George Shankar discovers the historical highlights of the ‘Garden of England’
Believe it or not, the ‘loveliest castle in the world’ is in the village of Leeds (over 200 miles south of the city of Leeds), five miles south east of Maidstone. Perched on islands in the middle of the River Len, Leeds Castle has existed on the site since 1119. Several British monarchs, from Edward I to Henry VII, stayed here and the interior showcases artifacts from both the Medieval and Tudor periods. Black swans and white peacocks can be found wandering the grounds, which include a golf course, a maze, daily falconry displays and what must surely be the world’s only dog collar museum.
Did you know? King Henry VIII transformed the castle into a luxurious country home for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1519. After annulling the marriage in 1533, however, Henry married Anne Boleyn, who was raised in Hever Castle, just 30 miles away.
Lullingstone Roman Villa
The Romans occupied Britain from AD 43 up until the beginning of the fifth century, building several settlements in Kent’s Darent Valley. Built around AD 80-90, Lullingstone is the best preserved and most significant. Although the majority of the site was destroyed by the invading Jutes, it was rediscovered in 1939 and has benefitted from a £1.8m renovation, completed in 2008. Still visible on site are mosaics depicting Zeus and Europa and a marble bust that’s said to be of Pertinax, governor of Brittania. For children, there are Roman costumes and a selection of traditional games from the period.
Did you know? Dating from the fourth century, the wall paintings in the chapel at Lullingstone are some of the earliest evidence of Christianity in Britain and unique — the closest parallels being found in a site in Syria. Evidence suggests, however, that the chapel was in simultaneous use with the Pagan cult room below, leading to many questions about the co-existence of different belief systems in the Roman Empire.
The death-place of martyr Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral became one of the holiest places in Britain during the Middle Ages. It was the final destination of Chaucer’s famous pilgrim in The Canterbury Tales — the Pilgrim’s Way remains a significant hiking route across Kent — and has stood since 1070. Now, it functions as the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England. The 230ft-tall main building is an excellent example of Romanesque Norman architecture and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Canterbury is also home to a Roman Museum, the ruins of Canterbury Castle and many quaint Tudor pubs.
Did you know? Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan playwright and tragedian, was born and baptised in Canterbury. He’s best known for his plays Tamburlaine the Great and The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Some literary theorists believe that Marlowe faked his death in 1593, and went on writing under a pseudonym: William Shakespeare.
Originally built by the Normans, Dover Castle has been known as ‘The Key to England’, based on its defensive significance through history. The castle was fortified extensively by Henry II and later during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s now the largest castle in England. Located atop the eponymous white cliffs on the South Coast, there are spectacular views over the Port of Dover and the English Channel from the castle’s Great Tower. Events are held at the castle throughout the year, including Medieval showcases, a WWII Weekend and a Roman Festival.
Did you know? During the Second World War, tunnels below the castle were converted into a military command centre and underground hospital. The evacuation of over 300,000 troops from Dunkirk was directed from these tunnels; they ‘ve been preserved and are open to visitors.
Archaeologists believe that Stonehenge may be over 5,000 years old. The Medway Megaliths, while maybe not as impressive, are just as old and mysterious. Constructed by early Neolithic tribes as chambered long barrows (raised tombs), the megaliths are dotted throughout the Medway valley in at least six confirmed locations. Piles of giant rocks may not sound particularly alluring, but their historical significance is huge (and it helps that they’re all set within the picturesque sloping countryside of the Medway valley). Kit’s Coty, Addington Long Barrow, Smythe’s Megalith and the other stones may have served a dual function as tomb-shrines to early Pagan Britons, places where ancestors were honoured and asked for assistance.
Did you know? The White Horse Stones, located on Bluebell Hill near Aylesford, are traditionally believed to mark the tomb of Horsa of Kent. Along with his brother, Hengist, Horsa led the Jutish invasion of Kent, establishing a kingdom that remained unconquered until it merged with the Kingdom of England in the 10th century.