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Long overlooked, London’s south-easterly neighbour has lots to offer event organisers, not least by way of exciting venues. It’s time to rediscover the
new, grown-up Garden of England
Kent has the
hallmarks of a tip-top event destination – with a good location (in relation to London, at least), efficient transport links and an abundance of interesting venues. Yet this land of ancient castles
and blossoming orchards has been curiously unappreciated by organisers.
‘It’s a beautiful county with a good train network,’ says Guy Rodger, director of The Concerto Group, ‘but planners are perhaps more likely to head to the north and west of London; the fact that there are no major airports in Kent could be a factor.’
Whatever its perceived shortcomings, Kent is changing fast. Eye-catching new venues, such as the imminent 5,200sq m conference facility at Bluewater, and the opening of high-speed rail links (between St Pancras and various Kent destinations) are prompting a long-overdue reappraisal of the county.
Even without its new train line, Kent’s vicinity to the City makes it indisputably handy: most Kentish venues claim to be ‘about an hour from London’ and they are usually right. Mainline train services from St Pancras, London Bridge, Charing Cross, Waterloo East and Victoria, and decent roads (M25, M20, M2, A21) make just about anywhere easily accessible. Even Canterbury, in Kent’s eastern hinterlands, is just 55 minutes from St Pancras.
Kent’s charms are not limited to the orchards and hop gardens that earned the county the somewhat twee moniker ‘the Garden of England’. On the cultural scene, this year sees the return of the
Folkestone Triennial arts festival and April saw the opening of Margate’s dramatic Turner Contemporary gallery. Visitors to the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral can now see Antony Gormley’s
‘Transport’, a sculpture made from medieval nails removed from the repaired roof.
But Kent’s main attractions for corporate event organisers are, of course, its venues. The county is packed with inspiring spots for all manner of events, so whether you want a meeting in a medieval house or an away-day on a racing track this singular county is well worth another look.
Castles & country houses
Kent is good at stately homes, from moated citadels like Leeds Castle to the more domestic Chiddingstone
Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, close to the village of Edenbridge, is surprisingly homely given its size. Among 16th-century portraits and prayer books (some inscribed by Anne herself) visitors will find fearsome swords and instruments of torture. Rather more welcoming are the conference facilities, which include the just-refurbished Astor Wing, with three interconnecting rooms, and the Palladian-style Guthrie Pavilion, also recently spruced-up, with a light-filled conference space and picturesque lakeside setting. Numerous activities, from the antique (archery and duck herding) to the modern (laser shooting, quad biking, digger driving) can be arranged. There’s also an outdoor heated pool, tennis court, croquet lawn, billiard room and 18-hole golf course.
Hever, TN8 7NG, tel: 01732 861800
BR:21 FR:4 M:120 D:200 R:250
It was the views over the Weald of Kent which attracted Sir Winston Churchill to Chartwell, his home from 1924. From here you can see Kent’s verdant acres roll to a distant horizon – a view, it is said, that fired the war leader’s patriotic fervour and strengthened his resolve to repel Hitler. Chartwell’s Mulberry Room (seating 90) serves as a fine venue for presentations and dinner in this most statesmanlike setting.
Westerham, TN16 1PS, tel: 01732 863087
BR:- FR:1 M:120 D:90 R:150
Guests can walk the 35-acre grounds and admire a dizzying variety of art and artefacts at one of Kent’s better-kept secrets. Foremost among the event spaces is the oak-panelled Great Hall, which can seat 100 guests theatre-style (or 80 for lunch or dinner). Other options include the White Rose Drawing Room, whose Gothic windows overlook the estate, and the new Board Room on the first floor.
Hill Hoath Road, Chiddingstone, TN8 7AD, tel: 01892 870347,
BR:- FR:4 M:22 D:80 R:100
The custodians of this glorious 900-year-old castle near Maidstone are honouring the wish of its last private owner that it remain a place ‘where people met and things happened’. With a hyperactive teambuilding menu (falconry,
hot-air ballooning, golf, jousting, to name just a few) and an embarrassment of top-notch spaces, this is indeed a place where things happen and meetings are held. The newest of these venues is the Maiden’s Tower, a medieval bake house, which has been refurbished in grand style. It accommodates up to 120 delegates and also has five bedrooms (15 more are available in the Stable Courtyard nearby) and a large private alfresco space for sunny days, accessed through french doors.
