The coastal counties of Kent and Sussex are the perfect place to come to if you are looking for a holiday full of activity and history. While Kent is widely known for its abundance of traditional oast houses and hop farms set in glorious golden countryside as well as its spectacular chalky coastline, Sussex is famed for its vibrant cities and historic towns, as well as its little fishing villages set against a backdrop of the glorious South Downs.
These counties however, are also home to some of the most magnificent historical castles and houses in the country, many of them owned by the National Trust. From the fairytale castles of Kent to the romantic houses of Sussex, you'll be sure to have a tough time deciding which National Trust houses to tick off your list!
When is the best time to visit?
You will find pleasure in visiting whatever the season! The first buds of spring and the hazy blue skies of summer are the perfect time to visit gardens and parkland - all with an abundance of traditional and exotic blooms simply bursting out of every corner. Perfect for picnicking in meadows and long walks as the sun goes down, you will be witness to the best scenery that England has to offer.
As autumn descends and the russet and gold leaves make way for blankets of white snow, beautiful estates tempt you inside to discover the hidden secrets and intrigue of centuries gone by. Most have cafes or tea rooms where you can warm yourselves up with a steaming hot chocolate or a scrumptious cream tea, and many places offer special winter walks and festive Christmas fairs to cheer you into the Yuletide season.
Whenever you choose to visit, the properties of the National Trust throughout Kent and Sussex will be waiting to welcome you.
National Trust properties in Kent
Set in the valley of the River Bewl just south of Lamberhurst in Kent, this grand Victorian country mansion with its fairy tale moated castle sits prettily in nearly 800 acres of beautiful gardens, parkland and woodland. Majestic aged trees gaze down onto the impossibly romantic 14th century castle, whose romantic turret peeks out tempting you to visit and find out more about its fascinating history. It is overlooked by the main house, built by Edward Hussy III from the sandstone of the Old Castle.
Both the house and gardens were created together with the intention of looking over the castle and surrounding estate, which it does perfectly whatever the season. Today you can tour the house where you will discover a mountain of collected items and art that the family have collected over the years, including tapestries, portraits and furniture.
There is a lovely tea room where you can sample seasonal locally sourced food or a yummy cream tea with one of their famous scones of the month – sales figures for 2016 came in at over 36,000 scones! Alternatively, you can bring your own picnic to eat in the new woodland picnic area, and don’t forget the shop, where you can buy such lovely produce as Scotney Bitter and honey made from the estate’s own bees.
Dogs are welcome on short leads around the garden and estate. Leads can be loaned from the visitor centre reception if you have forgotten yours. There is limited parking. Toilets are available on site.
Lamberhurst, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN8 8JN
This stunning example of Tudor architecture is one of Kent’s most beautiful and unusual houses. Half-timbered and dating back to the late 15th or early 16th century, it has been cared for by the National Trust since 1947. Once belonging to the actress Ellen Terry and containing her fascinating collection of private and theatrical items, it is thought to have been built as a result of the great fire of 1514 which destroyed most of the port of Smallhythe. The house is renowned for its abundance of white roses, which come into full bloom in summer – people driving by have been known to turn around and go back to admire its beauty and we can’t blame them!
The estate is also home to a traditional cottage garden, bursting with colour and wonderful produce, a 17th century thatched Barn Theatre and a quaint vintage tea room with a new gift corner where you can treat yourself to the books and preserves on offer, as well as produce from the gardens. The legacy of the actress is kept alive throughout the year with a programme of productions both in the theatre and garden; there is also an opportunity to find out about the fascinating history of the house whose links to an early LGBTQ community made it a hugely creative and radical place to be.
Dogs are allowed on leads in grounds. Parking is 50 yards from the house. There are toilets available on site.
Smallhythe, Tenterden, Kent, TN30 7NG
The charming medieval moated manor house of Ightham is situated just outside Sevenoaks. Described by the architectural writer John Newman as ‘the most complete small medieval manor house in the county’, it really is a brilliant example of traditional English architecture. Built nearly 700 years ago, the house has been through many periods of change and has had a selection of high-profile owners including medieval knights, courtiers to Henry VIII as well as important Victorians.
The house is set in acres of stunning gardens and lakes, and has a pretty orchard, bursting with daffodils in the spring as well as water features dotted around. The house retains most of its original features with a quadrangle and chapel added in the 16th century, and really shows how houses would have looked in the middle ages.
