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Trip Report Trip Report: SE England - Stately Homes & Gardens in Kent

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During my planning phase, many Fodorites were very helpful and encouraging, as always! So, I’ve provided this trip report to let everyone know how it turned out and hopefully help someone thinking about a similar trip (Sissinghurst, Standen, Knole, Chartwell, Ightham Mote, Bateman’s & Great Dixter). Be forewarned – it will probably be lengthy!

BACKGROUND: I’m a solo traveler and have been to England many times but wasn’t able to visit various stately homes and gardens via public transportation from London so decided (after much pondering) to rent a car and drive around for a week. After that week, I boarded a cruise ship in Dover for a 7 day cruise to Oslo and the fjords. This trip report will only describe the England portion.

Flights-flew Aer Lingus from JFK, connecting through Dublin since price was $400 less than direct flights. Problem free.

Car – I rented an automatic 4 door for 6 days for $276, including airport pickup (Gatwick) and different return location (Dover) and unlimited miles, declined insurance since my credit card provides coverage. This rate was much better than other prices I found on the major car sites (Hertz, Avis, etc.) The car was rented from EuropeCar via the autoeurope website. I stumbled across Autoeurope by typing “rental cars at Gatwick” into my search engine and they appeared over on the right-hand side (where I usually ignore those ads). Their rate was over $100 less than their competitors for the same car (compact 4 door automatic w/AC – Vauxhall Astra). Once I reserved the car from autoeurope, the confirmation said that the car was from EuropeCar. The rental car location at Gatwick was easy to find (4 minute walk from baggage claim) and they gave me a nearly new Skoda.

GPS – Since the rental didn’t come equipped with a GPS, I rented one from autoeurope. Cost was $5 per day that I would have it (so that included the week on the cruise), plus $40 shipping since comes with a pre-paid FedEx label to return the unit to autoeurope in Maine. I received the GPS two days before I left, in a nifty little bag with a car re-charging cord and a windshield suction cup. Programmed in my Kent locations and had to call autoeurope twice for guidance since I’ve never used a GPS. This was a life saver – even though I brought a paper map, there’s no way I could have gotten around without the GPS. (I still used the paper map a lot though, to see what was near what, optional routes, and just for the visual perspective.)

Lodging – I stayed at the Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse for five nights and absolutely loved it. Their website is very accurate w/room photos, etc. I stayed in Buckhurst but peeked in the other five rooms while they were being cleaned and all were nicely decorated with unique items and huge windows with nice views. I was happy with my single rate of £100 night. The farmhouse itself really appealed to me – much more elegant than I expected. Mellow brick Victorian house w/gables and chimneys; attractive sitting room for guests w/plush upholstered sofas and chairs, bookshelves, fresh flowers, end tables – a living room where I would have flopped on the sofa if it was my house! Large entryway with big wood staircase and powder room. The breakfast room had huge windows on two walls looking onto the Farmhouse’s gardens; the tables are all wood set w/linens, blue & white Spode china; and flowers. One side table held cereals & fruit, another juices and the friendly waitress took orders for full English breakfasts. I’m so used to eating in front of the TV or standing up that to sit at a nice mahogany table with real china and look out at wisteria and fields was a huge treat. The Farmhouse is located 200 yards from the actual Sissinghurst Castle gardens, but the Farmhouse lawn and garden was very inviting. Flower beds surrounded the house, a smooth green lawn gave way to a bed a shrubs & flowers, while beyond that was a hedge with a sheep field on the other side and beyond that, the forest. The side of the yard was a gentle mass of tall flowering shrubs, pines and oaks. In addition to a couple of tables/chairs next to the house, the lower lawn had a very comfortable sofa and table. So peaceful. Birds twittering, wind soughing through the trees, bees buzzing.
In Dover, I stayed one night at the Maison Dieu guesthouse for £37 (en suite). Complete contrast to Sissinghurst but fine for my purposes. Teeny tiny room where the single bed took up nearly the entire wall but window view over the town; spotlessly clean; flat-screen wall mounted TV and a mini-bathroom, complete w/shower. It was up two flights of steep, narrow stairs so I appreciated the owner, Diane’s, suggestion to leave my suitcase in the car and bring a small overnight bag to my room. She was extremely helpful with directions to walk to Dover Castle, into town, directions to the car rental location and restaurant suggestions. Breakfast was provided in the lower level room with windows looking onto the street – full English, personally cooked by Diane or her husband.

SUNDAY, JUNE 2, sunny and about 70 degrees
Arrived at Gatwick around noon, picked up rental car and set off to Sissinghurst. Talk about a white knuckle drive – wow! I was frustrated because the GPS was taking me to the major road, M25, and I wanted to take what appeared to be a more direct route on the A264, so, in my mind, never having used a GPS before, it was worthless. Leaving any airport is confusing so I got turned around a few times, pulled over to review the map and focus myself. Once I got onto the A264, the GPS adjusted to that route so I started trusting it. Driving…the roads are all much narrower than I’m used to in the US, especially country lanes and that was probably the biggest challenge. My tendency was to drive too close to the left line, so every now and then my wheels would go over some rough gravel and I’d move back to the right. I learned to keep one eye on my driver side mirror to watch my distance from the center line and that worked pretty well. However, driving through villages where people park on the road was difficult because I didn’t trust myself to veer out into the lane with traffic coming from the other direction (I think the English would have no second thoughts about the size of their car relative to the oncoming cars and the road space but I was nervous). So, I tended to pull over, give the headlight flick and wait until all the oncoming traffic had passed, and then zip along…until the next one. Roundabouts – I didn’t have any problems with them; gave folks already in the roundabouts the right of way and tried to be in the correct lane for the exit although it didn’t seem like anyone else was following that theory! In the entire week, I only had to go around a roundabout twice due to a missed exit.

