Border to the capital and gateway to Europe, it’s Kent’s prime location that has made it such a familiar crossing to be conquered by many a traveller over the centuries. With such interesting characters passing through so regularly, there is little wonder as to why so many of them took pen to paper to create some of the world’s best loved fiction, poetry and plays. By Olivia Riccini
Craggy cliffs, coastal paths, sweeping countryside, mysterious marshlands and ancient settlements are just some of the dramatic settings that so inspired these creatives. Throw in some intriguing characters and real-life tales and we as a nation have been left with a magnificent legacy, not only ready to inspire generations to come, but to capture Kent in an enchanting light – its elements framed in enthralling tableaus that blend reality together with the magic of imagination.
It is this legacy of literature that has led Kent to become a cultural escape for both tourists and locals alike, a diverse landscape meaning travellers do not have to go far to absorb a scene completely new. From charming towns brimming with characters that inspired Dickens and Chaucer, to seascapes that shaped stories of spies and the sonnets of Shakespeare, Kent has a surreal setting waiting to inspire and capture the imagination of even the most straightforward of realists. No matter your taste in literature or staycation, you are certain to find a wonderful way to suspend your disbelief here in Kent.
Kent’s place in the evolution of literature was set in stone at the very beginning of the craft. The ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey once housed the monks, including Saint Augustine himself, who wrote the scripture which would re-establish Christianity in southern England, around 597 AD. However, it was not this saint that really placed Canterbury on the literature map, it was of course Archbishop Thomas Becket. Martyred in 1170 at Canterbury Cathedral his shrine became the Mecca for Christian pilgrims across the globe for centuries to come. In the 200 years preceding, these pilgrimages inspired Geoffrey Chaucer to write his famous Canterbury Tales, depicting the life and camaraderie of the Middle Ages.
Chaucer’s use of a pilgrimage as the framing device enabled him to bring together people from many walks of life at the time, and the stories these characters tell represent the challenges and hopefulness that are not so different from those we experience today. In 2023 however, tourists to Canterbury wanting to retrace the steps of these pilgrims and see the ancient monuments that Chaucer and his medieval contemporaries would have laid mesmerised eyes upon, can do so in much more comfort and style. Canterbury Cathedral Lodge is undoubtedly the best city-centre place to stay, in which this awe-inspiring building is quite literally on the doorstep.
Centuries after Chaucer, Canterbury Cathedral would inspire yet another creative. In the 1920s, the world was introduced to Rupert The Bear, a creation of local girl Mary Tourtel. Mary’s family were artists who worked at the cathedral on the restoration of stained-glass windows, and today the Rupert The Bear Museum can be visited in the city as part of The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, which also houses a plethora of other collections, antiques, exhibitions and artworks.
Sitting in the shadow of another glorious cathedral is Rochester, a town which inspired one of the UK’s most heralded authors, Charles Dickens. Many of the buildings found on Rochester’s historic high street, which in shape and style would not be unrecognisable to the author and his characters today, carry plaques detailing how they were incorporated into his novels. Dickens’ most impressionable childhood days were spent in Medway and it was the place he found inspiration for some of his works’ greatest characters and settings. Those wanting to take a deep dive into Dickens’ life and works, can do so at The Making of Mr Dickens, a permanent exhibition at The Guildhall Museum in Rochester. Visitors can enjoy an immersive journey through Dickens’ life in Medway, while exploring the people and places which shaped his complex personal and public life and inspired him to create some of the best-loved stories in English literature.
After visiting the exhibition, keep your day Dickens-themed by visiting either Peggotty’s Parlour for homemade tea and cake, or Oliver’s for crafted cocktails and a delicious dinner. If that’s still not enough Dickens to delight you, The City of Rochester Society offers free 90-minute walking tours (April to October) on selected days, or self-guided walking trails with map ‘In Dickens’ Footsteps’ available from Medway Visitor Information Centre for only £1.
