Maidstone Rail Trails – reptiles and rebellions
- Start: Maidstone Barracks
- End: Maidstone Barracks
- Ordnance Survey: Explorer 148
- Difficulty: Medium
- Distance: 4 miles (6.5 km) circular route
- Time: approximately 2 hours
- Terrain: Some steps, narrow paths and town walking. No stiles, but two flights of steps (50 and six steps)
The Maidstone Barracks Walk follows a fascinating route, beginning and ending at Maidstone Barracks railway station alongside the River Medway, in the heart of the county town of Kent. The route will take you on a journey back in time, starting with a visit to Maidstones magnificent museum and art gallery, where youll learn about the long and illustrious history of the area, before checking out the towns stylish shopping mall, with its inviting cafs, pubs and restaurants. Wend your way through the bustling streets to the outskirts of Maidstone, where Vinters Park Nature Reserve offers an oasis of natural beauty and tranquillity far from the madding crowd.
This circular walk starts and finishes at one of three train stations serving Maidstone. Maidstone Barracks stands on the Medway Valley Line, connecting the Medway Towns and North Kent with the County Town and West Kent.
The line follows the course of the River Medway, which lazily winds through Maidstones town centre. Historically, the river was a source and route for much of the towns trade, boosting an economy based on its flourishing paper mills, as well as the stone quarrying, brewing, cloth and print industries. Maidstone was also the agricultural centre of the county known as the Garden of England. The Medway now plays host to sleek rowing boats, pleasure craft and houseboats, with a handful of commercial passenger vessels providing sightseeing excursions along the naviagable part of the river.
A short walk across the railway bridge spanning the River Medway leads to Brenchley Gardens, a small area of formal gardens next to St Faiths Church -, built in 1872 on the site of a chapel lent to Dutch religious refugees in the 16th century – and the Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery.
The museum is free to enter and well worth a visit, whatever the weather. It contains thousands of exciting treasures artefacts and objects dating back to Neolithic times all housed in a charming Elizabethan manor building, with a modern extension to one wing. Visitors can chill out in the Barge deli cafe, which offers a range of meals made from locally-sourced fresh produce.
Its only a hop and a skip from the museum to Fremlin Walk Shopping Centre. For hundreds of years, Maidstone was the hub of Kents brewing industry, producing a variety of famous beers using locally-grown hops, until the mid-20th century, when all the towns historic breweries closed. The site of one of the largest became Fremlin Walk in 2006 – a pedestrianised area providing a wide range of quality retail outlets, off the High Street and King Street.
Whether you choose to window shop or splash out on some special purchases, youll need to return to the route, walking through the bustling town centre to experience the rural delights of the Vinters Valley Nature Reserve a couple of miles away.
Open all year round, Vinters Valley Nature Reserve is a wonderful hidden oasis tucked away between Vinters Park and Grove Green housing estates on one side and Vinters Community School on the other. It has become a real haven for wildlife. Vinters Park was once part of a large 18th century country estate that covered a vast area, and was transformed in 1797, into a formal Capability Brown-style parkland by the renowned landscape designer, Humphrey Repton, The 90 acres that remain have been turned into a much-loved natural resource, leased from Kent County Council and Maidstone Borough Council, and managed by a Trust set up by local people, who take great pride in maintaining its wild and peaceful environment. The Blue Tit route, starting and ending at the Lodge Road entrance, takes around an hour to complete, or you can enjoy a short stroll along one of the many maintained pathways, discovering summertime beauty in the trees, flowers, bees, butterflies and birds. So whether you want to spend 20 minutes or a couple of hours delighting in the valleys special sights, sounds and smells, youll find this the perfect place to explore a variety of habitats – woodland, grassland, scrub, lake, stream and marshland and there are plenty of seats dotted around the reserve to take rest on and relax along the way. You can even join seasonal guided walks around the reserve in the company of Warden Steve Songhurst information and booking via www.vintersvalley.co.uk
For those feellng the need for another burst of retail therapy, nearby Newham Court Shoping Village offers an extensive range of shops selling everything from plants and home improvements, to clothes, sports, beauty and hairdressing, crafts and model kits, with refreshments on hand at Bricks Coffee House, the Coffee Corner Restaurnt and Noble House Chinese Restaurant.
A short walk from Newnham Court brings you to Penenden Heath, with its large recreation ground filled with families playing games and having fun throughout the summer months, thats surrounded by tennis courts, bowling greens and a childrens adventure play area, with easy access to a series of walkways through acres of ancient woodland bordering the heath.
The Bull Inn stands on the Boxley Road, overlooking Penenden Heath. The real ale pub is open daily, serving a wide variety of foods and drinks, and in fine weather its gardens provide a peaceful setting where you can sit back and watch the world go by.
Its hard to believe that this open space on the outskirts of Maidstone was used in early times for administrative meetings called shire moots, where public opinion could be shared and aired, and disputes between Kents landowners settled. The Domesday Book lists the heath as Pinnedenna, and it provided a place for large gatherings, most famously during its connection to the Peasants revolt of 1381.
The route back to Maidstone Barracks passes the tall ragstone walls of the county prison, where public executions took place from the middle of the 19th century.
When Maidstone was given the right to a town gaol in 1604, it held most of its legal hearings at the local assizes, dealing out justice at many notorious trials, including one in 1652, that resulted in six women being convicted and sentenced to death for being witches.
In the mid-19th century, scores of men, women and children were transported from Kent to Australia and Tasmania following their convictions at the Maidstone assizes for a variety of offences. More serious crimes attracted the ultimate penalty.
The town needed a secure building to house its burgeoning prison population. Work on the county gaol began in 1811, on open land alongside the Rochester Road, north of the town centre. It was completed in 1819, at a cost of 200,000, designed to hold 552 prisoners, including 62 female inmates, within its massive perimeter walls.
In front of the prison stands Old Sessions House, a purpose-built court building, named after the time when the County Courts of Quarter Sessions dispensed justice on this site.
Old Sessions House a monumental building, with a grand, stone-clad faade – was completed in 1826. It was designed by Sir Robert Smirke, an English architect famous for pioneering the use of concrete and cast iron in his buildings, which included the British Museum.
A stones throw from County Hall stands the purpose-built centre for Kent History, opened in April 2012 to provide a 21st century library alongside access to all the countys archive material, and research facilities. It houses around 14 km of historic material relating to Kent, dating back to 699 AD, and is the information hub for local history, with space for displays, exhibitions and events.
The return route to Maidstone Barracks train station takes you back past County Hall to Maidstone East station and across the railway bridge over the River Medway.