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The Render Report


Stuart Render

Coach Tourism Specialist


Stuart attended the Kentish & Cockney Christmas SleepOver as a guest of City & Village Tours. Before embarking on his current career as an advisor and PR specialist to the coach tourism industry he was for six years editor of Coach Monthly magazine.

At the end of November 2018, the Abingdon Horticultural Society enjoyed a three-night break based in Folkestone organised by tour operator City & Village Tours. Travel writer Stuart Render joined the group and found good company, good food and good entertainment


When you think of a location for a pre-Christmas break, Folkestone on the Kent coast isn’t a destination that might readily spring to mind. This once proud seaside destination, which developed on the back of its cross-Channel ferry service to Boulogne, became a magnet for the well-to-do in Victorian times, attracted out of London by the fresh air and The Leas, the imposing promenade that runs along the top of the cliffs.


In 2000 the ferry service ended. It wasn’t good news for the town and the port area fell into decline. But fast forward to the present day and new developments are aiming to restore the town as a leisure destination. The former railway station and viaduct is being reconstructed as a public walkway and promenade while the old town, with its narrow streets and independent shops remains popular in its own right.


But the real reason why Folkestone is a destination worth considering is because of its proximity to the Kent Downs (of the ‘rolling’ variety) and Romney Marsh, a sparsely populated wetland area in the counties of Kent and East Sussex that covers around 100 square miles. At the western end is the remarkable landscape around Dungeness, and the historic town of Rye.


But enough of the travelogue. I have a coach to meet. Heading to Kent from Oxfordshire are members of the Abingdon Horticultural Society. The group is looking forward to enjoying ‘A Kentish & Cockney Christmas SleepOver’, a three-night short break organised by award-winning tour operator City & Village Tours.



I’m meeting the coach at The Tickled Trout, a traditional Kent pub situated on the river Stour in the sleepy village of Wye, near Ashford. I’m also meeting Liz Findlay, a local Blue Badge Guide who will be accompanying the group for part of their stay.


Blue Badge Guides are an important element of City & Village Tours’ itineraries, and have been a constant feature since owner Gyll King set up the company in 1988.


“Our focus is putting together tour for groups who want to see a lot without walking too far,” she says. “We also include a registered Blue Badge Guide to help groups understand what they’re looking at.”


In 2016, Gyll introduced ‘SleepOvers’, a series of two, three or four-night short breaks, still sticking to the original promise of not having to walk too far. It is one of these ‘SleepOvers’ that I am about to join.


The coach, operated by Bicester-based Heyfordian Travel, pulls up outside the pub and Liz jumps aboard to welcome the group to Kent. I’m expecting to say hello to the group inside the pub but Liz beckons me onto the coach.


“This is Stuart Render,” she says. “As I think you’ve already been told, he’ll be joining us for the next few days to write about what happens and take a few photographs.” A cheer resounds through the coach. It’s a welcome that will continue throughout the trip.


The group take their seats and I spot a spare seat on a table for six. I find myself quickly engrossed in conversation with Jean, Angie, Brenda, Joyce and Libby. They are excellent company and I’m made to feel very much part of the group. Their youthfulness and all-round positive outlook on life is a joy to behold, and belies the fact that they’re, shall we say, not as young as they used to be! I make a mental note to remember these ‘Famous Five’!


The Tickled Trout is famous for its pie and mash, and the meal doesn’t disappoint. Slightly heavier than when they arrived, the group, now including Liz and me, returns to the coach.

The Heyfordian driver, Sean, navigates the coach through the picturesque country lanes of the Kent Downs to the Devil’s Kneading Trough, a bowl-shaped feature that is often described as one of the county’s leading beauty spots. On a clear day there are views across the flat Kentish Weald to Romney Marsh and as far as the English Channel. Sadly, some murky weather has crept in and the views are limited. One member of the group raises smiles on the coach by describing the visit as “more of a mystical experience”. We take a leisurely journey through the Downs to Folkestone and our hotel for the next three nights.


The four-star Best Western Plus Burlington Hotel is located just a few steps from The Leas.

