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Winston Churchill's favourite part of the country


Orchid Fields
North Downs Way
Ightham Mote
Chartwell House
Dover's white chalk cliffs are hard to miss; they're arguably the most recognisable feature of Britain's coast. However, they're only one end of a long strip of chalk, that runs north-west through the entire county. It forms an eyelid-shaped ridge that rises up to 240 metres. From its peaks you can see for miles, across the valleys, over the small villages and out to sea. Altogether, the Downs cover a quarter of the county of Kent. They're one of Britain's official Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Chalk land is known for growing high quality turf. This, plus the milder climate of the southern counties, provides the perfect conditions for rare orchids and other wildflowers. During the summer you see plenty of people with a magnifying glass in one hand, and an orchid identification chart in the other. There are lots of rare species, like the pyramidal orchid, whose flowers resemble colourful, upside-down versions of Egypt's landmarks, or the fragrant orchid, which produces a strong, sweet scent. Another, the man orchid, looks a bit like a tiny human! Pollination is often done by butterflies, rather than bees. They flutter across the Downs in their thousands, rivalling the flower petals with their displays of colour.
There are trails and bridleways for hikers, bikers and horse riders, most notably the North Downs Way. This 153-mile long distance path starts at Dover, then strikes out west, passing south of London on its way to the Surrey hills. The route was designed to take in the Downs' very best scenery and views. It's extensively signposted, so you shouldn't need a map. If you were to walk the entire trail, you'd pass by plenty of old buildings, dozens of shops and literally hundreds of pubs.

Part of the North Downs Way
Photo Chris Gunns
Many more interesting places are within easy touching distance. Leeds Castle, for instance, stands just outside the AONB, near Maidstone. It's one of England's most beautiful moated castles. There are similar properties within the Kent Downs' borders, like Ightham Mote. It's a manor house, rather than a castle, but it still has a moat. The building has barely changed since the Middle Ages, which makes it a very important place for medieval historians. Even the dog kennel is Grade I listed!

Ightham Mote
Photo Richard Croft
Kent's most famous mansion is probably Chartwell House. The site has been used since at least the 16th century, when Henry VIII was rumoured to have stayed the night. A few hundreds years later, though, this became the home of someone even more well-known. Winston Churchill, the former prime minister, lived here between 1922 and his death in 1965. He described the house as having "no architectural merit", but that was OK, because it was the outward view that interested him. Chartwell is around 200 metres above sea level, and from its upper windows you can see across most of the county.

Chartwell House
Photo Richard Howell
In truth you don't really need to go anywhere specific to enjoy the Downs; just pick a convenient section and start exploring. You're bound to find one of the many quaint villages, traditional orchards or nature reserves that cover the landscape in their dozens.
Visitor Information
Ightham Mote (NT) is open daily from dawn till dusk (the house & gardens are open from 11am to 5pm, but are closed on Tuesdays and also some Wednesdays). Entry costs around £14. Mote Road, Ivy Hatch, Sevenoaks, TN15 0NT. Tel: 01732 810378
Chartwell House (NT) is open daily 10am to 5pm (the house from 11am, but is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays). Entry costs around £15. Mapleton Road, Westerham, TN16 1PS. Tel: 01732 868381

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