There are over 70 rooms all looking inward towards the picturesque central courtyard which really takes you back in time. Visit the Great Hall, the Crypt and the interesting Grade I listed dog kennel, much grander than those you find today! The house is surrounded by a square moat which can be crossed by three bridges – they are not as grand as a drawbridge but do provide entry to different parts of the house. After taking a tour of the house, take an afternoon stroll in the pretty woodland. If you are lucky, you will be there when the plethora of bluebells shoots up in Scathes Wood.
There are also three estate walks, offering spectacular views across the Kent countryside. Winter garden tours are available from November to February and picnics are welcome near the walled car park and at the north end of the garden, beyond the North Lake. There is a refreshment kiosk in the walled car park, open at peak times as well as the Mote Café which has a great selection of home-cooked food and scrumptious cream teas. Finish off your day with a visit to the Old Coach House Shop which has a lovely selection of gifts and souvenirs to take home.
Dogs are not allowed in the house or gardens, but they are welcome on the outside patio area at the Mote Café where dog bowls are available. Parking is available (pay and display £2 – free to NT members). Bike racks are available, and toilets and baby changing facilities are available.
Mote Road, Ivy Hatch, Sevenoaks, Kent TN15 0NT
Knole is a breath-taking Jacobean country house, set in a 1000-acre park in the district of Sevenoaks in Kent. One of England’s largest houses, it was originally an archbishop’s palace, passing through royal ownership and lastly to the Sackville family in 1603 who remain its current owners.
It sits in Kent’s last medieval deer park which you can walk around at your leisure, trying to spot the wild deer that still roam across the sweeping parkland. There are three fantastic trails around the grounds, of different length and difficulty. Explore the lawned courtyards and the beautiful elegant orangery and inside, admire the selection of art including Gainsborough, Reynolds and Van Dyck, as well as wonderful 17th century tapestries and furniture.
If you visit during 2018 you will be witness to the huge conservation project that is currently taking place at Knole with the Heritage Lottery Fund. It does mean however, that some of the showrooms will be closed so that specialist conservation work can take place, but they will reopen fully in 2019.
The Gatehouse Tower is a must – here you can drink in the spectacular views from the top of the spiral staircase, although access is via 77 steep, uneven steps, so not ideal for those who aren’t fully mobile. Here there are also two rooms where you can learn about the exciting life of former resident, Eddy Sackville-West.
There is an outdoor seating area in the park which is the perfect spot for a picnic and also the Brewhouse Café where you can tantalise your taste buds with a selection of hot and cold food, snacks and drinks. For a quick snack on the go, head to the Grab & Go food outlet which is situated in the Brewhouse Courtyard. For something a bit different, head to one of the Heritage workshops where you can learn such skills as assembling stained glass or mixing your own perfume. Do check the website for details of when these are taking place.
Dogs are welcome on leads but only in the park and courtyards. Parking is available (£4 – free to NT members). There is a cycle rack close to the car park and toilets are available on site.
Sevenoaks, Kent TN15 0RP (Sat Nav TN13 1HU)
One of the most famous gardens in England, and known for its plethora of colourful plants bursting out of every corner, Sissinghurst Castle Garden is one of the National Trust’s true delights. This iconic estate is famous for its residents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, who fell in love with the house in the 1930s and went on to make a garden that attracts visitors from across the globe. Poetic and romantic, you will not fail to be inspired by the wonderful garden rooms, planned by Harold himself, and the beautiful mixture of plants in the gardens, orchestrated by Vita.
Once a prison back in the 18th century, it also became a home for the women’s land army during the war. Set in 450 acres of rolling Kent countryside, it is also home to a working farm where Sussex Cattle and Romney Sheep are reared. There are often interesting exhibitions, such as The Clangers and Bagpuss amongst others. The South Cottage, having been the residence of various writers over the years, is available to view, but limited tickets are available for this.
The tower can be climbed and boasts gorgeous views from the top though restoration is taking place in 2017 and the beginning of 2018 so do be aware. Picnics can be brought and enjoyed on the tables and benches in the veg garden and on various other parts of the estate.
Families should try the dragonfly trail which winds its way through vegetable gardens, woodlands and lakes – you can pick up a map at the entrance and try out the fun activities on offer along the way. There you can also find out about the conservation work which helps to protect the estate. Don’t leave without visiting the little white gazebo at the end of the moat in the orchard. Built by Harold’s sons as a memorial to their father, it was the place where the famous work ‘Portrait of a Marriage’ was written.
