NATIONAL TRUST:St John's Jerusalem Location: Sutton at Hone, Kent DA4 9HQ [map] Open: 2-6pm, Wednesdays only (April-October only) Admission: £2.80 Website:nationaltrust.org.uk/st-johns-jerusalem Four word summary: Hospitaller's chapel (and gardens) Nearest station: Farningham Road Time to allow: about half an hour
You can draw certain conclusions about a National Trust property by the entrance fee it charges. Over £15, likely rambling and impressive. St John's Jerusalem on the other hand is a sub-£3 property, and what's more you can only get inside on a Wednesday afternoon. It's located in the Darent Valley, a delightful landscape south of Dartford, and barely three miles from the edge of Greater London. The Knight Hospitallers established themselves here in the late 12th century, using the site to help to fund the Crusades, and built a chapel in the early 13th. Only this chapel survives, and whilst that's impressive for west Kent it's only £2.80-worth of impressive.
I managed to walk almost all the way round St John's Jerusalem before finding the way in, not least because the National Trust's 'How to get here' webpage is pitifully basic. But you won't miss the entrance if you walk in from the station - it's on the main road just past TJD Models and Keely Marie's Beauty Bar. Beyond the main gate is an unexpected Deer Park with a moat at the centre, as if this were the most normal front garden in the world, with the main house secured behind a cattle grid. I can't guarantee that the property's cat will come out and greet you as you arrive, but she came out and greeted me.
The main building is something of a hybrid, having been upgraded over the centuries by several owners. One spent so much on the house he went bankrupt and got sent to debtors prison for five years, but not before he'd written an entire history of the county of Kent. The further you walk along the building the older it looks. One end's a family home, the lucky tenant appointed by the National Trust getting to live on site uninterrupted for the other six days of the week. Then brick morphs into flint and that's the end with the chapel. There being no ticket booth, gift shop or cafe, this is where visitors are asked to head first to pay up. Again I can't guarantee the cat will turn up, but here she is again.
The chapel may be old but it's certainly not unadulterated. A Victorian owner divided it in two by adding floorboards, creating a scullery below and a billiard room above. All you'll be seeing is the upper chamber, so the windows were originally much deeper, the door was elsewhere and the 'altar' would have been several feet lower. Bursts of information scattered around the room partly help visualise how things once were, as do a handful of recreated relics, but the bare walls lend an ambience that's inescapably 'church hall' rather than crusadery. Photography's not permitted, so I can only show you the exterior... and direct you to a single image on the official website.
This leaves the gardens to walk round, excluding the chained-off private family chunk. Riotous beds line the path to the river, off which is a walled orchard with a couple of benches. Having brought a book with me, I paused and finished off a chapter. Elsewhere are a large lawn, a straggly rose border and a waterside path curving round to the Cedar of Lebanon by the footbridge. I spotted a couple of gardeners keeping the place in trim, but it's not the kind of pristine plot where every specimen has a bilingual label, just a more-than-pleasant £2.80.
Ten things I spotted during my hour-long walk down the Darent Valley
» A lunchtime crowd outside The Lion, downing ales and spirits.
» The rippling river, and three lads come to angle it.
» The underside of the M20, propped up by jagged concrete slabs.
» A brookside bank of bright red poppies.
» Horton Kirby Cricket Club, its outfield immaculately cut.
» Butter-, horse- and dragon-flies.
» Three stems of Himalayan balsam which last Saturday's working group failed to clear away.
» A lofty viaduct above the beer garden of a pub run by a former wrestler.
» A tall brick chimney, dated 1881, part of a former papermill (now 200 homes and a Co-Op supermarket)
» A row of retired gentlemen and their cars, hatchbacks open, each with a model aircraft lined up ready to take off for a low buzz above a cornfield.