Question: Which English town is closest to Brussels?
The answer is Ashford which is (by train) less than two hours from the Belgian capital In fact, it can be quicker getting to this pleasant Kentish town than the south of Belgium.
With no less than three public holidays looming next month (and the long summer vacation just around the corner), you might be looking for inspiration for a destination for a refreshing short break.
If so, you’d do well to consider this part of the UK, just a hop, skip and jump away from Belgium.
Known as the Garden of England, it has a bit of everything, rolling countryside, traditional seaside resorts and, in Canterbury, a great cathedral city.
Shopping to suit all budgets is also plentiful, notably at the ever-popular discount retail outlet in Ashford which attracts scores of shoppers both from the UK and this side of the English Channel.
A fantastic base for a stay in this lovely area is Eastwell Manor, a splendid country house (located on the outskirts of Ashford) which is currently undergoing a multi-million-euro ongoing major refurbishment.
It’s located very close to Ashford International and just 40 minutes from London. Eurotunnel’s UK terminal, with ultra-fast links to mainland Europe, is just down the road. For those looking for a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of modern life it’s just the job.
Even the entry, via a scenic, long tree-lined drive, is impressive. It leads to the historic Neo-Elizabethan manor house which is surrounded by outstanding natural beauty.An idyllic, typically English setting. The place oozes old world charm, that has spanned centuries, some 450 years in fact.
The name “East Well” came from a nearby spring to the East where Saxon shepherds watered their flocks. Much of Eastwell Manor, the building which now serves as a hotel, was built in the Neo-Elizabethan style from 1793-1799.
Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor (there are photographs of her skating on the lake) as well as Prince Alfred’s older brother, the future Edward VII. In 1875, Prince Alfred’s daughter Princess Marie – who later became Queen of Romania – was born at the house.
After WW1, the Eastwell estate faced the same economic problems that also affected many other English stately homes. In the 1920s the main house was severely damaged by a fire and then rebuilt on the same site in 1926-1928.
In 1995, the property was bought by a locally-born man, Turrloo Parrett, and remained in his ownership until being acquired by the Purdew family in 2002 (Turloo, who owns several high-class fish restaurants and is now in his 80s, still lives during the week in one of the on-site cottages).
Mother and son Dorothy and Stephen Purdew steered Eastwell Manor to even greater heights and the success story has continued under the relatively new ownership of Champneys, the UK’s leading health spa.
Champneys – which takes its name from Ralph de Champneys, a former estate owner – took over the reins in late 2016 and itself has a rich, near century-old history. It has established itself as the “go-to” spa in the UK with four health spa resorts (Forest Mere, Hampshire; Tring, Herts; Springs, Leicestershire and Henlow, Beds) and six city spas (Chichester, Enfield, Guildford, Milton Keynes, St Albans and Tunbridge Wells).
The Tring-based company has made significant investment in Eastwell Manor, transforming the old Pavilion into a Champneys Spa, revamping the gym, pool, treatment rooms and spa restaurant (open weekends only) which, in line with Champneys health ethos, merges healthy eating with healthy living. The aim of its chefs and nutritionists is clear: to create healthy eating habits.
Each of the hotel rooms are named after (often) famous people who have either stayed at or visited the manor and these include the Earl of Northumberland room, ideal for people travelling with children be they babies or teens.
This very spacious room (complete with retro record deck and wireless!) includes bunk beds and boasts brilliant views of the delightful garden and rolling countryside. The venue’s two restaurants both cater for kids and children are also allowed in the spa and outdoor pool (during the summer).
The property, during its colourful history, has undergone several major changes and is currently once again re-inventing itself with a second phase of refurbishment.This will see enhancements made to the manor house, with its range of rooms, and the neighbouring self-contained, en-suite Mews-style cottages, some with private terraces and converted from original Victorian stables.
The same upgrade is being made to the surrounding grounds and collection of outdoor activities, which include a 9-hole golf course, football pitch, badminton and a falconry centre with regular displays of birds of prey. There are also a couple of function rooms for private events.
People can visit the extensive and superbly-equipped spa for the day, on an overnight stay package or just pop in for a treatment or two.
Other “must-do” things here are the famous Eastwell Manor afternoon tea, an indulgent but delightful (and well-priced) treat, plus a visit to its fine Manor Restaurant, now under the tutelage of its new, South African-born head chef James Pressly.
This wonderfully intimate restaurant has always attracted a good mix of local residents and hotel guests but James says he’s determined to “stamp his own mark” on both the cuisine (with, for example, more game and fish options) and ethos.
He promises “exciting times ahead” on the culinary (and wine) front but one thing diners can still rely on will be some mouth-watering seasonal traditional English dishes tempered with a twist of modern European.
Eastwell Manor is easily located just off the M20 or by train to Ashford International station (less than four miles from the hotel and accessible via a 12 minute car journey).The station links all major London destinations and the high speed Eurotunnel.
Travelling with Eurotunnel (“le shuttle”) from Calais to Folkestone takes just 35 minutes and (with up to four shuttles per hour) is the most convenient and cost-effective way to transport passengers (and freight) between the UK and continental Europe, including from Brussels and Belgium. There’s a whole range of tickets and fares and, this month, the first direct high-speed passenger rail services between London and Amsterdam, via the Channel Tunnel, were launched.
Champneys is not a company to stand on its laurels and, looking to the immediate future, Eastwell Manor will also be offering luxury Shepherd’s Huts for guest accommodation from this summer in addition to the hotel and self-contained cottages (full details are available on the website).
The brand new huts, located in the grounds of the manor overlooking the North Downs, afford a cosy yet comfortable stay and include a bathroom, small kitchen, wood-burning stove and TV – all ideal for a relaxing escape to the Kent countryside.
With the big refurbishment programme due for completion by the end of this year, it all signals the latest, and perhaps most exciting-ever, chapter in the Eastwell Manor story.
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