A traditional market town in easy reach of London, Sevenoaks is the centre of the namesake district which makes up a big wedge of western Kent.
Inside the Sevenoaks District’s borders there’s an implausible number of plush country houses, starting with the marvellous Knole on the southeast fringe of the town.
Epoch-changing figures like Winston Churchill and Anne Boleyn resided in these properties, which resonate with history and brim with interesting mementoes.
The countryside is a delight, divided between the rounded hills of the North Downs and the rippling greenery of the sandstone Weald.
Chartwell, Emmetts Garden and Riverhill are all posted high on hillsides with sparkling vistas.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Sevenoaks:
Taking shape over 150 years, from 1455 to 1608, Knole is a country house of serious dimensions, with seven courtyards and a melange of architecture from late-Medieval to Jacobean.
The history of the house, home to Archbishops of Canterbury and members of the Tudor court, is too long and complicated to explain in one paragraph.
But you can be sure that the generations of distinguished occupants have left Knole with internationally recognised collections.
This goes for the 17th-century Stuart furniture in the state rooms (some rendered in silver), and portraits by Reynolds, Gainsborough and van Dyck.
The 15th-century private chapel is equipped with what may be the oldest playable organ in the UK. The National Trust visitor centre is a handy primer for Knole and the many people who have lived or stayed here.
If Knole sounds a little dry for children, the National Trust has drawn up family trails, catering to young minds.
2. Knole Park
The mansion is in 1,000 acres of parkland, and is also attached to an unusually large walled garden, another holdover from Medieval times.
This 26-acre formal space is a garden within a garden and has two dignified avenues, bosquet hedges and a patte d’oie.
The ancient woodland, ponds and acidic grassland in the park have earned it a Site of Special Scientific Interest designation.
Roaming much of this terrain is a 350-strong deer herd, adding another layer of majesty to the landscape, so keep your camera ready.
If you’re wondering where to begin, the National Trust organises guided tours of the grounds on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, setting off from the visitor centre at 14:00, while you can also download self-guided maps from the website.
3. Ightham Mote
Medieval knights, members of Henry VIII’s court and an American industrialist have all lived at this romantic half-timbered manor house stranded by a square moat.
Ightham Mote dates from the mid-14th century and because its many owners have made so few changes, the house retains its Medieval and Tudor character.
Set around a courtyard are more than 70 rooms and there are some little quirks unique to this house, like a slit in the gatehouse wall where the porter could look over a visitor before opening the gate, a large 19th-century doghouse and an open gallery joining the gatehouse to the main building.
The house was developed in the 16th century to catch the eye of Henry VIII, but after his divorce in 1533 he might not have been pleased with the images of Catherine of Aragon in the stained glass of the Great Hall or painted ceiling in the New Chapel.
4. Emmetts Garden
Unmissable if you’re visiting Sevenoaks, Emmetts Garden is draped on a hillside Edwardian estate.
Also a National Trust site, this garden is at one of the highest points in Kent, with widescreen views over the Weald.
You could be tempted just to stop and stare at the Kent landscape, but there’s a lot to experience in these six acres.
The North Garden has whimsical water features and a magical wedding cake tree, a species that originated in the Far East.
The South Garden retains a design from the beginning of the 20th century and blends hardy exotic trees with shrubs.
The Persian silk tree here has gossamer-like blooms in summer.
The Rose Garden (1910-1920) is the only part of Emmetts with formal landscaping, while the Rock Garden is a showcase for English and Alpine hardy species, plunging to a lily pond.
5. Riverhill Himalayan Gardens
At another hillside perch surveying the Weald of Kent, this garden has been in the Rogers family since 1840. Open March to September, the Riverhill Himalayan Gardens is more of a family-friendly attraction, winning children over with its hedge maze, den-building activities, adventure playground and the reclusive Riverhill Yeti who occasionally appears in the woods.
There’s also loads of horticultural interest, as the garden represents almost 180 years of continual planting and landscaping.
There are rare rhododendron specimens blooming in spring in the Jungle, the newly restored Rose Walk is heavenly in mid-summer, while the Walled Garden boasts a formal vegetable garden, pond and Himalayan-style grass terraces.
The West End is in the shadow of the Waterloo Cedar, on the UK’s largest cedars, and in the Orchard Sweep you’ll find a Wellingtonia and Cedar of Lebanon, both planted in 1860.
6. Old Soar Manor
Close to Ightham on the lower reaches of the North Downs is a fragment of a house built for the Medieval landowning family, the Culpeppers in the 13th century.
Old Soar Manor’s great hall was demolished in the 18th century, but the house’s private quarters remain and paint a picture of well-heeled Medieval domestic life.
The property on a quiet lane in pastoral countryside has a solar (bedroom), chapel and a latrine.
The house was designed for luxury and comfort but was also ready for a fight, as the thick stone walls and arrow loops show.
7. Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve
Equal parts water and land, this 182-acre Site of Special Scientific Interest is immediately north of Sevenoaks town centre.
Something fascinating about the reserve is that the landscape is totally manmade.
The sweeping lakes and ponds are former gravel pits, while almost all of the trees were planted by hand.
When completed in the 1980s it became the first example of gravel pits converted into a nature reserve, a concept that has been copied up and down the country.
The Jack Harrison Visitor Centre, named for the reserve’s founder, chronicles the site’s ancient history and its conversion, and details the thousands of species that visit or live in the reserve.
