Great Escapes: the best places to live in Kent
Inigo rambles through the Garden of England, feasting not only on its cherries, apples and pears but its myriad architectural delights to boot
- Charlotte Rickards
Come to Kent and you’ll be greeted by its famous goodies: pickable fruit orchards, gingerbread-house-type homes, landscaped lawns and Georgian spa towns with pretty pastel promenades. There are second-hand bookshops and antique markets, cobbled streets and well-clipped knot and topiary gardens. Reach its edges, however, and you’ll encounter a poetic wildness. Coastlines are barnacled by oyster beds and chalked up with white cliffs. Isles slip into landmasses. Visited by Normans, Vikings, smugglers and ‘Down from Londons’ alike this is a place that calls clearly to those in search of something. Here, we have a walkaround the places that have historically made Kent so darn captivating.
Let’s begin with Whitstable, further west from Margate, on Kent’s northern coast. Not only is known for being something of an epicurean’s destination (if you haven’t yet got a table at the Sportsman, in nearby Seasalter, why not?), it’s also just quintessentially coastal, with its pretty beach huts, good cafés and wealth of quaint cottages. This house, on Marine Parade, was built not for the town’s fishermen, as so many were, but as part of the its touristic development in the 19th century. As a consequence, it’s rather grander in scale – with a glazed porch, box window and high ceilings – but still boasts the extraordinary sea views that make Whitstable what it is.
Next up is Deal. This seaside town was first mentioned in the Domesday Book and now gets referred to in conversations that also have the phrases “artistic haven” and “creative crowd” in them. And with good reason: it’s got art galleries (Linden Hall Studio among them), wine bars (we doff our chapeau to Le Pinardier), and the annual Deal Braderie street market (think trinkets, antiques and more).
But really, it’s the piers, pastel houses and pebbled beach that are the big hitters in Deal’s charm offensive. Promenading isn’t all that necessary – especially with our Georgian gem of a listing, Beach Street, where you can hear the waves through open windows. Meanwhile, if something a little more set back appeals, Shirley House – just 65m from the shore – has beach views from its upper windows (and enough decorative distraction to keep you happy on rainier days). Further inland, Rectory Road – a 16th-century house with Georgian and Victorian additions – shows off some of the local area’s architectural provenance; just look at those beams and beautiful sash windows.
Chatham and Royal Tunbridge Wells
Chatham presents a different story. Also on the coast, it’s been an important stopping point for millennia (first for the Anglo Saxons, then the Romans; the old Celtic route now forms part of the A2). In Victorian times, a young Charles Dickens lived here, as well as in Rochester. He had such fond memories that he returned to Kent later in life, living in Gad’s Hill. Why he didn’t plump for Officers Terrace, a handsome Grade I-listed Georgian townhouse in the historic dockyard, we’ll never know. Large (with a footprint of 6,682sq ft) and steeped in history (it was built as one of 12 homes for the dockyard’s principal officers), it makes a remarkable impression – and its parterre gardens, barely changed since first being laid out, even have their own Grade II* listing.
Another Kentish corner remarkable for its Georgian buildings is Royal Tunbridge Wells. With its colonnaded promenade, parades of pantiles and healing waters, the town was also a hit with the Victorians – not least their queen (later, Edward VII would give the town its regal designation in honour of his mother). And all these years on, there’s still something rather splendid about the place – not least when you see the wealth of beautiful buildings still standing. Why not get amid the thick of it with this former Victorian wine cellar on Market Street?
Canterbury and its environs
No one’s ever regretted a pilgrimage to Canterbury (except maybe Thomas à Becket…). And neither should you. With its cobbled streets, antique-book shops and medieval architecture (the Normal cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site), Canterbury is catnip to those historically inclined. Besides, getting there is hardly a pilgrimage these days: the train from London takes less than an hour – an absolute boon if you were to live at Straight Hill, a 16th-century house in Wingmore, eight miles from the city. If you’re looking for something in town, however, consider our Castle Street listing, which has been exquisitely overhauled by Sarah Pinn, who’s paid close attention to its historic surfaces.
If proximity to Canterbury appeals, but city-living isn’t so enchanting, consider another of the nearby villages, such as Boughton-under-Blean. Found on the way to Faversham, it lies on the route from London to Canterbury and, many moons ago, was the first place from which you would have seen the cathedral’s towers. It’s also where The Bakery, still with its 19th-century shopfront, can be found, should it take your fancy.
Thanet, Sandwich and Dungeness
Ramsgate, over in the Thanet area, is a town on the move – and a town in which to move: it’s known for its brilliant coastal walks. At low tide, for instance, you can reach Margate, passing rook pools, cliffs and cafés on the way. Ramsgate, where vinyl-record stores and cute eateries rub shoulders with fish-n-chip spots and old-school arcades, also draws people in with its views.
Built atop one of the town’s white cliffs and with enviable sightlines of that stretch of blue is this four-bedroom apartment in Victoria Mansions. Situated on the lower-ground floor, it benefits from plenty of borrowed watery light, its rooms decorated with an eye on texture at all times (note the timber cladding in the bathroom). Just 15 minutes on foot from the main beach, it offers all the peacefulness of a coastal setting with a healthy dose of that inimitable seaside-town buzz.
If the thrills and spills of Ramsgate feel like too much, why not head inland? Perfect for those seeking calm with access to the coast at short notice, Millwall Place in Sandwich is just the ticket and is about 20 minutes away from Ramsgate by car (it’s also just one stop on the train from Deal). It’s the first listing we’ve had here, one of the best preserved medieval towns in the country, and stands as a prime example of 16th-century architecture in the area, with its pantile roof, timber beams and inglenook fireplaces. But don’t think this place is stuck in the past – its current owner, a heritage architect specialising in listed buildings, has sensitively intervened to make this period home perfect for life today, restoring its ancient brickwork and unobtrusively installing all the mod cons you might need.
Further down the coast towards East Sussex, you’ll find Lydd-on-Sea, right next door to Dungeness. This house, set within the nature reserve here, has all the beauty of its more famous neighbour – lunar landscapes, dramatic Channel views, extraordinary birdlife – but less of the tourism. It’s also got some of the finest seasidey interiors we’ve seen for a while, all white-painted timber cladding, floaty linen curtains and sea-blue enamel accessories. Bliss.
Maidstone and its environs
Snaking inland to the heart of Kent, we reach Maidstone and its surrounding area: a clutch of quaint historic villages set amid a landscape thick with trees and flowers, all within winking distance of London (again, you can get there in under an hour). One such settlement is Yalding, a Saxon village beloved of E. Nesbit, author of The Railway Children, who described it as: “a little village that owns a haunted churchyard, a fine church, and one of the most beautiful bridges in Europe.” It’s also home to this house on Lees Road. Not from the Beult, one of two rivers bracketing Yalding, it’s a fine prospect, with charismatic bowed sashed windows on its façade, seven bedrooms and a landscaped garden with rolling croquet. What’s not to like?
Completing our rural ramble is Chislehurst. Our listing here typifies the draw of Kentish living in our mind: ensconced in the garden of England, yet just 40 minutes’ drive from London. The Georgian house is found on the National Trust’s Hawkwood Estate and has sweeping views of the parkland, as well as its own extensive landscaped gardens. And isn’t it exactly this balance of being able to blow away the corporate cobwebs, while having the option to come back to the city that makes this corner of the country hard to compete with? We think so.