As well as the bustling streets of Victorian Rochester, the eerie quietness of the Romney Marsh was also to set Dickens’ imagination alight. The opening scenes of what is sometimes considered his best work, Great Expectations, describes them as: “A dark flat wilderness, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it. The low leaden line of the river and the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, the sea.” This unearthly scene can be visited to this very day, the churchyard at Cooling thought to be the meeting place of Pip and convict Magwitch. To really absorb the magic of the marsh, stay at Romney Marsh Shepherds Huts under wide open starry skies and amidst creeping marsh mists, cosy and warm in the comfort of a luxury space with all the modern amenities you could need.
Another legendary British writer inspired by the extraordinary beauty of Kent’s countryside, was Jane Austen. Only a short time before Dickens, Austen was to reflect her grandiose visits to family and friends at some of the county’s most spectacular stately homes in several of her novels. An area awash with grand houses of this style that Austen would have been well acquainted lies in the valleys between Dover and Canterbury. Due to the success of the wool trade at the time, many houses were built within close proximity to one another, with plenty still standing today. When visiting the area, onlookers cannot help to envision carriages travelling to and fro – just as Austen and her characters would have done. A house frequented by Austen was that of her brother’s: Goodnestone Park. Austen became a regular guest and following a stay in 1796, she began writing her first novel, Pride and Prejudice. Today visitors can truly get ‘lost in Austen’ when visiting the house, which offers exquisitely designed bedrooms for staying guests, sympathetic to the house’s history and the novelist herself. Daytrippers walking Austen’s countryside can also get a taste of her time here, by paying a visit to the Old Dairy Café, serving locally sourced breakfasts, light lunches, homemade cakes and good coffee.
Another great house to inspire the works of yet another British writer is Sissinghurst Castle. A place now historic, poetic and iconic, a refuge dedicated to beauty, it was here in the 1930s that Vita Sackville-West fell in love with Kent and created her world-renowned garden. Today, visitors can visit the unique ‘garden rooms’, with their colourful blooms still reflecting the romance and intimacy of Vita’s poems and writings. A friend, lover and contemporary of Virginia Woolf, Sackville-West was the inspiration for the protagonist of Orlando: A Biography but is also hugely acclaimed for her own works. A successful novelist, poet and journalist, as well as a prolific letter writer and diarist, Sackville-West published more than a dozen collections of poetry and 13 novels during her life. She was twice awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature: in 1927 for her pastoral epic, The Land, and in 1933 for her Collected Poems.
Today, visitors to Sissinghurst can see her desk and writing room exactly as they would have been, offering a glimpse of her internal intellectual life. Almost 4,000 books line the walls, arranged by theme from astronomy to Renaissance poetry, 1930’s gender theory and practical gardening advice. After a day exploring Sissinghurst, The Bell at Ticehurst is just a short drive away, and from Wednesday to Saturday, offers a fine-dining experience: ‘The Stables’ by head chef Mark Charker. As well as a five-course tasting menu, expect paired wines and bespoke cocktails. A hub of creativity, your day will get even more cultural and arty here – hanging in the dining room is a limited edition signed print by Francis Bacon. A triptych in a riot of reds and oranges, the magnificent work is a guaranteed conversation starter.
Kent’s rural countryside not only inspired settings for literature, but characters too. Author of the novella, The Darling Buds of May, H.E. Bates lived in Little Chart, near Ashford, in the imposing granary which still stands today. Bates based Pop Larkin (a character later played adoringly on screen by David Jason) on someone he saw emerging from a local shop, and the setting of this fictional world in rural Kent. The television series used Pluckley to reflect this haven, and today visitors can revel in this rustic nostalgia when visiting the idyllic village. A wonderful pit stop comes in the form of The Black Horse, a 15th-century inn now offering fine dining. Expect outstanding dishes made from locally sourced produce, as exquisite to the eye as they are sensational on the tongue. The food is complemented by a wide range of fine wines and an extensive gin menu.
The title of the Bate’s book is a quote from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate: / Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May”, yet another legendary British figure who was inspired by the landscapes of Kent before taking quill to parchment. It is said the Bard was so inspired after walking upon the White Cliffs of Dover, that he subsequently wrote the famous scene in King Lear, in which Edgar persuades the blinded Earl of Gloucester that he is at the edge of a cliff in Dover. The scene is so renowned that Dover’s Shakespeare Cliff was named after the reference. Hundreds of years later in 1867, famed 19th-century English poet Matthew Arnold wrote his beautiful lyric poem Dover Beach about the town, perfectly capturing the beauty of the Kent coast.
