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Spotlight on: Gravesend & Dartford

PUBLISHED: 19:46 02 October 2015 | UPDATED: 19:46 02 October 2015

Gravesend pier

Gravesend pier

Manu Palomeque

These days they are probably best known for being close to the shopping mecca of Bluewater, but if you have never explored Gravesend or Dartford, here are some great reasons you should drive into these north Kent towns rather than round them

1 Pocahontas at peace

History lovers will know the story of Pocahontas, the Native American noble who married an invading Englishman. Taken prisoner in 1613 by English 
settlers in Virginia, she went on to marry an English tobacco planter and become the toast of Stuart period London. Sadly, as they set sail to return to America in 1617, she became ill and the party came ashore at Gravesend in time for her to die in her husband’s arms, aged just 22. She is buried at St George’s Church (DA11 0DJ), where two of the church’s stained glass windows are dedicated to her and an iconic, life-size bronze statue of her stands outside.

2 Green spaces

These two north Kent towns have some great parks. Shorne Woods Country Park (DA12 3HX) near Gravesend is an enormous park of some 300 acres. Once part of the pleasure grounds of the Cobham Hall Estate, it’s perfect for picnics and kickabouts, with a superb children’s play area, several trails, a café and visitor centre. Darenth Country Park (DA2 6LZ) near Dartford is a relatively new creation. It was opened as part of the Millennium 
celebrations, stands on the edge of the North Downs and offers great views. There’s a great play area, several trails, an orchard and a picnic area.

3 Holy landmark

Thought to be one of the biggest Sikh gurdwaras in the country, and possibly one of the largest outside India, the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara in Gravesend (DA12 1AG) was built in 2010 and is big enough for 1,200 worshippers. On most days respectful visitors are welcome to look inside, if they abide by the rules by covering their heads and removing shoes. Sikh people come from all over the country to get married in this stunning building.

4 The world’s a stage

If it’s a show, a play or a concert you fancy, then this area has some great venues. Seating nearly 1,000, Dartford’s Orchard Theatre hosts a wide range of events, as well as a popular pantomime. Among the many offerings this October are Britain’s Got Talent’s Lucy Kay (1 October), Abbamania (2 October) and Boogie Nights - The Musical (14-17 October). Visit www.orchardtheatre.co.uk for tickets. 
The Woodville in Gravesend is a complex with a main auditorium, studio theatre, art gallery and even a cinema – named after award-winning director Paul Greengrass who went to school in the town. Highlights in October include a ‘70s and ‘80s Disco Night (3 October) and the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company performing The Gondoliers (16-17 October). Tickets at: www.woodville.seatlive.com.

5 On your bike

Cyclopark is a purpose-built park dedicated to the joy of cycling. Whether it be young children learning to ride their first bikes, keen mountain bikers or even BMX adrenaline junkies, this is the place for you. If that wasn’t enough, there is also a skate park, an under-eights scooter park and a children’s play area, plus bike shop, equipment hire and a café. It’s all located on reclaimed ground, the site of the old re-routed A2, and it’s easy to get to from the new A2 dual carriageway (DA11 7NP). See www.cyclopark.com for prices and opening times and also pages 98-101.

6 pier of the realm

Gravesend’s town pier has stood proudly out into the River Thames since 1834. Originally a boat passenger pier, it fell into eventual disuse and by 1992 was in a dilapidated state. In 2000, Gravesham Council purchased the pier and set about restoring it. It’s the oldest cast-iron pier in the world and one of the most important structures in Gravesend, giving unrivalled panoramic views of the river. Home to Riva Waterside Bar and Restaurant (DA11 0BJ, 01474 364694) it has access to a steel pontoon where a number of vessels moor.

7 On the riverbank

New Tavern Fort (DA12 2BT) is the remains of an 18th-century fort which was built to defend the Thames from a naval attack by the French. Extensively rebuilt between 1865 and 1879, it was re-armed in 1904 and guns from that time are on display here. Open to visitors at weekends between April and the end of September, you are invited to venture underground to experience the lives of Victorian artillerymen and to see reconstructions of scenes from Gravesend during the war. Audio tours for adults and children are available too. Contact Towncentric 01474 337600 to check the opening times of the fort.

8 Henry VIII was here

Dartford’s Manor Gatehouse (DA1 2BJ) was once part of one of the most politically important private houses in Tudor England. Following the dissolution of Dartford Priory, Henry VIII chose the site for a manor house for his personal use. Anne of Cleves was given the house after his death and lived here until shortly before her death. It’s used as a wedding venue now, offering a choice of rooms.

9 Shopping heaven

Bluewater (DA9 9ST) is without doubt the jewel in the local crown. An out-of-town shopping centre in Greenhithe, with easy access from the M24, M2 and M20, this shopping destination brings visitors from all over Kent, London and further afield. Everybody knows it’s packed with shops and restaurants but there are many other reasons to prolong your visit. The Showcase Cinema was upgraded to include an IMAX screening room in 2013, one of only 25 in the UK, and there’s an outdoor pirate cove adventure play area as well as a popular Young Driver centre on the site.

10 Going under

Just when you think you’ve seen it all in Gravesend, a sign in Woodlands Park (DA11 7LF) promises something rather unusual. The Cold War Bunker is a 13-room underground civil defense command post built in 1954. Designed to be the local underground command centre in the event of a nuclear war, it has been refurbished and authentically staged with a communication room, fallout room and a radiation monitoring post. You can even see the shell of a genuine nuclear bomb, once part of the UK’s arsenal held in case of war with the Soviet Union. Flooding has recently damaged the bunker and at the time of writing it was closed for repairs. w

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