diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 01, 2022


The problem with advance rail tickets is that you can't come home early. For some reason I scheduled myself six hours in Maidstone, thinking Kent's county town ought to have a lot going for it, but instead ended up exploring a little further afield to fill the time. At least the weather played ball. Here then is my guide to what to see in Maidstone depending on the length of your visit. [Visit Maidstone] [5 photos]

If you only have ten minutes...

Assuming you arrive at Maidstone East, all you're going to see in ten minutes is the station and its immediate environs. That's enough time to spot County Hall across the road and, if you walk up the side a bit, the walls and spotlights of HM Prison Maidstone which has been here since the 18th century. If you're wondering why there's an iguanodon outside the station that's because Maidstone is the only UK town with a dinosaur on its coat of arms. It was added to commemorate the first ever discovery of a herbivorous dinosaur skeleton, unexpectedly uncovered in a local quarry in 1822 and which can now be seen in the Natural History Museum. As you return to platform 1 there may just be time to pop into Brenchley Gardens to see the bandstand, the flowerbeds and the stone finial that used to sit atop the House of Commons debating chamber until it was blitzed in 1941.

If you only have one hour...

It's got to be Maidstone Museum, partly because it's very near the station but mainly because it's excellent. It's all housed in an Elizabethan manor house, much extended, and has grown from its original bequest of art and antiquities into a properly eclectic collection. You might walk from a room of period dresses into a zoo of stuffed animals or from a gallery of Tudor furniture into a regimental sub-museum. Explorer Julius Brenchley (of Gardens fame) left a hoard of ethnographic wonders from his South Seas voyages, so that's here, as is an impressive collection of Japanese armour, cups and sculpted carp. Every time you think you must have seen it all, no, there's a dinosaur, mummy or printing press yet to be discovered and a deeper understanding of the town's history to be had. Better still it's all free, so no wonder it was overrun with inquisitive families yesterday, and it's a double thumbs up from me.

If you only have two hours...

Given you've come all the way to Maidstone you should probably look round the town centre. This boasts several old buildings, as befits a town conveniently slotted between Canterbury and London, including an Archbishop's Palace from the time when they needed somewhere to stay while on diocesan tour. Some of the shops are half-timbered, pargeted or jettied, especially in Bank Street round the back of the Town Hall, although the hotel where Queen Victoria once stayed got gutted and is now a less historic arcade. Most of the big chain stuff is hidden away in a couple of larger malls, the nicer one almost entirely outdoors on the site of the Fremlin brewery. Not many units are empty, this being a prosperous town frequented by shoppers who prefer labels to Primark - I'd say higher up the Kentish social ladder than Rochester but not quite Tunbridge Wells. The best way to make sure you find all the good bits is to follow the Walking Tour of Historic Maidstone which can be found online here or downloadbly leafletted here. Just don't expect to get inside the world-renowned Maidstone Carriage Museum at present unless you're a pre-booked group - a sign on the door displays the fateful message "We look forward to welcoming you when we reopen our doors in May 2020".

If you only have three hours...

A third hour is time enough to add in the riverside. Maidstone lies on the River Medway, far enough upstream for it to be footbridgeable and far enough downstream for it to be comfortably navigable. The town is thus split between Men of Kent on the east bank and Kentish Men to the west, although all the buzzy stuff is on the east bank so the former prevail. Eight miles of waterfront was upgraded for the Millennium to create Maidstone River Park, which is mostly a cycle-friendly path and a very popular place for a stroll. Also added was Whatman Park, a fresh recreational space counterintuitively accessed from the other side of the river, complete with nature reserves and an insectoid performance canopy. Do enjoy the motor yachts cruising by. Don't bother with Lockmeadow, it's a substandard cinema/bowling/eaterie fortress.

If you only have four hours...

I used my fourth hour to keep walking north along the Medway, past the football stadium and eventually out of town. How very pleasant it was. The river meanders past thickety meadows and leafy overhang, then a marina and a briefly-glimpsed castle. My target was Allington Lock, whose aesthetic was unexpectedly augmented by a huge concrete weir, and the historic Malta Inn which turned out to be a Beefeater with a Premier Inn attached. The biggest local draw is Kent Life Heritage Farm Park whose car park is nextdoor, though it's more the sort of place you take young 'uns to feed goats and ride pedal tractors so I gave it a miss. The biggest problem with walking this far is having to walk back the same way, there being a paucity of alternative routes, so you may well appreciate Kentish Lady running hourly river cruises back to Maidstone for just under a fiver.

If you only have five hours...

Mote Park is where Maidstonians go to recreate, assuming what they want to do is roam 450 acres of rolling parkland with a whopping great lake in the middle. Scattered within are a stately mansion, a miniature railway and currently a funfair, plus big names like Katherine Jenkins and UB40 turn up in the summer to give picnic-basket-friendly outdoor concerts. The central lake encourages visitors to walk a lengthy circuit, just far enough to tire out a dog or a toddler before stopping at the conveniently-located ice cream van for an inevitable cornet. If you're a Maidstone resident I hope by now you're impressed by how far I wandered.

If you only have six hours...

Out towards J7 of the M20 is Vinters Valley Nature Reserve, a deep woodland notch overseen by a group of keen and earnest volunteers. They've used hand-painted signs to name various precipitous paths, they've erected a multitude of notices targeting dogwalker behaviour and they've even waymarked an alternative route should you ever find yourself pondering the Lime Avenue on a storm-force day. It's much much quieter than Mote Park but still a springtime treat to explore. I also got to peer through a fence at the rear lot of Maidstone Studios, former home of the TVS franchise, hence where No. 73 was filmed every Saturday and still used for Jools Holland's Hootenanny and Supermarket Sweep. I was scraping the barrel here somewhat, gadaboutwise, but thankfully I now had a train home to catch.

If you only have seven hours...

Good luck.

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