Dogs on leads are welcome in most of the estate, but not in the formal garden. There is parking available (£3 – free for NT members). Toilets and baby changing facilities are available.
Biddenden Road, near Cranbrook, Kent TN17 2AB
Whilst not a typical National Trust property, the White Cliffs are still part of the National Trust’s huge portfolio. Magnificent chalk cliffs that boast spectacular views across the Channel to France invite you to walk along their coastal path towards South Foreland Lighthouse, a wonder of Victorian engineering famous for early scientific inventions and ground-breaking experiments. Not only will you get a great vista of the cliffs, but you will also see the chalk grassland where you can experience many unusual plants and insects such as the pyramidal orchid and the chalkhill blue butterfly.
The cliffs are not only geographically important but were important from a military perspective as they were used as a defence in both World Wars. Home to deep tunnels hidden in the chalk, you can visit the Fan Bay Deep shelter to really get a feel of the history that has been made here; don a hard hat and head torch and follow the tour as you experience life in a WWII shelter.
There is a free walking map on arrival, including family-friendly routes which will show you the best ways to get around. There are several walks leading to viewpoints and the aforementioned lighthouse and Fan Bay shelter but bear in the mind the cliff path walk isn’t suitable for pushchairs – you can borrow a baby carrier from the visitor centre if you want to do that walk. Alternatively, there is a 350m pushchair friendly path to the viewing points from which you can watch the comings and goings of the world’s busiest passenger port in the distance.
There is a great visitor centre with coffee shop where you can sample a scrumptious slice of homemade cake or a cream tea while browsing amongst the lovely National Trust gifts and souvenirs on offer. For little ones whose feet have tired from all the walking, a fantastic woodland play area might also tempt them to stay a little longer without complaining!
Dogs are welcome. There is a big car park (£3.50 or free for NT members). There are toilets and baby-changing facilities at the visitor centre. There is also a microwave available to warm baby milk in the coffee shop.
Langdon Cliffs, Upper Road, Dover, Kent, CT16 1HJ
Known most famously as the family home of Winston Churchill for over forty years, the country home of Chartwell is a true testament to the life of this great man. This is the place that inspired him almost up to his death – you can visit the rooms which have been left as they were when he was there, with his books, pictures and personal items, and really experience every detail of his life. Every winter, a new temporary exhibition is put on to explore Churchill further and to show the public more unseen items from his storage vault.
The wonderful gardens show his love of nature – you can see the lakes that he created, the kitchen garden and the Marycot, a brick playhouse he designed for one of his daughters, complete with little windows and furniture inside. There is also lots of woodland with looped trails for easy walks and natural play areas for children.
When you need a bite to eat, there is a large café with both indoor and outdoor seating. Try one of the seasonal desserts which uses fresh produce from the Chartwell kitchen garden so that you can take a taste of Chartwell away with you. Alternatively, you can have a picnic in the meadow or by the lake on the lower lawn, both beautifully romantic places to stop and reflect upon the past.
Dogs on short leads are welcomed within the gardens and estate, and water bowls are provided at the café. There is parking (£3 – free for NT members). Toilets are available on site.
Mapleton Road, Westerham, Kent, TN16 1PS
Other National Trust properties that you might like to visit in Kent
National Trust properties in Sussex
"Read on to see which one of these properties is home to the National Trust's finest art collection..."
A majestic late 17th century Grade I listed house, Petworth is situated in the historic parish of Petworth in West Sussex. With a palatial feel due to its size and design, this stately Baroque building is one of the most magnificent in the National Trust’s collection.
The spectacular sweeping landscape, transformed in the 1750s and early 1760s by Capability Brown, is known for having inspired Turner in many of his paintings; indeed, he spent much time there under the patronage of the 3rd Earl of Egremont. The property houses the finest art collection in the care of the National Trust and you will see this for yourself when visiting the state rooms filled with paintings by not only Turner but Reynolds, Van Dyck and Blake.
You can also visit the servants’ quarters to see how life was for the staff in years gone by – the Historic Kitchen has a 1000-piece copper batterie de cuisine and there are various domestic rooms that you can visit. There are guided tours available for the latter but please note that these must be booked before your visit.
Explore some of the 700 acres of grounds, including the breath-taking Pleasure Grounds which is enclosed within a ha-ha, complete with its own iconic Rotunda. Or download one of the trails which will take you along the many paths lined with trees and exotic shrubs where you can get a glimpse of what it would have been like for the family and guests of this house many years ago.
