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Visitor guide to Cranbrook & Hawkhurst

PUBLISHED: 15:14 24 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:49 24 September 2019

Union Mill is the tallest surviving smock mill in the British Isles (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Union Mill is the tallest surviving smock mill in the British Isles (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

At the heart of the Weald, the historic town of Cranbrook and the village of Hawkhurst are as quintessentially Kentish as they come

One is a small town, once famed as the centre of the local cloth industry, while the other is a neighbouring village which gave its name to the county's most dreaded gang of smugglers.

Oozing history, Cranbrook and Hawkhurst are the very heart of the Weald of Kent and as such are the focus of much of its leisure activities.

Conjuring images of The Darling Buds of May, they manage to keep one foot firmly in the past in the face of a fast-paced and ever-expanding modern world.

With its picturesque town centre, weather-boarded buildings and a windmill overlooking it all, it's easy to see Cranbrook as it would have been hundreds of years ago. The little medieval country town hasn't changed a great deal, and it continues to be at the centre of a large community of spread-out villages - lending it the nickname the Capital of the Weald.

Cranbrook town centre: easy to imagine how it would have looked hundreds of years ago (photo: Manu Palomeque)Cranbrook town centre: easy to imagine how it would have looked hundreds of years ago (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Blending history and charm, it offers a glimpse of an older and simpler way of life, while at the same time boasting all the modern amenities necessary in the 21st century. Packed with traditional shops and independent cafés, pubs and restaurants, it feels very small and friendly indeed.

Walking around the town, don't miss a visit to the Parish Church of St Dunstan - so large it's been dubbed the 'Cathedral of the Weald' - and Union Mill, the tallest surviving 'smock mill' in the British Isles.

Built in 1814, the mill is maintained in working order and holds regular open days for the public. One of Cranbrook's lesser-known gems is its museum, set in a 15th century timber-framed house and exhibiting all sorts of items from Cranbrook's past - including some of the works of the 'Cranbrook Colony' of Victorian artists who settled here and painted scenes from everyday life.

Cranbrook museum is set in a picturesque 15th century timber-framed house (photo: Manu Palomeque)Cranbrook museum is set in a picturesque 15th century timber-framed house (photo: Manu Palomeque)

The town has its fair share of entertainment and events too. Cranbrook School's Queens Hall Theatre doubles as a community theatre with a varied programme of professional shows.

Cranbrook Literature Festival is having a year off but in the meantime there's a one-off event next month for the fabulously quirky Cranbrook Apple Fair (5 October) which makes for a fun day out.

If Cranbrook is a town so small it is often mistaken for a village, Hawkhurst suffers the reverse. A sprawling village, so well connected it has a central crossroads offering routes to Rye, Cranbrook, Maidstone and Hastings, it lacks a busy High Street but makes up for it with a pretty little colonnade of independent shops and businesses.

The Parish Church of St Dunstan is so large it’s been dubbed the ‘Cathedral of the Weald’ (photo: Manu Palomeque)The Parish Church of St Dunstan is so large it’s been dubbed the ‘Cathedral of the Weald’ (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Once playing a vital role in the ancient iron and cloth industries, it later became notorious as the home of the feared Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers in the 1700s.

Now it's an increasingly sought-after place to live, with an array of friendly pubs and an expanding population. And when it comes to entertainment, Hawkhurst offers the only cinema for miles around - the boutique Kino digital cinema.

Look out for the Walled Garden Nursery in Water Lane, which is made up of 13 beautiful Victorian glasshouses and has one of the prettiest cafés in Kent.

Hawkhurst has a pretty little colonnade of independent shops and businesses (photo: Manu Palomeque)Hawkhurst has a pretty little colonnade of independent shops and businesses (photo: Manu Palomeque)

And if fishing is your thing then Hawkhurst Fish Farm is the place to be. Other attractions nearby include the National Trust's Sissinghurst Castle, with its world-famous gardens, and Biddenden Vineyards, celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

Shopping and eating

For a small town, Cranbrook offers a great selection of both general and specialist shops. Take a look around Happy & Glorious, All Wrapped Up, Phillips Man's Shop, Blighty's, Lemon Blue, a number of interiors stores and much more.

The Cloudberry Restaurant (photo: Manu Palomeque)The Cloudberry Restaurant (photo: Manu Palomeque)

A recent addition to Cranbrook's Stone Street is The Hive, a new concept enterprise that offers a 'hot desking and hospitality hub' in support of local businesses.

Eat out at The George Hotel, The Cloudberry (see Postcard from Cranbrook), Arthur's (top tip: take your dog), Food For Thought, The Waterloo House Tearooms, Cocolicious and more. Take time to visit Hartley Farm Shop and Cranbrook Farm Shop, don't miss Larkin's Alehouse and for fine dining head to the renowned Apicius.

Hawkhurst's colonnade is home to a bakery, florist, butcher and pharmacy but also offers treasures like ladies fashion boutique Cordelia James and gift shop Two Chicks At The Colonnade.

A short walk away is Charlie's Orange vintage and retro shop, and Hawkhurst also boasts not one but two supermarkets. Eat out at places such as The Great House, The Royal Oak, The Oak & Ivy, The Queen's Inn, the café at Kino, the delightful Victorian glasshouse café at The Walled Garden plant nursery nearby or the Waterside Café at Hawkhurst Fish Farm.

This area is known for its excellent pubs and country restaurants, and there are many to try in the surrounding villages, most notably The Smallholding in Kilndown. Its excellent chef Will Devlin was our Kent Life Food & Drink Awards 2018 chef of the year.

Postcard from Cranbrook

My name is Toby Welfare and I own the Cloudberry Restaurant in Cranbrook (Ed's note: closed for the summer when our photogrpaher visited, re-opens this autumn). I cook the food and my wife is front of house. The food is refined but focuses on flavours over style and presentation. Good food never goes out of fashion and chefs should plan menus which make them feel hungry rather than show off their skills.

The setting is relaxed and informal, so people could come on a special occasion or after a busy day at work with a nice glass of wine and a plate of confit duck.

We moved here on a whim. We drove to Cranbrook because there was a good place for coffee, I spied a commercial building for sale in the estate agent's window and that was it. The Cloudberry has been open 18 months and so far so good, the comments from our customers have been really encouraging and many of them have been back several times.

I named the restaurant after this tough little plant because it thrives in difficult conditions but still manages to produce delicious fruit. That's what it's like running a restaurant; hard and difficult at times but the fruits of our labour taste all the sweeter for it.

Cranbrook is a town with a village feel. Apicius is a great restaurant, Cocolicious is good for coffee and brunch, Arthur's for milkshakes and you definitely must pop into E C Wilkes & Sons butchers for amazing locally produced meat - it's where we get ours from for the restaurant.

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