Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Extraordinary Ways to Explore Kent
With such a diverse and varied landscape, our coastal county of Kent has a beautiful array of scenery set to inspire even the most intrepid of explorers. From our dramatic cliffs famous for their imposing magnificence and being the gateway to Britain, to our rolling green countryside that tells the story of our rural heritage, there’s so much to see and discover in The Garden of England. But in a county of such varied terrain, with rivers and railways that run through it like veins and craggy coastal coves that are best reached by sea, how are we best meant to explore it? As any keen explorer will know, the mode of transport chosen makes the exploration all the more exciting and naturally, Kent has a plethora of options to choose from when it comes to getting about the county and seeing it from quite literally, a different angle.
Some of the earliest explorers that came to Kent travelled by boat across unpredictable oceans. The first stop of Julius Caesar is said to be Kent’s most easterly point: Pegwell Bay, from which the Romans launched their invasion of Britain; a momentous time in history that shaped our future forever. Today, explorers can witness this coastline from the same perspective that Caesar himself did by venturing out with Dover Sea Safari. Choose from three different trips or a private boat charter including: The White Cliffs of Dover experience, a Seal Trip or a Goodwin Sands exploration. The Secret Seal Safari is designed to observe common harbour seals, not just whizzing you across Pegwell Bay, but instead bringing you up under the iconic White Cliffs of Dover and along this breathtaking coastline. Upon reaching Walmer, they head north, passing through Deal and taking in a close view of Deal Pier. Then they go onward through to Sandwich Bay, entering the mouth of the River Stour through Pegwell Bay. As well as Caesar’s landing point, the lovely Pegwell Bay is a large nature reserve known for its migratory wading birds and wildfowl. There’s plenty of time for a bit of spotting if you’d like to bring your binoculars. Engines off and drifting by in silence, you can observe the seal colony’s natural inquisitiveness towards people while basking on the river bank and popping up around the boat. If history is more your inclination, the Goodwin Sands trip sights seals, but also incorporates the hundreds of shipwrecks wrecked by the infamous sands. Sometimes ghostly yet always a sight to behold, these wrecks are occasionally revealed above water after years being hidden with the shifting of the sands and changing of the tide.
If you are a person without a set of sturdy sea legs then flying might be more your style to see this stretch of the Kent coast. The ultimate way to achieve this birds-eye-view is with Lydd Air Sightseeing Tours. Enjoy a Champagne and canapés reception before a pre-flight briefing with the captain. Tours take place on Saturdays during the early evening, giving passengers a totally unique perspective with vision ahead and below from large panoramic windows that offer unrivalled photographic opportunities. As well as the White Cliffs Tour, a 25-minute flight that operates over the sea and gives an opportunity to view this awe-inspiring coastline, there is also a Romney Marsh tour that takes 15 minutes and instead has views over the sweeping Camber Sands, quaint Rye Harbour, picturesque rural village of Appledore and the surreal Romney Marshes.
Plane experiences in Kent are vast and varied including incredible trips that will get the adrenaline pumping and are certain to be remembered for a lifetime. One of the most iconic experiences is without a doubt the Fly with a Spitfire Experience by Aero Legends from Headcorn Aerodrome. A spine tingling mix of aerial artistry and flying theatre, the Spitfire suddenly appears as your wingman as you, in a helicopter, fly within smiling distance. A plane synonymous with Kent, watch it dance and manoeuvre around you with breathtaking ease. Your trip also includes photography for a cherished memento. This experience is not only exciting but extremely emotive, flying in the very airspace where some of the most intense battles were fought. The sight of the Spitfire being put through its paces will take your breath away and make your heart race as you imagine the emotions of the pilots in ‘the long hot summer’ of 1940.
Another brilliant way to see Kent’s countryside from above is by microlight. Into The Blue offers a 30- or 60-minute experience flying out of Rochester Airport and over the Isle of Sheppey looking towards the stunning coastal stretches of Whitstable and Herne Bay. Partakers will get to sit in tandem with the pilot and learn how to control the aircraft using the triangular control bar. Then your instructor will take you up to a height of around 2,000 feet at speeds of 50-60 mph, before receiving your souvenir flight certificate at the end of your experience. Microlighting is not to be confused with gliding, which can be experienced at Kent Gliding Centre. The airfield at Challock, established in 1963, is set in beautiful countryside on top of the North Downs. This location, which the club owns outright, gives the gliding club access to excellent ‘thermal soaring’ as well as ‘ridge soaring’ all the way to Rochester when the wind obliges.
The gliding centre offers a Gliding Experience Flight for those that may have never flown before or simply want to have another go. For your flight, you will be with an experienced qualified pilot who will sit in the back of a two seater glider. You, the passenger, will sit in the front. The glider has duplicate controls and instrumentation so you will experience the same as a pilot flying the glider solo, but the experienced pilot will be in command and do most of the flying. Partakers will, conditions permitting, be offered the chance to control the glider themselves, and so experience being a pilot – safe in the knowledge that they have an experienced pilot guiding them. This part is optional, so those wanting to simply sit and enjoy the flight and stunning scenery can do so. The flight lasts about 15 minutes and afterwards partakers will be presented with a souvenir certificate.