Maidstone, ME17 1PL, tel: 01622 767813
BR:40 FR:5 M:80 D:176 R:180
St Julians near Sevenoaks has a peculiarly eccentric character, explained by its history; in the 1950s the house became a commune for a number of like-minded families. Now it functions as a club to folk who visit as members to enjoy the pool and playground, yet it retains some of its non-conformist character (and is still home to many artistic types). The largest room is The Lounge (70 theatre-style) where huge windows capitalise on grand views of surrounding countryside. Groups wishing to break out can use the adjoining conservatory, bar or games room. What really sets St Julians apart, though, are its supremely hospitable staff. >>
Sevenoaks, TN15 ORX, tel: 01732 458261
BR:- FR:3 M:70 D:110 R:150
There are plenty of quirky venues to choose from in Kent, both old and new
Shepherd Neame Brewery
Britain’s oldest brewer, established in 1698, is a surprisingly forward-thinking company. The events facilities within its historic Faversham HQ certainly keep evolving, most recently by way of The Old Brewery Store, a brand-new 400-capacity venue with its own entrance, loos and reception area (quite a rarity in Kent). Designed to accommodate large dinners and live music events, the space splits between a cosy bar area with fast-pour beer taps and a much larger main space with rustic brick walls, antique pub signs and top-notch AV. Elsewhere on the sprawling site is the Visitor Centre, which offers a pub-style bar, traditional boardroom and 15th-century function room with exposed beams, an octagonal crown post roof and a ‘beer chandelier’. Brewery tours and tutored tastings make nice additions to events here.
As the home of the National Fruit Collection, Brogdale is the only place you can taste the apple varieties Henry VIII ate, the nuts Columbus carried to America and the plums beloved of the Victorians. A number of meeting rooms are available, and larger parties can book a marquee in ‘The Meadow’, where they can enjoy mouth-watering dishes by Scott Anderson, the on-site chef. Grown-up kids will adore a ride on the miniature railway through the orchards.
Brogdale Road, Faversham, ME13 8XZ, tel: 01795 536250
BR:- FR:2 M:60 D:1,000 R:1,000
Canterbury cathedral Lodge & Chapter House
Within the grounds of the Cathedral, the purpose-built Canterbury Lodge is kitted out with all the audiovisual gadgetry you could desire. In addition to the 250-seat auditorium, various smaller conference rooms are available. The space capable of dumbfounding even the most loquacious sales rep, though, is the Chapter House. This cavernous 14th-century hall (400 standing) must have inspired Harry Potter’s set designers, adorned, as it is, with medieval stained glass and topped by a distant oak roof. Guests at banquets and receptions here can spill out into the spookily atmospheric Cloisters.
The Precints, Canterbury, CT1 2EH, tel: 01227 865350
BR:29 FR:5 M:300 D:250 R:400
The Historic Dockyard, Chatham
For more than four centuries these docks have been building and repairing Britain’s naval fleet. Among the historic warships and tended lawns are several eye-catching spaces, including the Royal Dockyard Church, seating up to 400, with a raised stage and whose upper gallery is ideal for lighting and sound equipment. Elsewhere on the site, the permanent marquee of Commissioner’s House accommodates 200 theatre-style. Smaller boardroom meetings, meanwhile, can be held onboard HMS Cavalier, a WWII destroyer.
Chatham, ME4 4TZ, tel: 01634 823800
BR:- FR:10 M:400 D:130 R:225
Kent & East Sussex Railway
At this historic railway station in Tenterden meetings can be held on Theodora, a Wealden Pullman carriage, as she is pulled through some of England’s most picturesque countryside. The coach is also available for ‘static’ meetings, either in Tenterden or at the East Sussex end of the line, within view of Bodiam Castle.
