The prettiest villages in Kent and East Sussex: Heavenly Hursts

    villages in kent
    The Lower Courtyard from the Tower at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent. Credit: National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

    Annabelle Thorpe discusses the merits of a collection of villages in Kent and Sussex in the High Weald AONB…

    There’s something rather wonderful about finding a hidden corner of Britain, right on your doorstep. Scattered across the border between East Sussex and Kent, just an hour from where I live, lies the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), home of the ‘Hursts’. 

    This clutch of more than 10 picture-perfect villages in Kent and Sussex dates to Saxon times and each comes with a quiet high street. Some feature timber-framed houses dating back hundreds of years, and most have a cosy pub, serving homemade food made with produce sourced from the surrounding farms.

    Many of the ‘Hursts’ date back over a millennia to Saxon times, when pannage – taking pigs into a forest clearing to forage for acorns, chestnuts and beech mast – was a common agricultural practice. Over time, the cleared areas of forests became settlements, slowly developing into the pretty villages that dot the landscape today.

    The village sign in Hawkhurst

    Through the Middle Ages, many of these villages in Kent and Sussex became wealthy due to the development of crafts such as tanning and weaving, although by the 19th century, these trades had moved away again, leaving agriculture as the main industry.

    Unlike much of Kent and Sussex, where sizeable commuter towns have grown up around the fast train connections to London, the High Weald villages in Kent and Sussex have a delightfully backwater feel – the gently-undulating land that lies between them a patchwork of ancient woodlands, orchards, and pasture.  

    This is prime walking country: centuries-old farmer’s trails have left a lattice of footpaths that run between the villages, many offering glorious views across the bucolic countryside, now home to several wine-producing vineyards, as well as the hop fields and, of course, the  apple orchards, for which the county is famous.

    I can’t think of another area of England that has so many attractions in such a small area. There are famous gardens, stately homes, forests, and lakes – all located within a few minutes’ drive of each other (or an hour or two’s walk).  

    villages in kent
    Scotney Castle near Goudhurst

    I’ve visited in the depths of a snowy winter, when walks end beside a roaring fire with a hearty pub roast; in spring, when the orchards are ablaze with clouds of pearly blossom; in high summer, when the fields glow buttery-gold in the late evening sun. And every time I visit, there is more to see – a path I haven’t walked, a garden yet to be visited. Always another reason to return. Here are some of my favourite villages in Kent and Sussex in the High Weald:


    The Rose Garden in June at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent. Credit: National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

    Most visitors to Sissinghurst come to see the gorgeous Sissinghurst gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, former home of British authors Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, who bought the dilapidated estate in the 1930s.  

    Over the following two decades they restored the 16th-century castle and Sackville-West set about creating her dream garden, designed as a series of outdoor ‘rooms’, filled with vintage roses, honeysuckle, fig trees and vines. The imposing house became a hub for artists, writers, and thinkers. Today, the library – where many of their gatherings took place – and Sackville-West’s writing room in the four-storey tower, are both open to visitors, along with the gardens.

    sissinghurst castle gardens
    The Cottage Garden in April at Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Credit: National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

    From the castle, it’s an easy walk into Sissinghurst village, where The Milk House pub makes a great spot for lunch, with a menu of tasting plates alongside heartier classic dishes. For a longer, circular walk, leave the car at The Three Chimneys pub and follow the footpaths across fields to the castle, before looping back for lunch in one
    of the low-beamed rooms in the 500-year-old inn. 


    villages in kent
    The idyllic village green at Hawkhurst

    Once infamous as the base of the Hawkhurst Gang – a ruthless group of smugglers who terrorised locals in the 18th century – this village has two distinct parts. There’s the Moor, with its beautiful 14th-century church and tranquil village green, while Highgate, with its early
    19th-century timber-framed colonnade is home to an eclectic clutch of shops. Pop into Two Chicks for cute cards and gifts to take home.

    My favourite type of shopping in this charming part of the world is for foodie treats, with some excellent farm shops dotted across the High Weald. Hartley Farm Shop, between Hawkhurst and Cranbrook, is a gem with shelves stocked with local cheeses, hand-made breads, cakes, chutneys, and jams. It also stocks local wines and ales – everything you need for a picnic, or fuel for a walk.  


    villages in kent
    The view along pretty Stone Street in Cranbrook towards Union Windmill Credit: Carolyn Clarke / Alamy

    Hawkhurst is linked by well-trodden (and well-signed) footpaths to the nearby town of Cranbrook, where the medieval streets are lined with cafés and small boutiques.  

    Known as the ‘Capital of the Weald’, the town is most famous for the 22-metre-tall Union Windmill – still a working smock mill, open to the public on specific days.


    In a region speckled with excellent pubs, my favourite is The Bell at Ticehurst. This great, rambling hug of a place is where you will find the best burgers in the region, plus a healthy mix of locals and visitors, happily mingling. With an eclectic style that extends to the seven bedrooms – each with its own silver birch tree inside the room – this is the place to come for a lavish Sunday roast (that lasts
    all afternoon).  

    villages in kent
    The Bell in Ticehurst. Credit: 2024 Saltwick.

    Beyond the pub, the high street has several appealing, small boutiques, while the Greedy Goat Café is a popular lunch spot. There are walks leading out from the village in all directions, including to Pashley Manor Gardens – 11 acres of bloom-filled borders and rose beds set around perfectly manicured lawns.

    Pashley Manor Gardens in spring. Credit: Carolyn Clarke / Alamy

    On a recent visit, we walked from Ticehurst to Bewl Water – the largest stretch of open water in the South East. Even in high summer, the leafy banks remain wonderfully tranquil – it’s the perfect place for an early evening picnic, or to sit and watch the herons and grebes, kingfishers and Canada geese swoop and dip into the shimmering water.


    villages in kent
    Goudhurst’s attractive high street with its church and pub. Credit: Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy

    Picture-perfect Goudhurst, with its steep high street flanked by higgledy-piggledy ancient houses, offers one of the best viewpoints across the High Weald, from the 14th-century tower at St Mary’s church.  

    This is my favourite place to potter, dipping into Billie Loves for stylish homewares, and Taywell Farm Shop for culinary goodies. A visit here usually ends at the 14th-century Star and Eagle – famous for its afternoon teas.

    Goudhurst is a great base for exploring Bedgebury Pinetum, too. Here you can walk amid towering conifers – with over 12,000 trees, it’s the biggest collection in the world – as you look out over shady walking and cycling trails, adventure playgrounds and some lovely lakes. Alternatively, head to Scotney Castle to explore the ruined 14th-century castle and grounds, which are considered among the most significant and complete ‘picturesque gardens’ – a fashionable style of landscaping in the 19th century – in Britain.

    villages in kent
    View of the Old Castle and House at Scotney Castle, Kent. Credit: National Trust Images/Kirsty Gibbons

    Both are pretty places to appreciate the bucolic beauty of this pretty region of villages in Kent and Sussex.

    Read the full feature in the Jun/Jul issue of Discover Britain, available to buy from Friday 3 May, here.

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