From the vast expanse of Romney Marsh to the quintessentially British seaside charm of Margate, step into the Garden of England for a fruitful UK staycation
Writer: Phoebe Harper
The British painter J.M.W Turner famously said that it has the best sunsets in the world. It has inspired the great minds of Charles Darwin, Dickens, Chaucer, and modern-day icons such as David Bowie and Kate Bush, to name but a few. These are just some of the myriad fruits stemming from the Garden of England.
Living up to its charming soubriquet, Kent is a county known for its verdant tapestry of farmlands, ancient woodlands, marshlands and fertile pastures that are home to flourishing orchards and vineyards, bearing fruit to world-renowned hops, ales and wines.
Arguably the county’s greatest draw is its dramatic coastline, from the eclectic seaside town of Margate to the bleak shingle shores of Dungeness, inspiration to the celebrated British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Voted by Lonely Planet as Best in Travel 2022, Kent’s scenic Heritage Coast stretches from the shores of Folkestone to the iconic white cliffs of Dover, where wartime history co-exists with rewilding and conservation efforts on rare chalk grasslands grazed by Exmoor ponies.
Kent’s seaside towns are resplendent with remnants of the Victorian age, the era of the Great British promenade, and are now home to a plethora of vintage and curiosity shops. Often considered rundown, there is an undeniable romanticism to the faded splendour of such places, which are now widely enjoying a thriving creative resurgence as seen with the likes of Deal, Folkestone and Margate – home to the Turner Contemporary art gallery.
These coasts give way to a fantastic foodie scene based on the bounty of the sea, as seen with the famous Whitstable Oyster Festival and an endless selection of places for fish and chips.
Away from the coast, Canterbury is the historic jewel in the Kentish crown, and has stood as a revered site of pilgrimage for centuries, since the 12th century murder of the martyr Thomas Becket. Elsewhere, in the sparse wetlands of the Romney Marsh, evocative tales of smuggling from bygone centuries abound, beyond a coastline submerged in a rich maritime heritage.
As steeped in history as it is natural splendour, Kent sits just under an hour from London by train and has easily accessible links to Europe.
THE KENT COAST - WHERE TO VISIT
A quieter alternative to Margate found further south down the coast, Deal is often referred to as an overlooked gem, known for its seaside charm. As quaint as it is quirky, here you will find the formidable coastal defence of Deal Castle, originally built by Henry VIII in his efforts to protect the UK’s coast. Another destination renowned for its creative scene, equally as popular a landmark, is one of the southeast’s best indie record shops – Smugglers Records. With an inviting small beach dotted with wooden fishing boats, and a 1950s concrete pier, it was on this very spot where Julius Caesar first set foot on British soil in 55 BCE.
Long-loved by Londoners thanks to its proximity to the capital, and often hailed as ‘the new Brighton’, Margate is an eclectic combination of vintage British seaside charm and modern appeal. In the streets of the Old Town, you will find a wealth of vintage and curiosity shops, packed cheek by jowl with old pubs and trendy cafés, not to mention the bizarre attraction of the underground Shell Grotto, discovered in 1835. The beachfront offers endless options for fish and chips, the sun-bleached fairground rides of the Dreamland amusement park and Britain’s largest tidal pool at Walpole Bay. The famous playground of Tracey Emin, art lovers in Margate will revel in the Tuner Contemporary gallery and a vibrant creative scene.
Although technically in neighbouring East Sussex, a visit to Kent’s sprawling Romney Marsh would be incomplete without hopping across the border to the picturesque hilltop town of Rye. Known for its scenic cobblestone streets and medieval timbered houses, stop by the legendary Mermaid Inn – the notorious smuggling den of the infamous Hawkhurst Gang– for a drink in an atmospheric location steeped in history. Mermaid Street – where the inn stands – is reputed as one of the most ‘instagrammed’ streets in the UK. Survey the coastline from ancient fortifications, and wander down to the harbour for seafood fresh from the bay.
FOR A REMOTE STAY ON THE MARSH...
