Spotlight on: The Weald of Kent
PUBLISHED: 12:09 24 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:09 24 October 2015
The Weald of Kent is a rural wonderland of charming villages, rolling hills, orchards and woodland. A vast area that was once thick forest, this is what people think of when they hear the phrase 'the Garden of England.
How wonderful it is to know that not much more than an hour’s drive from London there is a large part of Kent which remains mostly unspoilt.
Once this entire area was a prehistoric forest – the word ‘Weald’ comes from the Old English for forest – but by the Iron Age it was already being cleared and, thanks to local ironstone in the ground and charcoal from the forest, it became the heart of the iron industry.
Shipbuilding and brickmaking industries followed, until little of the original forest was left, but what the county ended up with would become one of its most treasured landscapes, dotted with oast houses, hop farms and orchards.
Villages are spread thinly across the area, often with several miles between them and, as historic and picturesque as they are, they don’t have the greatest transport links. But it’s just that which makes these rural gems worth seeking out.
Explore villages like Goudhurst, Sissinghurst, Brenchley, Biddenden, Benenden, Speldhurst, Horsmonden and Lamberhurst and you’ll be transported back to a simpler time with a slower pace of life.
Eating and shopping
There are so many great village pubs and gastro pubs in the Weald. Try The Milk House in Sissinghurst (01580 720200), the newly refurbished Goudhurst Inn (now owned by local wine producers Hush Heath, 01580 212605), The Globe & Rainbow in Kilndown (01580 890803), The Bull at Benenden ( 01580 240054), The George & Dragon in Speldhurst (TN3 0NN, 01892 863125) or The Three Chimneys at Biddenden (TN27 8LW, 01580 291472).
For fine dining, nearby Cranbrook boasts Michelin-starred Apicius (01580 714666), while The Vine in Goudhurst (01580 211753) is always popular and Biddenden has the lovely West House restaurant (01580 291341).
The shopping experience in the Wealden villages is traditional, with many retaining their local shops, greengrocers, butchers and bakers. The main shopping centres are Tenterden and Cranbrook.
Meet Horsmonden blacksmith, Michael Hart
Tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Michael Hart and I run Horsmonden Forge. I specialise in the production of high-quality, hand-forged ironwork of bespoke design. At the forge our work is based around traditional techniques and one-off design.
How did you become a blacksmith?
I fell straight into it to be honest. A family friend used to run demonstrations at the Museum of Kent Life in Maidstone which is where I was first introduced to the craft. It then became a hobby which soon became an obsession - which lead me to study at Plumpton College and then on to an apprenticeship for three years.
What projects have you been involved with?
I have had a lot of private commissions which I thoroughly enjoy because of the constant change in client specification. Alongside private customers I have been involved in a number of projects including the restoration of the old palace entrance gates at Canterbury Cathedral and a sculpture production for the University of Kent campus in Canterbury.
The Weald of Kent has a long association with the iron industry. Is the local history of the craft something that interests you?
I find it interesting, as do many people I meet. Introducing yourself as a blacksmith always seems to strike well with people, which I think comes from the heritage and romanticised nature of the craft. What truly interests me with the history of the area is when you get to rework an old piece of iron. There is nothing like it if you want a connection to the past.
My personal favourite was working on some gates made 1818. I was drilling out a broken bit of bolt when my hot drill went into a cavity below, smoke went everywhere and there was a strong smell of fish. It was fish oil which had been used as a lubricant for drilling and tapping in those days and had been sat hiding for 197 years. You can’t beat things like that.
Tell us about your workshop
I started out in small shed at the bottom of my garden, but my current workshop covers 1000sq ft and is set up for one thing: production. At one end of the shop we have the coal forges and anvils for small workings and fire welding and across from there we have the gas forge and heavy power hammers for the larger forgings.
Moving down the shop we have the assembly area. The open floor space leads to a pair of double doors so work starts in the forges and basically goes down the workshop in production phases to end up out of the door. The recent addition to the workshop is an office/gallery where I design my work and display it to visiting customers.
Headmistress, Samantha Price
Benenden is probably best known as the home of one of the country’s top boarding schools for girls. Founded in 1923 and set in 240 acres of parkland, the 550 pupils at the school benefit from some impressive facilities and more are on the way.
