A town guide to Sevenoaks
PUBLISHED: 15:10 14 September 2018
A popular choice for commuters, Sevenoaks has history, culture, a thriving high street and a reputation for being one of the best places to live in the country
The original seven trees from which this pretty town took its name are long gone, but oak is still at the heart of Sevenoaks.
From town signs featuring oak leaves and acorns, to a group of trees in pride of place at the Vine Cricket Ground, you don’t have to look far to find a reference.
And it’s right that the symbol of this affluent town should be a green and leafy one. It is, after all, an idyllic Kentish town surrounded by countryside and a favourite of commuters in search of the good life.
The history of Sevenoaks is closely linked to that of its biggest attraction and this month’s cover star – Knole. The ancient estate is set so close to the centre of town that you can stroll from the High Street to the 1,000-acre deer park in a matter of minutes. Once a royal hunting ground, frequented by Henry VIII, the stately home at its centre was built in 1455 and was owned by several Archbishops until Thomas Sackville bought it in 1604.
All these years later and the house – alleged to be the largest in the UK and boasting a room for every day of the year – is still occupied by the Sackville family, although
it is now managed by the National Trust.
Its most famous resident was poet, novelist and gardener Vita Sackville-West who, although most often linked to Sissinghurst, was born at Knole in 1892, grew up there and was even married in its chapel. Her love of it led her to write a history of the house and her family, Knole and the Sackvilles. Last year it underwent a massive renovation and featured in an episode of Channel 5’s Secrets of the National Trust. See also page 55.
Nearby is another piece of Sevenoaks’ history. Sevenoaks School was founded in 1432 and is thought to be the oldest secular school in England. Further historic places of note include St Nicholas Church. Mainly dating from the 13th and 15th centuries, its most famous clergyman was poet John Donne, who was rector there between 1616 and 1631. Sevenoaks even has a cricket ground of historical significance; The Vine is thought to be the oldest in existence.
Attractions in Sevenoaks include Riverhill Himayalan Gardens, the enchanting grounds of Riverhill House, which were originally laid out by botanist John Rogers in 1842. Today Riverhill offers peaceful gardens to explore and is famed both for its view across The Weald, its excellent bluebell walks in spring and for its ‘yeti hunts’ during school holidays.
The town also benefits from a central arts centre, The Stag, which has both cinema and theatre facilities. Each Christmas it hosts the Sevenoaks Panto, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with Dick Whittington.
Sevenoaks is surrounded by pristine Kentish countryside. Close by are places like Otford, famous for its pretty pond, Eynsford, home of Eagle Heights Wildlife Foundation, Shoreham, known for its lavender fields in summer and Lullingstone – which boasts a country park, a Roman villa and the World Gardens at Lullingstone Castle. Tom Hart Dyke is heir to the Estate and is the 20th generation of the Hart Dykes to live at Lullingstone Castle.
Best of all, this slice of country life is all so temptingly close to London. One of Kent’s commuter hotspots, it’s just a 25-minute journey into London by train, and a quick drive to join the M25.
Eating and shopping
Earlier this year the town’s chamber of commerce reported an increase in footfall on its high street, which is impressive at a time when more and more of our shopping is being done online.
Sevenoaks still boasts some of its older independent businesses, like The Chinaman and Sevenoaks Bookshop (see Postcard from Sevenoaks below), and equally welcomes new arrivals like Dulce’s Patisserie. Big chains stores include Fat Face, M&S and a new Oliver Bonas. Do venture slightly out of town to the Holly Bush Lane area for more independent stores.
When it comes to eating out, Sevenoaks has chain restaurants like Pizza Express, Wagamama and Bill’s, along with some great independent eateries, cafés and bars. A few to look out for are Eat ‘n’ Mess, Brunch@73, Otto’s Coffee Shop, The Little Garden, Hattusa, Fego, Branded Steaks, Miller & Carter, Nonna Cappucini’s, Beaux Bagels, The Vine, Raj Bari and Marco.
Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve
Kent Wildlife Trust has selected architects Studio McLeod and Ekkist for its proposed new visitor centre at Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. The ‘nature and wellbeing centre’ aims to be the first of its kind in the country dedicated to connecting people and nature in ways that demonstrate positive benefits for both people and wildlife.
Last year the Trust, in partnership with The Royal Institute of British Architects, launched an open design competition seeking architects to put forward designs that promote learning, wellbeing, curiosity and nature. In April, the public were invited to an exhibition to view the four shortlisted designs for the ambitious centre.
Kent Wildlife Trust’s Stevie Rice says: “Kent Wildlife Trust is delighted to be working with Studio McLeod and Ekkist on the redevelopment of the visitor centre
into a nature and wellbeing centre.
“They have designed a space that addresses the sensitivities of the site but has the ability to provide the local community with a space they can use effectively while experiencing the wellbeing benefits of connecting with nature.”
Sevenoaks Literary Festival
21 September to 5 October
There’s another all-star line-up at this year’s Sevenoaks Literary Festival. From best-selling novelists to music scholars, there will be something to suit all tastes.
Authors including Sebastian Faulks and Patrick Gale will be talking about their latest novels and the acclaimed conductor and historian Jane Glover will speak about her new book Handel in London: The Making of a Genius.
Gina Miller will discuss her recently published book Rise, which encourages all citizens to engage in contemporary issues, while Tessa Dunlop will talk about the dramatic extensions of democracy achieved by women over the last 100 years in her book The Century Girls.
For biography fans, the guest at this year’s literary tea is Vita Sackville-West’s granddaughter Vanessa Nicolson. At the literary lunch, Nell Stevens will interweave two literary love stories, her own and that of the Victorian author Mrs Gaskell.
This year, the festival is also introducing the Young Readers Festival Day with a sparkling range of speakers including Cressida Cowell, Emma Carroll, Axel Scheffler and Emma Fischel, as well
as many free events and activities for children and their families (see ‘Postcard’).
Venues being used range from The Oaks Theatre at Knole Academy to Sevenoaks Methodist Church and St Julians Club.
Full details of the programme are available at www.sevlitfest.com
Postcard from Sevenoaks
I’m Fleur Sinclair and as owner of the Sevenoaks Bookshop, my job is incredibly varied. All the booksellers in the shop have an enormous amount of reading to do in order to be able to advise our customers.
We take a great deal of time and care choosing and ordering books for stock, we do lots of craft work for our window and shop displays, we prepare seasonal reading lists, run writers groups, book clubs, organise and host authors events.
The Sevenoaks Bookshop first opened in 1948, so this year we’re celebrating the shop’s 70th birthday. It has always been in the same building and we have lots of beautiful original curved shelving. I’m only the fourth owner in 70 years.
Anyone owning an independent bookshop would only ever do it for the love of books and reading, which makes for an industry of tremendously nice and honest people! We want to make sure customers are pleased with any advice we give them, that they enjoy the books they buy from us and that they come back for more. Being a community hub for readers and writers is what we aim to be.
On 29 September we’re running the inaugural Sevenoaks Young Readers Festival with some really exciting authors, including Axel Sheffler and Cressida Cowell.
Sevenoaks is a really nice town with a strong community of independent shopkeepers.
There are lots of great independent clothes boutiques, selling lovely clothes and accessories if you’re looking for something different.
And Sevenoaks Hardware is an institution. Marco’s Italian restaurant serves delicious food and is great for both large groups and dining alone.