In her 1922 book Knole and the Sackvilles, the poet, novelist and garden designer Vita Sackville-West described her family home thus: “It is, above all, an English house. It has the tone of England; it melts into the green of the garden turf, into the tawnier green of the park beyond, into the blue of the pale English sky…” To this day the mellow-stone country house at Sevenoaks, Kent appears in perfect harmony with its 1,000-acre medieval deer park.
Born at Knole in 1892, Vita recalled how occasionally a stag would stray into the banqueting hall, “puzzled but still dignified”, and admitted that even she, “after a lifetime of familiarity”, found it “impossible … to follow the ramblings of the house geographically”. With its dizzying array of towers and chimneys, Knole looks, as Vita’s friend and lover Virginia Woolf wrote in her novel Orlando, “more like a town than a house.” The Sackville family acquired Knole in 1603 –members still live here today, although the National Trust now owns it – and transformed an earlier archbishop’s palace into a show house for their treasures. These included the perquisites (or ‘perks’) enjoyed by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, who as Lord Chamberlain to KingWilliam III and QueenMary II disposed of Stuart royal furniture that had fallen out of fashion. Chairs, footstools, state beds and sofas all dulymade their way to Kent. A century later Charles’ great-grandson, John Frederick, 3rd Duke of Dorset, added a wonderful art collection, including a rare set of portraits he commissioned of Knole’s servants that one can see displayed in the Brewhouse Café while enjoying a spot of afternoon tea.
To her dismay, Vita was barred from inheriting Knole because it was entailed to the male line. She nevertheless based Chevron, the grand house in her novel The Edwardians, on Knole and, with her husband Harold Nicolson, she bought the then-derelict Sissinghurst Castle and created the world-renowned gardens there, adding another jewel to Kent’s crown.
The Key to England
Indeed Kent dazzles with such jewels, claiming more castles and historic houses – some 39 of which welcome public visitors – than any other English county. Within a day’s horse ride from London, the Garden of England made a refreshing rural escape and playground for sovereigns and aristocrats through the centuries. Its coast, their frequent departure point for the Continent, has also been a first line of defence against invasion. Magnificent country retreats and bristling maritime fortresses pepper the landscape, each in its different way as quintessentially English as Knole.
Known as the Key to England for its role as guardian of the coast, Dover Castle, crowning the White Cliffs and boasting more than 900 years of heritage, is the most iconic of English maritime fortresses. In the 16th century Henry VIII added the formidable coastal castles of Deal and Walmer, but his connections with Kent are every bit as romantic as military. Mindful, perhaps, of family history, Henry lavished money on Leeds Castle, near Maidstone, helping to make it the embodiment of a fairytale palace. Just a century earlier, it had been owned by Henry V’s widow, Catherine de Valois, who fell in love and secretly married the handsome clerk of her wardrobe, Owen Tudor: the couple’s grandson, Henry VII, became the first king of the mighty Tudor dynasty.
Tour further west towards Edenbridge and you come to Hever Castle and Gardens, famous as the double-moated childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. You can visit her reputed bedroom, while an exhibition of costumed figures, outstanding Tudor portraits and intriguing artefacts plot the course of her ill-fated royal romance, life and times, including her two books of hours (prayer books), one of which she allegedly clutched as she went to the scaffold on trumped-up charges of adultery and treason in 1536.
Much of Hever Castle’s splendour today is owed to William Waldorf Astor who, upon declaring America “no longer a fit place for a gentleman to live”, came to Kent, and restored and extended the castle from 1903. A multimedia guide, complete with interactive ‘rub away’ images, allows you to see how the castle looked pre-restoration.
Near neighbour Penshurst Place was also once owned by Henry VIII, who used it as a hunting lodge, but since 1552 the fortified manor house has been in the noble Sidney family. It bears the marks of at least eight periods of architecture, medieval to Victorian – as current incumbent Philip Sidney, 2nd Viscount De L’Isle explains: “Penshurst has never been knocked down and rebuilt because no one ever had a huge fortune.
Everyone simply added to what was here.” So, too, Penshurst’s gardens, with records dating to 1346, are the epitome of continuous evolution. Ben Jonson lauded its orchard fruit and flowers, “fresh as the air, and new as are the hours”, in his 1616 poem, To Penshurst; the 16th-century classical Italian Garden still enthrals; charming yew-hedged ‘rooms’ entice; and recent innovations like the Blue and Yellow Border, featuring specially bred ‘Penshurst Blue’ and ‘Penshurst Yellow’ irises, keep adding surprises.
The gardens at the home of Charles Darwin, Down House at Downe, may be modest by comparison but they provide fascinating insights into the mind of the great Victorian scientist. Here in his open-air laboratory, Darwin used plant and insect life to carry out experiments, 12 of which are now recreated for visitors. You can just picture him in his beloved greenhouses poring over orchids, feeding insectivorous plants with specks of meat to observe their tentacles curl, or pacing the Sandwalk – his ‘thinking path’ – while reflecting on his findings.
Darwin escaped from London to the peace of Down House in 1842 and lived here for 40 years until his death.
It was in his “capital study” that he collated the evidence and wrote his groundbreaking works on evolution (scandalous to many God-fearing Victorians) including 1859’s On the Origin of Species. While an exhibition and multimedia guide give context, you are brought closer to Darwin the man, his wife Emma and their boisterous children via the comfy clutter of family life on display here: not least the piano Emma played so that Charles could test the responses of earthworms to various sounds.
Our final highlight takes us to Second World War leader and two-times prime minister Sir Winston Churchill’s beloved family retreat away from the stresses of political life. Now in the care of the National Trust, Chartwell at Westerham reflects the complex character of the man behind the British bulldog persona: his passion for painting revealed by more than 125 canvases in his studio at the bottom of the apple orchard; his love of nature and landscape palpable in the hillside gardens with inspiring views over the Weald of Kent.
“A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted,” Sir Winston once declared, and rooms, displayed as in the 1930s when he, Clementine and their four children were in residence, are packed with memorabilia bearing witness to his wide-ranging activities. There is a £7.1 million appeal to keep Churchill’s possessions – including his Nobel Prize in Literature, his speech box, medallions, hairbrushes and hundreds of books – in this domestic setting where they rightly belong. For at Chartwell, as in Kent’s other country houses and castles, you are put in touch not simply with history but with the fascinating lives of the people who made it.