Demand for good family houses in Kent has been pushed up in recent years thanks to the improvements in transport communications, but prices can still surprise.

Background

Known as the Garden of England, Kent is still an agricultural county, renowned for its fruit and hops, and home to thriving dairy and sheep farms.

For much of last century, Kent seemed relatively remote, despite its proximity to London; transport links were worse than in other Home Counties, and the south-east of Kent in particular remained untouched by progress. Extensive improvements to transport communications in recent years, however, have transformed the county, but its strong rural character survives intact.

Kent is the nearest English county to the Continent, and has long been regarded as the gateway to Europe, thanks to its position on the Channel. It used to be said that he who held the keys to Dover Castle held the keys to England.

Timber-framed and weather-boarded houses are plentiful, and the brickwork and tiles in the county are some of the best in England. One of the symbols of Kent is the oasthouse, with its conical roof used for drying hops; most have now been converted into unusual homes.

The most popular areas for commuters are within easy reach of Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells, but good country houses are found throughout Kent.

History

Kent’s position as the ‘Gateway to Europe’ means it has a violent past, which is evident from the county’s architecture. Castles were built at Dover, Rochester and Canterbury, and later, by Henry VIII, at the Downs in Sandgate, Walmer and Deal, to protect the county from invasion.

Since Roman times, when Julius Caesar invaded Kent in 55 and 54 BC, to the Second World War, Kent has always been vulnerable to invasion. While German bombing raids destroyed much of Canterbury and Dover, much of the county’s most treasured architecture, such as the wonderful cathedrals in Canterbury and Rochester, have survived.

Garden of England

Kent enjoys something of a micro-climate, with temperatures and rainfall levels more similar to France than the rest of England. As a result, and thanks to the abundance of chalk soil, crops more commonly found in Provence or Champagne are being grown enthusiastically by farmers. The English lavender, wine and champagne industries are all based primarily in Kent, and are currently enjoying a renaissance.

‘The Garden of England’ also has some of the best gardens in the country, again thanks to the mild climate and fertile soil. Around 180 beautiful and diverse gardens are open to the public. Some of the best can be found at Emmetts Garden, which adjoins the National Trust’s Toys Hill properties in Sevenoaks; Beech Court Gardens, a woodland garden surrounding a medieval farmhouse in Challock; and Church Hill Cottage Gardens in Ashford.

Kent is a largely rural county, and is home to several beautiful country parks. The Kent Downs Area of Natural Beauty, which are the eastern half o the North Downs, cover nearly a quarter of the county, stretching from the White Cliffs of Dover up to the Surrey/London border.

Kent Today

Kent is a largely rural county, although homebuyers are also attracted to the historical towns and the beautiful coastline.

Ashford is situated just 12 miles from the Eurotunnel car shuttle terminal, and its train station also operates direct Eurostar links to Brussels and Paris, making it popular for those with close ties to the continent.

Canterbury, home of Kent University and the cathedral, is a popular and vibrant historical town, while coastal towns such as Margate and Gravesend have been transformed by extensive redevelopment in recent years.

The Turner Contemporary gallery, to be housed in striking sail-shaped building on the Gravesend waterfront, is scheduled to open in 2007, and is set to further enhance the cultural landscape of the county.

East of England Plan

The character of Kent may soon change dramatically as a result of the Deputy Prime Minister’s plans to build up to 720,000 new homes in the South East over the next twenty years.

Ashford has been identified as an area with the potential to grow significantly, although many believe that the infrastructure in the area will be unable to cope with the influx of new residents.

The South East of England Regional Assembly has since reduced the recommended number of new houses to a maximum of 640,000, and a public consultation on the plans is currently under way. The final decision on the plans rests with the Deputy Prime Minister.

Property Market

Thanks to the international rail link, which will also have a fast, direct service to London St Pancras by 2009, the property market in Ashford is currently very active and prices have reacted accordingly. Once the new rail service to the capital is in place, the journey will take just 40 minutes, which is understandably luring many buyers from the city.

In general, transport links have been improve dramatically throughout the county, and commuting by train or by car to the capital is now easy compared with a few years ago. The most popular towns are within commutable distance of the capital and include Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells. Other sought after areas include Plockley, Petham and Smarden.

The typical Kentish property is a farmhouse with a timber frame, costing anything between £700,000 and £5,500,000 can be paid. Oasthouses are also common and highly sought after, and their round ‘kilns’ can offer interesting living arrangements. But their desirability depends entirely on the quality of the conversion.

Major towns

Canterbury, Maidstone, Dover, Folkestone, Ashford, Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells, Margate, Ramsgate, Gillingham, Chatham, Deal, Faversham.

Transport links

Train: Victoria, Waterloo East or London Bridge to Canterbury 1hr 30min; London Bridge to Folkestone 1hr 30min; Victoria to Maidstone 1hr.

A high speed rail link will connect Ashford with London St Pancras is scheduled for completion by 2009. The journey will be cut from 1hr 10mins to approximately 40 minutes.

Car: Canterbury is 60 miles from London via the M2; Folkestone is 66 miles, via the M20; Maidstone is32 miles, via the M20.

Public schools

Benenden School, Cranbrook (01580 240592). Girls only, age range 11-18, boarding. www.benenden.kent.sch.uk
Cranbrook School (01580 712163). Co-educational, age range 13-18, day and boarding. www.cranbrookschool.co.uk
The King’s School, Canterbury (01227 595501). Co-educational, age range 13-18, day and boarding. Associated preparatory school. www.kings-school.co.uk
Sevenoaks School (01732 455133). Co-educational, age range 11-18, day and boarding. Associated preparatory school. www.sevenoaksschool.org
Tonbridge School (01732 365555). Boys only, age range 13-18, day and boarding. www.tonbridge-school.co.uk
Ashford School (01233 625171). Co- educational, age range 3-18, day and boarding. www.ashfordschool.co.uk
Kent College, Canterbury (01227 763231). Co-educational, age range 3-18, day and boarding.
St Edmund’s School, Canterbury (01227 454575). Co-educational, age range 3-18, day and boarding. www.stedmunds.org.uk
Dover College (01304 205969). Co-educational, age range 11-18, day and boarding. Associated preparatory school. www.dovercollege.org.uk

Leisure

Golf courses: Royal Cinque Ports, Deal (01304 374328); Royal St George’s, Sandwich (01304 613090).

Hunts: the Ashford Valley, the Tickham, the East Kent, the West Kent and the West Street.

Yacht clubs: Whitstable Yacht Club; Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club; Erith Yacht Club; Hollowshore Cruising Club; Royal Temple Yacht Club.

Fishing: rivers Darent, Medway and Stour; Bewl Water and Bough Beech Reservoir.