“The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits: on the French coast, the light
Gleams, and is gone: the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.”
There is no better time than 2023, The Year of the Coast, to visit this area, which includes a pub and restaurant, The Coastguard in St Margaret’s Bay. Britain’s nearest pub to France, The Coastguard has kept watch on the seafront for more than 300 years and after its recent refurbishment, guests can now take in those spectacular bay views in style while indulging in some hearty favourites.
Another famous British poet inspired by Kent’s coast was T.S, Elliot, who in Margate penned The Waste Land. Visitors to Margate can now stay in the very rooms in which he resided at The Pink House, a five-storey boutique bed and breakfast with gorgeous rooms and far-reaching sea views. As well as poets and painters, spy novelists have also had their eureka moments upon Kent’s beaches. On a family stay at Cliff Promenade, Broadstairs, author of The 39 Steps, John Buchan experienced a moment that would change his career. Buchan’s son would write in 1990: “My sister, who was about six, had just learnt to count properly, went down a nearby flight which cut through the rock to the beach – she gleefully announced; there are 39 steps.” Broadstairs is full of wonderful places to stay, including the self-catering cottages of Beautiful Broadstairs. Harbour Haven is a three-bedroom, two-bathroom Grade II listed Georgian house and Nickleby Nook is a three-bedroom second-floor apartment with sea views on Dickens Walk, both just seconds from the sandy golden beach. Spy novels do not stop there in Kent either, with the most famous spy of them all, James Bond, being created right here in the county too. Today a blue plaque can be seen upon The Duck Inn at Pett Bottom confirming that Ian Fleming wrote You Only Live Twice there in 1964. Stop by for divine high-end dining experiences, or simply a drink in the garden in which Fleming had a favourite seat.
Fast forward to today and plenty of 21st-century authors have taken their own inspiration from Kent to craft their characters and set them off against surreal scenes that can only be found in this county. Hollow Shores by Gary Budden is a collection of intriguing short stories, which find horror and ecstasy in the mundane. Following characters on the cusp of change in broken down environments and the landscapes of the mind, Budden uses the strange surreality of Faversham Creek as a setting for one such tale. When looked at in an opposing light to Budden, this area can be seen as a thriving, trendy spot full of bobbing houseboats. Take a visit to Papà Bianco to taste some of Kent’s finest wood-fired pizzas, with live music every Wednesday and Friday.
Budden is not the only author of today to depict some of Kent’s most enthralling, yet strange landscapes in eerie tales. In her book Wide Open, Nicola Barker uses the Isle of Sheppey to provide a suitably unsettling backdrop for her odd cast and storyline. Describing it as “a strange place, flat and empty like the moon,” upon which main character Sarah tends her smallholding while dealing with some troublesome men as boyfriends, neighbours and intruders. Although depicted as strange in Barker’s story, the ethereal beauty of Sheppey can not be denied. One of the best places to witness this is at The Ferry House Inn which sits looking out over a tranquil and marshy estuary. Here guests can enjoy divine meals made from The Ferry House’s own garden, stay in opulent rooms and even indulge in a relaxing spa treatment.
Another place full of estuaries and surreal beauty, where the extraordinary can be found in the ordinary is Gravesend. It was here that David Mitchell set The Bone Clocks, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2014 and called one of the best novels of the year by Stephen King, winning the World Fantasy Award in 2015. Main character Holly Sykes, a young woman from Gravesend, is gifted with an “invisible eye” and semi-psychic abilities, running away from her parent’s pub in the town at the beginning of the story. Pubs there are plentiful in the town, but those looking for something quirky will find it at The Mole Hole ‘Kent’s friendliest micropub,’ serving cask ales, ciders and gins.
In nearby Dartford, a much lighter tale was inspired. Considered a modern children’s classic and a favourite with younger readers since its publication 1963, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, was based on the local finding of a Stone Age man in a chalk pit during his time in the area. Today, these same chalk pits are now home to the brilliant Bluewater Shopping Centre, Kent’s best-loved spot for destination shopping and dining.