The Weald stretches across a large area between the North and South Downs and includes parts of both Kent and Sussex. The central part, the High Weald, is epitomized by gentle hills, sunken country lanes and somnolent villages as well as some of England’s most beautiful gardens – Sissinghurst being the best known – and ancient heathland at Ashdown Forest. The Weald also offers a wealth of highly picturesque historical sites, foremost among them Leeds Castle and Hever Castle, as well as stately homes at Penshurst and Knole, a well-preserved Roman villa at Lullingstone and the fascinating home of wartime leader Winston Churchill at Chartwell. The pleasant spa town of Tunbridge Wells, set in the heart of the beautiful High Weald countryside, makes an excellent base.
No longer is English wine regarded with derision. Today there are around four hundred English vineyards producing around two million bottles a year (more than eighty percent of it white), and the best of the harvest more than rivals the more famous names over the Channel. Sparkling wine is the biggest success story, with some English wines beating the best Champagnes in blind tasting competitions.
With almost identical soil and geology to the Champagne region, and a helping hand from global warming, the southeast is home to many of the country’s best vineyards, several of which now offer tours and tastings. In the Kent Weald, these include:
Kent’s oldest commercial vineyard, producing wines from nine varieties of grape, as well as traditional Kentish ciders. Free vineyard tours run once or twice a month, and there are free tastings daily.
Multi-award-winning winemaker, with a wine and English produce store on site, as well as a lovely terrace restaurant overlooking the vines.
Tudor timber-framed houses and shops line the high street of the attractive village of
. The main reason for coming here is to visit
, home to the Sidney family since 1552 and birthplace of the Elizabethan soldier and poet, Sir Philip Sidney. The fourteenth-century Barons Hall, built for Sir John de Pulteney, four times Mayor of London, is the glory of the interior, with its 60ft-high chestnut roof still in place.
The handsome spa town of ROYAL TUNBRIDGE WELLS was established after a bubbling spring discovered here in 1606 was claimed to have curative properties, and reached its height of popularity during the Regency period when such restorative cures were in vogue. It remains an elegant place, and with plenty of excellent places to stay and eat it’s a good base for day-trips into the Weald.
When she and her husband took it over in the 1920s,
was described by Vita Sackville-West as “a garden crying out for rescue”. Spread over the site of a medieval moated manor (which was rebuilt into an Elizabethan mansion of which only one wing remains today), the five-acre gardens were designed around the linear pattern of the former buildings’ walls. The major appeal derives from the way that the flowers are allowed to spill over onto the narrow walkways, defying the classical formality of the great gardens that came before. The brick tower that Vita had restored and used as her study acts as a focal point and offers the best views of the walled gardens. Most impressive are the
, composed solely of white flowers and silvery-grey foliage, and the
, featuring flora in shades of orange, yellow and red.