Where to stay
Enjoy coastal views and brand new suites at this grand four-star seaside property. Doubles from £70. Princes Parade, Hythe, CT21 6AE, 01303 267441, hytheimperial.co.uk
An elegant, 150-year-old townhouse B&B with a terrace and mature gardens. Included in your stay is daily tea, coffee and delicious home-made cake, as well as a complimentary glass of wine. Doubles from £110. 4 Augusta Gardens, Folkestone, CT20 2RR, 01303 850952, therelish.co.uk
Rhino Lodge, Port Lympne Reserve
Stay at this luxurious Grade II-listed cottage and the only neighbours you’ll meet are the resident rhinos. From £375, (sleeps four). Adlington Road, Near Ashford, CT21 4PD, 01303 394040, aspinallfoundation.org
Waters End Farm
A selection of three top-notch holiday rentals, deep in the glorious Kentish countryside. All of the properties boast comfortable, contemporary interiors as well as period details galore. From £125. Standen Street, Benenden, Cranbrook, TN17 4LA, 01580 850754, watersendfarm.co.uk
The Woolpack Inn
Just five rooms make up the accommodation at this historic, pet-friendly inn, all of which have been artistically decked out by the owner and his wife. Doubles from £120. Church Lane, Warehorne, Ashford, TN26 2LL, 01233 732900, woolpackinnwarehorne.com
Romney Marsh is in south-east Kent and is the largest coastal wetland on England’s south coast. Travel time from London is around an hour. In July the average high temperature is 19C and the average low is 13C.
South Eastern runs train services from London Kings Cross to Appledore, changing at Ashford International, from £32 return. southeasternrailway.co.uk
Visit Kent is the official tourist board and its website is packed with information and inspiration to help with planning a trip. visitkent.co.uk
The Body on the Doorstep is the first Romney Marsh Mystery by AJ Mackenzie (Zaffre Publishing, £7.99). Opening in 1796, it tells a dark and thrilling story of the Kent coast when smuggling was rife.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for two courses, including wine,
unless otherwise stated
Coast at Hythe Imperial
Dress up for smart seaside dining at this award-winning restaurant within the stylish Hythe Imperial or pop in on a Sunday to enjoy a traditional roast. From £50. Princes Parade, Hythe, Kent, CT21 6AE, 01303 267441, hytheimperial.co.uk
Dungeness Snack Shack
Simple alfresco seafood cooking with the catch of the day hauled onto the beach in front of you. Not to be missed. From £10. The Fish Hut, Dungeness Road, Dungeness, Romney Marsh, TN29 9NE, 07825 598921, dungenesssnackshack.net
Miss Mollett’s High Class Tea Room
You can’t beat an old-school afternoon tea in this chintz time warp. From £15. 26 The Street, Appledore, TN26 2BX, 01233 758555,missmollettstearoom.co.uk
Port Lympne Restaurant
Tuck in to seasonal British dishes and fine wines in the historical Port Lympne Mansion, followed by digestifs on the veranda with its spectacular views. From £50. Port Lympne Reserve, Near Ashford, CT21 4PD, 01303 394040, aspinallfoundation.org
Mark Sargeant’s modern fish restaurant is a winner in terms of produce, look and cookery. The terrace overlooking the harbour is the best spot in the area come summer. From £65. 4-5 Fishmarket, Folkestone, CT19 6AA, 01303 212070, rocksaltfolkestone.co.uk
A French patisserie and café that sells undoubtedly the finest food in Hythe, served with a side of je ne sais quoi. From £10. 30 High Street, Hythe, CT21 5AT, 01303 239853
The Woolpack Inn
Tuck into local fare here – or hop on the free shuttle to try the sister properties. From £30. Church Lane, Warehorne, Ashford, TN26 2LL, 01233 732900, woolpackinnwarehorne.com
Food and Travel Review
Folkestone is fast becoming the place to be. You heard it here first. Just like neighbouring towns of Whitstable, Rye, Hastings, Deal, Ramsgate and Margate (yes, even Margate), gentrification is afoot and, come summer, the place is awash with DFLs looking for that archetypal British seaside experience that passed a couple of generations by.
As cheap international package holidays soared, coastal breaks took a nosedive. A lack of tourism spend and low investment saw once-booming port towns become dog-eared pastiches of their former selves. The last 15 years have changed all that. With Brighton as the poster boy, others followed the prototype of using independent retailers, careful reinvestment and local engagement to lure punters back. Folkestone is the latest to get the treatment.
There are few better places to drink in the Kentish coast than from the tip of Folkestone’s Harbour Arm. Sweeping 360-degree views take in the best of the region: Dover, Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye are all visible and on, a clear day, France tickles the horizon. Built in 1901 as a train station, the Harbour Arm is currently in its fourth year of a multimillion pound redevelopment to become a destination venue of shops, cafés and bars, many of which operate out of restored railway carriages. How terribly hipster.
‘My remit is to represent as much local fish as possible,’ says Peter Cocks at Sole Kitchen, one of the Harbour Arm’s vendors. At his boutique premises this usually means crab, cockles and whelks, ‘most of which – 80 per cent – are shipped to Korea’, served simply here with red onion and vinegar.