When I reached less-travelled portions of the drive, I relaxed more but still kept a death grip on the wheel. My first glimpse of the beautiful Kent countryside – hills & vales; fields of bright yellow rapeseed; sheep; quaint villages; farms; and blue skies w/fluffy white clouds. I liked swooping down into a bosky wooded area and then back up into the sun and hills. Arrived at Sissinghurst at about 4:00 but the owner, Sue, wasn’t there so I walked over to the Castle. Since Siss and nearly all the places I wanted to visit were National Trust properties, I bought a one-week touring pass before I left. (It’s available on the National Trust website – under Visit, OverSeas Visitors/Touring Pass for £24). I had to exchange the email voucher I received for the actual pass which can only be done at certain NT locations (there’s a list on the website). Siss was very busy, so I got my touring pass and decided to have a snack at the tea room and rest for a bit. Bought scone and clotted cream plus shortbread and a soda and sat outside in the sun. Clotted cream was pre-packaged in a foil container and not as good as I remembered but the shortbread was tasty and the soda hit the spot. People watched, read the Siss brochure decided to put off my visit to the gardens until the next day (I was tired, still frazzled from the drive, jet lagged with a possibility of crankiness so I’ve learned the best option on Day Ones is to take it very easy.) Walked back to the Farmhouse (through the wrought iron gate and along the brick garden path) and was welcomed by Sue. Quick tour of the house and she offered tea & cake in the sitting room. Joined by another couple and an Australian lady but I was tired and hungry for dinner so didn’t stay long.

Thought I could drive to the nearby towns and get something to eat, so with recommendations from Sue drove to Cranbury to the George Hotel. Found it but it didn’t appeal – nothing specific, I think I was just cranky and what I really wanted in my mind was a fast food type of spot where I could walk in, get something quick and leave. Since the town was pretty and it was still early, I wandered around the streets and the churchyard. Saw some other pubs and a tandoori spot but they didn’t appeal either. Back in the car and headed back to Siss (loving the GPS now). In the tiny village of Sissinghurst, I spotted a Take Away Tandoori spot that was open so zipped in. While I was waiting, I walked along the main street w/several closed shops and pubs but “ye olde” buildings that I liked (it was only my first day so I wasn’t blasé about quaint, old, etc yet.) Got tandoori (which was doing a bustling business) and back to the Farmhouse; ate; watched TV and slept.

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    vicki - glad to see you here telling us how the trip went! i love the description of your driving on the first day - it reminded me of OUR first drive out of Toronto airport when we were confronted with an 18 lane highway in rush hour! it's what you're used to, i suppose.

    great start to the TR - looking forward to more....

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    MONDAY, JUNE 3, sunny and about 70 degrees
    Wake up to blue skies, sun and breezes! Realize how great it is to look out my window at the sun dancing on the leaves over the mossy, clay tile roof of the stable.

    Breakfast and I’m in a good mood already. I have a nice sunny table overlooking the side garden with wisteria draping the window and have fresh fruit, porridge and brown toast with homemade rhubarb ginger jam. I think I surprised the waitress when I asked for a glass of water instead of coffee, tea, juice – one of those cultural differences!

    Before my trip, I spent a lot of time researching all the interesting places to visit and figuring out which ones to go to considering closed days, hours & location. I ended up planning on visiting two spots per day, with lunch at the café in one of them. So, that was the plan for Monday…but after breakfast I sat outside in the Farmhouse garden and changed my mind. It was so peaceful and I was so aware that the only noise was from nature (wind, birds, sheep) and the sun was warm that I could literally feel myself relaxing. I sat there for about an hour, then strolled around their garden, looked over the back hedge and the sheep and decided to revise my game plan. Instead of zipping off as soon as I finished breakfast, I’d relax in the Farmhouse garden until 11:00 when Sissinghurst Castle opened, then I’d go there each day for an hour or so and then I’d head off to the day’s destination. I was surprised at how de-stressed that made me feel (I’m my own worst enemy sometimes…but at least I figured it out and adapted!)

    Wandered over to Siss Castle – a little overwhelming at first since there’s so much to see and take in. (BTW, I’m not a gardener, have no particular interest in gardening myself but I’ve heard about Sissinghurst for years and gardens are such a part of England that I decided to include them on this trip. Plus, I thought they’d be relaxing.) Go up the tower with quick peek into Vita’s library and then to the viewing platform. Nice to have the birds-eye view in all directions and helped orient myself; liked Vita’s family flag blowing in the breeze.