The water attracts a vibrant array of wildfowl in the winter, while grey herons are year-round residents and reed warblers and reed buntings appear in the reed bed in summer.
Little-ringed plovers and lapwings nest in the reserve and can often be spotted around the muddy banks.
8. Bradbourne Lakes
Slightly closer to the centre of Sevenoaks is a smaller ornamental park on what used to be the grounds of the mansion Bradbourne Hall.
The history of this site can be traced to a watermill on a tributary of the River Darent.
As we see them, the lakes were created by the estate’s owner, Henry Bosville in 1761. You can take a walk around water, feed the ducks, geese and swans (use oats instead of bread) and admire the little waterfalls and sluices linking the two lakes.
9. Lullingstone Castle
Mostly built in the Queen Anne style at the start of the 18th century, Lullingstone Castle dates back much further and is mentioned in the Domesday Book from 1086. The current house was started at the end of the 15th century, and the brick-built gatehouse survives from that time.
The Hart Dyke family has lived at Lullingstone Castle for 20 generations, including the current owner.
The house and its gardens welcome visitors from Friday to Sunday in the summer.
You can only view the interior on a once-daily guided tour at 14:00, but you’re free to roam the grounds.
In the 1930s the silk farm established here by Zoe Dyke produced the silk for King George VI’s coronation robe in 1936. Over the last decade the walled garden has been turned into a World Garden of Plants by the heir and horticulturalist Tom Hart Dyke.
This is made up of some 8,000 plants gathered on international plant-gathering expeditions.
10. Shoreham Aircraft Museum
This small but very informative museum is open on weekends and focuses on the Second World War.
In this one-storey building are hundreds of aviation artefacts, mostly from the Battle of Britain.
These wing sections, propellers, controls, cockpit frames, bombs, instruments and pieces of fuselage were recovered from crashed RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft.
There are also whole engines from German aircraft like the Dornier 17, Fw 190 and Junkers 88, and an RAF Spitfire and Hurricane.
All this hardware is paired with eyewitness accounts, documents, letters and photographs, which add a moving personal dimension.
If you haven’t quenched your thirst for National Trust country houses there’s a special one seven miles from Sevenoaks at Chartwell.
Winston Churchill bought this land in 1922 and quickly set about rebuilding the Tudor house, which was suffering from dry rot.
Chartwell is on high ground and Churchill was seduced by the spellbinding vistas over the Weald of Kent from the garden front.
The property would stay in his hands until he passed away in 1965. Churchill would come to Chartwell to paint, and the studio has the largest collection of his works.
There are little surprises throughout, like the pond-side seat where he fed his Golden Orfe, the desk where he wrote many of his speeches, family photographs, an order of service from Elizabeth II’s coronation and even Churchill’s bedroom.
12. Lullingstone Roman Villa
Exuding wealth, Lullingstone Roman Villa was a family home built about the end of the 1st Century AD. Some 50 years later the villa was enlarged to become even more luxurious, and it has been suggested that it may have been a country getaway for the governors of the Roman province of Britannia.
When the villa was excavated after the Second World War two marble busts were found in the cellar, and these may be Pertinax, governor in 185-186 and his father-in-law Publius Helvius Successus.
Within the shelter containing the ruins you can marvel at the mid-4th-century mosaics in the dining room, one depicting the abduction of Europa by Jupiter.
Lots of bits and pieces unearthed at the site are on show in the display cases, like a pair of dice fashioned from animal bone in the 4th century.
13. Hever Castle
A day trip well worth taking, Hever Castle was the seat of the Boleyn family in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and mother of Elizabeth I, grew up here.
There’s much to pique your interest inside, whether it’s Anne Boleyn’s personal prayer books, opulent Edwardian and Tudor interiors, the personal lock used by Henry VIII wherever he travelled, three floors of period furniture, a collection of Tudor paintings or authentic instruments of torture.
The gatehouse was built in the 13th century and comprises the oldest portcullis in working order in England.
The grounds promise cultured walks in formal rose, Tudor and Italian gardens, and are enriched with cascades, topiary and grottoes.
There’s a yew maze planted in 1904 and a water maze, which you have to solve without getting wet.
14. Chiddingstone Village
In the same neck of the woods as Hever Castle is a settlement described as the “most perfect Tudor village in the country”. All on one street, Chiddingstone is one of the oldest villages in Kent, composed of an evocative terrace of half-timbered and corbelled houses, home to tearooms and a local pub.
Pay a visit to the impressive sandstone boulder on the village’s outskirts, known as the Chiding Stone.
There are lots of theories about the historical purpose of the stone and its relation to the village’s name.
One is that “nagging wives” and witches were brought to the stone in Medieval time to be “chided” for their misdeeds.
15. The Mount Vineyard
A ten-minute train ride to Shoreham followed by a short walk down a country lane, the Mount Vineyard has revived a local wine-growing tradition harking backs to the Romans.
Eight different grapes including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Seyval Blanc, flourish here in the warm microclimate of the Darenth Valley.
Tours are given between May and September, but throughout the year you can call in for tasting sessions from Thursday to Sunday.
You’ll taste five of the Mount’s award-winning wines, accompanied by cheese and charcuterie.
Only in summer there are also “Wine Wednesdays” for an evening of tasting beginning at 19:30.