diamond geezer

 Monday, September 07, 2009

Seven things to do in: Sevenoaks
For reasons that may shortly become obvious, I thought now would be the perfect time for a trip to Sevenoaks. That's "Commuter Kent" to us Londonfolk, located just beyond the M25 atop the Greensand ridge. Here are seven reasons to visit...

Three of the seven oaks1) See the seven oaks: Except there are now eight. None are the originals after which the town was named in the 9th century, they've been replaced (and have changed location) several times over the years. The latest oaks are now to be found around the northern boundary of the Vine Cricket Club, spaced out so that it's nigh impossible to take a photo of all of them simultaneously. There were seven trees until the great storm of 1987 felled all but one, and this has since been joined by seven younger oaks to make the unlikely total of eight. One more fierce storm, heaven forbid, should cut back the numbers again.
2) Watch ancient cricket: The Vine is one of England's oldest cricket grounds, located on a wind-whipped slope at the top of the High Street (so it's no wonder all those trees toppled). They've been batting and bowling here for nearly 300 years, and this is reputedly the spot where three stumps were first used instead of two. On Saturday, as I stalked the boundary, the first XI were busy fielding against Blackheath in the Kent Premier League. Most of the benches beneath the oaks were empty, but an appreciative crowd of 20 locals and a dog looked on as the home team swept slowly to victory.

Sevenoaks High Street3) Walk the High Street: Sevenoaks has a pleasant old High Street, which you'll enjoy more if you can find the Tourist information office (under the library) and pick up a Millennium Walk leaflet. There's a historic wiggly feel to this street, and also to some of the medieval lanes alongside - which are full of the sorts of shops that stockbrokers and their spouses like to spend money in. Yes the Saturday Market sells brie and hand-crafted jewellery, and yes there's a big Bang & Olufsen showroom - these two facts should tell you everything you need to know about the place. Famous literary Sevenoaks residents have included HG Wells (shacked up with a student), Charles Dickens (he got everywhere) and most especially Jane Austen, whose uncle lived in The Red House (now a solicitors).

Knole Deer Park4) Meet the deer in Knole Park: Just off the High Street, really not very far away at all, lies a delightful 1000-acre medieval deer park. It's freely accessible, courtesy of the local landowner, and a quite marvellous place for Sevenoakers to slip away to. The first time I encountered two deer, halfway down a wooded slope foraging for grass, I thought I'd stumbled across something enchanting and rare. But then I met another, and then three more running across the path, and later an entire herd clustered on the grass and nuzzling up to inquisitive Kentish offspring. It's like having a risk-free safari park on your doorstep, only with antlers.

Knole5) Look round one of England's largest private houses: The Sackville family have been living at Knole for more than 400 years, and it shows. Their home (in the centre of the deer park) is huge and, although it's been tweaked over the centuries, remains an ancient stately home par excellence. Visitors are allowed inside thirteen staterooms to enjoy the art, tapestries and decoration, and most particularly the unique collection of Royal Stuart furniture (worn and decaying a bit by now, but still an astonishing survival). Meanwhile the rest of the house is still a family home, as I deduced from the football posts in the garden and the overnight tent pitched on the rear lawn. Entry to Knole is expensive, unless you're one of the family or a National Trust member, but then everything's on the deer side round here.

Kentish oast houses6) Hike the Greensand Way: This (very) long distance footpath follows a sandstone ridge across Hampshire, Surrey and Kent, which means a lot of hill climbing and fine views. I only walked four miles of it but, because destination number 7 was wholly inaccessible by public transport, I walked those four miles there and back again. A first mile across the deer park, then a solitary jaunt between fields and wooded slopes. It's not a popular or well-frequented path, this, but probably all the better for it. There was a National Trust interlude at One Tree Hill (which is most inaccurately named), and then some trunk-topped escarpments to enjoy before climbing back down to the valley below. And not a river in sight, which made a pleasant change for me after the last month.

Ightham Mote7) Explore Ightham Mote: And finally, my intended far flung destination - another National Trust treasure. It's Ightham Mote, which is (according to Pevsner) "the most complete small medieval manor house in the country". Picture a chimney-topped square building set around a central courtyard, surrounded by a tranquil moat. It's early 14th century, no less, and still with its Great Hall, old Chapel and Crypt intact. One of the reasons for its survival is Ightham's sheltered remote location, and another is a steady succession of careful owners. The last of these was American businessman Charles Henry Robinson, who lived here until his death in 1985, and this explains the plastic light switches scattered in amongst the bookcases and Chinese wallpaper. This mixture of eras and styles gives the place real character - it's not every home which boasts a Jacobean wood-panelled staircase, a hand-painted half-barrelled Tudor roof and a Grade I listed dog kennel. The National Trust have spent a fortune restoring Ightham Mote, which may be why gaining admittance costs nearly a tenner. But for that money you also get a the landscaped gardens and an apple orchard (and a tea room and a gift shop, obviously). On Saturday I was also treated to a gathering of eight vintage Rolls Royces, driven here by limo-loving afficionados and parked up in front of the West Lawn. While they pootled off for a look around the house, other visitors peered close-up at the shining metalwork, archaic steering and pleated leather. And then off they drove, over the hills back to wherever, whereas I still had to face the five miles walk back to Sevenoaks station. But all in all Ightham Mote's a rare treat, and I'm glad I made the effort to go.
Four Ightham Mote photos: chimneys / moat / dog kennel / Rolls Royces

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