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