Centrally placed Maidstone is perfect as a Kent holiday base. A more accessible central Kent base you're unlikely to find - Maidstone has two stations and sits conveniently off the M20 yet within the rural county setting of the North Downs surrounding countryside. Maidstone town centre is home to one of Kent's best museum - the Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery. The art collections are particularly impressive, with work on show here by the likes of local artists Goodwin and essayist Hazlitt, but also by prestigious notables such as Henry Moore.
The River Medway running through the town has seen much regeneration recently, resulting in a bustle of activity and river tours along the Millennium River Park. Theatres, cinema and great shopping, pubs and restaurants are aplenty in the town, and just on the outskirts sits the Museum of Kent Life with its distinctive white tipped Oast House. A rural extravaganza, the Cobtree estate was bequethed to the town by eccentric Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, the last remaining son of this notable local Kent family.
Maidstone Town Hall Visitor Information Centre, Town Hall, High Street, Maidstone, Kent, ME14 1TF. Tel. 01622 602169.
A special local museum with some prized collections, Maidstone's Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery is a local gem. They've plenty of space in the huge Elizabethan manor house venue in the heart of Maidstone. In operation since 1858, a couple of particularly fine collections were bequeathed by roaming Victorian notables including Julius Brenchley who kick started the museum's ethnography and worldwide collection of artefacts. The Sioux arrow that Brenchley was shot with whilst on one of his trips to North America is on display in the museum.
Particularly special is the collection of Japanese Art and prints from the Edo period (1600-1868) - the collection is extensive and the third largest in the UK. Kent's premier art collection is held here, with a specialism in pre-1800 minor Dutch and Italian Old Masters plus a small selection of rare work by essayist William Hazlitt who was born in Maidstone. Recent special exhibitions have included work by other local artists including Albert Goodwin (1845-1932), famous especially for his watercolours. Also born in Maidstone, Goodwin was influenced by Turner and championed by Ruskin. You'll come across sculpture by more recent masters such as Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein here, alongside ancient decorative ceramics, furniture and more.
Some Bronze and Iron Age, plus some Roman and Saxon artefacts are on show, but Maidstone's local history really took off during the Medieval period when the Archbishops Palace alongside the River Medway here spawned the town. By the late 1800s Maidstone was the officially recognised legal centre of Kent - a hub for an area containing a thriving paper and hops/beer making industry. Also within the museum are some impressive costumes and antique clothing, particularly women's clothing from 1800 to the present.
Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery, St.Faith's Street, Maidstone, Kent ME14 1LH. Tel. 01622 602838. Free Admission, open from Monday to Saturday 10.00 - 17.15. Sundays 11.00 - 16.00. Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day. The Queens Own Royal West Kent Regiment Independent Museum is also housed within the main Maidstone Museum building.
Situated just off Junction 6 of the M20 sits the 28 acre Cobtree Estate which forms the site of the Museum of Kent Life. The estate was bequethed by Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, last in the line of this famous Kent family. He was mayor of Maidstone 12 times, well travelled and by all accounts pleasantly eccentric.
Today the estate is a working heritage farm - they still grow, harvest and store hops for beer in the distinctive on-site double Oast house (note the white tipped roofs) and it's these traditional Kent farming practices that give you a real insight into rural life in Kent's past.
Farmyard animals are also housed on the estate, so plenty of opportunity for kids to get involved. Also on-site are trails, a shop, craft village, exhibits and local art gallery, plus birthday parties, large goups, weddings and events are welcome. The Kentish Lady boat runs up from Maidstone town centre along the Medway to the Museum of Kent Life - a great way of getting to the museum.
The Museum of Kent Life, Cobtree Lock Lane, Sandling, Maidstone, Kent ME14 3AU. Tel. 01622 763936. A golf course is also on-site.
Here at Maidstone the Hazlitt Theatre & Exchange offers a superb programme of drama, big music shows, family shows, dance and comedy.
The Maidstone Film Society also operate from here, with a programme of superb independent cinema running throughout the year. (see their webguide for programme details).
Hazlitt Theatre & Exchange, Earl Street, Maidstone, Kent ME14 1PL. Box Office. 01622 758 611. Open 10am to 6pm Mon to Sat and 1 hour pre-performance.
Odeon Cinema Maidstone, Lockmeadow, Barker Road, Maidstone, Kent, ME16 8RG, Tel. 0871 22 44 007.
During the Summer season (opens April), the Kentish Lady offers a choice of boat trips along the River Medway. Choose from 1 hour return boat trips, with pick-up points from the Museum of Kent Life and the Archbishops Palace to 3 hour long cruises. Private parties are also offered.
With informative commentary throughout on the history of Maidstone and its links with the Medway, a boat trip on the Kentish Lady to the Museum of Kent Life from Maidstone town centre is particularly recommended. See the Kentish Lady webguide right for more informatiion on the choice of boat trips offered.
Kentish Lady Boat Trips River Medway, Hire Cruisers Limited, Undercliffe Boathouse, Bishops Way, Maidstone, ME15 6XG. Tel. 01622 753740.
Fortunately for Maidstone, Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake was a collector, and as befits his rather endearing eccentricities, he started to collect and preserve carriages when he realised they were being replaced by the motorcar!
Situated within the 14th century stables of the Archbishop's Palace, the venue itself is of great historic interest, Maidstone's Carriage Museum opens over the Summer period (from May to September, Tel. 01622 602838 to check opening times).
Many of the 60 plus carriages held here are Victorian, including a selection of growlers and Queen Victoria's State Landau! The Growler was sometimes known as the Clarence, and was well known for the extremely loud noise it made when it went over stone or macadam roads. The growler carriage survived through both the Victorian and Edwardian era, and was widely used across the classes not just for essential journeys but also for moving heavy items like furniture.
The museum can be especially opened during the Winter months for groups but you'll need to contact first. Find the stables, home to the Carriage Museum, off Mill Street near the main Archbishops Palace and All Saints church.
The striking Archbishop's Palace, once part of a huge manor handed to the Archbishops of Canterbury in 1207. The Archbishop's Palace was built later in the 14th century. Today this striking riverside building serves as Kent's Registry office for civil births and marriages. A more attractive setting for a Civil Wedding Ceremony you'd be hard pushed to find!
Special open days run through the year, allowing you to tour the Archbishops Palace. (usually around one per month, but check the webguide right for details). Famous peasant rouser John Ball, nicknamed the 'Mad Kent Priest', was imprisoned here briefly, but sprung during the Peasants Revolt of 1381. Peasant later went on to storm London. Ball was a firm ally to the poor, calling for an end to the Archbishops and even the Pope.
Archbishop's Palace, Palace Gardens, Mill Street, Maidstone, Kent ME15 6YE.
Other historic buildings around Maidstone centre include All Saints church adjacent to the Archbishop's Palace and built by the Archbishop Courtenay in 1395. All Saints is open Monday to Thursday from 10.00 to 16.00 and Saturday, from 10.30 to 12.30. May to September. Other times by arrangement. Tel.l 01622 843298. Alongside the church sits the College of All Saints, a building dating from the same period. An excellent Historic Walking Tour leaflet for Maidstone is available via the Maidstone Tourist Webguide, or from the Town Hall tourist office.