During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from. After all, it could be a while before we can go anywhere else…
Kent’s largest town, Maidstone is just 32-ish miles south-east of London. Growing up here, I wished it was London. The Big Smoke held the allure of something else while Maidstone, or Tombstone, as my father would call it (the name is actually Saxon and dates from 975, evolving into Meddestane in the Domesday Book) was just so... dull.
I left as soon as the opportunity presented itself, and skedaddled to university, leading a nomadic life for the next decade. But come March 2020 and the end of the world, guess where I returned to? I’m still trying to make sense of it all, but the longer I live here, the more the mystery deepens. In fact, no place has proved harder to decipher than my home town. As the travel writer Paul Theroux noted, “home is always the impossible subject, multi-layered and maddening”.
Maidstone is Kent’s County Town, the seat of the Council – although I’ve often wondered why it was optioned over Royal Tunbridge Wells or Canterbury, with its grand cathedral and university. But, perhaps more excitingly, the town is home to the famous Maidstone Studios where they film Later… with Jools Holland and Take Me Out (I even appeared on an early-1990s episode of Art Attack), plus the Hazlitt Theatre, named after local William Hazlitt: essayist, critic and friend of the Romantic Poets. And, if that’s not enough celebrity appeal for you, Barry from Eastenders was born here.
The impressive Leeds Castle sits on the fringes of town, and the brown River Medway flows through Maidstone’s core. It is at its most charming along Lockmeadow and the River Park, sweeping into Allington Lock where you can glimpse the 12th-century Allington Castle.
I still believe Maidstone is searching for its identity though, requiring a civic makeover. Any city planner with foresight would have taken advantage of the riverfront and fashioned a corniche, like Folkestone and Margate’s Harbour Arms. Instead, money was ploughed into a failed street light scheme and a five-ton giant floral sheep (since removed) – yep, that happened.
But it remains home, even when I’m not living there. After stints in Asia and Europe, Covid grounded me back at Ma’s house, displaced and out of sorts but with an opportunity to explore “home” on my own terms, discovering the many people and businesses who stand steadfast despite the pandemic and battle to give Maidstone a good name. If you’re ever in town, here are my top picks.
Explore on foot
The high street could use some loving and appears to be facing the same sad fate as so many in the country, a string of vacant spaces punctuated by mobile repair shops and nail bars – undoubtedly amplified by the pandemic. The town centre also suffers from ringroaditis, but like so much here, one is rewarded by exploration, as I discovered during my daily lockdown outings.
I’m still trying to make sense of it all, but the longer I live here, the more the mystery deepens
Like the best exploring, I set off on foot. It pays to look up; the exteriors of buildings reveal a striking display of 15th and 16th century facades, including plaques confirming the stay of Samuel Pepys in 1669 at The Old Bell Inn (now Lush) and commemorating the site where “seven persons were burnt for their faith” in 1557 (now Drakes pub). A more recent addition in Rose Yard immortalises G-Ranch (1968-1971), “Maidstone’s Home of Reggae & Ska”. Opposite Maidstone East – the largest and best-connected of three train stations – is County Hall, obscuring the prison behind, famous for its exteriors in the 1970s hit show Porridge and incarcerating Reggie Kray.
History on the doorstep
Next to Maidstone East sits Brenchley Gardens, an overlooked space gifted to the town by the greatest explorer you’ve never heard of, the Victorian gentleman Julius Lucius Brenchley. Adjacent is Maidstone Museum, the town’s crowning jewel. Established in 1858, it’s free to enter and has been my escape from reality for years, housing over 600,000 artefacts and home to the only adult human mummy in Kent, Ta-Kush. You can also learn about Iggy, the town’s oldest inhabitant – a 125 million-year-old iguanodon skeleton discovered in 1834.
Parks and rec
With more than 150 parks and playgrounds, the town is primed for outdoor adventure. It’s just 10 minutes to Mote Park, a 440-acre public park designed by Capability Brown, with its own miniature, ride-along railway.
Penenden Heath is my local recreational green and woodland and dates back to the Middle Ages. It was also the site of a mob gathering in an early skirmish of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Heath was the site for public executions too, from burning suspected witches to hanging criminals – the last public execution took place in 1830 with the hanging of John Dyke, although it later emerged he was innocent.
Two miles east of the town is the quaint Bearsted Village with its pastoral cricket green, country boozers and the Tudor Park Marriott Hotel & Country Club. The Kent Life Museum and Cobtree Manor Park are under two miles from the station, where circus owner of the day Bertram Mills opened a zoo in 1934, owned by local eccentric Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, who would drive through town in his yellow Rolls-Royce. The elephants, Gert and Daisy, had celebrity status, plus there were several animal escapes reported. The zoo closed in 1959, but the park remains, with plenty of trails and the elephant houses transformed into the “Men in Sheds” project, where people can share tools and resources.
Food and historical spirits
The town is dense with military bases and home to the 36 Engineer Regiment, including two Gurkha squadrons. With this has come brilliant Nepalese restaurants, including The Gurkha Kitchen and the humdrum titled Gurkha Restaurant.
Indian cuisine is also well represented by Spice Hut, Tandoor Mahal, and there is a long-standing debate as to who triumphs between Shamrat and Mughal Dynasty – for safety reasons, I shall remain neutral. As a one-time resident of Bangkok, I was thrilled to discover Gaab Kao – ask for rxn mÄk dá»Ì pord (“very hot, please”) and they’ll oblige.
The most exciting recent news to come from the hospitality sector, however, is the reinstatement of the Maidstone Distillery, a company with a 236-year history and rebuilt during lockdown. Created by Maidstone native and two-time mayor George Bishop in 1785, today they produce two gin varieties plus a toffee liquor and offer both in-person and virtual tours and tastings.
It’s not possible yet, but from 17 May hotel stays should hopefully be permitted again. Set in 22 acres of parkland on the outskirts of town, Chilston Park is a boutique, 52-room Grade I-listed country house; midweek B&B Mews classic doubles from £225. Back in Bearsted Village, Tudor Park Marriott Hotel & Country Club remains one of the town’s best, in a spectacular countryside setting with its own 18-hole championship golf course; rooms from £82. The three-star The Townhouse has 17 boutique rooms in the town centre itself, slap-bang in the middle of everything; doubles from £42, room only.