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A visit to Maidstone
The River Medway as it passes through Maidstone.
Set in the beauty of Kent, Maidstone is a charming town.
There have been humans living in Maidstone and the surrounding pretty villages, right back to the Mesolithic era, 11,000 years ago. The ruins of their existence are plain to see at Kits Coty and the Devils Counting Stones at Aylesford. Legend has it that a baker decided to try and count the stones by placing a loaf of bread on each stone but when he reached the last stone he turned around to see the Devil eating the loaves behind him. In 1549 Maidstone received its Royal Charter a far cry from the Doomsday book which recorded ’57 villagers, 31 smallholders and 20 slaves’.
The County Town of Kent also has played its part in the nation’s history. If you stand at the top of Upper Stone Street you can only really hear the thunder of traffic roaring passed but what few people can imagine is that on 1 June 1648 the English Civil War arrived in Kent’s County town. A pitched and bloody battle was fought on the very ground on which I am standing for possession of what was then and still is the important market town of Maidstone.
Maidstone is my home town. I was born and raised here and I am proud to call myself a Maidstonian. Other far more famous former residents include the artist Tony Hart, former Doctor Who Tom Baker and the 14th Century Revolutionary Wat Tyler, who led the Peasants Revolt in the 14th Century. Then of course, there’s the wonderful former Member of Parliament and now Pantomime regular, the indomitable Ann Widdecombe. But what is it that makes Maidstone special? Well that’s an easy one: History, community and shopping.
The River Medway slowly slides through the town regally passing under Maidstone Bridge and alongside the Crown Courts. On the other bank is the magnificent Archbishop’s Palace, built in the 14th Century and today used as a sumptuous venue for weddings and civic occasions with the 12th Century St Faiths Church a short walk beyond. Across the busy main road from the Palace is one of the United Kingdom’s most unique museum collections; the Tyrwhitt-Drake Carriage Museum. Housed in a medieval barn that has survived the centuries the collection of horse drawn carriages has been called ‘outstanding’ and of national importance and is a must see on any visit to Maidstone.
Another tourist attraction is the town’s recently extended and refurbished museum. Inside a wealth of exciting exhibits chronicles the long and illustrious history of Maidstone from its earliest days as the first place where Romans could successfully ford the River Medway, through its transformation as a paper making and brewing town, and to its modern day role as the administrative centre of Kent County Council. The collections include amazing Japanese art, 6000 artworks and no fewer than 40,000 fossils including that of a dinosaur Iguanodon. The Iguanodon now immortalised in the town’s coat of arms.
The river plays an important part in the town and in recent years a great deal of money and time has been spent opening up large stretches and creating a number of public parks along the river. The Whatman Park is a particularly popular venue for families and picnickers with plenty of space, great views and an amazingly complex and thrilling children’s adventure playground that’ll keep the kids busy and happy for hours. This park pales into insignificance when compared against the jewel in the crown of Maidstone’s numerous parks and open spaces; Mote Park. At 450 acres, Mote Park is one of the largest parks in the South East. Originally established as a hunting ground for King Edward IV today it is peaceful and lovely and above all else spacious. It’s almost possible to spend all day in Mote Park alone. There is a darker side to some of the town’s most beautiful places. Take Penenden Heath for instance. Today it is a lovely mixed open space of green grass and woodland but right up until the 19th Century it was noted for the ‘shire moots’. These were meetings and assemblies where disputes were resolved as well as for the hanging of criminals and the execution of suspected witches!
Maidstone is heavily marketed as Kent’s premier shopping location, ranking just behind the massive Bluewater shopping complex in North Kent. Two large shopping centres, The Chequers Mall and Fremlin Walk are linked by the friendly familiar brands that line Week Street. Maidstone also has a bit of shopping history in the form of a shoe shop called The Golden Boot in Gabriels Hill, which lays claim to being the oldest shoe shop in the country no less.
After all the shopping, what better way to end your day out than with a spot of food and drink in The White Rabbit. This white clapper boarded large house is now a pleasant restaurant and bar but in days gone by it was the officers mess for The Royal Engineers Regiment who were based on the site in Maidstone until the late 1980’s when their base was carved up to make way for a major road improvement scheme and the soldiers moved closer to the M20 motorway.
Away from the town centre there are lovely pretty villages to explore including Bearsted with its amazing historic cricket pitch, Otham and the glorious National Trust property Stoneacre with its fabulous gardens and then there is Yalding with the bizarre but magical Teapot Museum with literally thousands and thousands of unique and unusual teapots on display.
Maidstone certainly can claim to be just my cup of tea.