Nearby Bathtub & Gun is a tiny watering hole selling cocktails, cobblers and punches, as well as Kentish wines and award-winning beers such as the gloriously named Sprattwaffler, so-called after the nets that catch herring, shaken out so only sprats remain.
This project would not be possible without the support of Folkestone’s fairy godfather, Sir Roger De Haan, who sold the Saga holidays group for £1.35bn in 2004. His patronage is transforming the town, with a specialist foundation set up to help Folkestone through the arts. Across the harbour is super-chic fish restaurant Rocksalt – another De Haan investment, in partnership with former Claridge’s head chef Mark Sargeant. This was the first sign of regeneration in Folkestone back in 2011 and it’s still going strong. ‘We were the first part of the jigsaw,’ says Sargeant. ‘I’ve seen a dilapidated port town turn into a thriving hub in about five years. The street food scene is now like a mini Shoreditch with the excellent traders on the Harbour Arm. Planning has been granted for some superb new-build flats which will make the area a seriously desirable place to be.’ At low tide the harbour is dry, decorated with boats festooned with colourful buoy while beyond the marina walls a pastel-green sea glitters in the sunshine. In this light it’s hard to imagine project Folkestone as anything other than a success.
Over in neighbouring Hythe, things are changing, too. The Hythe Imperial has undergone a massive redevelopment, taking it from tired hotel to swanky bolthole, complete with champagne bar. The heart of Hythe is its high street. A winding parade of curiosity shops, cafés, a chocolate shop and a butcher make this a nostalgic snapshot of olde worlde England, complete with a gaggle of gents bantering outside Aunty Wainwright’s antiques shop.
At RAJ Smith Traditional Butcher, owner Mandy Smith has been a fixture since 1971. ‘I came here straight from school as a cashier but I got bored so the owner had me cleaning bones,’ she says. ‘I’ve seen three bosses come and go and took over the business 11 years ago.’ Thanks to stiff competition from the big supermarkets, ‘this business is a struggle,’ she says. ‘But not as much as being a woman in this predominantly male industry. Salesmen come in and ask “is the boss around?” and I say, “Yeah, what do you want?”’
A stone’s throw from RAJ is La Salamandre, a French patisserie and coffee shop that most certainly would not have made the historical high-street line-up but is now arguably its greatest asset. Owned and operated by Jasmine and Alain Ronez, it’s been open four years and has been featured in the Good Food Guide for two years running. Alain has worked for Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay among others – and it shows. In a micro-kitchen he expertly tosses a perfect, fluffy omelette with one hand and dresses a salad with the other, while Jasmine serves up buttery pear and almond tarts, pastries and an exceptional broccoli and cheese quiche. ‘The butter and flour is French, and the fruit is local,’ says Jasmine. We’re only 42km from France so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Hythe should have some French representation, but La Salamandre is so good I’d say it was worth a journey across the Channel alone.
Elsewhere in Hythe, up adorable lanes that shoot off from the high street, you’ll find further secrets such as St Leonard’s Church with its spooky crypt, complete with the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human bones and skulls in Britain; the remains of some 4,000 people. Then there’s the Tin Tabernacle, one of few survivors of prefab buildings erected at the end of the Victorian era, as well as the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, the smallest public railway in the country. ‘Kent’s Mainline in Miniature’, these one-third full-size steam and diesel engines have powered their way along 22km of track for more than 90 years, from Hythe to Dungeness. The end of the line in more ways than one, Dungeness is one of the largest expanses of shingle beaches in Europe, and a conservation area home to a remarkable variety of flora and fauna. Bizarrely, it’s also the site of two nuclear power stations, one of which is still operational. This is a famously eerie place where clapperboard bungalows and low-lying electricity cables lines reminiscent of the US Midwest hum under the watchful eye of the power stations and lighthouses that guard the beach. The Martian landscape is scented by a meady smell of wildflowers mingling with salty sea air, and the beach is all but deserted.
The Dungeness Snack Shack is one of only a few destinations where visitors can pick up something to eat. Owner Kelly Smith runs the outdoor café from a trailer on the beach. ‘I come from a 300-year line of fishermen,’ she says. ‘I was born in Dungeness and my parents and uncles still live here.’ The crab shack is crazily popular, and for good reason. It churns out fabulous fish from Thursday to Sunday made from a daily catch that’s hauled onto this exact spot – think dabs, whiting and crab. There are fisherman’s rolls with fillets cooked on the grill and served hot in a bun, Mexican flatbreads with the day’s catch dressed in lime, chilli, sour cream and coriander, and lobster and crab rolls. In the winter, punters can expect a cracking smoked cod chowder. Everything is made from scratch, from the bread to a killer tartare sauce. ‘I used my savings to buy a trailer and started cooking our family’s fish,’ says Smith. ‘Everyone thought I was nuts but then we got really busy.’ What does the future hold? ‘Nothing fancy, maybe a fish restaurant.’