    Turns out that due to England’s long stretch of rainy & cold weather, the growing/blooming season is at least 2 weeks behind, so no roses. But, there were plenty of blooming things to see. Here are my quick thoughts: White garden – clouds of scented phlox. Yew walk – very narrow and tall. Cottage garden – a frenzy of oranges, reds, yellows. Lime walk – OK. Orchard – gone wild with paths scythed through the tall grass and around apple trees. I liked it so decided to come back each day and spend a fair time in different rooms of the garden instead of hurrying through all of them. Very pleased w/myself about this decision. Stop in the gift shop and buy the guidebook so I can read up on the gardens tonight.

    My objective today was Standen; not sure how many miles it was, but it took me about 90 minutes from Siss. The GPS worked like a charm; nice drive – through vales, hills & villages. The final approach to Standen was down a little narrow line with gardens on one side and a hedge on the other. Wended my way down to the car park and walked past the kitchen garden up to the ticket booth – showed my touring pass and all was fine. Very helpful lady explained that the tea room would stop serving hot lunches in 30 minutes, so I decided to have lunch first and then tour the house. I have to say that I love these NT tea rooms since the prices are fair, the food is freshly made (including the packaged sandwiches) and there’s a decent variety. So, got a cheese & cucumber sandwich on brown bread, flapjack and diet coke (a flapjack is the British term for an oatmeal/brown sugar bar cookie) and sat in the sun happily with my cheap and tasty meal.

    Loved this house! There were lots of rooms to see and it wasn’t a “stately” home but a family’s house so was normal size & scale. Featured William Morris fabrics and wallpapers in most rooms and was interested that they were lighter and cheerier colors and prints than I normally see reproduced. I like looking at each room carefully to see all the details – what books are on the shelves, the little doodads, lamps, etc and there was lots to see in this house, aside from the actual architecture. Each room had laminated cards describing the room and it’s key items, plus an NT steward who could answer any question and usually volunteered information so I had lots of info to supplement the guide book. (Each NT property sells a small guidebook, usually £4-5, that provides good descriptions & photos of the history, rooms and gardens.)

    Walked through the kitchen garden – liked the three scarecrows - but didn’t dwell since I was getting tired and knew I had a long drive home. I had gotten some recommendations for restaurants & pubs near Siss from Sue, and had passed one of them The Bull at Benendon on my way to STanden so thought I would stop there for dinner. What a disaster – I couldn’t program it into the GPS and guess I didn’t really know where I had passed it. I felt like I drive for miles (and probably did) – up, down, around, on tiny little lanes “Frog Hollow Lane” that were literally one compact car width – luckily, the 3 other cars I met gave the headlight flash to go ahead. As shrubs and twigs were brushing against the passenger side of the car I wondered what the rental car would look like and why the English cars aren’t wrecks. Finally the lane ended and I was on a bigger street, so plugged Tenterden into the GPS since it’s a bigger town and I thought there’d be someplace to eat (plus, I was looking for a supermarket to stock up on various British goodies.)

    Tenterden was a pretty town and the Waitrose supermarket was just behind the main street. When I parked, I noticed a man a few cars away who kept looking at me and my car; as he was walking into the market, he was still turning around to look so I asked if I had done something wrong (maybe I parked illegally?) He explained that he was German and hadn’t seen the new model Skoda that I was driving…aah, that explained it. Bought some chocolates, McVities digestives (plain & choc covered); looked at the shops and was surprised that at 5:45, they were all closed; the church was open, so checked it out and then back on the road to Siss.

    Decided to eat at the Three Chimneys, just down the road from Siss. It was very nice – fancier than a pub, sort of a fine dining restaurant. I like cider so had a ½ pint of Bibbendon cider which the waitress warned me was “8%” – it was strong but lovely. Not terribly hungry so had cheese rarebit on a salad with sun-dried tomatoes and ham. I think of rarebit as cheese sauce over toast but this was more like melted cheese on toast – tasty, but unexpected. Then, I had an apple & plum crumble for dessert – the portion was huge and it was piping hot, really good but I was full, full, full! About £20 in total. Back to Farmhouse and bed. Very satisfied and happy with this day.

    TUESDAY, JUNE 4, sunny and about 70 degrees
    Breakfast was fruit, poached egg, bacon & brown toast. Sat in Farmhouse gardens for an hour; heard lots of sheep noises (deep baas from the old sheep and little baas from the lambs) so I watched them for a while. Aside from the birds and breeze, it was so quiet I could actually hear their teeth pulling out the grass. Since they’re so close, it only made sense to visit Knole & Chartwell on the same day, so off I go. I meant to go to Chartwell first since I read that the house gets busy but my GPS brought me to Knole; I kept driving and tried to get to Chartwell, but back it brought me to Knole so I gave in and went to Knole first. Along the entry drive, I came upon a herd of deer and remembered hearing about them…and would learn more about them shortly.

