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Kentish delights: Wonders that appear to have leapt from the pages of a fairytale

By Roger St Pierre

It was John and Judith Miller, high-profile co-editors and publishers of the renowned ‘Miller’s Antiques Guide’ – the industry’s bible – who had the inspired idea of transforming Kent’s stately Chilston Park property from a run-down and crumbling period mansion into a classic country house hotel.

The couple had stumbled on this gracious if neglected residence while out looking for storage space for the masses of furniture, wood carvings, clocks, rare books, paintings, other works of art and assorted bric-a-brac that they needed to hold in storage to feed their main business at the time – buying and renovating country piles that were then sold on to well-heeled mainly city types who had plenty of cash to invest but had neither the time nor the design skills to perform the task for themselves.

It was a classic ‘turnkey’ enterprise. After the Millers had woven their restoration and refurbishment magic, all that the client needed to do was bring their pipe, slippers and favourite gun dogs and settle in by a roaring log fire as they thumbed through ready and waiting piles of ‘Country Life’.

The brainwave USP behind the Chilston project was the cross marketing of two businesses. All the removable furnishings were potentially available for sale to guests so, in effect, the hotel served as an impressive and constantly evolving free showroom for the antiques company, displaying its wares in a perfect lavish setting with a ready audience of hotel guests, while the antiques business allowed the hotel to be far more lavishly furnished than it could have been as a stand-alone project.

A nice touch was to have the staff dressed in Victorian garments, creating a wonderfully atmospheric house-party ambience.

All down the centuries, Chilston has been a work in progress, with generation after generation leaving their mark, re-modelling and re-sizing as well as restoring,

By 1997 the Millers had departed and Chilston had expanded, with a further 15 contemporary bedrooms in what was once the coach-house block, while ownership passed to Hand Picked Hotels, headed by former lawyer Julia Hands and now a vibrant group of individually styled country house properties located across the UK.

Set between Maidstone and Ashford, and just a couple of miles from the M20, Chilston is located deep in the Weald of Kent countryside yet affords quick and easy access to the Channel ports and is just an hour east of London.

There are 53 guest rooms in all - 15 of them, including three master suites and seven feature rooms, can be found in the old wing of the main house while the new wing has 15 rooms and a further 23 rooms, including junior suites, are located in the former coachouse and other buildings surrounding the courtyard.

Culinary-wise there’s the gourmet standard fine dining option of the romantic in-house Culpeper’s Restaurant as well as a less formal grille offering.

Extensive grounds include meadows, woods and a carp filled lake. Nearby are such renowned Kentish attractions as Canterbury and its mighty cathedral, stately Sissinghurst Castle and its internationally renowned National Trust gardens, the North Kent seaside resorts of Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate and the trendy little Thames Estuary fishing village of Whitstable – famed for its memorabilia and antiques emporiums as well as the most succulent of oysters.

World’s loveliest castle

Even closer – just 10-minutes from Chilston in fact – is the breathtakingly exquisite Leeds Castle, a moat and lake girded Mediaeval wonder that appears as if it has leapt from the pages of a fairytale and which, in its time, has housed six Queens of England. Indeed, it is believed that it was here, at the self-proclaimed ‘Loveliest castle in the world’, that Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn.

There has always been a strong connection between the two properties – the earliest known reference to Chilston, as it was then called, being as far back as 1100, when it was owned by the Fitzhamon family, Lords of Leeds Castle.

The castle offers the rare experience of overnighting in one of Britain’s oldest and best-preserved treasure houses.

Back in the 1930s, when American-born socialite Lady Baillie modernised and redecorated the place, she made absolutely certain that her guests – a cross section of the great and good – would receive the very latest in comfort and utmost in service. It’s a policy that is proudly maintained to this day.

Overnight accommodation is offered in the four-star Stable Courtyard Bedrooms and five-star B&B in the 16th Century Maiden’s Tower Bedrooms, set next to the castle and affording spectacular views across the lake.

Five historic cottages are available within the 500-acre estate. For something that is truly different and a lot of fun, book into the Mediaeval Knight’s Glamping – colourfully striped Tudor-style pavilions where guests sleep under canvas, as Henry VIII’s entourage did when they stayed at the castle in 1520. There’s no loss of comfort, however, for amenities include four-poster beds, warming log-burning stoves, crisp cotton bedclothes and snug rugs. Breakfast hampers can be delivered directly to the tents.

The 17th Century oak-beamed setting of the Castle View Restaurant offers diners a relaxed atmosphere, with spectacular views across the castle terrace, which is beautifully lit at night. The aim is to use the best local and seasonal ingredients and allow the quality of the produce to speak for itself.

Atmosphere-laden resorts

Head further east to discover the charms of Kent’s string of atmosphere-laden English Channel seaside resorts, which have enjoyed a dramatic return of good fortune in the past few years – none of them more so than delightful Ramsgate, whose jumble of quaint little houses, quirky neighborhood shops, trendy bars and restaurants, narrow streets and mysterious alleyways take the eye from the busy marina to the delightful sweep of elegant Georgian crescents, replete with ornate cast iron balconies that provide a grandstand seat for wonderful sunsets.

It’s on the appropriately named Nelson Crescent that you’ll find the three graceful terraced townhouses that have been sympathetically inter-connected to create the 27-bedroom Royal Harbour Hotel. Here you will find the very epitome of the bijou hotel idiom.

It’s small, friendly and intimate, its furnishings and décor a gloriously flamboyant mix of Victorian Empire, maritime bric-a-brac and shabby chic. The assembled eclectic memorabilia is a feast for the eyes – from mix-and-match chairs and distressed dressers to a cornucopia of period nautical prints, old posters and lots of books. It’s all clubby and cozy cosseting.

Individually styled with antiques and period furnishings, the guestrooms provide modern amenities, like free WiFi and smart TVs. Upgraded rooms add four-poster beds, sea-view balconies while suites have comfortable living areas with cheery fireplaces.

There are three homely guest lounges available for exclusive use, with open fires, stripped floors and an honesty bar.

As well as a well-stocked library there’s an old-fashioned gramophone player with an extensive collection of vinyl records. What could be more relaxing that?

There’s a selection of good eating houses just a short stroll away but we chose simply to descend the iron steps into the sub-basement and discover the gastronomic delights of the hotel’s own welcoming 30-cover Empire Room restaurant.

Chef Craig Mather is truly a star, making the most of Kent’s well-endowed local larder and fresh locally caught fish to create sublime menus.

Beautiful to look at, yes, but aroma and taste are equally important: simple, unfussy yet adventurous, here is modern British cuisine of West End standard

How’s this for a classy starter: Take a soft-boiled duck egg and pair it with crispy smoked eel soldiers topped off with seaweed.

Among the mains, the trio of pork loin, melt in the mouth belly pork and rich black pudding, complimented with triple-cooked chips was a carnivore’s delight but Craig confidently conjures up equally pleasing dishes for vegetarians and vegans.

If they are still peckish, complimentary late-night cheese and biscuits are available for residents.

Afternoon teas pre-booked for groups of 20 and over.

The railway station is just a few minutes away. There’s a useful bonus for those arriving by car, with free on-street parking available right at the front door.

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