Sevenoaks in the spotlight

PUBLISHED: 15:30 21 December 2009 | UPDATED: 11:42 28 February 2013

Sevenoaks in the spotlight

Sevenoaks in the spotlight

After the Christmas and New Year excesses, what can be finer than appreciating the crisp country air with an invigorating stroll across a tranquil deer park? Sevenoaks really does have it all

Happiness is a stroll at Knole

After the Christmas and New Year excesses, what can be finer than appreciating the crisp country air with an invigorating stroll across a tranquil deer park? Sevenoaks really does have it all

Sevenoaks has its small town charm, its independent shops and coffee bars, its historic cricket ground and its symbolic seven oaks (well, eight actually), but nothing beats the 1,000 acres of natural and authentic woodlands only a few minutes walk away from the town centre.

Authentic may seem a strange word to choose when talking about woodlands, yet it is rather apt. So many of the great parks under the custodianship of the National Trust or English Heritage are monuments to the great creative landscapers such as Capability Brown.

The grounds at Knole have survived five and a half centuries without any monumental vision it consists simply of trees and deer. When the Great Storm of 1987 ripped down six of the towns oaks (the town planted seven new trees, resulting in seven new oaks and one century-old mature oak), it also laid waste to great tracts of Knole Park. To their credit, the people at Knole made great efforts to ensure the replanting looked as unplanned as possible which is not the easiest thing to plan for.

In contrast to the natural wonder that is Knole, there is another wild place in Sevenoaks to breathe life into jaded spirits but this is entirely man-made.

The Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve features five lakes and a mixed habitat of ponds, seasonally flooded pools, reed beds and woodland, home to a diverse and wonderful array of birds.

The flora and fauna, including the fish, amphibians and winged visitors, are natural enough, but this site is also a marvel of engineering. Every lake, pond and reed bed was excavated by hand. Originally a cavernous gravel pit, it became the first such commercial site in Britain to be transformed into a nature reserve. The Kent Wildlife Trust has developed an attraction well worth visiting.

The deer at Knole and the wildfowl at the nature reserve are just two reasons why Sevenoaks is lauded as an excellent place to live and visit. The town attracts tourists from the UK and the continent (who arrive via the cross-channel ferries and EuroTunnel) and it is the surrounding countryside, Knole and other National Trust houses and gardens that are the pull, according to Bob Carpenter, from the Sevenoaks Tourist Information Centre.

When tourists arrive in the town, they are usually looking for walks and to explore National Trust homes and gardens, says Bob. The town is uniquely situated for appreciating the county by foot. The grounds of Knole take over the south-east quarter of the town, so you can effectively be in the countryside as soon as you leave the centre of town.

Straight away you are transported into a spectacular deer park. Sevenoaks is almost entirely surrounded by the green belt, with the Greensand hills to the south and the North Downs to the north.

It is also a very pleasant place in which to live. Like many other residents, Bob was attracted by the quality of life and the proximity to London. I moved here five years ago from London, he says.

I have had no regrets it feels friendly and safe. You can never be complacent about such things, but in general the town doesnt suffer from anti-social behaviour. Certainly it doesnt have the same problems as Walthamstow, where I lived before, where the paper was always full of stories about knife crime.

Bob isnt alone in his positive outlook on the town. Professor Paul Whiteley and his team at Essex University immersed themselves in a four-year study on what makes a location a happy place to live in from 1999-2003, an academic project involving some 12,000 interviews.

Their conclusion was that Sevenoaks was the happiest town in the UK, largely due to its culture of voluntary work and neighbourliness. Old-fashioned values such as helping neighbours and joining local clubs and societies could be the key to a happy life, regardless of how wealthy you are, according to the study.

Researchers linked levels of satisfaction with the number of people who do good deeds for neighbours or join local organisations such as the Women's Institute, church choir or sports clubs. Sevenoaks emerged as the happiest town, with almost four in 10 people describing themselves as very satisfied with life.

Professor Whiteley concluded that: It seems that when we focus on the needs of others, we may also reap benefits ourselves If you account statistically for social and economic status and deprivation, you still find that relationship between volunteering and life satisfaction.

Joining in with community events certainly is good for the spirit, and one activity that is particularly therapeutic is expressing oneself with song or drama. Sevenoaks is renowned for its have-a-go attitude to the performing arts. The Stag Theatre was re-opened by Sevenoaks Town Council in January 2009 after enthusiastic and determined campaigns by local groups.

You can effectively be in the countryside as soon as you leave the centre of town

One activist was Ray Russell who is currently planning the 40th Sevenoaks Summer Festival (19 June to 4 July). When asked why Sevenoaks inspires such an active arts scene, he says: There is an abundance of talent in the area, a wealth of established groups that cater for virtually all tastes and provide opportunities and an impetus to get involved in community activity.

We have very good local schools that foster talent and encourage arts participation, a significant number of retired folk with the wherewithal, interest and skills to organise and run groups and, of course, the Sevenoaks Summer Festival which showcases the local arts, continuing a tradition started by Sevenoaks School over 40 years.

The spirit of Sevenoaks is also alive and well in the Sevenoaks Society, a campaigning civic group. The chairman, David Gamble, has just launched a campaign to ban Heavy Goods Vehicles from the narrow and winding Upper High Street, which has attracted considerable local support. We are dedicated to maintaining Sevenoaks as an attractive place to live and work, he explains.

We want to preserve the friendly scale and historic buildings, although we do champion new designs if they fit in with the character of the town. As well as Knole, Sevenoaks has lots of welcoming spaces, which are peaceful places to relax and enjoy a coffee. We have a caf culture in the town and this is worth protecting.

It certainly sounds an appealing and relaxing place to spend time in. Who knows, if you spend long enough, that famous Sennockian happiness may be infectious. What finer tonic can there be for that New Year hangover?


Ray Russell

Chairman of Sevenoaks Summer Festival and a founding director and secretary of Sevenoaks Community Arts & Theatre (SCAT)

Tell us about you

I have been an enthusiastic supporter of local theatre groups since coming to Sevenoaks in 1974 and have always combined a love of performing with applying my talents as an administrator and financial manager.

What is Sevenoaks best for?

Its train service to London, its restaurants; schools; arts opportunities and Festivals

What is essential to life in Sevenoaks?

The Stag Theatre and Blighs Meadow

Which shops in Sevenoaks would you choose to spend your money in?

Waitrose and the Avalon music shop

Where would you choose to take guests?

To Knole Park, Bradbourne Lakes and Bradbourne Wildfowl Centre and of course, the Stag Theatre

Sum up Sevenoaks in a sentence

Its a pleasant mid-sized town, home to Knole, Sevenoaks School and the Stag Theatre, with a good commuter rail service to London and a good range of shops and supermarkets - but with too many undeveloped building sites, empty shops and inadequate and expensive parking.

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