    Arrived at 11:45 and Knole opens at noon, so quick wander through the gift shop. Visit estate office exhibition – interesting to read about how the estate was managed until recently. The house itself ….just didn’t grab me. Lots of paintings of people I never heard of and lots of chairs. Due to the 15th century timeframe, heavy Jacobean furniture and beds; Vita Sackville-West said the rows of chairs in the galleries were “always waiting with arms open but were unused.” Finished in 45 minutes; glad it was included in my touring pass because I would have been annoyed to pay the admission price. Dark, felt like a museum, cold inside; glad I went since I’ve heard about Knole forever but not a highlight for me. OTOH, I’ve been wanting to visit Chartwell for years so was excited to get there.

    Should have taken about 25 minutes but an hour later, very frustrated after driving on tiny lanes, I asked someone walking along a slightly wider lane and finally arrived at 2:00. Starving and have headache, so head right to the café for lunch – tuna & cucumber sandwich on brown bread; soda; & lemon-glazed cake. Aaahhh. Feel much better now. Larger café, patio and shop than any of the other NTs I visited.

    Nice walk through the grounds on the way to the studio (starting there since it closes first). Enjoy the little informative chalk board signs located along the path, explaining about the swimming pool or waterfall, etc. Studio is small but chock full of his paintings; I know he wasn’t a master artist but I like his work. Really liked this house – small scale, family sized; very comfortable (still elegant, not slobby) but welcoming – in every room, I could envision myself lying on the sofa or in an armchair reading. Lots of windows and French doors so rooms are light. His visitor’s book was fascinating – a “who’s who” of famous people including Montgomery of Alamein and Violet Bonham-Carter (grandmother of Helena). Like Standen, lots of small doodads and details to study in each room.

    Walked through the gardens, lawns and grassy areas. Since the house is on a hill, there are long vistas of rolling lawns, fields and forests – can see why they found it so relaxing to be there. Checked out their kitchen garden and Mary’s cottage – the little playhouse that he built for his daughter. Saw the black swans and baby swans near the lake, plus a sign warning that the male swan is grumpy!

    Much easier route home than getting here (I ignored the crazy GPS directions – something about Chartwell’s actual location must throw it off). For dinner, found the Bull at Beneden pub very easily and since dinner wasn’t served until 6:30, had a cider outside in the sun. Pub was busy but they seated me at a large table in the window which was perfect so I could watch the world go by. Had a suet crust pie – chicken and bacon which was sooo good; crisp crust, tender chicken and yummy gravy. No dessert.

    Back to Siss and since it was still light, decided to walk around outside the gardens along the public footpaths. Glorious, glorious – golden late afternoon sun shining through the trees, yellow green trees and grass and boughs swaying in the breeze. Walked down the side of the moat, along the back edge and looked at the Siss Castle tower and orchard from the back, with the sun glinting. Feeling inspired and thought I could loop around to the back garden of the Farmhouse so kept walking through a gate and into a sheep field (public access per the signs), across that field and through another gate, saw the Farmhouse and walked to the end of the field where I thought I could cut through the hedge, but realized there was barbed wire under the foliage – should have figured that one out since sheep could easily push through a hedge! So, back through the fields and gates to the Farmhouse.

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    oh, vicki, thank you for taking me with you around the area where I used to live. our house was only 2 miles from Chartwell as the crow flies [in the same parish] and even we used to find it difficult to find!

    as for this:<<I think of rarebit as cheese sauce over toast but this was more like melted cheese on toast – tasty, but unexpected.>> if i were given cheese sauce on toast as welsh rarebit, I'd feel short changed! melted cheese or nothing!

    glad you had such a good time.

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    WEDNESDAY, JUNE 5, sunny and about 72°
    Breakfast was fruit, porridge, bacon & brown toast & ice water. Sat in Farmhouse gardens for an hour (very unusual for me to just sit without reading or doing a crossword but there was something about this place that made it very easy for me to just drift). At 11:00, walked over to the Castle to check out a pseudo-Antiques Roadshow benefiting the NT. Tents, experts and about 12 people in line with their treasures. Into the gardens and my thoughts: Lime Walk – still not impressive but understand (after reading the Siss guidebook) that it’s a spring garden, so that explains it; Azalea/Moat Walk – amazing!! All yellowy orange scented azaleas up one side, with a wisteria covered brick wall on the other side and wide grass path between…leading up to a large Lutyens bench on a raised brick semi-circular area. Sat there and absorbed the view, the people, etc.; Herb garden – big, lots of stuff and liked the stone bench with the chamomile seat; Nuttery – another treat! Woody, ferny, bosky dell, leading into area of grass and clusters of hazelnut trees; Orchard – disappointed that the paths through the orchard are roped off to “let the grass rest from the prior weekend” so walked around the perimeter; Sunken Garden – had read about this as the Lion Pond, so found the sculptured lion’s head on the wall. Before leaving, stopped into the exhibit commemorating Harold & Vita’s marriage 100 years ago – unique lives they led so the letters and photos in exhibit were interesting.

