How Kent got its groove back: meet England’s county of cool

Food & drink

How Kent got its groove back: meet England’s county of cool

The south-east seat is upping its game with an edgier take on weekend breaks from 'Shoreditch-on-Sea' to shepherd's huts…

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir26 October 2019

The county of Kent is officially cool. Boutique hotels are planting roots in the ‘garden of England’, locavore eateries are cropping up and seaside towns are getting a breath of fresh salty sea air… Yes, the flounce on Britain’s hemline is the place to be. So, join us along the M2 to drink in Kent’s cool aid – and see what’s next for this comeback county…

Kent’s back-in-the-groove rebirth has been a long time coming: the development of the Thames Gateway, a growing number of second-wave London émigrés and a whoosh of creativity energised by the Margate-based Turner Contemporary gallery’s success have conspired to bring hipness to the south east. Plus, reasonably priced housing drawing in cool young things, ravishing green stretches and funfair kitsch have proved as much of a siren song as the jangle of an arcade’s 10-pence pusher.

Kent has fostered YBAs (Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Tacita Dean), fashion designers (Mary Quant, Zandra Rhodes), and a superband’s worth of music legends (Kate Bush, Shane McGowan, Billy Childish, Sid Vicious, and the Rolling Stones’ Mick and Keef). Emin especially has been the standard bearer for a vanguard bolstering the creative industries and spurring an uptick in the economy. Along with council-funded studio spaces and arts programmes and flourishing collectives, signs of gentrification are showing: indie record stores, polished wine bars, coffees with origin stories and such. Ambitious chefs have made good use of fishermen’s hauls and farmers’-market windfalls, too, helming starred restaurants and lauded street-food stalls alike. Margate’s Italian-accented Bottega Caruso is leading the charge.

Cliff in Dover, Mr & Mrs Smith

Perhaps Kent’s most endearing quality is that it’s anxious to preserve its authenticity, protecting its communities, heritage and countryside – something newcomers and investors are cautious to be sensitive to, repurposing dormant stores and bringing locals on board with development projects. The timeless lures of beloved holiday spots such as Broadstairs with its bracing coastal walks, sunset-painted bays and Dickens heritage, Ramsgate with its maritime trappings and Victoriana (and, yes, the world’s largest Wetherspoons), Whitstable’s net-fresh oysters, Sandwich’s chocolate-box streets and more remain largely untouched. The glancing rays off Dover’s chalky cliff faces and Turner’s ethereal glow paint getaways in a nostalgic light, and inland, lush nature reserves and National Trust showpieces abound.

So, if you’re hankering for pub lunches that could feed a black hole and comfortingly hefty parcels of fish and chips, want a chlorophyll fix and to feel the sand between your toes – plus, pit stops with thudding cultural pulses – then set a course southeast. To ensure you see Kent’s best bits, we’ve picked out boutique stays that capture the county’s forward-ho zeitgeist.

Room at The Rose, Kent, Mr & Mrs Smith


The Rose, Deal

Margate may be the ‘Shoreditch-on’Sea’ poster child for the British Riviera’s Kent-rification, but Deal – a reopened time-capsule of a town – is a strong contender for the title. Interest in this beachside bohemian has grown since brilliant restaurant with rooms the Rose turned up the spotlight on its sea-gazing charms.

Brewing scion Christopher Hicks has revamped his family pub with the help of his partner, ex-Wallpaper* magazine editor Alex Bagner. It’s now a cooler-than-a-Mr-Whippy stay with bygone styling (Liberty prints, rattan furnishings, velvet cocktail chairs, an avocado-hued bathroom suite…) and modern touches: unabashed colour and well-curated modern art.

Their excellent restaurant is overseen by former Polpo and Spuntino chef Rachel O’Sullivan, who draws in hungry punters with bacon rolls with a squirt of rhubarb ketchup, just-hooked fish and farm-reared meats, and decadent desserts: lemon-verbena posset and a dutch baby sticky with marmalade and a scoop of buttermilk ice-cream. Plus the bar’s lined with taps of chilled ales to take out to the terrace, including Hicks’ grandfather’s creation: Walmer Ale.

What’s cool in Deal? Walk along the pier, check out the indie shops along the award-winning high street, rummage through vinyl at Smugglers Records, swing by Deal Castle, use up any loose change in the arcades and stop for an apéritif at Le Pinardier wine bar before dinner at beloved French bistro Frog & Scot.

Orangerie at St Leonard's Restaurant, Mr & Mrs Smith


St Leonard’s, West Malling

In ‘next big thing’ divination, few rods have swung in the direction of West Malling, a market town most famous as the place where the Beatles filmed the start of the Magical Mystery Tour. But – pro tip, London-escapees – this could be about to change since restaurant with rooms St Leonard’s opened.