Romney Marsh Shepherds Huts
Sprawled across the low-lying coastal plains beyond the English Channel lies the scenic wetlands of Romney Marsh. Known as the ‘fifth continent of the world’, the marsh comprises 100 miles of land defined by verdant pastures and labyrinthine ditches. One of Kent’s Areas of Outstanding Beauty, it is synonymous with centuries-old tales of smuggling, and a rich history of sheep-rearing.
In keeping with this tradition, on visiting the area, we had the fortune of staying with sixth generation family farmers on the marsh, Paul and Kristina Boulden, and their flock of Romney Sheep. We hole up for two nights in ‘The Rumwold’- a gorgeous Shepherd’s Hut so named after the marshland church of St. Rumwold’s nearby, whose tower can be seen poking through the trees. We have the field entirely to ourselves, with the exception of our neighbouring hut, ‘The Lookerer’, and of course a herd of four-legged companions, comprising roughly 100 Romney ewes and their lambs.
Inside the hut, a wood burner, generous double bed and compact kitchen awaits, not to mention the unexpected luxury of a hot shower. By evening, we sit by the firepit outside, warning off the chill of the creeping marshland mist, and sampling the bounty of the Garden of England with a bottle of local white wine from a Kentish vineyard that had been left for us in the fridge.
The epitome of a cosy stay, every convenience has been catered for with generous touches of luxury – from toiletries to sumptuous bedding and towels, firelighters for the woodburner, a portable radio, and even milk in the fridge for morning brews spent surveying the marsh.
We sleep soundly at night in perfect seclusion, encased in the warmth of Romney Wool blankets, and with a hot water bottle to match. These are just some of the goods spun from the wool of the Romney flock, sold in the shop located in one corner of the farmyard (and online) under the brand name of Romney Marsh Wools (RMW). Run by the same family as the huts, RMW was the worthy recipient of the ‘National Best Creative or Artisan Business Award’ at the Rural Business Awards 2020/2021.
With a new country wear line woven from quality local wool, ranging from flat caps, to scarves, moccasins and ponchos, this is locally made, artisanal craft at its finest, as a truly self-sustaining enterprise founded on one of the most sustainable and durable materials you can wear. These sheep in particular – the Romney breed – are known to be one of the hardiest stocks, with the quality of their wool highly resistant to rains and wetland conditions, hence their suitability in thriving on these pastures for centuries. To walk away with a piece from RMW is to handle a tangible piece of history, created from traditional techniques that have been passed from generation to generation.
Aside from a host of woven delights, we savour the toiletries provided inside the hut, all of which have also been handmade by RMW. With nourishing lotions and silky hand washes, these products are founded on lanolin – the natural waxy substance found within a sheep’s wool that is well-known for keeping the hands of any sheep shearer or wool worker perpetually soft.
A true off-grid rural retreat, the marshland is extremely peaceful, save for the calls of marshland birds and a sunrise wake up call to a chorus of hungry ewes. It is a land of wide-open skies and Shepherd’s Delight sunsets of roaring reds and pinks.
On waking, we savour a treasure trove of local produce with our breakfast box and cook fat sausages and perfectly fresh eggs, feasting perched on the bench outside surrounded by our curious companions. It is the perfect start to a day spent exploring the local area – from the squat little church of St. Thomas a Becket, as featured in the BBC adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations, to the famous smuggler’s pub of The Walnut Tree in the nearby village of Aldington.
As curious as the wandering flock, we cannot resist venturing beyond our hut to where construction is underway on ‘The Romney’ - the third hut and newest instalment on the farm. A larger hut, designed to accommodate four (two adults and two children), it is on the decking outside where we spy a newly installed outdoor bath, perfectly positioned with idyllic views stretching across an uninterrupted expanse of marshland.
Sign me up.
Phoebe Harper was a guest of Romney Marsh Shepherds Huts (www.romneymarshshepherdshuts.co.uk). Based near Aldington on the Romney Marsh in Kent, a two-night stay in the Rumwold Hut for two adults sharing is priced from £250. There is a minimum two-night stay per booking. Local produce breakfast boxes are available from £15 extra per booking. A range of optional add-ons with local activity providers and artisans are also available to book. To book a stay, visit www.bloomstays.com/property/rumwold or call Bloom Stays on 01227 903 404.