    Off to Ightham Mote today. Realize that I’m much more comfortable driving now, so took 2 days but I’m not holding the wheel in a death grip anymore and sometimes even listen to the radio or drink a soda! I also like swooping down into leafy shadows and then up into the sunlight and zinging around the curves. Stopped in the village of Sissinghurst to get a soda and the shop (Spar) was closed. A man watering his flowers outside a converted brick church across the street said hello and launched into “It’s awful here – the shop is closed, the pub is closed, another shop is closed – the whole village is closed. I’m putting this place on the market. It’s my second home – I inherited it – but there’s too much traffic on this road and the town is dead.” So there. I tried to peer in the open door of his house but couldn’t see much; he was right though – the road is very busy with cars zipping through and the commercial activities seem to be dying off. It would be frustrating to not have a place to buy some milk or quick supplies. He was so peeved though – I was smiling inside at his outrage.

    I wasn’t in a hurry, so I stopped in Goudhurst since each time I’ve driven through (twice a day, every day), I’ve been struck by the church and an innnext door. Parked down the hill at the parish hall and walked up to the church. Stopped into Weeks Bakery & Tea Room and bought some treats (they were doing a nice business); asked at the Star and Eagle Inn when dinner is served (6:30); and wandered through the churchyard. There were workmen doing something on the tower, so it was open and I climbed up for long views over the fields and forest. When I was leaving, I noticed a workmen on a ladder outside the church, cleaning the stained glass windows with a dry paint brush to flick away the dust & grime – looked like a good idea. It was 2:00 now, so time to make haste for Ightham Mote.

    GPS did fine except that I missed an exit on the A21 and the GPS told me to go 4 miles and then bushwhack my way through lanes (I should have known to just turn around myself and then the GPS would recalculate but live and learn), so instead of 30 minutes it took me 50 minutes. Got there at 3:00 and since the 15 min intro talk was at 3:30, I zipped into the café for a very late lunch (tuna & sweet corn on brown bread & soda) and wolfed it down. After the intro talk, spent about an hour in the house which wasn’t huge but an interesting combination of styles: Tudor, Jacobean paneling, Victorian and 1930’s furnishings. The billiards room across the courtyard was the most interesting to me – displayed just below the ceiling (on a plate shelf) were dozens of china meat strainers with large holes in them (designed to be placed in the bottom of a serving dish for the meat or vegs to sit on and the grease or liquid would drain to the bottom). Very colorful, great patterns and have never seen these before. Cool moat – never actually seen one with water in it. Setting was nice, down a woody hill, like a little gem shining in the sun surrounded by the moat and gardens. Liked it but as a home for me, Chartwell would be better.

    On way home, stopped in Goudshurst for dinner at the Star & Eagle. Too early for dinner, so had a ½ pint of Strongbow and sat on their front porch in the sun, overlooking the twisty, S-curve of the road and the church. Dinner was so good: roast pork belly (with crispy skin), mash of Swedes, sweet potato and something else and roast apple slices. Very good. I liked this place and it started to fill up at around 7:00. Back to the Farmhouse. Another day that pleased me very much.

    THURSDAY, JUNE 6, sunny and about 70°
    Breakfast: cereal (wheatabix – don’t have these in US), toast & an orange. Sat outside for an hour or so. Walked to Siss Castle and noticed a sign for “Behind the Scenes at the Vegetable Garden” tour at 11:00 – well, what the heck, why not? Took an hour and learned about their no-dig approach (lots of composting, manure, rotations, etc all for organic vegs) and visited the poly-tunnels, greenhouse and potting shed. Nipped into the gift shop to buy a Siss tea towel and book bag, then off to Bateman’s (Rudyard Kipling’s house).

    GPS worked fine; took about 40 minutes. First stop was lunch at the NT tearoom – cheese ploughman’s plate & soda (£11); sat outside under the pergola, facing the grass courtyard, lawn, hills and trees beyond, buttercups in the field, gentle breeze and strong sun – very peaceful – no road noise or anything. I’m loving these meals – relaxing, real food, inexpensive and a chance to eat outside and soak in the atmosphere.

    The house was interesting but darkish and gloomy – dark beams and dark furniture. Very chatty room stewards who I’m sorry to say, drove me nuts. I like to go into a room, look around, read the descriptive cards and then ask any questions I may have but they launched into a spiel as soon as I walked in…they were enthusiastic and wanted to be sure I got the full benefit but it’s not my preference. Grounds looked nice but I didn’t have time to explore since Great Dixter was my next mission.

    GPS was fine – about 30 minutes away. Filled up the tank (£47). The more I read about GD and rave reviews from a couple at the Farmhouse convinced me that this was a “don’t miss” and it wasn’t! The house itself was fascinating – a combination of old buildings with new wing so the front is a little crooked – adds to the charm. It’s a real shame that only 4 rooms are open to the public but those were fascinating; very light and airy; the rooms were comfortable; gardening students live at the house and use the public rooms so they are lived in. The gardens – WOW – I’ve never seen anything like them. First sense of something different was that the lawn from the drive to the front door was long meadow grass & wildflowers instead of a mowed lawn. The garden “rooms”, which were set off by really tall yew and holly hedges, were jam packed with flowers (flowers, shrubs, vines, - all shapes & heights); narrow little pathways, nothing manicured except the hedges, plants overflowing onto paths; topiary garden in the back: squirrels, birds and shapes; hovel; exotic garden (not so exotic these days – banana plant and others); meadows; border beds. Gardens galore and each one different. Explored the oast houses since I’ve been curious how they worked and what they look like from the inside.

