The Weald of Kent: town and village guides
PUBLISHED: 09:41 08 November 2016 | UPDATED: 15:28 21 November 2016
With a name meaning woodland and a rich heritage, first as an ancient forest and then as the farming heart of the county, we invite you to lose yourselves in The Weald of Kent. Words by: Caroline Read. Pictures by: Manu Palomeque
The wonderful Weald of Kent, once a vast forest with a rich past – first as the centre of the country’s iron industry and later in brickmaking and shipbuilding – is now a sprawling collection of rural towns and pretty villages set in pristine countryside. With towns including Tenterden and Cranbrook and villages such as Goudhurst, Benenden, Lamberhurst, Rolvenden, Marden and Sissinghurst, it’s easy to see why this part of the county is considered one of the prettiest and most unspoilt.
There are many places throughout The Weald where those with a love of the countryside can revel in the natural beauty. Walkers are spoilt for choice when it comes to scenic walking routes, many of which include stops at some of the areas superb country pubs.
There are tourist attraction too; the Kent and Sussex Railway at Tenterden, Scotney Castle at Lamberhurst, Biddenden Vineyard and Sissinghurst Castle to name just a few.
As well as being surrounded by stunning scenery, and drawing visitors to the many attractions throughout the area, The Weald is the kind of place where people still use their village shops, attend their annual village fêtes and know their neighbours by name.
A popular choice with those moving out from London or from the big busy towns of Kent, it can feel like a place forgotten in time and with a slower, more peaceful pace of life.
Eating and shopping
With such a diverse range of small towns and villages included within the area, the amount of choice when it comes to eating out is unsurprisingly great. A few places to look out for are The Milk House in Sissinghurst (01580 720200), The Globe and Rainbow in Kilndown (01892 890803), The Bull at Benenden (01580 240054), The Goudhurst Inn (01580 211451), The West House in Biddenden (01580 291341) and The Vine in Goudhurst (01580 211105).
New additions include the Kiln Room brasserie at The Weald Smokery in Flimwell (01580 879601), the new Vintage Room and Café in Goudhurst (01580 211846) and the Boat House Bistro at Bewl Water in Lamberhurst (01580 211846).
There are also too many great independent shops in this part of the county to name but some of our favourites are Village Life fashion boutique in Goudhurst, Charlie’s Orange vintage store in Hawkhurst and the wonderful Madrona Nursery in Bethersden, which is sadly shut for the winter but should reopen for the season in March.
Darling Buds Farm
Set near the villages of Bethersden and Pluckley, in the heart of the rural Weald, an unassuming former farm has been attracting visitors since the 1990s. Previously called Buss Farm but now known as Darling Buds Farm, this is where ITV set the hit TV series The Darling Buds of May, starring David Jason, Pam Ferris and Catherine Zeta Jones.
The farmhouse and buildings were converted to provide holiday accommodation in 2014 and this year the historic Tudor barn on the estate has been granted a license for weddings and civil partnerships.
As you would expect from somewhere once chosen to represent the perfect country idyll, photo opportunities are plentiful, with sweeping views across 35 acres of farmland complete with lakes, ponds and streams. The farm even has a Second World War truck like Pop Larkin had in the show, and a vintage red phone box.
There is also plenty of accommodation for overnight guests. Along with some newly converted buildings, the venue can sleep up to 26 people, and there is additional space in the form of traditional shepherds’ huts, which are available from May to September.
The Weald covers such a large area that property prices vary greatly. Cranbrook, Hawkhurst and Tenterden have the most property for sale and the greatest variety on offer but great deals can be found in some of the smaller towns and villages with fewer amenities. Expect to find a one-bedroom apartment for anything upwards of £160,000, a three-bed semi from around £250,000 and large detached houses for up to £2million.
