Located between London and the Strait of Dover, which separates England from the European mainland, the county of Kent has witnessed its fair share of turbulent conflicts such as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Battle of Britain during World War Two. As a result, it is home to a number of fascinating sites which date as far back as the Roman occupation.
Nicknamed ‘The Garden of England’, Kent is home to historic castles and towering cathedrals that are often set against the stunning backdrop of her white cliffs of Dover, seaside resorts and coastline. We’ve put together a guide of 10 of the best historic sites that Kent has to offer.
1. Dover Castle
Dover Castle has been a vitally important fortress throughout British history, and has for many years been nicknamed the ‘Key to England’. Before the castle was erected, Dover’s cliffs were a popular site for building strongholds over the centuries, with evidence dating back to the Iron Age. The first incarnation of Dover Castle itself was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror. Over the centuries, Dover Castle would be improved, expanded and renovated, and remain continually garrisoned until as late as 1958.
Today, Dover Castle is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public, providing a fascinating insight into the fortress’ history. Visitors can explore the medieval castle and its underground tunnels, viewing numerous exhibitions which immerse them in the lives of Dover Castle’s former inhabitants and tell its fascinating story.
2. The Roman Lighthouse
The Roman Lighthouse in Dover is a ruined 1st century AD tower originally built to guide ships across the English Channel from France into the ancient Roman port and fort of Dubris – the site of present-day Dover. Today, the Roman Lighthouse (Roman Pharos) is the oldest surviving lighthouse in the country and one of the oldest in the world, dating from around 46-50 AD (during the reign of the Emperor Claudius), shortly after the invasion of Britain in 43 AD.
The Lighthouse now sits in the grounds of Dover Castle which was founded in the 11th century, directly alongside the late Anglo-Saxon church of St Mary-in-Castro, which is itself constructed from Roman building materials, built in 1000 AD. The Lighthouse stands at 19 metres high, with the top floor being a medieval restoration. After nearly 2,000 years the original Roman stonework on the seaward-side is inevitably weather-worn and crumbly, though the top medieval section is still in a reasonable state of repair.
3. Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral is one of England’s most famous cathedrals, both because of its prominent history dating back to the 6th century. In 597, a missionary called St Augustine travelled to Kent from Rome, having been sent by the Pope to convert the English to Christianity. Settling in Canterbury, he soon established a seat or ‘cathedra’ there, marking the origins of Canterbury Cathedral. The remains of this original incarnation of the Cathedral lie underneath its current nave. Over the next few centuries, Canterbury Cathedral was renovated and rebuilt in parts. It was damaged during the English Civil War.
Today, Canterbury Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with some of its oldest parts – such as its crypt – dating back to the 12th century. Guided tours and audio guides are available at the site, but visitors are also free to explore its many mysteries at leisure.
4. White Cliffs of Dover
In some places over 300 feet high, the White Cliffs of Dover are a symbol of the United Kingdom. The history of Britain is intricately linked with the White Cliffs. The first recorded description of Dover describes the scene that Julius Caesar saw in 55 BC when, with two legions of soldiers, he arrived near Dover looking for a suitable landing place for the Roman invasion. Shakespeare famously mentioned the cliffs in King Lear. They were also the backdrop to the historic moment when Charles II stepped back onto English soil in 1660 after years in exile.
During World War Two, the White Cliffs of Dover were Britain’s frontline from 1941 and large gun batteries were constructed along the coast. On the cliffs close to South Foreland, important gun positions were built which would attack enemy forces across the Channel. Although quickly constructed and only fired sparingly, the guns were an important aspect of the defence of Britain. The Battle of Britain Memorial is located on top of the Cliffs, honouring those who gave their lives and served in this battle. It is a popular and scenic attraction.
5. Drop Redoubt
Along with the Citadel, the Drop Redoubt is one of two forts on Western Heights, Dover. The two are linked via a series of dry moats. It is frequently described as one of the most impressive fortifications in Britain. Originally constructed during the Napoleonic Wars of 1804-1808 and then from 1859-1864, the fort later became a look-out post during World War Two. In 1945, the site was abandoned permanently.