    Stayed until closing then drove home and had dinner at the Bull at Benendon since I was going past it anyway. As usual, I was too early so had a cider outside; seated in the back room and the very friendly waitresses remembered me and really seemed pleased to see me (I was the only American there either time – and the only American at any of the places I went for dinner….and lunch, come to think of it.) Since it was so good before, had the suet crust pie (chicken and bacon).

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    Thanks for the report! We are hoping to go some time and see the gardens...but not drive. Been there, done that, a repeat is not in the cards, says my husband. Did you perhaps look into a guide? Someone who could drive you from Sissinghurst to other places?

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    I am absolutely loving your report and taking notes too. Thanks for all the great details.

    May I ask you though, I know you arrived at Chartwell and Ightham at 2 and 3PM respectively, how long did you stay at each? Did you feel that you covered each property thoroughly or wished you had more time to explore?

    Knole they say is currently undergoing restoration efforts so wonder what it will look like when the restoration is complete.

    Looking forward to more installments of your report.

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    Iwan2go: I didn't investigate a guide because I just thought it would be too expensive, plus my style is to change plans fairly often so a guide would require more structure than I want. However, there was a couple staying at Siss who had hired a local taxi service to drive them to various sites (I noticed the driver arriving and leaving each day) so that's definitely a possibility.

    Europeannovice: I spent about 2.5 (plus .5 hour for lunch) hours at Chartwell which I thought was sufficient time. I tend to dawdle in the houses, reading all the room guides and looking at the furnishings so probably spent 1.5 hours in the house and another hour between the studio (15 mins at most) and the grounds. For Ightham Mote, I only had 2 hrs in total (including 15 mins for lunch) and could have used another 45 minutes to walk around the grounds. I spent 15 mins for the intro talk and an hour or so in the house which was the right amount of time for that; but only had 20 minutes or so for the grounds which i spent walking around the moat & taking photos of the house's reflection in the water.

    Interestingly, nearly everyone I met during the week said that Knole (the house itself) was their least favorite place to go. They all liked the deer and grounds but not the house...

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    I'm loving your report! Sounds like the driving worked out great. I'm glad you decided to get a car, the trip would have been very difficult w/o one.

    Re Knole - I've been only once years ago and it is one of the few places I have no urge for a return visit. It was definitely interesting but it didn't wow me like so many other castles/palaces/stately homes/whatever..

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    Janisj - it was your encouragement that pushed me to rent a car, so thank you! I do like the freedom that a car gives you and after two days, I felt very comfortable; as you say, without a car, it would have been a very different experience. I was thinking of this as an experiment and since it went so well, now I can think about driving all over (castles in Scotland, back to Kent, France, who knows where!!)

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    Terrific! Glad it worked out.

    I find the driving in general a little easier in Scotland because it is much less densely populated so a lot fewer cars on the road.

    Public transport is still useful but not to get out to most of the rural bits.

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    FRIDAY, JUNE 7, sunny and about 70°
    Breakfast: cereal & toast. My last day at Siss so sat outside in their garden for a bit and walked around Siss Castle even though it wasn’t open yet for a final view of the orchard & Tower from the moat. Checked out and off to Dover and the next phase of my vacation. In thinking over the week, I was surprised at how relaxing it was and how much I enjoyed all the gardens. I have a new found appreciation for this garden style and will do some reading when I get home – who knows, maybe I’ll build in garden visits on other trips! Will definitely return to Siss and will stay at the Farmhouse – that seemed so magical to me.

    GPS said 30 minutes to Dover but I didn’t believe it since it looked quite a distance on the map but it was right – zipped along the M20 like nothing! Enjoyed the scenery again and the transition where the forest ends and you suddenly realize the sea is over the next hill. Found the Maison Dieu guest house easily and parked right in front so off on foot to Dover Castle through Connaught Park.

    The castle was interesting but I remembered it being much better – I was there probably 20 years ago and you could climb up all kinds of stairways to battlements, funny little rooms, etc. but those are blocked off now for safety reasons. There’s a whole video & display in the medieval Arthur’s Hall that lays the groundwork for seeing the castle which was very well done. Good explanation of Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine, their sons, etc and how the castle was used. Then, across the courtyard to the Great Tower. Not sure I’m keen on the use of holographic historical figures but they appealed to all the school groups that were visiting. English Heritage took the approach of trying to recreate the castle rooms as they would have been in Henry’s time, with wall hangings, furniture, lighting, etc. Very vibrant colors – reds, blues & golds. I’m not sure what I thought about this – definitely does make the castle seem less like an empty shell and helps visitors visualize daily life, but it smacks of fakery too (kind of Disney-esque.) Rooms don’t have signs or information cards but instead of stewards who will explain things. Since this wasn’t an NT property, had to pay £17 and at this point, doesn’t seem worth it. Operation Dynamo and the hospital tunnels were next – the tunnels under the castle and White Cliffs where the evacuation of Dunkirk was planned plus various WWII plans. Good, but also not as great as I remembered. Used video, voice-overs & lighting to tell the story of some of the tunnels; they were equipped with period furnishings.