Tenterdon, TN30 6HE, tel: 01580 765155
BR:- FR:3 M:50 D:45 R:60
An unusual thing just happened in Margate. The town, perhaps better known these days for its down-at-heel entertainment arcades and chippies, has become the home of an art gallery of national significance. The arresting structure, smack on the sea front, was opened with a fanfare by Kent resident Jools Holland and Margate-raised Tracey Emin in April, and is the largest exhibition space in the South East outside London. The versatile venue has a splendid view of the sea and, in Turner’s words, ‘the loveliest skies in all Europe’.
Margate, CT9 1HG, tel: 01843 233000
BR:- FR:1 M:120 D:80 R:300
Venues offering activities to thrill and challenge corporate groups
There’s nothing like adrenaline and good-old-fashioned physical discomfort to
engender workplace solidarity. After all, who is thinking about office politics when they’re dangling 40 feet in the air, attempting to drive through a muddy lake or slipping around on an ice rink?
Kent offers all the traditional activities (shooting, raft building, climbing) and some delightfully unusual ones too.
First, adrenaline. Brands Hatch (tel: 01474 875224) motor racing circuit, just outside the M25, is a wonderland for petrol heads. Visitors can compete on the
go-karting track, negotiate a hazardous course in an adapted Land Rover or fly round the circuit in a Porsche. A conference facility, the MotorSport Vision Centre is also on site, and accommodation
is provided by Brandshatch Place Hotel & Spa nearby (tel: 0845 072 7395; squaremeal.co.uk/bp).
At Fentons Rink (tel: 01892 826004) near Tunbridge Wells has England’s first and only curling ice rink. The principle is simple enough: players slide a granite stone
40 metres from one end of the rink to the other, hopefully ending up somewhere near the target. Two teams of four compete against each other, with participants taking turns to slide or sweep – all
the while attempting to stay on their feet. The rink re-opens for the winter season on 3 October.
Also a short drive from Tunbridge Wells is the Bewl Water Outdoor Centre (tel: 01892 890000). Here groups can try raft building, rock climbing, windsurfing, sailing,
canoeing and even power boating. Tailor-made courses can be devised for specific organisations, designed to challenge and perplex in equal measure. The centre also has meeting facilities and
overnight accommodation for up to 36 delegates.
Facilities for clay pigeon shooting are provided at the West Kent Shooting School (tel: 01892 834306) near Paddock Wood, which since 1974 has been hosting gun-toting
groups. After the shoot, homemade food can be served in the cosy wooden clubhouse.
For more conventional teambuilding activities, Quex Park (tel: 01843 482004) on the Isle of Thanet takes some beating. The country home of the Powell-Cotton family,
set in 250 acres of beautiful parkland, it can host It’s a Knockout competitions, sheep dog handling (and ‘human sheep herding’), treasure hunts and circus skills classes.
Groups of an epicurean persuasion can take a tour of Chapel Down vineyard (tel: 01580 766111) near Tenterden. The vineyard, which produces some particularly notable sparkling wines, offers private tours of the vineyards and production facilities, during which an expert explains the winemaking process. After the tour, groups can enjoy a wine and cheese tasting. For more substantial fare, visitors are advised to book a table at Richard Phillips’s excellent restaurant, also on site.
Kent has plenty of options if you’re looking for a venue with lots of green and pleasant land
Outside term time, Kent’s most hoity-toity boys’ school makes a distinguished venue. Areas for hire include the impressive Sports & Media Centre, which was opened by Lord Coe in 2009. Among the other spaces are the Lowry Suite and The Orchard Room, a 180-capacity dining space overlooking the school’s cricket fields. Availability next year is already limited – the Australian Olympic team will be basing themselves here.
Kent county cricket club
Canterbury’s St Lawrence cricket ground, the home of Kent County Cricket Club, is one of the oldest first-class grounds in use today. It is also one of only two to have a tree within its boundary. Three rooms are available: The Harris Room and Cornwallis Room each accommodate up to 200 guests, while the Chiesman Pavilion fits 100.
