valuable habitat for wildlife of every kind.  

The trip to the reserve is described as a “self-drive safari” and despite initial scepticism we were all soon glued to the windows of our car as we inched along on the lookout for creatures great and small. We spotted a short-eared owl, hares leaping through the long grass and all manner of other birds too quick to be identified by our inexperienced eyes. What we needed was an expert, which made it lucky we were heading for a meeting with Fiona, part of the Elmsey volunteer team for four years and counting.

With her to fill out the picture for us, we became aware of the wetlands much more as part of a system, with everything from grasses to marsh frogs and the grazing livestock from the working farm playing their part in its maintenance. None of this was by chance, either. The wetlands had originally been laboriously drained and used to grow vegetables and crops, but when Corrine and Philip Merricks, parents of the current owners, took it on 40 years ago, they decided on a new approach, digging more channels and creating the wetlands to encourage biodiversity. It was literally and figuratively groundbreaking. 

The wetlands, now an important habitat for marsh herons, a 3000-strong starling murmuration and a huge variety of other species, are a fabulous place to wander or take a slow drive and keep your eyes open, but the Elmley team offer 4×4 expeditions. These take you deep into the centre in the company of a knowledgeable guide, giving you a more complete view of the complexity of its ecosystem. You can also stay on the reserve, although Fiona told us to forestall a popular question of overnight guests – that noise you’ll hear is the chorus of the incredibly vocal marsh frogs!  

Stay on Elmley Nature Reserve in Kingshill Farmhouse >

Food & Drink of the High Weald

Next, we headed south, looking for a more in-depth experience of the food and drink scene we’d only sampled in passing. We all agreed, having missed the chance to visit Corkk, that this absolutely had to involve a visit to one of Kent’s growing collection of award-winning wineries, but first we made a brief stop at Sissinghurst Castle. Grand houses and grounds are another Kent specialty but the narrow, tower-flanked sight of Sissinghurst, which oddly put us in mind of the Challenger shuttle, came highly recommended. Despite another damp spell, the profusion of blooms was beautiful, and we climbed the tower to take in the glorious views from the top. 

A slight backtrack north and we finally arrived at our wine stop, pulling up to the impressive Balfour Winery. An enormous haul of awards and medals over the last few years has put Balfour’s wines on the map, but the addition of a superb visitor centre with tables outside overlooking the vines and a dedicated shuttle bus making a dash from London wonderfully easy, has made it a great place to drop in and spend a few hours.  

Chatting to Alannah, one of the growing Balfour team, we learnt that the land is managed, similarly to Elmley, as a single, holistic project. Ancient woodland flanks the vineyard on one side and other surrounding lands are tended to encourage biodiversity. The belief is that “what grows together goes together” and notes of the strawberries, elderflower, apples and more that thrive around the vines can be detected in Balfour’s bottlings.  

Despite the grey skies that had followed us round Kent on our trip, Alannah told us that it had been a good year for the vines so far, with the main risk, heavy frost, being largely avoided to date. In the event that it does strike, she explained, the winery would deploy its effective but surprisingly unsophisticated frost defences, which involve gathering all nearby team members at whatever hour is required, and lighting thousands of huge candles as quickly as possible, to keep the vines warm. It sounded dramatic and we found ourselves guiltily hoping for a cold snap, just to see it in action. 

From the grandeur of Balfour, which actually sits just outside the High Weald National Landscape, we threaded our way through the hills, to the place where two brothers are forging a reputation for food that embodies a deep connection to the land and a fastidious seasonality. 

Will and Matt Devlin run The Small Holding, a restaurant that binds its menus to the seasons with admirable dedication. They grow around 30% of their own ingredients and, where that isn’t an option, rely on a trusted group of local suppliers to reduce their environmental impact. The food is a constant conversation between garden and kitchen, adapting dishes according to what they have to hand.

When we caught up with Head Chef Will, he talked about the endless cycle of planting and planning – the excitement when tomatoes and aubergines started to come through, using companion planting and training vines to make their small space more efficient, switching to things like perpetual spinach. The limitations imposed by such strict principles breed fabulous creativity (they don’t even grow potatoes because they take up too much room). Will’s current favourite dish is an ice cream flavoured with the oil from blackcurrant leaves and the set menu is always an enticing read.  

While they’d always expected that they’d end up working in food together, Will and Matt didn’t foresee one surprising offshoot of the business – teaching. So many people asked them how or what to grow in order to eat more seasonally that they began running courses on exactly that. Now people come from miles around to learn how to sew, stake, harvest and cook their own produce. One guest even made their course the centre of a week-long experience of the food and landscapes of Kent. We can’t think of a better way to get a true understanding of the natural beauty and bounty of the “garden of England.”  

Kent had confirmed some of our expectations – the flourishing wine and food scene, beautiful gardens – while confounding others with the artistic revival of Margate and the edgy cool of Cliftonville. There was a simply staggering amount we didn’t have time to get to and at every stop our list got bigger, as people fervently recommended everything from scenic viewpoints to coffee stops and pubs. It’s a place that offers everything, where you can go from walking on the beach to owl spotting, looking at local art and picking your way through a kitchen garden in a matter of hours. One guide would never be enough, two or three might just scratch the surface.  

View all our special places to stay in Kent >

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Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

Chris is our in-house copywriter, with a flair for turning rough notes and travel tales into enticing articles. Raised in a tiny Wiltshire village, he was desperate to travel and has backpacked all over the world. Closer to home, he finds himself happiest in the most remote and rural places he can find, preferably with a host of animals to speak to, some waves to be smashed about in and the promise of a good pint somewhere in his future.
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