    Spent about 4 hours in total at the castle. The gift shops were noteworthy in terms of the variety and quality of items sold; separate gift shop near the tunnels focused on WWII and one in the courtyard re: middle ages. Walked down the hill to town and at one point had stopped to look at my map and an older gent emerged from his house to ask if I was lost, so we chatted a bit and he re-directed me. Nice. Walked through the town center and was surprised that at 5:30, all the shops had closed. Had dinner at The Allotment, an English bistro that the guesthouse recommended; as usual, it was early and I was the only person there but it was fine. The chef was very welcoming. Had spice pumpkin soup, beef/wine stew & soda - all were good (£21). Stopped in a convenience store for a soda & candy and avoided the aggressive homeless guy outside, back to Maison Dieu.

    SATURDAY, JUNE 8, sunny, extremely windy and about 66°
    Had breakfast at Maison Dieu, transferred my luggage to their storage room, returned my rental car and walked into town (10 minutes at most). Popped into St. Mary’s church – loved it! Nearly 1000 years old with lots of interesting stuff inside. Very tall, arched oak beamed ceiling; post-WWII stained glass windows (air sea rescue; memorial to ferry sinking in 1987); South African war memorial; Dunkirk pennants and, best of all, bell ringers! I’ve never actually seen them in action and they were practicing (with muffled bells) so I watched them for about 20 minutes. Looked like fun. The church was clearly used regularly by locals and focused on them (vs. tourists); being a Saturday, they had 3 volunteers there and they were very friendly, full of information and happy to have a visitor. I bought a tea towel, guide book & post cards. Stopped in Boots & Marks for odds and ends, then walked back to the guesthouse and taxi to the ship.

    Dover overall: On Fodors, as well as in conversations with Britons, nearly everyone said that Dover is a dump. Well, I wouldn’t agree with that wholeheartedly, but it did seem like a depressed city (as in, run down or vacant buildings; fair number of homeless; high unemployment). I’m not a nervous type, but it occurred to me that I was glad that I finished dinner while it was daylight and wouldn’t be walking back in the dark. OTOH, everyone I spoke to who lived/worked there was pleasant and helpful. Now that I’ve re-visited the castle, don’t think I’d go back but it was an interesting contrast to all the little villages I’d visited during the week.

    This was a great trip and brought me back to an England I remembered from 30+ years ago, when my parents took me with them on golfing trips. While time has to move on, and I do love cities, esp London, I’m glad to see that the “old” England is still there and not hard to find. The Kent countryside was so beautiful - I’d forgotten what it’s like; the ease of travelling by myself was a good reminder that it’s not just cities that are single-friendly. I’m planning on going back either in the fall or next May/June and staying at Siss Farmhouse again to visit some of the many places I didn’t get to (Hever, Penshurst, Leeds Castle, Canterbury, Red House, etc.)

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    oh Vicki, it's been lovely travelling the highways and byways of Kent with you. we lived a little further west than Sissinghurst, but I used to love visiting that part of the county at weekends and went to Great Dixter several times so i was able to see how Christopher Lloyd kept changing it. I became such a fan of his that when we moved here, I tried to do a "LLoyd" type garden in one of the beds. it's not really worked out as I imagined, but I can dream! I even wrote to him once, AND got a reply! [actually telling me off, but that's another story!]

    you're right that there are a lot more places that you didn't get to so here's to next year!

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    Hi Vicki - enjoyed your report. We were just in the same area in May and went to many of the same places, a few we'd seen on previous visits. My husband and I considered renting a GPS for this last visit but now I'm glad we didn't. I love the feel of a map and we don't get lost or turned around very often. We found Sissinghurst a bit disappointing because of the weather, but at least it did give us a chance to read many of the labels to see how they arrange the plantings. Visited Standen on a previous visit and liked it. Did you hear the stories about the children of the family that lived there and their eating contests? I do like Knole, although this time with the renos I found it much gloomier. I've read a lot about Vita Sackville-West and really came to understand her by visiting Knole. Was Chartwell busy? We've visited when it wasn't and when it was and certainly enjoyed it more when there were fewer crowds. Did you have a chance to see Churchill's paintings? I really like Ightham Mote, it's much cosier than some place like Knole, for example, and the setting is so pretty. Batemans is also a personal favourite, too bad you didn't have time to wander the grounds. They inspired Kipling a lot, particularly in his childrens stories. I particularly love the library. We also found the room stewards this visit quite lonely and aggressive - not always a happy combination! Perhaps, it's time to switch them with another house. I saw Great Dixter on my own as well, got lost in the gardens. It was fall and things had been left to grow a bit. I really enjoy Dover Castle - I actually find Warwick more Disney-ish. Enjoy the underground tunnels the best. I agree with your assessment of Dover - Dickens described it in A Tale of Two Cities as a ‘little, narrow, crooked town with air of so strong a piscatory flavour that one might have supposed sick fish went up to be dipped in it.’ (!!) Looking forward to your "next" report.

