A lot can be done in a single day trip from London. Kent — billed as ‘the garden of England’ — is just on the doorstep of the metropolitan area, and is a gateway of exploration for early Christian history and geological wonders.
Extending southeast from London, Kent covers the entire tongue of land that closes the English Channel to it’s narrowest meeting point with France. In fact, it’s this proximity that informs much of the history of the area. A sharp eye will find more than just French license plates on cars, but also streets, town names, family surnames and more. At it’s narrowest point, the channel is a mere 22 miles across, and on clear days, the French coastline can be seen with surprising clarity from the cliff tops at Dover.
The White Cliffs are perhaps the most famous greeting point for travellers by sea into the UK. While the Dover port is much smaller than many other UK counterparts, the white cliffs are still a symbol of approaching the British Isles. The National Trust manages a visitor’s centre and footpaths along the cliffs, offering unrivalled views of both the channel and Dover Castle. Entrance to the footpaths is free, though non-members will pay a parking charge on arrival.
Dover Castle hovers on the adjacent hilltop, boastfully proclaiming it’s status as the largest castle in England. Founded in 1066 after the Norman conquest, the castle is undoubtedly well placed to defend the traffic on the channel. Even today, this stretch of water is one of the world’s busiest waterways. Visits to the castle include the battlements, the keep, a spectacular Roman lighthouse from the first century and the wartime tunnels beneath the cliffs. The site is managed by English Heritage, and members can access the site for free.
Dover is not the only port of call in Kent, however. For many, the holy pilgrimage site of Canterbury is the destination of choice. The magnificent cathedral in the heart of the city, still surrounded by the extant city walls, is spiritual home of the Anglican Church worldwide. Layers of history, politics and faith are intertwined throughout the entire site, none other more famous than the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket. Located in a chapel just to the left of the central nave, the martyrdom attracts pilgrims from the world over to pay respects.If you happen in to Canterbury during a service, it is worth it to attend. French speakers may also find a service conducted in their language in the crypt every Sunday afternoon.
A short 15-minute walk outside the walls and past St Augustine’s abbey will take you to the oldest church in continuous use in the English-speaking world. Founded in 597AD after Saxon king Ethelbert married the Gaulish princess Bertha, he had the chapel christened in order for her to say her prayers on sacred ground. While much of the current building dates from much later, the nave is the original Roman-era stone structure.
If Christian history is not your thing, there’s plenty more in Kent to hold your attention. Popular of beaches and seaside resorts fill to capacity in the summer months, but even in off season, the towns Whitstable, Herne Bay or Margate offer pleasant walks along the promenade. Seafront pubs serve up fresh oysters and fish: worth every penny for seafood lovers.
For something completely different as you return back towards London, take a small detour off the motorway into Gravesend. There, you’ll find the largest Sikh Gurdwaras outside of India. The palatial temple is adorned with squat onion domes and illuminated with every colour of the rainbow after dark. Contact the Gurdwara in advance if you’d like to visit, and remember to dress modestly. Men and women alike must remove their shoes on entry (shelving is provided) and cover their heads.
Kent has plenty more to offer. Extend you day into several more and visit Rochester Castle (with the tallest keep in England), Hever or Leeds Castle (both remarkably beautiful with manicured gardens), or Winston Churchill’s retreat home. With Kent as your base, day trips into France are possible, with ferry boats departing regularly for the northern port cities of Dunkirk and Calais. All feasible options, and only a single day trip away from London!
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