If you squint, parts of Kent evoke Italian-accented rolling greenery, but St Leonard’s menu has a wholly authentic air to it. Pasta is made fresh each day, all but one of the chefs are from the motherland and quality ingredients (arborio rice, 00 flour, single-estate extra-virgin olive oil) have all been hauled over from Umbria. The drinks list follows suit with classic Italian cocktails and spritzes, Malfy’s flavoured gins and an extensive spread of regional wines.

After a delightfully carb-y feast (there’s an edit of gourmet pizzas, too), a quartet of rooms styled like the cosiest Nordic cabins are just a flight of stairs away. One has a freestanding bath tub, some are insulated with navy or dove-grey panelling, all have bouncy beds, graphic cushions and sweetly minimalist ornaments. And, on a sunny day, St Leonard’s glass-roofed orangery dining room might fool you into thinking you’re in a revamped villa in the boot’s hinterland – especially on Sundays when a prosecco-sloshed brunch is served.

What’s cool in West Malling? Currently it’s more winsome than cool, but sometimes it’s hip to be fair. The high street is lined with indie shops running from high-end tailoring to antiques dealers to jewellers. Stop in the Farmhouse for a pint or Frank’s Restaurant and Mussel Bar for lunch, where there’s a whole menu dedicated to moules. Further afield, Leeds Castle, Ightham Mote and Aylesford Abbey bring up the past and active sorts can bomb down biking trails or drive out to the coast for kite-surfing.

Terrace at The Pig at Bridge Place, Mr & Mrs Smith


The Pig at Bridge Place, Bridge

What started as a sole country hideaway with a garden-to-plate restaurant that set the culinary grapevine awash with praise is now a litter of boutique stays in Britain’s most fertile quarters. This little piggy is close to Canterbury in the comely village of Bridge.

There’s an ‘if it ain’t broke’ attitude to this Pig – the restaurant still sources its ingredients from the hotel garden or within a 25-mile radius and it’s still styled as a quirky ‘flat-cap and Barbour’ jacket kinda pub with enough edge to lure the DFLs. Rooms reside in the main Grade-II-listed Jacobean residence, whose rock-and-roll cred is secured as the former venue for Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd gigs (and possibly hell-raising after-parties); and there are hideaways in a restored gatehouse, the new Coach Lodge, and outlying Hop Pickers’ Huts.

Curl up with a book by a stone hearth, seek out the house’s secret stairways and try treatments in the on-site spa, which uses garden-plundered potions. Get to know your surroundings through the magnificent menu (with a side of signature crackling) and float about the gardens. This is some Pig.

What’s cool in Bridge? There is indeed a bridge in Bridge – but not a lot else. Student-y Canterbury, a 15-minute drive away, is much livelier. Stop by wonky bookshop Catching Lives, plunder vintage stores Revivals and Funky Monks, and music lovers can get revved up at brilliantly named Vinylstore Jr (Dinosaur Jr, geddit?). Come evening, stop into the Shakespeare wine bar, or grab a brew and a pie in the Foundry. Punk and alt gigs are held at the Lady Luck, stand-up comedy at the Marlowe Theatre and you can dance til late at the Ballroom. Beyond the city, Simpsons Estate grows distinguished Brit wines on its acres of fertile terroir.

Elmley Reserve, Mr & Mrs Smith


Elmley Nature Reserve, Isle of Sheppey

This is the only National Nature Reserve in England where you can stay overnight. And, you can shelter from the comely elements in a series of stylish shepherd’s huts, or in 18th-century Kingshill Farmhouse – a lovingly restored country hideaway with Farrow and Balled walls, vintage trinkets and four-poster beds. This slice of Austen-style escapism is set on a 3,000-plus acre estate on the Thames’ Isle of Sheppey, just an hour from London, so you won’t want for green stretches to wander lonely. Or with the 14 friends or family members the house accommodates.

Guests have the run of an enormous country kitchen and a chef can be dispatched with a basket of locally sourced ingredients, if you don’t fancy doing the honours – linger over oredered-in home-cooked feasts in your dining room or out in the manicured garden. Cuddle up in cosy lounges, summon a spa therapist to pummel ramble-wearied limbs or raid the honesty bar for a whisky to sip by the fire pit.

The space inspires laidback socialising, with boxes of board games and sun-trap terraces. And it’s largely off-the-grid, so you’ll have no choice but to ditch the devices and commune with nature – or each other when the mood takes you. After-dark, turn your eyes to the skies for a glittering coating of stars.

What’s cool in Elmley Nature Reserve?
There are night-owls aplenty in this wild spot – but they are, quite literally, owls. These majestic flappers are joined by birds of prey, wading birds and – come winter – migrating wildfowl and lavish murmurations of starlings, making the vast moody skies quite spectacular. Request a private wildlife tour to see all the woodland creatures, check the barn-owl box for owlets, hunker down in a hide and take treks through the bulrush reeds and long grasses. Or, journey down to Whitstable for fresh-from-the-net oysters and by-the-sea wanderings.

Continue your tour of England’s back garden with our boutique hotels across Britain