Visits to Kent, known as the "Garden of England," and Cumbria's Lake District are 2 options for those looking to venture outside of London.
Photography by the authors
Kent is where God and Geoffrey Chaucer placed the Celebrated Canterbury Cathedral. This is where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, and it’s now the worldwide mother church of the Anglican Communion.
In Kent, Dover Castle, perched above the White Cliffs, has “guarded England’s shores for 20 centuries.” The historic Dockyard rose up at Chatham to be “the world’s most complete dockyard from the Age of Sail.” And the flowers bloom so well in this idyllic climate, the county has been called the “Garden of England.”
Kent surely enjoys its history, some of which has come about because of the county’s proximity to the Monarchy in London and because it enjoys the finest weather in the United Kingdom.
The royals found it convenient to visit this corner of their realm and the many boroughs seem preoccupied with the fact that their coats of arms reveal a royal crest showing royal patronage.
In the map of Southeast England, London sits at the very top left. We have placed red dots on the map to show places of particular interest, starting with the Royal Tunbridge Wells about 40 miles southeast of London. The street scene is of the Pantiles, the Georgian-paved colonnade that leads to the well whose waters brought the wealthy and the indolent to the city.
The popularity of the waters came after Lord North—an aristocratic fop, a poet, a musician, and a politician—discovered the spring, tasted the waters and felt his dissipated life had undergone a marvelous recovery. The foul taste was due to salts of iron. Another titled person cleared the land and set up a spa. It was like our Field of Dreams.
Dandies and dudes came and the common people followed. An act was signed in 1739 that the area would be freely available to the public, and Royal Tunbridge Wells has been a successful summer resort ever since. Its population is about 60,000.
Visitors don’t have to take the “waters” now; they can wander into the Duke of York pub for a glass of Bass or Harvey’s. And they don’t have to look for a B&B. They can choose Queen Victoria’s favorite retreat, the 19-room Royal Wells Inn. The 4-poster beds are fit for American royalty.
Some of the clientele of Royal Tunbridge Wells went from iron water salts to seawater because of a treatise written in 1750 by one Richard Russell, MD. In it, he proclaimed bathing in, and drinking, sea water was a cure for enlarged lymphatic glands. The glitterati of the day took note and hastened to the coast to a little fishing village, Brighthelmston, that had thrived on its modest mackerel-fishing successes. The seawater mania that evolved along the coast converted the village to our next destination, Brighton, now a town of about 150,000, just over the border of Kent in East Sussex.
The public came in masses once the railroad arrived in 1841. It has since had its ups and downs, but the guide books now say “gentrification has made Brighton fashionable again.”
The Royal Pavilion was built during the early 1800s in its extravagant Indo-Saracenic-style as a palace for the fop who was the Prince of Wales (a title for the heir to the British throne), who later became King George IV. He had first visited Brighton in 1783 as a guest of his uncle, a notorious womanizer whose habits the young prince rapidly embraced. Brighton was a popular retreat for the Prince of Wales for 40 years. He took an active interest in the design of this expensive oddity even demanding stabling for 60 horses!
The city of Brighton bought the Royal Pavilion from Queen Victoria in 1850. It has since become a large public attraction with about 400,000 annual visitors, mostly day visitors coming by train from London.
But most Americans come by car and take the coastal highways east past other popular seaside towns, past Hastings where the battle of 1066 saw the only time England has been successfully invaded, then northeast past Dover, only 21 miles from France.
Dover’s proximity to Calais in France made Germany believe the D-Day invasion would come at Calais. Dover’s white chalk cliffs were a huge obstacle to 4-engine Allied bombers limping back on one engine from bombing Germany. Pilots would have everything flung out over the English Channel in the hope the plane could hold altitude above the 350 feet of the cliffs.
Leather Bottle Inn. Charles Dickens honeymoon bed in room 6.
From Dover it’s a pleasant run northwest to Canterbury and on to one of our favorite English villages: Cobham and the Leather Bottle Inn where Charles Dickens and Catherine, his wife, spent their honeymoon in 1886.
Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers in room 6, and his original 4-poster bed is still in use there. The inn was built in 1629 and got its present name around 1720, when a leather bottle containing gold coins was found on the premises.
The Lake District is best visited by flying into Manchester, England, then renting a car for the 80 miles to a central location like Ambleside, which has many types of accommodation. It would be a long drive up from London, and although you’d be traveling through gorgeous villages as those in the Cotswolds and interesting places like Nottingham with its Robin Hood connections, you’d still be dragging through the industrial heart of England, the Midlands, and that could be seen as a day wasted.
The Lake District, itself, is rather small; you could drive through it in 2 hours. It’s a bit like Vermont: a place of human dimensions. It’s been called “God’s world in miniature,” and when you drive around this world, you pass homes that have stood for centuries. Many of the houses have been whitewashed or painted a brilliant white so that a farmer out late at night administering to a lost sheep could see his house in the dark.
Just like the farmland across the border in Scotland, the meadows and slopes are kept immaculately groomed by their constant attendants, sheep. There are 36 million sheep in Britain. A few years ago, because of worries about scrapie (spongiform encephalopathy), Clostridium perfringens, foot and mouth disease, and bluetongue, Lake District farmers had to cull their herds. Tourists were dismayed to see the green fields without the white figures that could be seen even at night.
The Lake District has more than 800 miles of hill climbs and trekking footpaths. All 5 of England’s 3,000-foot-high mountains are in Cumbria, and shops selling outdoor clothing are everywhere in Ambleside, which has been called “the Anorak capital of the world.”
Pastoral view. Stone wall of Lake District. Stan Laurel was born here. White painted farms could be seen at night. Lake Windermere. Official mailbox even if it is many decades old from the days of George Rex; it should have logo of EIIR (for Elizabeth II Regina), but maybe the Cumbrian Brits are saving money.
Experiences offering the outdoor life are what bring tourists to Cumbria’s hills. They don’t find—or want—large sprawling hotels, vast shopping malls or much in the way of recent cinema. But movie goers can have a unique UK experience in Ulverston, a little town of 12,000 population.
Stan Laurel was born here, and the town has celebrated that by creating the only Laurel and Hardy museum in Europe. There is another one in Harlem, Georgia. In 2005 an official group of UK comedians declared Laurel and Hardy, who made 107 films together, to be the seventh greatest comedy act of all time.
Laurel isn’t the only celebrity who has lived and died in the Lake District. Donald Campbell and his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, captured 21 speed records on land and water, and a museum to them can be found in the Ruskin Museum in Comiston.
Donald Campbell lost his life attempting to break the world’s speed record on water on Lake Comiston. He was popular, and the locals couldn’t bear to disturb his grave deep in the lake from the event of January 4, 1967, but, finally, his remains, and his wrecked Bluebird, were recovered from the lake on March 8, 2001.
Esteemed English poet William Wordsworth lived in Dove Cottage and the daffodils he made famous in his poetry are a bright yellow blanket in springtime. The beloved Bea Potter, who wrote about Peter Rabbit for all our children, lived in Hill Top, and both homes are open to the public.
In some ways a visit here is truly like stepping back to the 1950s to a simpler life of the visitor’s childhood. It’s as if Thomas Wolfe was wrong in 1940 when he wrote his novel. He should have said, “You can go home again!”
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.