Camping Inspiration: Discover captivating Kent
Giles Babbidge takes a family holiday to the Garden of England to see what he’s been missing all these years.
Having spent my entire life living in the south of England, the county of Kent has always been on my list as somewhere to visit for a holiday at some point.
Up until now it’s only been work and the odd social visit which has seen me head in that direction.So a change was clearly in the air.
With arrangements made and the car packed, we duly set off for the south-east of England and the area long referred to as the Garden of England – on account of its plentiful fruit-growing, orchards and hop gardens.
Arriving on a beautifully sunny late afternoon, we received a warm welcome from Christine, the owner of Nethergong Camping. We picked this site for a number of reasons, not least of all because it is incredibly family/child-friendly, with nature a central feature. Visitors can choose between wooded or grassed pitches, none of which are measured, giving a nice, relaxed ‘back to nature’ feel which is clearly appreciated by everyone.
It was great to see children being encouraged to freely explore the woods and glades, play on tyre swings, make dens in pocketed areas around the place and even take part in bushcraft activities. Such simple pleasures; when was the last time you stayed at a campsite like this? Like many, our default these days is to choose a site which offers the convenience of electric hook-up, but Nethergong is no such place - and thankfully so.
We brought our own means for charging phones and cool blocks were taken care of thanks to Nethergong’s two large freezers. As for clothes washing, a basic washing machine arrangement was also available.
After being shown around (and getting our first glimpse of the Gong café/shop and ponds along the way), we chose to set up home in a flat, sheltered area known as The Camping Wood. This turned out to be an even better decision, when the heavens opened later in the week. For convenience that evening, dinner came courtesy of Ossies Fish Bar (about eight minutes’ drive away in Sturry); it’s worth noting that there are a couple of convenience stores close by, too.
I always enjoy the first afternoon/evening when visiting a campsite; the relaxed pace, knowing that you are setting up base for a while and that everything you need is right there on your doorstep. Exploring a little, I took myself off to the check out the toilet/washing block and was intrigued to spy an open-air shower, the temptation of which got the better of me the following morning under glorious sunshine.
Crossing a short footbridge to this area, it was lovely to see a moorhen nursing her eggs (and we subsequently followed her progress on a daily basis). With inquisitive minds satisfied and bearings made, we settled down to our first night under the stars and a spot of planning with cup of tea in hand.
And so it was that we were set to enjoy a week of sight-seeing…
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the ‘must-see’ places on our list was the ever-popular seaside town of Whitstable. It was here that we headed the following morning and like many first-time visitors, our expectations were based on what we’d seen and heard from others. We left the car in the Shaftesbury Road car park, at a flat rate fee of £1.70 per hour, which you might like to keep in mind.
A leisurely stroll through town didn’t disappoint; a mix of familiar high-street names and quaint buildings housing art, framing and boutiques took us up to lunch time and a quick stop-off at Whitstable Coffee Company where, ironically enough, we didn’t have a coffee. We did, however, enjoy some tasty smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber bagels, along with Blueberry Thrill smoothies!
Whitstable is well known for its oysters (it even boasts a festival in the summer), and there are plenty of places to enjoy these as you watch fishermen unload their catch in the harbour - a mix of stalls line the harbour side, along with a restaurant called Wee Willie Winkles Kitchen for true seafood lovers.
English Heritage’s Dover Castle, the building of which was begun by Henry II in the 1180s, was on our agenda for the following day. After a 40-minute drive we arrived to find, unbeknownst to us, that a WWII event was being held as it was a Bank Holiday weekend. Not surprisingly, this attracted a large number of visitors, but it was great to see that a shuttle service to/from a couple of nearby fields was arranged - so there was no delay at all.
We headed for the Great Tower, accessed by quintessentially typical stone staircases. The rooms which greeted us were mixed. On the one hand, furnished (in the manner that they would have been in the past) and on the other, bare but with display items alongside audio presentations and projected costumed interpreters.
As attractions go, there wasn’t much in the way of information panels or signage to guide us in a clear direction; rather, we were left to find our own route around the building - quite a challenge when much of it had a tendency to look the same!
A snack of tea and bread pudding served by a lovely lady in an original WWII period N.A.A.F.I. truck did the trick to keep us going through the mid-afternoon heat.
If you’ve got children, the opportunity to explore the Medieval tunnels shouldn’t be missed. A steep stone staircase took us under the castle, down a slope, past a range of cannon and into areas on varying levels. If inquisitive minds were ever to be entertained, this was the place - with the wonder and intrigue of history quite literally waiting around every corner.
It’s worth noting that we found there was too much to see at the castle in one day, so planning ahead is well advised. Also, due to the Bank Holiday crowds, queues were 1-2 hours in places. Not a criticism by any means - just be aware, to avoid disappointment.
ROUND THE CAMPFIRE
Back at the tent, we took advantage of Nethergong’s campfire policy. These are thankfully allowed, so long as you use one of their portable fire pits, which can be hired for £5. Logs and kindling are available for purchase, delivered direct to your camp spot every afternoon. We could also have brought our own wood, so long as any nails were removed first (for obvious reasons).
So it was toasted marshmallows to round off the day. Nethergong was one of the quietest sites we’ve visited; refreshingly, amplified music is not allowed and campers generally respected others’ right to peace in the evenings.
