10 reasons to visit West Malling
PUBLISHED: 16:51 12 May 2016 | UPDATED: 16:51 12 May 2016
Boasting everything from a Neolithic monument to a cellar bar used by wartime pilots, charming West Malling is so much more than meets the eye. Words by: Caroline Read. Pictures by: Manu Palomeque
1 Living history
With a wealth of beautiful, historic buildings, it’s easy to while away a few hours searching out some of the town’s highlights. The Abbey Gate House on Swan Street is one of the most prominent, and gives a taste of the ancient buildings within the walls of Malling Abbey. Others of note include an 18th-century coaching inn, now The Swan restaurant, magnificent Went House and Prior’s House, once a residence for patients with leprosy. Parts of the impressive Church of St Mary the Virgin are nearly 1,000 years old. Also keep an eye-out for the bronze sculpture of Hope and its panels depicting the town’s past. A series of blue plaques has also recently been introduced to commemorate some of the famous people associated with the town. Look out for a plaque in the High Street marking where The Beatles filmed part of their Magical Mystery Tour.
2 Beautiful park
Manor Park is just a short walk from the town centre of and has plenty to offer. With a large car park, café, a fun children’s play park, picnic area and scenic lake, it’s more than just a great place to walk your dog. It’s also a haven for wildlife and wellknown for its swans, ducks and moorhens. Being just opposite the imposing Douces Manor, it’s not surprising that this 52-acre site was once part of its grounds. Look out for the man-made lake – probably a fishing lake built in 1800s – and for the remains of the manor’s ice house Ice House Field.
3 Eating & drinking
It’s packed with great places to eat and drink. For a delicious meal, try the Michelin-listed The Swan (01732 521910), The Farm House, with its new pizza shack and juice bar to the rear (01732 843257), The Fancy Goat restaurant and cocktail bar (01732 871222) or Frank’s restaurant and mussel bar (01732 843247). Cafés and coffee shops include the new Hungry Guest (01732 870766), Bean Rush (01732 874477) and Swan Street Café (01732 871692). There are also several lovely pubs, including The Joiners Arms (01732 840723), The Five Pointed Star (01732 842192), The Scared Crow (01732 840408) and The Bull Inn (01732 842753).
4 Ancient abbey
West Malling gained an abbey in around 1090 when a community of Benedictine nuns was founded. It was originally called St Mary’s Abbey and thrived until the dissolution, when it passed into secular ownership and fell into ruins. Now restored, the group of buildings within Malling Abbey’s walls dates from the Norman, medieval, Tudor and Georgian eras. The current community of Anglican Benedictine nuns has resided there since 1916 and runs religious retreats. It’s usually open to visitors during Heritage Open Days. The Malling Abbey Cascade on Swan Street is thought to be part of a medieval building which was repurposed as a waterfall in the 1700s and is one of the most photographed features in West Malling.
There are all sorts of shops to tempt you in West Malling. We recommend a browse around gift store Down Swan Street and a peek in ladies’ fashion boutique Fragolina, the children’s shoe shop Soles With Heart and trendy menswear store Monks & Co. Other little gems include the retro sweet shop Chocolate Umbrella and the vintage interiors shop called Found which, somewhat ironically, is rather hard to find, tucked away in an old barn behind The Farm House pub. Abbey Arcade, a hidden treasure containing a number of tiny independent shops, is well worth seeking out on the High Street.
6 Mysterious tower
St Leonard’s Tower is something of a mystery. Standing 66ft high on a sandstone ledge, the tower is thought to be part of a castle built by Gundulf, then Bishop of Rochester, who founded the nearby abbey. If that theory is correct, it would have been built between 1077 and 1108. Another suggestion is that it was built by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror. Whatever the truth, this remarkable building has been preserved thanks to its usefulness – for a long time its windows were bricked up and it was used for storing hops.
7 Lovely lakes
Opened in 2004 and created from land once used as sand and chalk quarries, Leybourne Lakes Country Park is only a few minutes’ drive from West Malling and has become one of Kent’s popular Green Flag award-winning country parks.
With a mighty 93 hectares of woodland, grassland, marshes and lakes to explore, it’s a designated Local Wildlife site and the park promotes the wide range of wildlife species that call it home.
With some of the clearest freshwater lakes around as well, the water sports centre based there offers scuba diving, open water swimming, windsurfing, canoeing and kayaking.
8 Prehistoric site
Set just outside West Malling, on the edge of the village of Trottiscliffe, Coldrum Long Barrow is a Neolithic monument thought to be one of the oldest in the UK.
Predating Stonehenge by almost 1,000 years, it’s the largest and best-preserved of a series of monuments in the Medway valley, including Kit’s Coty at Bluebell Hill. It’s a series of large monoliths, or sarsen stones, arranged around a central burial mound, where the remains of 22 people were uncovered during excavations in 1910. Easy to reach by car, there’s a dedicated car park in Pinesfield Lane and a pleasant 10-minute walk through fields, and it offers some spectacular views.
9 Important airfield
We may know it as Kings Hill today, but it was once RAF West Malling. During the Second World War it was an important base for night fighters and one of the pilots stationed there for a time was Guy Gibson, who went on to lead the Dambusters raid.
There is still plenty of evidence of the site’s important past, with the Art Deco-inspired control tower refurbished to offer a coffee shop and cultural centre, and a number of artworks around the development inspired by the airfield. Look around more and you’ll spot the old officer’s mess (now home to Tonbridge and Malling Council) and Churchill Square, a Grade II listed former accommodation block.
10 Wartime bar
Douces Manor was at one point the headquarters for officers flying from RAF West Malling during the war. It was here, in the Georgian wine cellar beneath their feet, that they set up the famous ‘Twitch Inn’ – a cellar bar named after the nervous twitches displayed by many of the pilots.
Although the manor is today a development of private homes, the cellar has been preserved by The Malling Society who manage it as a heritage centre. Opening on a handful of special dates throughout the year, the bar even features original graffiti and cartoons drawn by the airmen.
Visit www.themallingsociety.org.uk for open day dates.