May is the month with the most public holidays of the year in Belgium so what better excuse for a short break?
There are no less than four bank holidays during the month and, with summer still a little way off, it’s a good chance to enjoy a short break to recharge the batteries after the long winter.
The onset of pleasant Spring weather is another excuse to treat yourself to a mini break and the South East of England makes for a super and convenient destination.
Just a relative hop, skip and jump from Belgium the Garden of England is easily accessible and has plenty to offer when it comes to a couple of things particularly beloved of Belgians: culture and cuisine.
So, this website has compiled a “Top 5” of things to do for any break in the South East.
The city of Canterbury has more than its cathedral for visitors, including the Westgate, a medieval gatehouse. This 60-foot (18m) high western gate of the city wall is the largest surviving city gate in England. The largest and arguably the finest of the country’s surviving medieval gateways, the Westgate was built during the One Hundred Years’ War to defend Canterbury from foreign incursion. It also symbolised the wealth and importance of the city and the Archbishop, who had his palace here. The stronghold did not stand alone, as it does now, but was approached over a drawbridge across the River Stour, and flanked by impressive walls.
Time passed, the military threat lessened, and the Westgate was converted into the city gaol. This function, too, came to an end. After a brief period as an archive, at the start of the 20th century, the Westgate became a museum. Brought back into active service in both world wars, it played a key role in the city’s air defences.
A great deal is, rightly, being made these days in the UK about the value of sourcing food and products locally and, just outside the city, is a place that really is flying the flag for this admirable concept. The Pig at Bridge Place in the historic village of Bridge, rightly prides itself on its commitment to home-grown and local produce and has access to some of the freshest local fish, locally-brewed beers, amazing meats, and award-winning English wines you will find anywhere. Their casual open-plan restaurant, complete with walls packed with pickling jars, dishes up some very creative and delicious cuisine with a real focus on simple and fresh flavours.
It has what they call a “25 mile” menu (very affordable considering the excellent quality) which means the resto sources at least 80 per cent of its products and ingredients within a 25 mile radius of where it’s located.
There is a great (and very helpful) map on the back of each menu showing who the producers/suppliers/farmers are (including dairies, distilleries and butchers) and where they are situated in their bit of the county.
Its sense of self-sufficiency extends to using herbs grown in its delightful garden in some dishes.
Full credit then to Nepalese-born head chef Andy Feasby and his hard working team and colleagues, including sommelier Bradley, for doing their bit to ensure they satisfy the owner’s proud penchant for “good quality” products sourced in “the most sustainable, local and resourceful way.”
A spokesman said, “Our menu means we can be 100 per cent honest about the provenance of our ingredients.”
The adjacent hotel building dates to 1638 and the grandeur and age of the stately hall-style surroundings, with its panelled rooms and log fires, belies a fascinating and eclectic musical past: the place used to play host in the 1960s and 70s to gigs by some of the biggest acts of their day, including The Kinks and Led Zeppelin (you can see their set lists in the loos) – the reason why it’s known affectionately as the “rock ‘n roll Pig.”
This once was Kent’s foremost rock & roll venue and its owners have lovingly restored its period features (the bricks for the resto were specially sourced to match those in the main building).
Less than an hour by train from central London, this, in fact, is one of several “Pigs” in the south of England (the first was in Hampshire in 2011) and each has a “25mile” radius menu, the initiative of co-founder, hotelier Robin Hutson, who has plans to open yet more such places in the coming years.
The immediate area is steeped in history: Joseph Conrad lived just down the road in Bishopsbourne and Ian Fleming wrote “You Only Live Twice” at the Duck Inn in Pett Bottom, the next village along.
The county of Kent is, geographically, the nearest in England to Belgium and the Low Countries – and there’s also plenty in the bustling port town of Ramsgate, just up the road from Dover, to keep you busy and entertained (and, always important for Belgians, well fed).
This year is a particularly important one for the town as it commemorates the 100th anniversary of its first female Mayor, Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills, one of its greatest benefactors.
But she is just one of many inspiring women who have lived or stayed in Ramsgate throughout its long history and, now, thanks to a local history group, 23 of these remarkable women have been identified to celebrate this important year for the town.
Called “23 for 23” the walking guide of 23 notable women includes Mary Shelley, known worldwide as the writer of Frankenstein and, not least in the month of King Charles’ coronation, Princess Victoria who spent three months at Albion House recuperating from typhoid before succeeding her father to become Queen in 1837.
Another Kentish place that is proudly promoting the laudable “buy local” policy is the wonderful Marc-Pierre’s Kitchen, located in a listed building directly overlooking Ramsgate’s Royal Harbour Marina (formerly a smuggler’s cave).
Here, the husband and wife team of Marc and Anastasiya Campos offer a contemporary and inventive take on what they call “classic European cuisine.”
Marc’s focus is on local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients – and a policy of using suppliers within a 20-mile radius, including Ramsgate fisherman and produce from local businesses.
The lovely, largely gluten free, food on your plate here isn’t just fresh and local but is genuinely home-made on the premises which also boasts a nice terrace.
Says Marc, “We don’t believe in making things too fussy but 100% believe in top class food and service and a really enjoyable ambiance.”
“In creating Marc-Pierre’s Kitchen, we have tried to put together a restaurant that we would actually love to eat in ourselves.”
The card usually features six starters, 10 mains and a handful of desserts and, though the emphasis is on fresh local fish, there really is something for everyone.
Like The Pig, this resto (which shares some of the same Kentish suppliers) benefits from the county’s enviable location, being very close to both sea and country. Such a setting allows both establishments to readily source the freshest of ingredients and products.
For those after something a bit faster paced, completing our Top 5 is “Hangloose”, an adventure park at Bluewater which boasts the longest zip wire in England. The zip wire runs in most weathers and you are kitted out with a body harness and helmet and riders are required to wear trousers or shorts that are past the knee, a top that covers shoulders and secure shoes.
The zip line is 724m with riders reaching speeds of 60mph. It takes approximately 45 seconds to go down the zip line with the last bit flying over a lake. As well as zip lining, visitors can enjoy several other attractions such as the largest giant swing in Europe and the UK’s only outdoor skydive machine.
Leading ferry operator DFDS is probably the best way of getting to Kent from Belgium. With some great deals on crossings and the option to travel with your vehicle, it has plenty to offer.
Also remember, its shopping facilities boast savings of up to 50% versus the UK high street and you can travel with unlimited luggage.When you spend €150 on your return in its duty free stores in Calais or Dunkerque, you get a free day trip to use for another time. The shops are right by the loading lanes for its ferries so it’s easy to fill your boot with bulk buys. There are up to 30 daily sailings and the ever popular Calais to Dover crossing takes about 100 minutes. If you prefer, the Dunkerque to Dover crossing takes longer, up to four hours but has all the same facilities.
For those passengers (and readers) travelling from the UK side of the Channel there is, of course, Belgium as a short break destination with fine cities to see, including Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels.
DFDS was voted Europe’s leading ferry operator from 2012-2019 and the World’s Leading Ferry Operator 2011-2019 but is not alone in receiving accolades.
Kent, according to Lonely Planet, isn’t described as the garden of England for nothing, saying, “Within its sea-lined borders you’ll find a fragrant landscape of gentle hills, fertile farmland, cultivated country estates and fruit-laden orchards.”
So, with three of this month’s four bank holidays still to look forward to, why not consider a short (or longer) break to this very pleasant corner of England.