By 7:30am the next morning, tranquility was broken by the sound of pouring rain, which surrounded us throughout breakfast; we even had thunder and the odd bit of lightning. Needless to say, we spent a cosy morning making our own entertainment in the tent, before taking our chances and heading out to Canterbury with its impressive array of shops and clear-to-see history.
The modest Roman Museum was our first stop in Canterbury, which provided a glimpse into the city’s past. At one point, looking through a glass wall onto a hypocaust and corridor with mosaic floor, it was fascinating to think that this ‘exhibit’, below the current street level, was once the centre of so much activity.
From here, we headed to the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge. Considering its quite unassuming exterior, it was so much larger than we were expecting. I can tell you that the cream teas served in their café are very nice; these set us up for a leisurely walk up to the Garden Room, where we enjoyed works by Thomas Sidney Cooper. Sticking with the animal theme, it was nice to see some costumes on hand for little ones to dress up in, too.
Upstairs, the rooms seemed to get larger the further we walked around, their collections increasingly impressive. As someone with a keen interest in all things adventure, I particularly enjoyed the ‘Explorers and Collectors’ artefacts. Sadly, we had to head off sooner than planned, but could have gladly spent a further couple of hours looking around.
Also impressive were further examples of activities on hand for children - colouring pictures, a mini shop and more were appreciated before rounding off our visit and walking through town to visit the Catching Lives charity bookshop, housed in the Sir John Boys House (a 17th Century half timbered building with projected jetties). Apparently, this is the second-most photographed building in the city after the cathedral - no doubt thanks to its striking, wonky appearance!
The challenge with making outings successful whilst on family holidays is, of course, striking a balance between excitement and periods of relative calm - ultimately ensuring everyone is kept happy. Thankfully, we struck gold mid-week - a visit to Diggerland being a runaway success and easily the biggest hit of the trip to that point.
Again, on the surface the entrance was very modest, but beyond this the experience did a fantastic job of capturing the imagination of both big and little people alike! From the Dippy Ducks mini diggers to dumper trucks and a chance to operate full-size earth-moving Giant Diggers, there really was something for everyone and we ultimately stayed all day until the final call for closing.
Dodgems soon followed ice creams and a gentle ride up in the Skyshuttle allowed views across the site and the River Medway from a height of 50 feet. With mini 4-wheeled vehicles (Robots), Go-Karts and finally a small land train running the length of the park and back, we came to the end of our day of fun, with just enough time for a go on the Skittles mini diggers.
Until this point in the holiday, we hadn’t actually sat in The Gong café at the campsite - so that’s how we began the following day. Enjoying our bacon sandwiches and cups of tea, alongside a game of dominoes, it was nice to see the selection of basic camping items available in the shop, too; eggs, milk, marshmallows etc… all these and more can be life-savers and it was also good to know that purchases could be made on card, too, not just by cash.
Jed, the site’s other owner, was also on hand for a chat and it was nice to find out a bit more about the history of the place, as well as take recommendations for where else to visit in the area during our final few days. That’s how we found ourselves in Margate an hour or so later, after a modest drive of about 25 minutes.
A quick tip for those of you travelling with roof boxes: the multi-storeys in Margate we found were too low for our setup, so there was a fair bit of driving around to find somewhere suitable. We found this in the Morrisons car park which, as an added bonus, only charged £2.70 all day.
From here, we headed through the Old Town area and down to the sea front. Unfortunately, heavy sea fret meant we essentially couldn’t see a thing (especially not the Antony Gormley sculpture, which had been on our list), so we continued along to the free-to-enter Turner Contemporary gallery for a wander around. Just inside, we were greeted by an interesting installation called Digestive Cavity by Xin Xiuzhen; with shoes off, it was an interesting experience to walk on its cushioned floor and take in the cocoon-like structure made of sewn-together clothes.
Kent sits in the south-east corner of England and shares its borders with Essex, Greater London, Surrey and East Sussex. Walkers are spoilt for choice with the North Downs and the Greensand Ridge, which span the length of the county. On a clear day, France can be seen from Folkestone and the White Cliffs of Dover.
Nethergong Hill, Upstreet, Canterbury CT3 4DN
Facilities: Amenity block with free hot showers, dishwashing area, washing facilities, recycling, café, shop, campfires.
DUNN STREET FARM CAMPSITE
Westwell, Ashford, Kent TN25 4NJ
Chalk House, Denham Road, Kent ME17 1NQ
NEED TO DO
Castle Hill, Dover, Kent CT16 1HU
CANTERBURY ROMAN MUSEUM
Butchery Lane, Canterbury, Kent CT1 2JR
THE BEANEY HOUSE OF ART AND KNOWLEDGE
18 High Street, Canterbury, Kent CT1 2RA
Medway Valley Leisure Park, Roman Way, Strood, Kent ME2 2NU
Rendezvous, Margate, Kent CT9 1HG
PORT LYMPNE SAFARI PARK
Ashford, Kent CT21 4PD
WHITSTABLE COFFEE COMPANY
39 High Street, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1AP
WEE WILLIE WINKLES RESTAURANT
South Quay, The Harbour, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1AB
THE BEANEY CAFÉ
18 High Street, Canterbury, Kent CT1 2RA
THE GROVE FERRY INN
Grove Road, Upstreet, Canterbury, Kent CT3 4BP
DID YOU KNOW?
Kent is famous, among other things, for its production of hazelnuts. The Kentish cobnut is perhaps one of its most well known varieties, harvested in its green state from mid August and with brown shells and husks by mid October. To this day, over 200 acres of dedicated orchards can be found in the county.