Do Tuscany – in England

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There’s a little corner of Kent that could masquerade for somewhere far more exotic. We explore Chapel Down vineyard and Tenterden, “jewel” of the Weald


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Rows of vines melt away under blue skies. At the summit sits a black clapper-boarded barn, its rickety stairs leading up to an olive tree-lined terrace. Climb the steps and there are panoramic views over manicured green lawns and herb garden, a patchwork quilt of fields stretching beyond.

The vineyard
The vineyard in early April.

So far, so Mediterranean. Yet the long-established Chapel Down vineyard and winery is only about an hour’s drive from London, in the rolling hills of the Kentish Weald. As it’s early summer, the vines are bare, but that aside, it really could be Tuscany. And it’s here that the award-winning wine (and this is serious plonk all the way) is made, not only from grapes grown onsite, but in Aylesford and all across the South-East.

It soon clouds over and – with the wine tastings all booked up – we leave the terrace to eat at the adjoining Swan restaurant, housed in the barn. One of a small chain (there’s another at the Globe theatre on the South Bank), it’s an attractive, airy space which fuses rustic with industrial: candles flicker in daylight, huge vases of flowers perch on wooden tables, an open kitchen is glimpsed behind velvet drapes.

The restaurant is upstairs, the wine shop downstairs
Restaurant upstairs, wine shop downstairs

The food is mostly good. We enjoy a starter of rare beef – a little fridge-cold, to be honest – before a crispy-skinned cod with kale and cauliflower. A buttery soft whole plaice is flanked with purple-sprouting broccoli and capers. But best of all? Tender scallops winningly paired with a crispy chicken wing and celeriac. A grapefruit pannacotta with chocolate “soil” is intriguing, too.

In the spirit of the place, we knock back several of their wines, guided by the sommelier’s careful advice. Ten years ago I took a guided tour round the winery and the enthusiastic host explained that they were about to start planting Pinot Noir grapes, so it’s exciting finally to taste the wine: light and versatile, it matches both meat and scallops. Even better is a creamily dry sparkling rosé, also made with the grape. Definitely our top tip.

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Two to visit: Sissinghurst and Smallhythe Place

The garden at Sissinghurst.
The garden at Sissinghurst.

After lunch, we pop to an ancient Tudor house just five minutes’ walk down the road. Smallhythe Place dates back to the late 15th century and found late fame as the home of notorious Victorian actress Ellen Terry, the Judi Dench of her time. It’s a memorable wander along undulating floorboards to gawp at costumes, theatrical posters, modernist art and other memorabilia, including her well-known “beetle wing dress”. Nestling in the gardens is a theatre where the likes of John Gielgud and Paul Schofield have appeared on stage.

Rickety: Smallhythe
Rickety: Smallhythe

Cultural owls should also head for Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, restored in the 1930s by bisexual couple Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, although the site actually dates back to Saxon times as a pig farm. Scale the lofty tower and look out over the formal gardens: stunning mazes, herbs, flowering shrubs – and a snaking moat.

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Sleeping: Tenterden

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Like many buildings here, the pub dates back to the 17th century.

A short drive takes us to our hotel in Tenterden, what locals call the “jewel of the Weald”, where folk are busy browsing a broad, tree-lined street peppered with Kent peg-tiled buildings. There are antiques emporia, independent florists, gift shops and galleries, plus a church dating back to the 12th century. We enjoy coffee at Hunny Beez cafe: good crema on the espresso, and a sun trap to boot. Nearby, we duck into One One Six, a stylish contemporary art gallery which opened recently.

Cute: clapperboarded shops line the high street
Cute: clapperboarded shops line the high street

Accommodation is provided by the White Lion, a former 16th century coaching inn that has just had a spruce-up. Although the sun has slid away, crowds of boozy Saturday afternoon locals cluster on the terrace, already limbering up for a night’s drinking.

The affable manager explains that our family-sized room (it’s really a kind of suite, with sofa and huge bed) was formerly two smaller ones. It’s indecently spacious, the style all New England – pastels, throw cushions, white Egyptian cotton linen.

The dining room, which adjoins the crowded bar, is all blonde wood, a little overlit. But creamy pork rillettes are good, offset by sweet-yet-astringent pickled vegetables. There’s been a delivery fail today on many of the meats, so we opt for the pricey Chateaubriand to share.

Inside the dining room
Inside the dining room

It’s perfectly pink and tender, with a creamy bearnaise, the thick cut chips tasty. It could all be seasoned a tad more, but that’s easily rectified.

Sadly the restaurant doesn’t stock the wines from either Chapel Down or the nearby Biddenden vineyard (we’re told this has since been rectified) so we are encouraged to try a Lebanese, tingly on the tongue but less woody than its tasting notes of blueberry and vanilla suggest. Meanwhile all around us, couples tuck into rustic-looking pizzas being served from the wood-fired oven, the pub’s other speciality.

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Drinking

Best pub in town: Woolpack
Best pub in town: The Woolpack

Bellies full, we hit town for a couple more. Half a dozen hoary old inns line the high street, but the Woolpack is our top pick: highly atmospheric, candles stuffed in bottles wobbling on old oak tables, darkness punctuated by lively young punters. They also serve the local Chapel Down Pinot Reserve fizz, a nice alternative to prosecco. Finally, we linger for a nightcap at the William Caxton, the last pub at the end of the high street. A little quiet, it’s not without character – and boasts a great garden, we note, if we ever return to the Weald on a summery, less drizzly evening.

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Getting There & More Info

By car follow the A28 from Ashford. By train go from St Pancras high speed and alight at Ashford International to get a bus (route 2) or taxi. The White Lion is at 57 High St, Tenterden TN30 6BD. Phone: 01580 765077. More info here. The Chapel Down vineyard and Swan restaurant are at Small Hythe Rd, Tenterden TN30 7NG (Open 10:00 am – 5:00 pm). More info on tours and tastings here. And for lots of helpful info on Tenterden follow or tweet @tenterdentown on Twitter


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  • Chris ES

    Great site and great article, Stephen! Will def visit some. Of these places. Hope you guys are well U0001f600