MAIDSTONE EAST AND MAIDSTONE WEST Maidstone looms rather brutishly on the Kentish landscape – particularly if you approach it from the pretty southern villages. Nevertheless, it is a friendly and workmanlike hilly town where people manage to have the time to say good morning. Its focus is the River Medway, with the Archbishop’s Palace (used as a place of rest on journeys to Canterbury) on the bank. It is a county town rather than a cultural centre. The remains of some 14th-century collegiate buildings are now occupied by Kent Music School. The Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Galley are in Chillington House, a 16th-century manor. The Corn Exchange is a cultural focus, too – home of the Hazlitt Theatre and a venue for concerts, dances and conferences. There is a multi-screen cinema in the Lockmeadow Entertainment Centre.
Maidstone has always had a commercial and agricultural bias. In earlier centuries it supplied hops, linen, paper, ragstone and gin to London. Today it is particularly strong on shopping. Fremlin Walk and The Mall offer a host of major high street names. Upmarket specialist shops can be found in the Royal Star Arcade, and designer-shops are set around a courtyard in Starnes Court, a Victorian-style arcade. The Lockmeadow General Market takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays, carrying on a 700-year-old tradition for markets in the town; a monthly farmers’ market is held in County Hall. Mote Park, comprising the former parkland of an old country house, is a popular venue for boating, fishing, football and cycling. For longer walks, the Maidstone Millennium River Park, created in 2001, offers 6 miles of paths trailing the River Medway. The Maidstone Leisure Centre has rock-climbing as well as leisure pools and health-and-fitness equipment. The town has the benefit of four Kentish grammar schools, two for boys and two for girls, plus a MidKent College of Higher and Further Education.
Much of the housing in Maidstone is Victorian. There are terraces of small artisans’ cottages where you might pay £130,000 for three bedrooms. The houses get larger as you move further away from the centre. A four-bedroom ragstone house could cost as little as £170,000. The huge Grove Green estate is densely built but popular. You could buy a three-bedroom end-of-terrace for around £175,000, or a four-bedroom detached for £300,000.
To the south-east is Sutton Valence, a pretty hilltop village with views over the Weald of Kent. It is marred by the busy A274 running through it, but remains popular because of Sutton Valence School, a private school for girls and boys aged four to 18. There is also a local primary. The village revolves around the post office and four pubs, as well as a bookshop, antiques shop and hairdresser. At the centre is an enclave of old houses, some black-and-white half-timbered and some weatherboarded. On the outskirts a good address might cost up to £795,000, a recently renovated, two-bedroom end-of-terrace cottage £225,000. In the churchyard is a memorial to John Willes, who introduced round-arm bowling to cricket.
Due south of Maidstone, and hardly separate from it, is one of those lovely English villages that everyone would like to call home. Loose owes its attraction to its position on the steep valley slope of the fast-flowing Loose stream. Old mills litter the wooded streambanks, which are overlooked by the church and The Chequers pub. The 15th-century half-timbered Wool House is administered by the National Trust and open to the public on written application. The Loose Viaduct, designed by Thomas Telford in 1830, has helped the village to keep its old-world charm by removing large volumes of traffic. The village has a primary school, a post office-cum-shop and antiques shop. You might find a four- or five-bedroom house for £300,000 to £400,000. On the outskirts a two-bedroom apartment in a Grade Two listed 15th-century manor house could cost £200,000. A three-bedroom waterside apartment in the newly restored and converted Hayle Mill could cost around £400,000.
To the north is Boxley, set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with the North Downs Way and the Pilgrims Way running close by. The village has a good pub, The King’s Arms, but no shop. The Channel Tunnel rail-link carves its way close to the village, but trains are hidden by cut-and-cover. To mark the Millennium, at nearby Detling Hill over 20,000 trees were planted to create White Horse Wood, Kent’s latest country park.