Old Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3NZ, tel 01227 456886. BR:- FR:3 M:200 D:220 R:250
London Golf Club
This club is, in fact, on Kent’s northwest fringe. Outside are two championship golf courses, while inside, you’ll find clubby, unapologetically masculine interiors – all polished mahogany, tartan upholstery and noble-looking paintings. Of the six rooms, the Banqueting Room (170 theatre-style) has the best views over the courses. The Club Room on the first floor is suitable for smaller events (fitting 40). The main entrance hall, an imposing space with an oversized carved chimneypiece and beamed roof, can also be commandeered.
Stansted Lane, Ash, TN15 7EN, tel: 01474 879899
BR:- FR:7 M:170 D:132 R:200
The facilities at Priestfield Stadium, the home of Gillingham FC, are notable both for their size and their convenience; they’re right next to the M25. In addition to the Great Hall, which can seat 700 delegates theatre-style, there are 27 meeting rooms, most with pitch views. Boxes are also available to hire, should you want to watch the mighty Gills in action.
Priestfield Stadium, Redfern Avenue, Gillingham, ME7 4DD, tel: 01634 300000. BR:- FR:8 M:600 D:500 R:600
Kent isn’t the place for hotels with sprawling conference facitlities. Instead, think small and characterful
Chilston Park Hotel
This Grade 1-listed house in Lenham has been home to numerous politicians, writers and aristos. Various rooms and outbuildings have been converted into meeting rooms; their names (The Tack Room, The Orangery, The Library) hinting at their historical uses. One of the largest is the Fitzhammond Suite (up to 150 for cocktails), with lake views and a galleried terrace.
Sandway Lenham, Nr Maidstone, ME17 2BE, tel: 0845 072 7426, squaremeal.co.uk/chilston. BR:53 FR:5 M:100 D:90 R:150
This sleek Canterbury hotel comes complete with expensive fabrics and trendy art. Meetings can be held in the Cathedral Lounge (up to 125) and four smaller rooms. The restaurant serves local fare – Kentish beef, Romney Marsh lamb, South Coast fish – at unapologetic prices. Private dining (up to 24) is available in The Wine Room and a chef’s table seats 14.
30-33 The High Street, Canterbury CT1 2RX, tel: 01227 766266. BR:72 FR:5 M:125 D:100 R:150
Ashford International Hotel
With its close proximity to the Eurostar terminal and the M20, this four-star is one of Kent’s main conference hotels. There are 179 bedrooms and 18 meeting rooms, all with free Wi-Fi. The largest is the Kent Suite, which can hold 400 theatre-style, or up to 800 for a banquet. There is an events team on site to help arrange meetings, conferences and teambuilding.
Simone Weil Avenue, Ashford TN24 8UX, tel: 01233 219988, BR:38 FR:8 M:160 D:150 R:200
Ornate plasterwork, baronial fireplaces, expanses of wood panelling and towering chimneys underline this ravishing manor-house hotel’s historic origins. It is hardly surprising that, with such old-world charm and a handy location near Ashford, it has become a popular conferencing venue. Of its several meeting spaces, the most eye-catching are the Rose Garden Room (100) and Chaucer Room (35).
Boughton Lees, Nr Ashford, TN25 4HR, tel: 01233 213000. BR:23 FR:7 M:180 D:120 R:150
Hotel du Vin Tunbridge Wells
The Kentish Hotel du Vin exemplifies the group’s style, with elegant-yet-informal interiors and art-bedecked walls. There are three meeting spaces, of which Speyside Glenlivet
(up to 80 theatre-style) is most impressive. This mirrored room (inspired by Versailles) opens out onto a verandah and the gardens beyond.
Crescent Road, Tunbridge Wells TN1 2LY, tel: 0845 365 8438. BR:34 FR:3 M:80 D:84 R:120
This 18th-century country house hotel is just half an hour from London (by train) and down the road from Ebbsfleet International. In the main house, the Boardroom is oak-panelled and opens out onto a private terrace. For larger events, the Clockhouse Suite accommodates up to 150 diners.
Wilmington, Nr Dartford, DA2 7QH, tel: 01322 615136, squaremeal.co.uk/rowhill. BR:38 FR:8 M:160 D:150 R:200
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, summer 2011