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Visting West Malling and Kings Hill

PUBLISHED: 15:09 16 October 2019 | UPDATED: 15:09 16 October 2019

West Malling is best known for its wide High Street, lined with Tudor and Georgian buildings (photo: Manu Palomeque)

West Malling is best known for its wide High Street, lined with Tudor and Georgian buildings (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

They're very different but just a couple of miles apart. Let's look at the ancient medieval market town of West Malling and the cutting edge community of Kings Hill

West Malling

This historic market town not far from Maidstone packs a lot of character into a relatively small space. There can be few towns that can trace their history as accurately as West Malling, previously known as Town Malling.

With no port or important river crossing nearby, the settlement's development was all due to Bishop Gundulf choosing it as the location for his new abbey in 1090. Giving the nuns the right to hold weekly markets, the town soon sprang up around it.

The abbey at the heart of the town still exists today, although it's hard to spot behind its high walls. With a remarkable story going back more than 900 years, the site passed into secular hands after Henry VIII's Dissolution, only to become home to a group of Anglican Benedictine nuns again in 1916. The community remains there to this day, offering occasional tours to the public.

Appealing indepenents include West Malling Flowers (photo: Manu Palomeque)Appealing indepenents include West Malling Flowers (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Thought to have been built at around the same time, but with a certain amount of mystery surrounding it, nearby St Leonard's Tower is believed to be the remains of a Norman keep.

With little recorded about it, it's the best of a number of theories that have surrounded the ruin for centuries. Cared for by English Heritage, it's possible to walk up to the tower but note that there's no access inside.

Across the road is one of West Malling's biggest attractions, Manor Park Country Park. Made up of 52 acres, formerly the grounds of Douces Manor opposite, it includes pretty lakes, a stream, woodland and open meadows. A popular spot for picnics, with a good café and children's play area, it's always a pleasure to visit.

The town is best known for its wide High Street, lined with Tudor and Georgian buildings, but look around the side streets too and there's plenty to see.

Liberty Square is at the heart of the community in Kings Hill (photo: Manu Palomeque)Liberty Square is at the heart of the community in Kings Hill (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Hunt for the series of blue plaques, set up by the local history society to commemorate notable citizens and past events.

There are some outside Douces Manor, as it was used as RAF accommodation during the war, and there's one on the High Street that remembers the day The Beatles filmed there in 1967.

Other things to look out for include the pretty Church of St Mary the Virgin, with its huge tower, and the historic waterfall in Swan Street known as the Abbey Cascade and once sketched by JMW Turner.

There's a modern bronze sculpture called Hope to seek out too, representing a woman holding a dove. And the town also has an important link to the world of cricket. Its ground, off Norman Road, is thought to have hosted the first recorded cricket match in Kent, back in 1705.

Tug of War, a bronze sculpture by W Stanley Proctor, features six children and a dog, pulling the rope in a tug of war (photo: Manu Palomeque)Tug of War, a bronze sculpture by W Stanley Proctor, features six children and a dog, pulling the rope in a tug of war (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Today this little town is still buzzing with life, offering residents all the amenities they need for day to day life, and attracting visitors with its pretty High Street, its friendly shops and its array of eateries.

Kings Hill

Just two miles from West Malling is its good friend and neighbour, Kings Hill. What we see now as a 'new village' community with modern housing developments began life as a medieval hunting ground. Set in one of the highest points in Kent, it went on to make the perfect location for an airfield - with part of the wood cleared as an emergency landing strip for planes during the First World War.

From there, Kings Hill's aviation history is a well-known one. In 1940 the land, by now a private airfield, was taken over by the RAF to form a command section station, with squadrons flying regular missions over France and Germany. By then called RAF West Malling, it was home to many airmen during the Second World War, most notably John 'Cats Eye' Cunningham and 'Dambuster' Guy Gibson - after whom the main road into Kings Hill is now named.

Leybourne Lakes, the home of watersports in Kent, offers scuba diving, open-water swimming, stand-up paddle boarding, wild swimming and more (photo: Manu Palomeque)Leybourne Lakes, the home of watersports in Kent, offers scuba diving, open-water swimming, stand-up paddle boarding, wild swimming and more (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Closed in the 1970s, the airfield was derelict for many years before the local council, in partnership with the Liberty Property Trust, set about creating a new community on the land in the 1990s. New housing would be complimented by new schools, a business park, and retail and leisure amenities.

Its aviation heritage is still important to the new village, with road names, outdoor art installations and plenty of other nods to its past. At the heart of the community is Liberty Square, with its modern shops and restaurants, but look a little further and you'll also find a Costa coffee shop in the refurbished Art Deco control tower that was once central to the airfield. Outside the tower is a public artwork showing the different types of aircraft that would have flown from here.

Look closer still and you'll spot the local Shepherd Neame pub is called The Spitfire. Elsewhere in the development, there's a memorial sculpture to Group Captain Peter Townsend by renowned Tonbridge sculptor Guy Portelli. Look out too for the life-size bronze statue of an airman running to his plane.

Aiming to provide somewhere where people can live, work, go to school, shop, eat and play, there are children's play parks, tennis courts, football pitches, a community centre, a cricket club and golf club. Starting from a blank canvas has provided the planners behind Kings Hill with the perfect opportunity to create separate neighbourhoods within the development, each with their own character, and plenty of green spaces have been built in. The community may be a very new one, especially when compared to its ancient neighbour, but a great deal of thought is put into how it works.

Shoppers with a discerning eye love the individuality of West Malling's independent boutiques (photo: Manu Palomeque)Shoppers with a discerning eye love the individuality of West Malling's independent boutiques (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Shopping and eating

West Malling certainly isn't lacking when it comes to shopping, with a number of independent stores that keep customers coming back time and time again.

Look out for Soles With Hearts children's footwear, Dressed by Dee and Eves of West Malling ladies fashion boutiques, The Chocolate Umbrella sweet shop, Down Swan Street gift shop, Monks, West Malling Flowers and jewellers Varoshe, Andrew Smith and Martin Wilde. Seek out the Mill Yard Craft Centre, dating back to the 1550s and home to a number of small shops and businesses, and don't miss Abbey Arcade, a warren of tiny businesses with an unassuming entrance on the High Street.

West Malling runs a popular Farmers' Market on the fourth Sunday of each month, and has dozens of cafés, pubs and restaurants. A few to try include smart new Indian restaurant Desh, Bean Rush café, Amano, The Hungry Guest, Imperial Dynasty, Frank's restaurant and mussel bar, The Farmhouse, Pad Thai, The Swan, The Scared Crow, The Malling Jug micropub and The Joiners Arms.

Within Kings Hill itself there is The Spitfire pub, which was refurbished recently, as well as two branches of Costa, Humphrey's of Kings Hill fish and chips, a sandwich bar, the Gufaa Raja Indian restaurant and Sino Chinese.

Everyday needs are covered, with Asda and Waitrose stores, a pharmacy and much more at Liberty Square.

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