“I joined Benenden School in January last year, and have completed my first academic year as Headmistress. Benenden is one of the leading boarding schools in the country and I am truly honoured to be working with such a marvellous group of staff and students.
At Benenden we pride ourselves on offering what we call a ‘Complete Education’, so each girl leaves us having reached her academic potential but also as a confident, compassionate and positive young woman who is truly prepared for the modern world.
A large part of this is learning about, and making the most of, our own environment. We are fortunate to be set in 240 acres of glorious Kentish countryside and we work closely to preserve and enhance the site. The majority of our employees are from the local area and we delight in the very close community that we have.
It is equally important for us to be a part of the local community and to be involved where we can. For example, we sponsor the John Wallis Academy in Ashford and have recently bought the building that houses the village shop in Benenden so we can preserve this vital amenity for the community. We intend that some of our girls will volunteer in the new-look shop when it opens.
We regularly share our facilities with Benenden Primary School and are proud to host the annual village tennis tournament.
Furthermore, we also look forward to inviting the community to share in some of the facilities we are creating as part of a major long-term development plan, the Centenary Vision. Launched in April by HRH The Princess Royal, who was a Benenden pupil in the 1960s, the Vision aims to create an array of state-of-the-art new facilities at the school in time for our centenary in 2023.
These improvements will include an all-weather floodlit sports pitch, a redeveloped school hall, establishment of a music school, improved teaching facilities and enhancement of the sports centre.
We are also expanding the Benenden School Trust Award programme, which offers bursaries to girls who would otherwise be unable to afford the fees to experience an outstanding Benenden education. Year Six girls from primary schools in a five-mile radius of Benenden are eligible to apply for these bursaries.”
Tour the Weald of Kent
Popular with walkers, the Weald has many walking routes with stops along the way including picturesque villages and wonderful country pubs. If you’re thinking of exploring the area on foot then Explore Kent (www.explorekent.org) has a wonderful selection of walks, including a 10-mile circular walk around Benenden, a linear walk taking in Goudhurst and walks around Cranbrook and Sissinghurst.
Some of the more major attractions in the area include:
Biddenden Vineyard: Kent’s oldest commercial vineyard, Biddenden is famous for its award-winning English wines. Visit the winery, enjoy a tasting in the shop and walk around the 23-acre vineyard (www.biddendenvineyards.com)
Hole Park Gardens: a privately owned 15-acre ‘garden for all seasons’ in Rolvenden with a lovely tea room (www.holepark.com)
Bedgebury Forest and Pinetum: a stunning forest to explore on foot or by bike, situated near Goudhurst (www.forestry.gov.uk)
Marle Place: a Wealden garden in Brenchley owned by artists and featuring an art gallery (www.marleplace.co.uk)
Scotney Castle: a country house in Lamberhurst with romantic gardens and the ruins of a moated castle, owned by the National Trust and featuring one of their popular cafés (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/scotney-castle)
Sissinghurst Castle: the former home of poet Vita Sackville-West and now owned by the National Trust, it boasts a café, beautiful gardens and The Granary restaurant, which uses produce grown on the state (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle-garden).
The Weald is such a large area and property prices vary greatly. The main towns of Tenterden, Cranbrook and Hawkhurst are generally more expensive as they are closer to amenities but some villages are also highly sought after, particularly Speldhurst and the villages close to Tunbridge Wells. Expect to find a one-bedroom apartment for anything from £140,000 up to £230,000, a three-bed semi for between £240,000 and £600,000 and a detached five-bed house for anything up to £1.85million. There are plenty of bargains to be had too, especially if you don’t mind a semi-rural setting and a drive to the nearest village.
With the Wealden villages so spread out, there is no easy answer as to how to get there. Cranbrook is a good place to start from and is on the A229 between Maidstone and Hastings. There is plenty of parking in most of the villages. The area isn’t well served by railway lines but you can use the stations at Staplehurst, Marden and Etchingham.
With the Wealden villages so spread out, there is no easy answer as to how to get there. Cranbrook is a good place to start from and it lies on the A229 between Maidstone and Hastings. There is plenty of parking in most of the villages. The area isn’t well served by railway lines but you can use the stations at Staplehurst, Marden and Etchingham.