Dungeness beach shelters Romney Marsh, a low-lying area of land rich in alluvial minerals that was once covered in sea. Historically this has been an isolated community and was once a smuggler’s paradise that brought riches and romance in equal measure. At The Ferry Inn in Stone-in-Oxney there’s even an old smuggler’s door built into the fireplace. The Marsh has its fair share of beautiful estates, many of which were built on pirates’ ill-gotten gains: wealthy people with dubious backgrounds reclaimed land on which to build their homes. There are also 14 churches on the marsh – in the middle of nowhere – offerings to God, built to atone for bad behaviour. The ghosts of pirates aren’t the only things haunting the marsh: it’s also full of sheep. Romneys are a hardy breed that has been indigenous to the marsh since the 13th century and Camilla Hayselden-Ashby’s family have been farming land here for 100 years. Camilla is currently taking a post-grad degree in farming so that one day she can take over the farm from her father, Keith. ‘I don’t have any brothers,’ Camilla says with a smile as she shows me around. ‘And I’ve got big shoes to fill – my dad’s a bit of a local idol.’ The sheep here live a natural life, with lambs slaughtered at under a year, hogget between one and two years and then mutton after that. Traditionally, marsh shepherds were called ‘lookers’ and the entire process from lambing to slaughter was taken care of by locals. Today it’s likely that itinerant workers from New Zealand will shear the sheep come spring. Reared on the salty pastures and lush grass, they are some of the tastiest in the world and popular from here to their imported shearer’s homeland, where they know a thing or two about quality lamb.
Over at Romney Marsh Wools, I meet Paul Boulden and his wife Kristina, a sheep-farming family that has diversified into wool products, using artisans around the country to produce crafts and clothing using heritage techniques. ‘A pro-shearer can do 1,000 sheep in two days,’ Boulden tells me, as he strips off like a boxer about to enter the ring. ‘We produce five to six tonnes of wool each year, and at one stage it was costing more to shear sheep than to sell fleeces.’ He starts to wrestle the first sheep into submission. ‘Shearing is addictive,’ he says, ‘Look, I’m already sweating like a pig – I’ll lose a stone before the season is out.’
A Merino sheep is first for the chop ‘Romneys are more badass’ and Boulden slips into a rhythmic dance to the buzz of his clippers. It’s mesmerising to watch. The belly comes off first, before the nude sheep seems to slip out of its fleece like a newborn, in a process that takes just five minutes.
Head north-east cross-country to the and the landscape changes from sheep to exotic animals. There’s a whole savannah’s worth living on the 242ha estate and a stay at this otherworldly property includes buggy access to the wildlife park before it’s open to the general public of a morning.
‘There’s no need to set an alarm,’ I’m told on arrival. ‘Just leave your window open and you’ll wake up to the howler monkeys, tigers and gorillas.’ Stay in the main house, built in the early 20th century, or in one of the new private lodges that guarantee up-close and personal experience with animals, including rhinos and tigers. Sipping a sundowner in my own pretty garden with a rhino in the adjacent field is a truly surreal and magical experience.
There is also the opportunity to tour the flamboyant main house with its restaurant complete with an incredible Martin Jordan mural. The food isn’t as wild as the setting but dishes such as scallops with pea purée, black pudding and chorizo and succulent chateaubriand pack a punch nonetheless – especially when washed down with Kentish wines from Biddenden Vineyards.
Formerly an orchard, this wine estate has produced red, white, sparkling and sweet wine since 1972, diversifying when the price of apples plummeted in the Sixties. The current thirst for British wine shows little sign of slowing down, and Kent is also taking a swig from the sparkling wine market. At Gusbourne Estate founder Andrew Webber started with a mere 20ha of vines in 2004. Today there are 60ha, as well as an impressive new cellar door and tasting room, The Nest, which opened in 2017.
‘We have the same chalk soil as Champagne,’ says COO Jon Pollard. ‘But it’s definitely a balancing act thanks to the British weather and a Mediterranean plant that needs lots of care and attention.’ Planted with a mixture of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier, Gusbourne yields a brut reserve (classic cuvée), a sparkling rosé and a blanc de blancs. ‘A lot of people come into this from a romantic notion but it’s a full-time job,’ says Pollard. ‘It’s massively labour intensive but when I come out here and see the vines looking healthy, it makes me very proud.’ A tasting of the blanc de blancs shows it to be rich and scented, with a delicious honeyed palate and some refreshing acidity.
An unapologetic taste of quintessential England is found in Appledore, at Miss Mollett’s High Class Tea Room. Like a set from an Agatha Christie novel, it’s the stuff of chintz dreams. Miss Mollett’s serves insanely good cakes and sandwiches to deliver a perfect slice of nostalgia – without the inevitable murder. ‘People come from far and wide. They flock in,’ says owner Alex Cowell. And why wouldn’t they? There’s comfort to be found in a place that eschews the new for some good old-fashioned hospitality. Much of Romney Marsh and the surrounding area shares a similar sense of yesterday, supporting a dying Britishness that spans the eccentric to the earthy and a curious charm that reveals itself in its own time. And, if the increasing property prices are a any barometer, it is the South East’s Next Big Thing.
Olivia Palamountain and Gary Latham travelled courtesy of Visit Kent. visitkent.co.uk
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