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"Kent,sir — everybody knows Kent — apples, cherries, hops and women"

The county Charles Dickens loved is still called the Garden of England, even if production of the first three attractions he listed has declined since the author lived there. Rolling weald, orchards and oast houses spring to mind when the non-Kentish think of Kent, despite the different vistas afforded by the Medway towns and the beautiful wilderness around the southern coast. Ronnie Haydon explored this county of contrasts

Kent is certainly diverse. It is where Romans built Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury) and where ports provided the warships and fortifications against Johnny Foreigner in two world wars.

Kent applesHarvesting one of the many varieties of Kentish apples

Today the invasion of Kent comes from the west, as Londoners buy into the Kentish dream. For some it’s a seaside fantasy – hence rising house prices in Whitstable – while others desire oast house conversions in picturesque villages. It’s all change too for the industries – namely fishing, fruit and hop farming – that created Kent’s country towns. While these three no longer make the county’s fortune, cash from people seeking local and organic produce have given Kent’s garden status a fillip.

Canterbury – seat of the Anglican church –  is the spiritual capital of Kent. The Goods Shed (01227 459153) – a farmers’ market and restaurant housed in a Victorian railway freight store on Station Road West – makes it the culinary centre too. Market ingredients are used on the menu, which guarantees freshness, seasonality and a sense of wellbeing.

Shopping in farmers’ markets always makes you feel virtuous, but a trip to a Kentish one in autumn also restores faith in our national fruit, the apple. David Deme, of  Chegworth Valley Juice is confident that the public’s taste is turning against air-freighted foreign apples and supermarket-stored coxes. Deme has witnessed new orchards being planted over recent years. Ted Hobday, chief guide at the National Fruit Collection of Faversham’s Brogdale Horticultural Trust agrees: “The old days, when apple-lovers chose from 50 local varieties, are gone, but there’s renewed interest in English varieties. Kent’s mature orchards may have been grubbed up, but new apple fields, using spindle fruit trees, not bush ones, give you more fruit per acre.”

HopsA handful of Shepherd Neame hops, and two of their finest brews

Brogdale’s collection includes a number of English grape varieties. Vineyards have replaced the hop fields on the Weald while at Biddenden, viticulturalists are producing award-winning wines. Nevertheless, it’s still a foaming pint of Kentish beer that many visitors seek, even if the hop industry has now dwindled to a handful of growers. Once, more than 30,000 acres of Kent countryside were given to hops; today that acreage is considerably less.

The future looks brighter for the Kent-grown hop, though. Tony Redsell, the country’s leading producer and chairman of the National Hop Association of England, who has bines at Tenham, Broughton and Harbledown, says brewers are showing more interest in hoppy-tasting beers, and enthusiasm for the therapeutic and decorative qualities of hop plants has led to a resurgence.

Batleys Cash & CarryBatleys Cash & Carry, now open in Gillingham

In 1900 there were 60 brewers in Kent, today there is but one – Shepherd Neame. The centuries-old award-winning producer of Bishops Finger and Spitfire controls 376 pubs in south-east England. The Aviator is one such, and a key symbol in the regeneration of the neglected Isle of Sheppey.

Another delicacy that visitors to Kent should sample is a Whitstable oyster. The famously trendy fishing town has been praised for oysters since Roman times (Juvenal loved them). They’re not cheap, mind. Natives cost around £15 per half dozen. July’s Whitstable Oyster Festival sees the town heaving with visitors. The chef at Wheelers says that his front-of-shop seats are at a premium at this time.

Whitstable natives (the people not the shellfish) are scathing about the DFLs (down from Londons). Indeed, Kent’s proximity to the capital has long been a source of discord as well as optimistic speculation as the hospitality industry reaps the rewards of a stream of day trippers from the Smoke. It is  in the spirit of the latter impulse that Batleys opened a store in Gillingham on 7 October.

Gillingham, home of the county’s best football team and gateway to the North Kent Coast and picturesque wealds and downs, has a pivotal position in the Batleys’ empire. Opened in October this year, the 90,000sqft store – the first Batleys in the South East – was built at a cost of £10million and offers an extensive range of approximately 20,000 SKUs (stock keeping units). Branch manager Anton James was working at full throttle when we caught up with him just before the grand opening. “I ran the Fareham Batleys for seven years, but expect this one, with its key position serving five big Medway towns, to build up a large following among restaurants, pubs and clubs as word gets round.”

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