Today, Drop Redoubt is under the care of English Heritage and is open at times throughout the summer months. Special tours are also available.
6. Walmer Castle & Gardens
Originally built during the reign of Henry VIII as a response to the perceived threat of invasion from Europe, Walmer Castle & Gardens have stood on the Kent coastline for nearly 500 years. After Henry VIII’s break with Pope Paul III, The Holy Roman Empire and France declared an alliance against Henry in 1538, and were encouraged by the Pope to invade England. This prompted Henry to order the construction of a series of forts along the English coastline, of which Walmer Castle is one, built from 1539-1540. In spite of this, no invasion took place.
Today, Walmer Castle & Gardens are open to the public, and visitors can expect to enjoy the site’s historical relevance and beauty in equal measure. The garden includes the beautiful Queen Mother’s Garden as well as multiple terraces with different architectural influences and designs.
7. Roman Painted House
Discovered by Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit in the 1970s, the Roman Painted House is one of the finest Roman houses on show in Britain. Built in around 200 AD, it formed part of a large mansion or hotel for travellers crossing the Channel, when Dover (then called Dubris) was the leading naval base and gateway to Britannia. By 270 AD it was demolished by the Roman army during the construction of a larger fort.
Today, it is a popular tourist attraction. Over 400 square feet of painted murals survive which depict scenes from the god Bacchus, which constitutes the most extensive amount ever found north of the Alps. An elaborate hypocaust (underfloor heating) system is also on display.
8. Rochester Castle
One of the best-preserved Norman fortifications in England, Rochester Castle was built at a strategic crossroads in the years following the Norman Conquest. In 1087 Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester began the construction of the castle to command an important river crossing. Much of what remains of the walled perimeter remains intact from that time. Rochester Castle played no role in the Civil Wars and so it was never slighted. It appears, however, that a violent fire took place in the keep before the 1660s, which reduced the building to ruin.
Today, the castle has been largely restored and is open to visitors under the custodianship of English Heritage. Rochester Castle remains one of the most impressive Norman fortresses and continues to attract visitors from far and wide.
9. Hever Castle
Hever Castle in Kent is a picturesque Tudor mansion famous for being the family home of Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII. Hever Castle was built in the 13th century as a country house belonging to James Fiennes, 1st Baron Say and Sele. It was later converted into a castle, with the walls, towers, moat and Great Hall constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries. In 1462, it came into the possession of the Boleyn family, who transformed it into a stunning Tudor residence, and in 1505, when Thomas Boleyn inherited Hever, he further added to its splendour.
In later years the castle passed through many different hands before in 1903 it was acquired by American-British millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who restored it to its former glory and adopted it as a family residence. Today, Hever Castle is a popular tourist attraction that tells the story of Anne Boleyn’s life and her relationship with Henry VIII. A number of rooms may be explored throughout Hever Castle that each represent the elegance of the Tudor era and the wealth of its past inhabitants.
10. Down House
Located in the village of Downe around 20km southeast of Charing Cross, on the border between Kent and south east London, Down House is a Grade I listed former home of English naturalist Charles Darwin. It is particularly well-known for being the site where Darwin researched and wrote his famous On the Origin of Species. The house was built in the early 18th century – likely on the site of a 17th-century house – extensively modernised in the late 18th century by wealthy businessman George Butler. After his death, the house changed hands many times until Charles Darwin, along with his heavily pregnant wife Emma and two children, moved there in 1842.
The house was kept on by the Darwin children, later becoming Downe House school for girls from 1907. From 1921 it languished empty in an increasing state of disrepair. From 1927, it was proposed that the house be bought as a national memorial to Darwin. It was bought by a benefactor and restored under the close eye of Darwin’s son, Leonard. It then opened as a museum to the public for around 60 years, until it was bought by English Heritage and then re-opened as a museum in 1998, at which time a long-term programme of work was begun to restore the gardens, which is now complete.