For those looking for a longer experience in the air and wanting to take in as much of Kent’s scenery and iconic locations as possible, take a ride with Polar Helicopters. Taking off from Manston or Rochester airports, there are a range of different flights on offer showcasing the best of Kent’s countryside and coastline, castles, landmarks, towns and cities. Operating from March to September once a month, the helicopter sightseeing flight is done in a Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter and the group of four passengers can choose from a 10, 20, 30 or 40 minute flight duration. Suggested tours include Brands Hatch, which gives you a birds eye view of the racing circuit, Rochester Castle, Rochester Cathedral and the The Historic Dockyard Chatham, QE2 Bridge and Bluewater, which includes these sights as well as the QE2 Bridge, Bluewater Shopping Centre, Eynsford Castle and Lullingstone Castle. The Leeds Castle and Medway Coast is a northwest Kent tour taking in the major sights of the area including Cooling Castle, Chilston Park, the world renowned Leeds Castle and the county town of Maidstone.
If you were hoping for a gentler way to see Kent by air then look no further than taking a magical trip in a hot air balloon with Kent Ballooning. Established in 1990, Kent Ballooning is the longest running balloon company in Kent. Chief pilot, Michael, who is also a UK Balloon Pilot Instructor, has been flying in Kent since 1998 and has excellent local knowledge having lived here since 1981. Michael will be quick to point out various landmarks and places of historical interest. After an experience that needs little explanation in regards to its magnificence, enjoy glasses of Champagne whilst you browse your in-flight photos. Soft drinks are also available, and for ale lovers there is plenty of Spitfire courtesy of balloon sponsors, Shepherd Neame. An excellent passenger safety record, the Spitfire balloon basket was manufactured to Kent Ballooning’s own larger specifications including seats for unparalleled comfort and safety during the flight and landing. VIP packages are also available with Kent Ballooning, who say they have witnessed many extra-special marriage proposals in the clouds!
When flying by air through Kent, onlookers will notice the many rivers that flow majestically out towards our shoreline. These are yet another brilliant way to explore the county, with each playing their own unique part in Kent’s history; from having strategic use in battle to serving the land and towns that sit on their banks with water for crops and as a mode of transport. One of Kent’s most important and historically significant rivers is The River Medway, which by boat is best explored with Jet Stream Tours. Offering several different cruises, one of the most quintessentially Kentish options is the Fish and Chip Cruise from Chatham. An idyllic option for summer, take a three-hour evening cruise along the Medway with a local and prominent speaker highly knowledgeable in all things River Medway and Kent. Traditional fish and chips will be served with a full bar available onboard. This is a chance to discover the history, wildlife and cultural importance of the Medway Estuary. This informal but intimate setting gives you an opportunity to see the estuary in its glory, to ask questions and get a full insight to the speaker’s topic, which can vary in topics such as wildlife to the Rochester Oyster Floating Fishery.
Daytime tours with Jet Stream include Chatham to the Redsand Towers, a rare opportunity to get up close to a historic wartime relic that sits far out at sea. This trip takes around five hours, from Sun Pier to the eerie World War II Maunsell fort. These Historic monuments stand in the estuary some nine miles from Southend and five miles from Whitstable. Along the way, the boat will pass by numerous island forts that have guarded the Medway Estuary since the 1860s and passengers will have a chance to take plenty of photos in and around the towers as the vessel is small enough to pass between and under the structures. If you’re an avid photographer, grab your long lens to see if you can snap photos of the majestic peregrine falcons. On the return journey, pass round the infamous SS. Richard Montgomery, an American Liberty cargo ship built during World War II that sank with about 1,400 tonnes of explosives on board. Don’t worry! Likelihood of explosion is deemed remote and you will be outside the exclusion zone, so you are guaranteed to return safely back up the Medway to Rochester. A full commentary is available on the vessel along with a bar and toilets.
Being such a large river, Jet Stream is far from the only way to explore the Medway’s many meanders. The Kentish Lady River Boat is synonymous with Maidstone and is one of Kent’s premier excursion providers, providing unique experiences of the Upper River Medway, including one-hour trips at weekends and selected school holidays, three-hour lunch and supper cruises for groups and individuals during the week, plus a unique visit to the marvellous Allington Castle. The Kentish Lady departs from Maidstone Town Centre and cruises upriver through Farleigh Lock and onwards under Farleigh, Barming and Teston bridges, turning at Teston Lock for the return journey. While sailing, you can enjoy a complimentary supper of fish and chips or a lunchtime picnic box, plus a tea, coffee or water, as well as a selection of fresh fruit. Prepare to be looked after by the attentive crew and feel free to move around the boat so as to enjoy the open decked spaces on the front and at rear of the vessel – a truly gorgeous experience in the sunshine.