It’s one of many imposing Victorian buildings in this west end of Folkestone. There’s a good welcome from the hotel team, including Jo, Tom and Maggie. Gyll King says that this is one of the reasons why City & Village Tours uses this particular hotel.

I check-in and head for my room. My travels over recent years have seen me stay in quite a range of hotels of this type so I’m not really expecting anything out of the ordinary. How wrong am I? I open the door and step into my bedroom. “Wow!”, I find myself exclaiming. All the bedrooms have been fully refurbished during 2018, resulting in a contemporary feel that belies the age of the building. It’s all rather impressive.

Returning to the lounge area the bedrooms are the focus of discussion among the group. “It looks like they’ve only just installed the bathroom suite,” says Jean, of ‘Famous Five’ fame. I understand the hotel’s reception, bar and lounge are due for similar treatment during 2019.


We have a lovely three-course dinner in the hotel’s Premier Suite, after which I find a moment to talk with Angela Hughes, the Abingdon Horticultural Society’s group travel organiser. Together with husband Ted she’s been organising day trips, short breaks and holidays for many years. So why has she decided to use City & Village Tours this time.


“When you organise a tour you can never relax,” she explains. “I really love doing this, but after so many years I wanted a break, an opportunity to sit back and relax, knowing that someone else has done all the work.”


It’s been a good start to the trip, but a busy day is on the schedule for tomorrow, so after a drink in the bar with the ‘Famous Five’, it’s off to bed.


Romney Marsh, ‘The Pilot’ and Rye


Breakfast done and dusted and we’re away from the hotel at 10am. It’s a sensible hour, giving time for a relaxed start to what will be a full day out and about. Our route takes us along the coast through Sandgate to Hythe and to Romney Marsh. Liz, our Blue Badge Guide has joined us for the day. We drive alongside part of the Royal Military Canal, a 28-miles waterway that was constructed at the start of the 19th century as a defence against the possible invasion of England during the Napoleonic Wars. We also hear stories of smugglers, the famous Aldington Gang and their leader, George Ransley. It comes as a bit of a shock when Liz reveals that she is in fact a descendant of the Ransley family.


We stop in the tiny village of Brookland, near Rye, to visit St Augustine's Church, a Grade I listed Anglican church originally built around 1250. Its most unusual feature is a large bell tower that sits a few yards away from the main church building.

We return to Romney Marsh, taking the road that leads across this bleak, windswept landscape towards the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. This part of Kent is officially classed as a ‘Desert’, the only desert in the UK. Our destination is ‘The Pilot’, a restaurant and bar that has become internationally well known for its fish and chips. The story goes that in 1633, the Spanish vessel ‘Alfresia’ was purposefully wrecked on the beach, with the ship’s timbers used to build the original ‘Pilot Inn’. There’s no trace of the ‘Alfresia’ now, but the fish and chips are excellent. The menu reminds us that we’re only 29 miles from the French coast.

Our final stop of the day is in the medieval town of Rye, perched on a hill, overlooking the East Sussex countryside. The coach park, alongside the railway station is, of course, anything but medieval, but a short walk into the town reveals a network of enchanting streets, ancient buildings and a wonderful mix of quality independent retailers. Cobbled streets and narrow passages reveal architectural treasures among beautifully preserved medieval, Tudor and Georgian buildings. Many are open to the public as restaurants, tearooms or pubs.


On the High Street, the window display of the Penny Royal gift shop tempts many of the group inside. Further along, Adams of Rye, a printers, stationers, bookshop and veritable treasure trove of interesting items contains a secret. The owner collects railway memorabilia and the walls are filled with old station signs and posters. Fans of author E. F. Benson will know that Rye is also the setting for the fictional town of Tilling that features in his Mapp and Lucia novels. Our time in Rye is soon over, and we return to the coach and to the Burlington Hotel.


After dinner we have some entertainment. Gary Dean, an accomplished singer and guitarist keeps our feet tapping with songs from Elvis, Cliff Richard, Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond and many others.


