travel exploring historic kent

history with a modern twist

travel exploring historic kent

If you're looking for somewhere a bit different to take a motoring mini-break, then you might consider Kent. Inspired by a Hollywood movie, Jonathan Crouch goes exploring

Be honest. When was the last time you got away for a break? A 'break' isn't a holiday. Nor is it an overnight stopover more something in between the two. A long weekend in other words.

The marketers call these sorts of trips 'mini-breaks' and every city you can name seems to be promoting itself as a mini-break mecca. You fly in on a Friday, check into the city centre hotel, do shopping, do a show, walk in the park and fly home on Sunday afternoon. Sounds great doesn't it? Except that it isn't. Not after you've done one or two anyway. For one thing, since the itinerary, the shops and the shows are all so similar, one citybreak tends quickly to blur into another. Perhaps more importantly, with all that walking and dashing about, the whole thing can hardly be expected to be relaxing. And isn't that really why you decided to go in the first place?

So here's a suggestion. Do the 'break' but give the 'city' bit a miss. After all, who needs it when in less than an hour from virtually every major city airport, you can be in a place of real relaxation, paying much the same money and enjoying the rolling countryside.

But where? Well what about somewhere in Kent, the 'Garden of England'? Just an hour from London or less from the airport if you take a cheap flight into Gatwick. Prompting to try a motoring tour of the county came recently with the launch of the Hollywood film 'The Other Boleyn Girl', set at venues around the county.

Adapted for the screen from Philippa Gregory's best-selling novel, Kent takes a starring role in the film, with scenes shot on location at Penshurst Place near Tonbidge, Knole near Sevenoaks and Dover Castle. We decided to base our visit at the real-life home to the upwardly mobile Boleyn family, Hever Castle near Edenbridge, today, one of Kent's most beautiful attractions.

This is a great starting point for anyone intrigued by their lives. In Gregory's novel, Mary yearns to escape from the pressures of London's court to be with her illegitimate royal children at this 'fairytale palace' and to stroll the apple orchards of Kent. Breathe in the scent of Hever's roses, as she did, and imagine her sitting on her favourite seat looking towards the moat and castle walls.

The sisters were ladies-in-waiting to Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and both became her rivals; rare portraits of them can be seen at Hever. The moated Tudor dwelling in enchanting gardens became the idyllic backdrop for King Henry's courtship of Anne. Hever's treasures tell how their relationship unfolded; from the replica of the clock Henry presented to Anne on their wedding in 1533, to the prayer book that she clasped on her way to the executioner's block in 1536. Although not used in the film, Hever is an essential destination. More details at www.hever-castle.co.uk.

The great thing about Kent is that none of the really great places to see are too far apart. A short distance away, for example, is Penshurst Place near Tonbridge, the setting for key scenes in 'The Other Boleyn Girl' movie. This stately home set amid Tudor gardens became the film double for Whitehall Palace.

Not far from Penshurst is another venue used in the film, Knole near Sevenoaks, which we drove on to after a pleasant lunch at Hever. Knole depicts London by night in The Other Boleyn Girl, the shadowy edifice standing in for the stone buildings of the capital in the Tudor period. The setting is also used in several night scenes of the characters riding away from London. The Green Court and Stone Court are transformed into the movie setting for the departure of the Boleyn family from court - Mary leaves in a carriage with her young son, while Anne and Henry leave together on horseback, under the watchful stare of Catherine from an upstairs window.

In Tudor times, Knole belonged to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who supported Henry VIII's divorce of Queen Catherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn. Henry acquired the home in 1538, making the most of the hunting in the superb medieval deer park. You can browse Tudor portraits, including those of Henry and Anne, and other artefacts that recall those heady days when the fortunes of courtiers rose or fell at the wave of a royal hand and walk in the 1,000-acre deer park where Henry hunted, the only one remaining in Kent. More details at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/knole.

To complete your tour of England's garden county, Dover Castle would be an excellent last stop. The filmmakers chose it to portray the brooding presence of the Tower of London, following the turn of King Henry's affections and Anne's downfall. Visitors can retrace the steps Anne takes to the executioner's block.

The Great Chamber on the first floor of the castle was historically a place of entertainment for the king or high-ranking visitors. However in the movie it takes on the guise of the cell where Anne is held before she walks to her death.

In reality, Dover Castle played a significant part in the story of Henry and his wives. It was a frontline defence against invasion by Spain and France, who were united against the English king after he divorced (Spanish) Queen Catherine and broke with the Roman Catholic Church. The amorous sovereign came here while on the hunt for his fourth wife in 1539.

It's always good to have a focus on a motoring mini-break and, even if history's not really your thing, you can't help being captivated by the real life drama that played out across this county. It's worth experiencing that for yourself.

Travelling Kent - The Facts

You can get more details at www.english-heritage.org.uk.

Or, for further information on places to visit, stay and eat in Kent go to www.visitkent.co.uk.