Kent is a land of gardens and orchards, of historic castles and churches, of pretty villages and fine market towns, but above all, it is a land that is inescapably linked to the sea. Its proximity to Europe across the narrow channel means that invaders through the centuries have chosen the Kent coast as a gateway to Britain. The Romans landed here over 2,000 years ago, the Vikings followed almost 1,000 years later and the land was widely settled by the Normans following the defeat of Harold in 1066. All these peoples, and the prehistoric tribes that preceded them, have left their mark on the landscape and the language. Many place names, such as Rochester and Whitstable, are derived from Roman, Saxon or Norman origins. Norman churches and castles in various states of ruin or preservation still stand in the tranquil rural countryside that belies the bloodshed of centuries of successive invasions.
On the south coast, the Cinque Ports were set up in the 11th century as a commercial alliance of significant ports, although silting up of channels over the centuries has left many of them several miles from the sea. Henry VIII established a dockyard at Chatham, which was a major factor in Britain’s dominance of the seas in the centuries that followed. The whole length of the Kent coast has been the historic haven of smugglers, and every rocky cove and sheltered bay has seen daring and ruthless smugglers pursued by brave and determined but generally ineffective excise men. In villages across Kent, ancient tales of smuggling are still told and houses, churches and caves are remembered as places where the smugglers’ booty was hidden away. However, Kent’s maritime tradition did not depend entirely on lawlessness and many villages plied a legitimate trade in fishing. Ancient fishing villages like Deal retain their quaint alleyways and traditional fishermen’s cottages around the harbour areas. Whitstable has been famed for centuries for oyster fishing and Whitstable oysters are still regarded as gourmet fare. In the 19th century as the fashion grew for taking holidays by the sea, seaside towns and resorts grew up in former fishing ports like Herne Bay. Margate with its glorious sands was one of the first resorts to attract visitors. Even before the railways, pleasure boats brought Londoners to the town in search of sun, sea and sand.
Churchill, Darwin and Charles Dickens all had homes in Kent. Geoffrey Chaucer and Christopher Marlowe, Somerset Maugham and Mary Tourtel, the creator of Rupert Bear, all lived part of their lives in Canterbury. The abbey and cathedral here, along with St Martin’s Church, form a fascinating World Heritage Site, the place where St Augustine brought Christianity to England in the 6th century.
Although Kent lies very close to the spreading suburban sprawl of Greater London, much of the county has managed to retain a tranquil rural feel, despite commuter developments. Rolling wooded countryside is dotted with windmills and attractive villages, surrounded by orchards, market gardens, hop fields and countless gardens.