Also staying in the hotel is a group of holidaymakers from south Devon. They’re travelling on a coach holiday with Kingsbridge-based Tally Ho Holidays. One or two of them get up to dance, but it’s the Abingdonians who lead the way.


Gawd bless you, guv’nor

After a good night’s sleep, and another hearty breakfast (why are breakfasts always taken heartily?) there’s free time to explore Folkestone. The somewhat overcast weather means a walk along The Leas down into the old part of Folkestone is quite a challenge, but many in the group rise to it, returning with tales of adventurous forays into the old town. Two of the group jump on a bus and head in the other direction to explore Hythe, while a handful find a quiet corner in the hotel to read a book.


At 12.45pm we are all gathered in reception. We’re going to make the short walk to a neighbouring building that, in its heyday, was one of the most magnificent hotels on the south coast.

Opened in 1900, ‘The Grand’ was originally built as gentlemen’s residential chambers. In 1903 it became a hotel when the owners had difficulty letting the rooms.


We enjoy lunch sitting in the Palm Court, which fronts the building. After lunch we’re taken on a tour of the building by knowledgeable guide Jenny O’Brien. In and among many fascinating stories and descriptions she tells us that the Palm Court came to be known as the Monkey House. This description was coined because the hotel was favoured by King Edward VII. It seems that the locals used to like peering in to see him and his colleagues.

We return the short distance to the Burlington to prepare for tonight’s highlight, the Cockney Gala Dinner. This special event, put together by City & Village Tours, has been transplanted from its usual home on board the ‘Tereza-Joanne’, a converted entertainment boat moored in the Royal Docks in London’s East End. Every Tuesday, groups head for the Royal Docks to enjoy ‘The Cockney Matinees’, three and a half hours of entertainment, food and drink. Leading the show is Gordon Bennett, an entertainer in the mould of Chas & Dave, Max Bygraves and Max Miller.

 

This evening, Gordon has swapped the East End for Folkestone and we’re soon all ready to enjoy what Gyll King describes as “a right old Cockney knees up.”


Once again, the group from Devon are joining us and it’s not long before Gordon, dressed in his natty Pearly King waistcoat, gets the show underway. The songs come straight from the cockney, wartime and music hall song books. I’m surprised how many I know, and there’s a song sheet to help everyone along.


Gordon gets his audience involved, with Angela’s husband Ted delivering a masterclass on playing the spoons. It’s huge fun, right down to the Hokey Cokey and a bit of flag waving during Rule Britannia at the end. The ‘Famous Five’ get re-christened the ‘Abingdon Spice Girls’. We go to bed exhausted, although not until another drink with Dancing Spice and her friends.

The verdict

It’s the final morning, and as members of the group come down for breakfast, and luggage is stowed safely on board the coach, there’s an opportunity to find out what the group thinks about their ‘Kentish & Cockney Christmas SleepOver’.


Maurice Tubb, travelling alone, has thoroughly enjoyed it. “The commentary on the coach from Liz was a good mix of history and stories,” he says. “The organisation was good. Everything just clicked into place.”


David and Joyce Higgs have praise for the hotel staff. “They’ve been excellent,” they say, “and the bedroom was excellent.”


But perhaps the last word should go to Angela Hughes. This was the first time she had handed over the organisation to someone else, in this case City & Village Tours. What’s her verdict?

“It’s all gone extremely well,” she says. “Gyll, and her team back in London, have really met my expectations. I can’t say I’ve been able to fully relax. You can’t when you’re the group leader, but knowing that someone else has made all the arrangements and that all is well has meant I’ve had a really enjoyable few days. I’ll certainly be talking with Gyll about other trips in the future.”


After nearly three days sharing experiences with the Abingdon Horticultural Society it’s a sad moment when the group steps out of the hotel for the last time and on to the coach. I wave the coach goodbye as it pulls away from the front of the hotel and heads off back to Oxfordshire. It’s been a memorable short break, and I have the feeling that the memories of our Cockney Gala Dinner, fish and chips in Dungeness, railway memorabilia in Rye, and the wonderful Abingdon Spice Girls will live long in the memory.