Kent, such a mainstay for Londoners fleeing the city, weekenders might think it’s impossible to avoid bumping up against touristy cliches. Not so. The garden of England has got plenty to offer by way of rural charm and medieval towns, but those in search of the surprising or downright weird are also spoilt for choice. In coastal destinations like rapidly remodelling Margate and the UK’s only ‘desert’, Dungeness, contemporary food, culture and architecture are taking on tradition. Don’t fret though, Canterbury and the chance to feast on some of Britain’s best seafood are still firmly on the menu.
For those in search of the extraordinary, there are few places more satisfying than Dungeness. Its big skies and vast expanse of shingle beach (the largest in Europe) mean it’s often referred to as Britain’s only desert. Although it gets far too much rain for that, the sense you could be in the arid plains of the southwestern United States is hard to shake.
It is visually stunning and has duly drawn aesthetes like a magnet. Artists Helen Gillian and Paddy Hamilton live on the beach and have small studios you can view and buy from. Derek Jarman, the famous auteur, and Magnum photographer, Peter Marlow, both made their homes here too. Even the MoD has used Dungeness to satiate its creativity. Denge Sound Mirrors, an experimental precursor to radar, can be found just up the road and wouldn’t look out of place in a modern art exhibition.
Some of the buildings scattered along the beach were used by Trinity House, the UK’s lighthouse operator, to test radar and fog horns. They’ve since been refurbished into luxury retreats with huge landscape framing windows by Fiona Naylor, a London based interior architect. One of her buildings, Pump Station, was originally built in secret during World War II to pump diesel to the allied tanks in Normandy post D-Day. It’s now a sleek and intricately detailed Bauhaus style holiday let. Highly recommended if you’re visiting with family and friends.
For lunch, you can find delicious, fresh caught seafood, like lobster or crab rolls and smoked cod chowder at The Snack Shack. It’s right on the beach and owned by a local fishing family who’ve worked the seas around Dungeness for decades. On days the weather gets out of hand, as it often does on a headland jutting into the English Channel, they do shut. In that case, The Pilot Inn at the edge of the beach is a solid favourite for fish and chips.
For dinner, you’ll need to drive out of Dungeness. The Gallivant, just along the coast is a rustic-chic, boutique hotel and restaurant with a sumptuous seasonal menu. For the adventurous, they claim to have the largest selection of English wine in the country. Drive a bit further and you’ll find Rye, a ridiculously pretty medieval town worthy of an afternoon’s visit. The Tuscan Kitchen is very convivial and serves excellent Italian food in a listed Tudor building. They don’t do sittings, so the table is yours the entire evening if you want to sip wine and linger over linguini.
On Kent’s northern coast, Margate celebrates its ‘kiss me quick’ past with Dreamland, a modern refurb of its Victorian pleasure beach. It boasts Britain’s oldest roller coaster and is cultivating a sort of festival atmosphere to woo more punters. Over the Easter weekend a collaboration with Camp Bestival, a family orientated festival from the Isle of Wight, bought musical acts and entertainment to the party.
Dreamland, with the arrival of the Turner Contemporary gallery in 2011, has bought Margate into something of a renaissance. It’s rapidly transforming into a cultural hub with new hotels and restaurants popping up regularly. Many artists are said to be moving here from the capital.
Margate’s most famous London refugee, J.M.W Turner, frequently escaped here at weekends too, hence the eponymous art gallery. He said, “…the skies over Thanet [which encompasses Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs] are the loveliest in all Europe.” Some of his most famous seascapes were indeed painted in the surrounding area. If you want to get a taste of it, the Viking Coastal Trail can be biked or walked between the towns.
Canterbury and Whitstable
If you’ve never visited Kent before you might want to try some of the essentials. A visit to Canterbury Cathedral is mandatory if you haven’t been, although if you want to shake things up you could try hiring a punt to tour the city’s rivers. Whether you’re visiting with children or adults, The Canterbury Tales are a lot of fun too, immersing you in the world of Chaucer and his raucous band of pilgrims.
If that inspires you to a pilgrimage of your own, The Sportsman in Whitstable might not be a bad destination. It’s a mecca for seafood lovers, but you do need to book long in advance to get a sitting. For those who don’t have that kind of foresight Birdies, on the High Street, is an excellent alternative with simple, delicious seafood and fish dishes.
Where to Stay:
The Pump Station, Dungeness – www.mulberrycottages.com/cottages-in-kent/cottages-in-dungeness/
A WWII pump station on Dungeness beach. Recently renovated in a luxury, minimalist style. Sleeps 8.
Rooms ranging from affordable to luxury, sea facing. The huge windows and beachfront setting give stunning views of the sand flats when the tide’s out.
Canterbury Cathedral Lodge – https://www.canterburycathedrallodge.org/
A chance to stay in a UNESCO world heritage site. Located in the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral, rooms start from £90.
Where to Eat and Drink
Tuscan Kitchen, Rye – www.tuscankitchenrye.co.uk/
In the medieval town of Rye, top draw Tuscan food with friendly owners in a listed Tudor building.
The Gallivant, Camber Sands – www.thegallivant.co.uk/eat-gallivant/
Motel style building refurbished into a rustic-chic boutique hotel and restaurant. Local, seasonal menu with a big selection of English wines.
The Ambrette, Margate and Canterbury – www.theambrette.co.uk/
Award-winning Indian cuisine with restaurants in both Margate and Canterbury.
The Sportsman, Whitstable – www.thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk/
Looks inauspicious from the outside, but arguably the best seafood in the Whitstable area. Book in advance.
Red Lion, Snargate
Almost worth a trip to Kent alone. It serves real ale only (no lager) and hasn’t been redecorated since 1890. Bring cash. Credit cards and other post 1950s trappings are lost on this gem.