When you are in need of rest, pause awhile in the Audit Room Café – here you can enjoy a proper meal in what was once the Servants’ Quarters but don’t worry, you won’t have to put your pinny on! Finish off at the gift shop which has a lovely range of both National Trust gifts, books and local produce to remind you of a lovely day out in our glorious county.
Dogs are allowed in the deer park but not in the other areas. There is parking available. Toilets are available on site.
Petworth House and Park, Petworth, West Sussex, GU28 9LR
One of our most romantic castles, the moated 14th century Bodiam sits right in the heart of the Sussex countryside. With huge towers rising up out of a beautiful moat, you can cross the iconic drawbridge to discover centuries of history.
Built in 1385 by one of Henry VIII’s knights, Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, during the Hundred Years’ War, the castle went on to suffer during the Civil War when much of the interior was destroyed. The walls remained however, and you can still get an idea of what it was like to have lived there many centuries ago.
You can take brilliant guided tours where you will discover intriguing and often gruesome tales from the colourful medieval characters that lead the tours. These include William the forester, Blanche the webster and Ebete the huckster amongst others. They will talk you through the history of the castle and how they would have experienced it in their role. You can also watch a short DVD, which will explain a little history about the castle and then make your way around at your leisure.
The castle has a ruined interior, so much of the experience is walking amongst the ruins, but there is enough of an interior structure to imagine how the castle was in its day. Climb up the spiral staircases and peek through the narrow slitted windows where arrows would be shot at the enemy, and check out the old lookout tower.
There are extensive grounds to explore and for a bite to eat, the Wharf tea room serves home-cooked seasonal food. There is a refreshment kiosk and picnic benches outside that are wonderful on a sunny day. There is also a great shop that sells gifts, cards and local produce. If you want a full day out experience, you can hop aboard a steam train on the Kent and East Sussex Railway from Tenterden which takes in the castle on its journey around Sussex.
Dogs are allowed in the grounds and there is a dog tethering point and dog bowl outside the ticket office opposite the castle entrance for thirsty hounds. Parking is available (pay and display car park is £3 or free to NT members). Toilets are on site in the main car park.
Bodiam, near Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5UA
Bateman’s is a 17th century Jacobean country house situated in the picturesque village of Burwash in the Weald of Sussex. Known for being the home and sanctuary of Rudyard Kipling, author of ‘The Jungle Book’, it was his home from 1902 until his death in 1936, when it was bequeathed to the National Trust.
It was a very happy family home where his children were brought up and the rooms were described by Kipling as ‘untouched and unfaked’; they are today pretty much how he left them with various artefacts from the East which he had a strong connection with. His connection with India is beautifully shown in the first piece of writing from his study in Bateman’s, ‘Kim’.
A must-see is Kipling’s study, which feels as though the writer is still there, thinking of new ideas and lounging on his day bed, complete with cigarette burns. Then view the Kipling Collection where you can see the Nobel Prize that he was awarded for services to literature and paintings in ‘The Jungle Book’. The most wonderful effect by far is that you can actually hear Kipling speaking in the house. The only known footage of him speaking is played via a Pathe newsreel which can only serve to increase his presence as you walk around. Don’t miss the three wonderful trails around the estate – children have their own trails and dogs are welcome too!
Have a bite to eat in the Mulberry tea room, which has a wonderful garden setting in temperate weather, and finish in the Oast gift shop where you can buy a piece of history with one or two of Kipling’s books and perhaps a souvenir to take home.
Dogs are welcome on short leads – you can borrow one of these at the visitor reception. Parking is available and there are toilets on site with baby-changing facilities.
Bateman’s Lane, Burwash, East Sussex, TN19 7DS
Other National Trust properties that you might like to visit in Sussex
Plan your visit
Plan your itinerary from the list on the map below.
Why not become a member of the National Trust so that you can visit these beautiful places, as well as others all over the country? You will get free entry to over 500 places, free parking at most NT car parks as well as newsletters and a magazine sent to you three times a year. Not only this, but you will help to protect these wonderful places for generations to come.
If we have inspired you to visit these wonderful places, why not take a peek at our selection of holiday cottages across Kent and self-catering accommodation in Sussex? Whichever houses, gardens and places of interest you decide to visit, we have a wide selection of places to stay nearby.
If you're looking to uncover more history during your holiday, check out our guide to the castles of Kent and Sussex.