What to do, see and eat when visiting Maidstone
PUBLISHED: 16:49 08 July 2019
Our county town has always had a lot to offer, blending a riverside setting and important history with a modern town centre and an expanding population
Maidstone has a lot to shout about. As our county town and administrative capital, with Kent County Council, Kent Police and our main courts based here, it has always been at the heart of Kent - both literally and figuratively. Historically it became an important market town during the Middle Ages, thanks to its setting on the River Medway. Its status was lifted further when a grand Archbishop's Palace was founded here in the 14th century.
But Maidstone is not stuck in the past. Regeneration is taking place, with building and investment at an all-time high, helping to attract a number of big businesses and boosting employment opportunities.
It already had the good schools and the excellent transport links required for a successful modern town, and now, earmarked for further expansion, dozens of housing developments are being built and the infrastructure is being improved. The town already boasts its excellent Fremlin Walk outdoor shopping centre, along with a recently refurbished smaller shopping centre called The Mall.
Lockmeadow entertainment centre, with its Odeon cinema, bowling alley, bars and restaurants has been refreshed recently too, and even the old museum brandishes a bold contemporary extension and modern facilities.
A new play area has just opened in Maidstone's largest green space, Mote Park, specifically designed to be fully inclusive and offering interactive, safe play for everyone. The new playground has been PiPA (Plan Inclusive Play Areas) approved, meaning Mote Park will be the only site in Kent to offer this standard.
It's part of the council's £4.3 million redevelopment programme for the 440-acre park. This will also see the opening of a new Adventure Zone featuring high ropes, a climbing wall, mini golf and Segway hire, along with a new visitor centre and café.
And this is far from the only building project taking place in our rapidly expanding county town. Work has started on the redevelopment of two prominent sites in the town centre - Brunswick Street and Union Street. A total of 94 properties will be created, with both sites due to be completed in September 2020.
Plans for a new distillery in the Market Buildings will see the return of the town's once great spirit-making industry, which peaked in the 1800s, before fading away in the 1930s. At one point Maidstone Gin was considered one of the finest, and the strongest, in the country. The Maidstone Distillery hopes to build on this rich heritage and will feature distillery tours, visitor experiences, a shop and a bar. Its opening is planned for later this year.
And according to research into the year 2017, released in January, Maidstone's visitor economy continues to thrive. The report by Visit Kent showed the value of Maidstone's visitor economy shot up by 8.7 per cent in 2017 and is now worth more than £283 million. Visits to the district increased by 7.9 per cent in 2017 to 4.5 million trips, with 4.1 million day trips and nearly half a million overnight stays.
There are dozens of visitor attractions in the Maidstone area, with the likes of Maidstone Museum, Kent Life farming heritage museum, Leeds Castle, Cobtree Manor Park, Buttercups Goat Sanctuary and Teston Country Park leading the way.
And its setting, on the banks of the River Medway, makes it the perfect spot for lovers of the water. There's a walking route along Maidstone River Park (a 12km walk from Teston through Maidstone to Allington), as well as a popular rowing club and, for a more relaxing view of the river, visitors can take a trip from beneath the Archbishop's Palace to either Allington Lock or Teston Lock aboard the Kentish Lady riverboat.
For history lovers, parts of The Archbishop's Palace and the adjacent College and Church of All Saints date back to the late part of the 14th century. Some other buildings to look out for include Maidstone Carriage Museum, set in medieval stable buildings, and ancient pubs like Ye Olde Thirsty Pig, dating from 1430. There's even a popular Tapas restaurant, La Taberna, based inside one of Maidstone's oldest buildings - the Corpus Christi Hall. The excellent Maidstone Museum is a must-see too, with its vast collections of local artefacts, fine art and dinosaur finds.
Shopping and eating
It's one of our biggest shopping towns so expect all the major brands in the main retail areas of Fremlin Walk, the High Street, Week Street and The Mall. Don't forget to explore the quirky side streets like Bank Street, Gabriel's Hill, Market Buildings and the Royal Star Shopping Arcade. Some of our favourite shops in Maidstone include The Golden Boot shoe shop, Trash Or Treasure vintage shop, Salamander, Woods Designer Clothing, Little Stars and Ethos fairtrade shop.
There are plenty of chain restaurants to choose from, as well as places like La Villetta, La Taberna, Frederic Café Bistro, Artemis, Vesuvius, Gem of Kent and Shamrat. Ponga Foods, a vegan kitchen at Drake's pub, was a finalist in the newcomer of the year in our 2018 Kent Life Food & Drink Awards.
Cafés include Harper's, Esquire's, The Old Boat (see our postcard from Maidstone), Finch House, Eden, MEET ME and The Living Café. Recent additions include The Herbalist, Market House, Hancock's American Kitchen & Bar, Miller & Carter Steakhouse and Harry's Bar, on the roof of The Brenchley.
Outside the town centre, seek out gems such as Fish on the Green in Bearsted, The Square Fish Café in Lenham, The Curious Eatery in Boughton Monchelsea, The Bow Window Coffee Shop and Café in Lenham and the charming Little Old Tollhouse at Allington Lock.
Postcard from Maidstone
My name is Keira and my husband and I own The Old Boat Café. The café is aboard our 108 year-old horse-drawn narrow boat and features inside seating, a cosy sofa corner and a long bar with views of the river, as well as garden seats adjacent to the tow path. She is moored town side, between Maidstone Bridge and St Peter's Bridge.
We found the boat several years ago and fell in love with her. Originally called FMC Vienna, her name was changed to Verbena for political reasons during the First World War and she is affectionately known as 'Bena' to her friends. We'd originally intended to use her for pleasure but we realised how special she was and that she should be shared. Although now featuring a fixed roof (originally she was cloth covered) we've taken great pains to not make any major alterations.
Great food lovers already, we were part of a group that was working to encourage Maidstone to make the most of its river. It took three years but now we serve locally roasted coffee, vegan, dairy free and gluten-free cakes, amazing local scones, traditional Kentish Huffkin rolls, salads, soups and a Canalman's lunch of local cheeses and pickles.
And we've just found a wonderful little Maidstone tea company that is creating our own Old Boat Blend.
It's been a fabulous experience doing something we really believe in. The area was quite run down and we've worked hard, alongside the council and community action groups, to rejuvenate it.
We run a number of activities and community groups here, including traditional crafts, music and storytelling for children. In the future we're planning on doing afternoon teas, private bookings for history talks and classes.
We've made some great connections; there's a hidden dimension to Maidstone full of creative talent and community ethos. There's a thriving music scene with the Maidstone Fringe Festival each May and a huge range of funky independent pubs hosting all sorts of music and comedy nights. Maidstone is a town on the up, becoming culturally and community oriented and with a beautiful river at its heart.