The World of Charles Dickens Lives Again
In the town of Chatham, where Charles Dickens spent part of his childhood, Dickens World has opened at Leviathan Way (tel. 01634/890-421; www.dickensworld.co.uk). The town also holds a Dickens Festival every summer to honor the author of A Christmas Carol.
At this theme park the cobbled streets of Victorian England are peopled once again by pickpockets, wenches, rogues, and runaways, but it's all in fun. Visitors will have a chance to see the Ghost of Christmas Past in Ebenezer Scrooge's haunted house, be hectored by a schoolmaster at Dotheboxs Hall, and peer into the fetid cells of the notorious Newgate Prison. Expect more than whiff of kitsch, and know that Dickens purists will be offended.
The location is 35 miles southwest of London following the A2/M2; exit at Junction 1, 3, or 4. Trains from Victoria Station also lead to Chatham Station, where a shuttle bus will take you to the theme park for £1. Open daily 10am to 5pm, the park charges £12 for adults or £7.30 for children 5 to 15; seniors £10.
Kent's Country Houses, Castles & Gardens
Many of England's finest country houses, castles, and gardens are in Kent, where you'll find the palace of Knole, a premier example of English Tudor or half-timbered architecture; Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and later the home of William Waldorf Astor; Leeds Castle, a spectacular castle with ties to America; and Penshurst Place, a stately home that was a literary salon of sorts during the first half of the 17th century. Kent also has a bevy of homes that once belonged to famous men but have since been turned into intriguing museums, such as Chartwell, where Sir Winston Churchill lived for many years, and Down House, where Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. Here you can amble down the same path the naturalist trod every evening.
It would take at least a week to see all of these historic properties -- more time than most visitors have. When you make your choices, keep in mind that Knole, Hever, Penshurst, Leeds, and Chartwell are the most deserving of your attention.
We have found the guided tours to some of Kent's more popular stately homes too rushed and too expensive to recommend. Each attraction can be toured far more reasonably on your own. Because public transportation into and around Kent can be awkward, we advise driving from London, especially if you plan to visit more than one place in a day. Accordingly, this section is organized as you may drive it from London. However, if it's possible to get to an attraction via public transportation, we include that information in the individual listings.
Touring Leeds Castle: "The Loveliest in the World"
Once described by Lord Conway as the loveliest castle in the world, Leeds Castle (tel. 01622/765400; www.leeds-castle.com) dates from A.D. 857. Originally constructed of wood, it was rebuilt in 1119 in its present stone structure on two small islands in the middle of the lake; it was an almost impregnable fortress before the importation of gunpowder. Henry VIII converted it to a royal palace.
The castle has strong ties to America through the sixth Lord Fairfax who, as well as owning the castle, owned 2 million hectares (5 million acres) in Virginia and was a close friend and mentor of the young George Washington. The last private owner, the Hon. Lady Baillie, who restored the castle with a superb collection of fine art, furniture, and tapestries, bequeathed it to the Leeds Castle Foundation. Since then, the royal apartments, known as Les Chambres de la Reine (the queen's chambers), in the Gloriette, the oldest part of the castle, have been open to the public. The Gloriette, the last stronghold against attack, dates from Norman and Plantagenet times, with later additions by Henry VIII.
Within the surrounding parkland is a wildwood garden and duckery where rare swans, geese, and ducks abound. This is the best place for country walks in this part of England. The redesigned aviaries contain a superb collection of birds, including parakeets and cockatoos. Dog lovers will enjoy the Dog Collar Museum at the gatehouse, with a unique collection of collars dating from the Middle Ages. A 9-hole golf course is open to the public. The Culpepper Garden is a delightful English-country flower garden. Beyond are the castle greenhouses, with the maze centered on a beautiful underground grotto and the vineyard recorded in William the Conqueror's survey document, the Domesday Book (1086), which is once again producing Leeds Castle English white wine.
From March 21 to September the park is open daily 10am to 5pm, the castle 10:30am to 6pm; off-season, the park is open daily 10am to 3pm, the castle 10:30am to 4pm. The castle and grounds are closed on the last Saturday in June and the first Saturday in July before open-air concerts. Admission to the castle and grounds is £15 for adults, £13 for students and seniors, and £9.50 for children 4 to 15. Car parking is free, with a free ride on a fully accessible minibus available for those who cannot manage the 1km (half-mile) or so walk from the parking area to the castle.
Trains run frequently from London's Victoria Station to Maidstone, 58km (36 miles) to the southeast. The best way to go is by National Express coach, departing from Victoria Coach Station at 9am and arriving at the castle at 10:25am, costing £18 for adults, £13 for children. Seats must be booked in advance (tel. 0871/781-81-81; www.nationalexpress.com). If you're driving from London's ring road, continue east along the M26 and the M20. The castle is 6.5km (4 miles) east of Maidstone at the junction of the A20 and the M20 London-Folkestone roads.
Snacks, salads, cream teas, and hot meals are offered daily at a number of places on the estate, including Fairfax Hall, a restored 17th-century tithe barn, and the Terrace Restaurant, which provides a full range of hot and cold meals.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.