Cranbrook, a bespoke rural town
Cranbrook is a peaceful small town surrounded by farmlands and orchards. Its winding medieval streets, weatherboarded weavers’ cottages and timber framed homes jostle for position. It has no doubt looked like this for centuries.
Cranbrook blossomed in the 14th century’s when Edward III brought over Flemish weavers to develop the Wealden cloth industry using wool from Romney Marsh. During this affluent era wealthy clothiers established the character of the town.
During the 19th century, a group of artists known as the ‘Cranbrook Colony’ established themselves here and romanticised scenes of rural domestic life in rural Kent – cooking, washing, and children playing. One member of this colony is renowned for creating the first Christmas Card.
There are numerous medieval buildings in the area. At Wilsley Green, to the north of the town, is a Grade I‑listed Wealden hall house and cloth hall.
Famed comedian Harry Hill was born and educated in Cranbrook; as was actor and writer, Chris Langham; Kevin Lygo – Director of Television at ITV; Piers Sellers, the first British-born astronaut; and Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project.
Stepping into Cranbrook is akin to touching both the past and the present. You’ll not want to leave. Arrive early and watch as the shopkeepers pose their wares – arable produce, flowers, copper pans, chic clothes and curious gifts, antiques, and books. The church bell announces the hour, and the white sails of the Union Windmill shimmer. It’s the very picture of a small-town Kent going about its business.
Cranbrook has a good mix of bars and temples to fine cuisine, so you’ll not go hungry. But it’s the fascinating and eclectic mix of general and specialist shops that are, for me, the main attraction.
Arts and crafts shops, antique stores, Chaney & Son – a divine little bakery you simply must stop at. There are numerous barbers and hairdressers, a cake shop (which is like catnip for me), a chocolate shop named ‘All Wrapped Up’, jewel box boutiques like Odyl, and Phillips Man’s Shop, a cobbler, a farm shop, florists, a fish monger, artisan gift shops like Blighty’s, Happy & Glorious, and Lemon Blue, a haberdashery, interiors studios, and a sweet shop you’ll find difficult to leave.
Kent is invaded by 44-million tourist annually. It has more castles, stately homes, and public gardens than any other region in Britain, which generates more than £2 billion a year. Thankfully visually rich Cranbrook is off the tourist radar. Let’s keep this one for ourselves.
Where to stay
Although there are many places to stay in Cranbrook, just 5 minutes away, in the neighbouring village of Sissinghurst, is The Milk House – a sophisticated country inn, with a great buzz. It’s informal, contemporary and open plan; the interiors are airy, simple yet stylish. Think Farrow & Ball ‘stone’ tones, with a dairy theme.
During the summer months everyone decants onto the suntrap side terrace. So, be sure to arrive early and bag a seat at the huge central table made from vast slabs of local timber. The ‘Hopper Hut’ outside bar dispenses chilled beer, local rosé wines and jugs of Pimm’s; there’s also an outside wood-fired pizza kitchen. Under a tall Horse Chestnut tree is a small pond with several ducks on high alert for snacks, beyond which is a lawn area with picnic benches. Heron’s Nest play equipment and views across an apple orchard and a lush forest beyond completes the family atmosphere.
Should you decide to stay for the night ask for The Dairy room – this a good-size double with a contemporary four-poster bed and original brick fireplace, a modern bathroom, rain shower with full-sized local Romney Marsh Wools toiletries.
Built in 1814, the iconic Grade I listed Union Windmill is the tallest ‘Smock Mill’ in the UK and a comparatively modern addition to the largely Medieval core of the town. It has an interesting past which is explained by the volunteers of the Cranbrook Windmill Association, who welcome visitors between April and September, and often operate the windmill whenever possible. Major restoration work is currently being done, check their website before planning a visit.
- Nearby is the renowned award-winning Chapel Down Estate (www.chapeldown.com), Biddenden Vineyards (www.biddendenvineyards.com) and Oxney Wine Estate (www.oxneyestate.com)
- Close too is Tenterden – the home of the Kent and East Sussex Railway, one of the country’s finest examples of a rural light railway. (www.kesr.org.uk)
- And directly across from Tenterden’s railway station, housed in two WW2 Nissen buildings, is the Old Dairy Brewery, who offer ale tastings. (www.olddairybrewery.com)