Kent has been known as the “Garden of England” ever since Henry VIII tucked into a bowl of juicy Kentish cherries and developed a passion for the fruit. With six wives under his belt, it seems Henry acquired many passions and tastes.
In Kent, the oldest county in England, a fascinating history lesson and a golf course worthy of your bucket list are usually just around the next bend in the road. Take a golf romp in Kent and you will be gob smacked by the quality of the links, plus the many “19thhole” diversions, such as the famous Sissinghurst Gardens, medieval castles and Canterbury Cathedral where you can pray for your soul and your swing on your golf pilgrimage.
Last fall my friend Margaret and I decided to embark on a gourmet golf swing around Kent. I should explain that Margaret, an expert on all things distilled and fermented, makes her living writing about wine, spirits and the pleasures of the table. I am a fanatic about playing ancient links. We travel well together because we are kindred spirits when it comes to golf and gourmet pursuits. The Garden of England is full of tasty offerings such as Dover Sole and Whitstable Oysters that have been shucked long before the Roman invasion, plus award-winning wines and ales.
The Royal Treatment
We began our swing at Hever Castle Golf Course in Edenbridge. Hever Castle is not only one of Kent’s most iconic attractions, it is also home to a par-72 championship parkland course, comprising the Kings and Queens nine-hole tracks, as well as the nine-hole Princes Course. Golf was first introduced at Hever in the 1920s for the personal enjoyment of the owners at that time, the wealthy American Astor family.
The championship course now boasts an array of stunning holes across its 7,002-yard layout, with the 644-yard, par-five 17th regarded as its signature. A stretch of holes from the 11th to the 13th – Hever’s very own “Amen Corner” – offers carries over water onto tricky, slick greens.
After our game we toured the gardens and double-moated, 13thcentury Hever Castle where Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn spent her childhood. It was probably a much happier time than during her marriage to Henry who had her beheaded after 1000 days.
In 1903 William Waldorf Astor bought the castle and spent a fortune restoring it. Around the same time he built the Italianate Gardens and Tudor Village, now known as the Astor Wing. It currently operates as a luxury B&B. Margaret and I enjoyed breakfast in the oak-paneled dining room— a sumptuous affair featuring Kentish bounty such as local apple juice, honey, cheddar cheese and ham.
Bubbles and Blooms
The following day we headed off to Hush Heath Estate for a tour and a sampling of their award-winning Balfour Brut Rosé and other fruits of the vine and orchards. In 2017, British Prime Minister Theresa May brought a bottle or two of Balfour fizz to a meeting in Ottawa with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resulting in the wine now being available in Ontario Liquor stores. Margaret gave it her nod of approval.
I had heard about Kent’s most highly acclaimed garden, Sissinghurst, but words cannot do justice to the utterly charming estate. Sissinghurst was created in the 1930s by poet and garden writer, Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat husband, Harold Nicolson, both eccentrics and inspired gardeners. Among the famous themed outdoor “rooms” surrounding their Elizabethan family home are the White, Rose and Herb gardens. The tower that was Vita’s writing room holds more than 11,000 books and the kitchen and den in the South Cottage are so full of personal memorabilia you get the impression that the Vita and Harold have just stepped out for an afternoon stroll and will soon return for tea.
From Sissinghurst, Margaret and I wound our way along narrow roads framed by tall hedgerows deep into the Kent countryside to our evening destination, Frasers of Egerton, a family-run guest house and restaurant located on a working farm near Ashford.
Kent is famous for its beer. Britain’s oldest brewer, Shepherd Neame, is located here. The Kent countryside is full of Oast Houses built to dry hops. At Frasers we stayed in one of these cleverly renovated Oasts. We dined in the restaurant, a restored barn and splurged on the Tasting Menu where the chef did marvellous things with sole and poached grapes, truffled artichoke soup, roast partridge with cabbage and bacon and a cider sorbet.