3 great places to walk in The Weald
1 Bedgebury Forest and National Pinetum, near Goudhurst
If you love walking - or bike riding for that matter - then Bedgebury is the place for you. Run by the Forestry Commission, an entire forest is yours to explore, as well as one of the world’s finest conifer collections in the pinetum.
There’s a car park where you pay £10 per vehicle Monday to Friday (which rises to £12 at weekends) but for that there’s also a superb children’s play area, a Go Ape! Tree climbing centre, a lovely café and a bike hire centre. Visit www.forestry.gov.uk
2 Bewl Water, near Lamberhurst
Bewl Water has had a facelift and the new owners have invested heavily in creating a fun waterside attraction for all the family. Walkers can enjoy the 12.5 mile scenic route around the reservoir along well-maintained paths, but if you simply can’t go any further you can hop aboard a water taxi and do the rest of the journey in style. Again there’s an excellent café and a children’s play area on site, as well as a new restaurant, The Boat House Bistro.
Best of all, there’s plenty of car parking and at just £2 per car, it’s a very affordable day out. Visit www.bewlwater.co.uk
3 Hemsted Forest, near Cranbrook
For a totally free walk among some of the finest woodland The Weald has to offer, head to Hemsted Forest. This working woodland, managed by the Forestry Commission, offers visitors extensive forest paths through a variety of different landscapes, predominantly conifer plantations and douglas fir. There are 398 hectares in all, with about five miles of hard surfaced tracks.
The car park is large, free to use and popular with local dog walkers. Visit www.forestry.gov.uk
Benenden Community Shop
With Martin Pexton
Tell us a bit about you
I have lived in the Benenden area for more than 20 years. After a business career involving too much international travel, I finally have the freedom to enjoy the beauty of The Weald. I work as a non-executive company director, but much of my time now is spent as chairman and finance director of Benenden’s Community Shop.
And Benenden’s shop project?
It’s quite a long story, with a happy ending. For some years there was a concern that Benenden would lose its shop and Post Office, and several people looked at how to save it.
Fortunately, there are many talents in Benenden and we were able to form a strong start-up committee, although none of us had ever run a shop before. About 18 months ago we held a village meeting to launch the idea of a shop owned by the community, and more than 130 people have bought shares. We also obtained some grant funding. We started trading in June 2015.
What is Benenden School’s involvement?
The project could not have happened without Benenden School and they have been exceptionally supportive. We persuaded them that it would be a good idea to buy the building so that they could use the extensive accommodation to house teaching staff while leasing the shop premises to us.
They carried out a full refurbishment while we moved to temporary accommodation in the former Kitty Fisher pub, which was kindly made available to us by Mark and Lucy, the owners of The Bull. Unfortunately we found serious problems such as death watch beetle and extensive woodworm, so we were out of the building for six months.
What does the shop offer?
We sell a wide range of items, with a focus on local fresh produce, and we have a well-stocked wine and beer room. Our plans for the new-look shop included a café, as this was an important part of realising our vision to create a community hub, as well as being the key to financial viability.
The café offers good-quality coffee, cakes and light lunches and is very popular with both locals and people from further afield. We have kept the Post Office but operate from the shop counter rather than from the traditional ‘fortress’.
How has it been received?
We have tremendous support from the community. Usage of the shop and café keeps on growing and now our turnover is 50 per cent higher than when we started. We have about 50 enthusiastic volunteers who do two-hour shifts in the café and the shop, supporting our excellent team of paid managers. The atmosphere is welcoming and there is a great sense of fun.
What do you love about the area?
I love the landscape of the High Weald, its farms and its villages. Benenden is a welcoming place with a great sense of community and some very interesting people.
There’s lots of convenient parking in the Wealden towns and villages, much of which is free, and many useful bus links. Cranbrook is said to be the ‘capital of the Weald’ and lies on the A229 between Maidstone and the coast at Hastings. The surrounding villages are very spread out but there are train stations within reach at various points including Staplehurst, Headcorn, Marden and Etchingham.