With history around every corner and beautiful scenery, this excursion includes informative commentary. Once through Farleigh Lock, the countryside opens up to reveal wildlife of all varieties including birds such as kingfishers, herons, swans, cormorants, geese and ducks, so remember to keep a watchful eye out and bring your camera! The catamaran-style vessel has a fully licensed bar and onboard toilet facilities, its ground level decks also provide easy access for a limited number of standard wheelchairs. Private charter of The Kentish Lady is also available for special occasions such as weddings and social functions.
Another one of Kent’s iconic rivers includes the River Stour that runs through the centre of the ancient City of Canterbury. When in the town, there are several companies that take to the river’s gently flowing water, offering informative tours and a view of the city that can not be seen on foot. Canterbury Punting Company is a wonderful way to do just this, especially in the summer sunshine when a cooling trip down the river might be just what you need, from the comfort of a classic hand-built punt. Canterbury Historic River Tours has been rowing and touring the stour since 1932, telling tourists the tales of the witches’ ducking stool, Greyfriars Island, Blackfriars’ Monastery, the 16th-century Old Weavers’ House, the prestigious King’s School, the Marlowe Theatre and more – all of which you will see on your cruise. After your trip and with all your newfound knowledge safely stored in your mind, why not indulge in a lovely Sunday lunch at the Old Weavers itself, now an acclaimed restaurant, where you will continue to absorb all the history and character of this ancient city and its enthralling past.
The River Stour continues to flow out of the city and into the beautiful countryside that sits between Canterbury and the Isle of Thanet. For those wanting to see this part of the river, take a trip to Grove Ferry where you will find Grove Ferry River Trips. A green (in both colour and action), environmentally friendly electric-powered boat will take you quietly and sedately on a river cruise along the Kentish Stour, managed by the skipper who will occasionally break the peace to enhance the trip with anecdotes of history that are relevant to your location on the river. As you pass through areas of outstanding beauty out of reach to others on foot or by car, enjoy the quiet, fume-free boat, the fresh air and the tranquillity of these serene surroundings that teem with wildlife – especially in the summer. Upon your return, we recommend you visit The Grove Pub and Inn, which is also the mooring location, for cold Kentish ales, a delicious supper as the sun sets, or a hearty pub lunch in the afternoon sun.
With water and air pretty much covered, those who wish to explore Kent on the ground can do so too in just as exciting and unique ways. One of Kent’s top tourist attractions and popular with visitors from around the world is the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. Since 1927, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway has been an integral part of the landscape of Kent’s surreal and vast Romney Marsh. Known as ‘Kent’s Mainline in Miniature’, the much admired one-third full size steam and diesel locomotives have powered their way along the 13.5 miles of track from the Cinque Port town of Hythe terminating in Dungeness, a National Nature Reserve. With four stations in between, all within walking distance of one of Kent’s wondrous beaches including the golden sands of Dymchurch, this railway will provide you with an opportunity to explore this beautiful corner of Kent. An absolute must for summer.
For a truly nostalgic, magical journey through Kent’s most beautiful and picturesque countryside, the Kent and East Sussex Railway allows passengers to travel back in time starting at Tenterden Town Station and chugging 10.5 miles to Bodiam station. Originally part of a larger system which operated between Headcorn and Robertsbridge, the Kent and East Sussex Railway was the very first light railway to be constructed, being fully equipped with full-size trains, but having steep gradients and operating at low speed. Passenger trains ran from 1900 until 1954, but an ambitious scheme to reopen the railway from Tenterden was proposed, although it was not until 1974 that the first trains were able to run on a short section of line. The registered charity that now owns and operates the line was able to finally restore services to Bodiam in time for the centenary of the line in 2000, today offering a marvellous day out for visitors.
Today, trains have hurtled into the future and now operate at super high speeds and have made the journey between London and Kent more accessible than ever before. Southeastern operates the train service between London and Kent, providing the opportunity for many more tourists to visit The Garden of England. Their Javelin trains travel at high speeds up to 140 mph and call at many stations across Kent – including popular tourist destinations such as Canterbury, Margate, Ramsgate, Dover, Whitstable and Folkestone. Rail travel is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel – a single train can remove up to 500 cars from the roads! So this summer, by using Southeastern trains to visit the beach and explore quintessential villages such as Chartham, Chilham, Wye, not only will you save your time, but you will be helping to reduce your carbon footprint too.
Another more sustainable way to tour The Garden of England is available from the award-winning UK Electric Bike Centre, which offers a unique experience viewing the beautiful Weald of Kent countryside on an electric bike. With carefully designed routes on quiet country lanes with little traffic, cycle past castles and gardens, award-winning vineyards (where you can stop for a tour and tasting) and pretty villages steeped in history complete with pubs perfect for lunch and pit stops.