The First Sandwich and Sand Wedge
For the next three days, we tackled Kent’s most famous trilogy of golf courses. We drove past the White Cliffs of Dover to Sandwich, a gem of a medieval town. A bit of trivia: it is rumoured that in 1762 the 4thEarl of Sandwich asked for his meat to be served between two slices of bread to avoid interrupting his gambling game. Others began ordering “the same as Sandwich.” And the name stuck.
The effects of wind and tide caused the East Kent shoreline to recede, which meant Sandwich was no longer one of the largest harbours on the coast; it was now about two miles inland. The land left by the receding sea was the ideal place to create links courses for London’s upper echelons as it was only about two hours from the capital.
The most aristocratic of Kent’s celebrated links has to be Royal St. George’s, site of the (British) Open no fewer than 14 times since 1894 and host to the upcoming 149thOpen in 2020. The club was forever immortalized by legendary member, Ian Fleming, in the novel Goldfingeras the course at which James Bond plays the classic match against Auric Goldfinger. It also boasts UK’s tallest and deepest bunker cut into a dune on the fourth fairway.
St. George’s treats golfers to views over Pegwell Bay and the white cliffs of Dover while challenging with some unique blind tee shots, severely undulating fairways and more than 100 bunkers.
The nearby Prince’s Golf Club has three nine-hole loops: The Shore, The Dunes and The Himalayas. Prince’s has hosted many Championships over its 100-year history, including The Open in 1932, won by the charismatic Gene Sarazen. On this occasion, Sarazen used the first sand wedge. An enormous bunker on the ninth fairway of Himalayas is named in his honour. Good luck if you land in it.
If you want to stay right in the “swing of things,” book a room at The Lodge at Prince’s located on the Prince’s Course and overlooking the English Channel. The modern Brasserie is the ideal place to brag about your birdies.
Royal Cinque Ports, or Deal as it is more commonly known, opened its first nine holes in 1892, with a second nine following that same year. Strong winds blow at your back for the entire front ten, then fully in your face for the long march home. Deal is a Jekyll and Hyde if ever there was one with the front ten luring you into a feeling of contentment and the back eight kicking you in the teeth. The splendid location directly on the English Channel looks across to France. You’ll probably see folks walking their dogs and riding horses along the fairways.
In addition to three stellar golf courses, the area is also home to Chequers Cooking School run by Pieter Van Zyl and his partner Stephanie Hayman. Their mission is to teach people to cook and to eat well. Pieter converted a pub that he owned and ran on Golf Road in Deal (near Sandwich) into the school but kept a small bar area so customers can still pop in for a drink. Pieter and his team offer myriad cooking classes introducing eager slicers and dicers to lots of ethnic dishes from Thai to Mexican to Indian. On the third Sunday of every month they serve lunch at communal tables. When planning your trip, try to fit in a lunch or cooking class at Chequers. The food is fabulous and the hosts are charming.
Canterbury Ales & Parting Shots
Even an agnostic such as myself should visit the imposing Canterbury Cathedral, England’s most sacred pilgrimage site. It is the place where Archbishop Thomas Beckett was murdered by four knights of Henry II in 1170. The great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Canterbury Talesabout a group of pilgrims who traveled from London to visit the Cathedral in the 1300s. Canterbury is a vibrant town with lots of great shops and restaurants. At Chapman’s Seafood Bar you can have a feed of the famous Whitstable Oysters and Dover Sole washed down with some Canterbury Ales.
Margaret and I decided to fit in one more round before heading home. London Golf Club, situated just 40 km from the capital offers 36 holes of championship golf designed by Jack Nicklaus. The Heritage course provides an exhilarating test for all abilities with pristine conditioning on its fast greens. The International course is pure downland with quick, undulating fairways forcing a links-style approach. The clubhouse offers impressive facilities much in the style of a posh North American country club. We finished our round on the International Course and headed to the bar for a glass of Kent bubbly and a toast to the bountiful Garden of England.
For itinerary planning and more information: www.golfinkent.co.uk