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    ah, Ightham Mote. or as we used to call it before we knew better, "IGGham mote". [you do know that it's pronounced "ITEham" don't you - well, I didn't! oh, the embarassment!]

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    Thanks so much for the info. Love your report.

    I recently read an article about how to correctly pronounce Ightham as Iteham. Our original inclination is to say iggtham too but then when you think about it, it is similar to Knight--also with the "ight".

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    'novice - as I lived only 30 minutes drive away from the aforementioned place, i had less excuse than most.

    mind you, there are a load of cornish places with funny pronunciations, but that's another thread!

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    And we Americans typically mispronounce the proper names of English towns and places of interest. Glad to know sometimes locals do the same thing. Typical ones are the Thames--tems not tames. Blenheim is another. Love to see the old thread with more of those.

    Here in the states some people pronounce Carnegie as in Carnegie Hall as "car Neg ghee" and others as carnighee.

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    Hi Vickibypass,

    Loved your report. I am also a solo traveler of late, but would not venture to drive in the English countryside alone. Happy to read that you enjoyed your accommodations.

    Thank you for describing CHARTWELL, a place I would love to visit, particularly after reading THE CHURCHILLS IN LOVE AND WAR by Mary S. Lovell.

    Really enjoyed tagging along….

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    Loved your report. I am also a solo traveler of late, but would not venture to drive in the English countryside alone.>>

    "THere be wolves"

    honestly, the natives are mainly friendly, apart from the chap that Vicki met who was grumbling about everything under the sun.

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    latedaytraveler: Do consider driving. There can be a bit of a learning curve - I think vickiebypass mentioned it took her a couple of days to get comfortable behind the wheel.

    But honestly for some areas -- Kent/East Sussex, most of the Cotswolds, Hampshire and the south coast, Devon/Cornwall, most of Scotland and several other areas -- having a car makes things MUCH easier.

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    Latedaytraveler: one suggestion from Sue (the Farmhouse innkeeper) is to take the train to the station nearest where you're staying and then a taxi to the inn/B&B. Typically, if arranged beforehand, a rental car can either be delivered to you at the inn or you can take a taxi from the inn to pick up the rental car. The advantage of this is that it eliminates the whole problem of driving out of the airport on busy roads; also, depending on travel plans, you may be jet lag-free if time has been spent in London or other areas before the driving portion. I'm going to take this approach for my next trip to the country.

    This trip reminded me that there are so many great areas to see outside of the cities and that a car is the best way to get around. In addition to Kent, Cornwall is calling my name - it's been 30+ years since I've been there so would be good to see what's new and what's the same. Isle of Scilly also intrigued me - gather there's a snazzy garden there!

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    In addition to Kent, Cornwall is calling my name - it's been 30+ years since I've been there so would be good to see what's new and what's the same. Isle of Scilly also intrigued me - gather there's a snazzy garden there!>>

    we'd love to see you, Vicki, and there are lots of great gardens here, including the one you are referring to which is on Tresco.

    a word of caution though, if you though that the roads in Kent were tricky.....

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    Thanks for the info! We have driven in Italy, France, Spain with no problems. Drove in England and Wales in the '80s. But now am thinking, maybe too much stress to remember to stay on the other side of the road. Although we would love to see Cornwall, kent, etc. appreciate the help and thanks for whetting my travel appetite!

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    Thanks for such an interesting report. When I see people planning to visit London, Paris, Rome, Venice Berlin and Copenhagen in 10 days it makes me laugh... you spent a week and were never even 50 miles from your base... and there were still things left to see! ;^) I have been to many of your stops but your report makes me want to revisit them. My wife loves gardens so maybe that will be the hook... ;^)

    I'm glad to read that you pretty well mastered the GPS... the thing people seldom realize it that YOU can go where you want... the GPS is an aide, not a dictator! LOL

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    We can't wait to go now but we have a long way until then. A great report so I am taking notes in the meantime.

    We have a funny GPS story. We were in a rental car on the way to a zoo when the exit ramp the GPS told us to get off of was closed due to construction. We got off at a nearby exit that eventually led us to the zoo from a different route. All the while the GPS kept wanting us to turn around to get off at the previous exit. We were in the parking lot of the zoo and the GPS was still recalculating. It managed to reset on the way back.

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    on a trip to Germany recently, our GPS took us up a country road somewhere en route from Berlin to Potsdam. half way along the road, it told us to turn round and go back the way we'd come. then when we turned round, after a few minutes it repeated the instruction.

    if we hadn't turned it off, we'd still be there now, going backwards and forwards on this road.

    better than that though is the new road near us which feeds off a main road, but you can't get back onto the main road that way. for some reason GPSs don't understand that, and drivers have been going up there only to find that they are facing the wrong way into oncoming traffic. THe local council has had to resort to big signs that say "drivers - ignore your GPS - no through road"!

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    Just reading this. What a wonderful report with such great detail. I'm a solo traveler too and have driven France, Germany, Italy, Turkey. Driving in the UK has always intimidated me. After reading your delightful report, I'm actually thinking of going next summer! You've inspired me! Many thanks!

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