Sandwich; a delightful, medieval town in Kent

by Jan

If you’re looking for a quintessential English town packed with character and historic buildings, then Sandwich is the ideal destination.  Located in East Kent, Sandwich is a medieval town where time has stood still.  It has a labyrinth of ancient streets with half-timbered houses and boasts the title of “completest medieval town in England.”

We discovered this treasure on our recent staycation in Kent in South-East England.  We chose Sandwich as a base for visiting the nearby attractions in East Kent but were pleasantly surprised at the town and all its gorgeousness.

Read on to discover the best attractions in this medieval town and all the best things to see and do in Sandwich, Kent.

How did Sandwich get its name?

Sandwich Oast House, Kent, UK

Firstly though, we should address the question of the town’s unusual name.   Sandwich wasn’t named after the food, but is actually of Saxon origin, meaning “sandy place”.

It didn’t become a favourite picnic food until years later when the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, made the word popular.  Apparently, he ordered his valet to put his meat between two pieces of bread, so he could continue playing cards whilst eating.

How to explore Sandwich

Sandwich Town Walk, Kent, UK

Sandwich is such a pretty place and we loved just wandering at leisure around the quaint, narrow streets with their characterful properties.

However,  one of the best things to do in Sandwich is follow the town trails.  This way you can ensure you don’t miss any of its many historic sites.  It’s a fairly small town, so easy to explore by foot.  Allow a couple of hours to see it all and some time to stop at the one of the coffee shops!

There are two trails in Sandwich, both with information boards at key points along the way.  One trail leads you round the walls of the old town and the other explores the historic centre.  Having already seen the town centre, we started by exploring the old town walls.

Sandwich Toll Bridge

We started at the main entrance to Sandwich via the iron toll bridge, a historic swing bridge which crosses the River Stour.  There has been a crossing here for centuries.  In 1023, King Canute granted the monks of nearby Canterbury the right to operate a ferry here.  However, the first bridge wasn’t built until over 700 years later.

The Barbican

Sandwich Toll Bridge, Sandwich, Kent, UK

From the bridge, you can get your first glimpse of medieval Sandwich.  Built in 1539, the Barbican is the former tollgate for visitors coming into the town.

The two towers of this Grade 1 listed building make an impressive portal to the town and create a feeling that you’ve really stepped back in time.

Although the crossing is now free, you can still see the table of tolls displayed on the walls of the archway.  They decided the prices by the number of animals you were bringing through.  At the turn of the 20th century a chariot driven by 6 or more horses or beast would have set me back 2 shillings and 6 pence.

Sandwich Quay

View from Quay bridge, Kent, UK

However, rather than going through the tollgate, we took a left to Sandwich Quay.  This is a tranquil stretch of the River Stour with mooring for small leisure boats.  In summer you can take a wildlife boat trip towards the nature reserve at Shellness Point to see the resident seal colony.

Seeing the Quay today, it’s hard to believe that Sandwich has a rich nautical past and was previously one of the most important sea ports in England.  In fact, in its heyday, Sandwich had a vibrant harbour and regularly welcomed large ships on their way to and from London.

Thanks to its vital strategic position, Sandwich became one of the original Cinque Ports, with Dover, Romney, Hythe, Hastings (plus the ancient towns of Rye and Winchelsea).  The coastal ports were grouped together for defence purposes and Sandwich provided one of the main mustering points for troops going to the 100 years’ war between England and France.  Quite a contrast to the serene riverside area that is there today!

Sandwich Medieval Centre

Sandwich medieval centre, Sandwich, Kent, UK

One of the first sights we came to on our town trail was the Sandwich Medieval Centre.

This centre is a museum dedicated to keeping the medieval crafts alive.  Their current project is the construction of a replica of a cog, one of the boats used in medieval times.

Sandwich town walls

Sandwich town walls, Sandwich, Kent, UK

The Bulwarks are the defensive walls that once surrounded Sandwich.  King Richard II ordered the wall’s construction in 1385 as protection against the many violent attacks on the town.

Today you can still see key sites from Sandwich’s history.  We traversed the Rope Walk, a tree-lined avenue once used for walking out the ships’ ropes.  We also passed the Butts, a medieval archery grounds and the Gallows fields.

Even if you’re not interested in history, it’s a pleasant scenic walk.

Sandwich town centre

Town centre Street, Sandwich, Kent, UK

Of course, the very best thing to do in Sandwich is explore the medieval town centre.  Prepare to be amazed, as it really is gorgeous.  You could happily lose yourself in the labyrinth of little streets and historic alleys and can find medieval buildings at every turn.

Strand Street is the oldest street in Sandwich and has more half-timbered houses than any street in England.  Look out for the King’s Lodging, one of the finest period houses and lodgings for at least two royals.  Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I stayed here on their visit to Sandwich.

Sandwich is also home to four ancient churches, dating back as far as the 12th Century.  You can climb the tower at St Peter’s Church for magnificent views over the town.  If you are in town at night listen out for the chime of the curfew bell at 8pm.  This is a long tradition, signalling the time for the town people to cover their fires for the evening.

Near the church is a row of houses, known as Sandwich Weavers, named after its 16th Century Dutch inhabitants.

Modern shops, eateries and galleries carefully blend in with their historic counterparts.  Look out for quirky names, such as the No Name Shop in No Name Street or Goats that Dance.

Sandwich Guildhall

Guild Hall, Sandwich, Kent, UK

One of the most significant buildings in Sandwich is the refurbished Guildhall.  This 16th century building is in the heart of the town in the old Cattle Market.  Inside the entrance you can see a plan of where farmers sold the animals in bygone days.  The “fat pigs” quarters brought a smile to my face.

The Guildhall houses Sandwich Museum, which holds an assortment of treasure from the town’s past, including its own Magna Carta from 1300 AD.  The museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday and admission is free.

Places to eat in Sandwich

Places to eat, Sandwich, Kent, UK

Sandwich has a vibrant feel in the evenings and offers a good choice of places to eat.  There are several old inns by the Quay and a pizzeria.  In the town centre, you’ll find an array of restaurants, coffee shops and a delicatessen.

If you are there in peak season, you should book in advance, as the best restaurants can get busy.

Although it took me some time to find it, I knew there would be A Sandwich Shop. And I was right.  Perfect.

As well as the independent shops,  you’ll find a couple of small supermarkets, which is perfect if you are self-catering.

Other places to visit in Sandwich

If you head away from the medieval town centre, there are plenty more things to do in Sandwich.

The White Mill Rural Heritage Centre

White Mill Rural Heritage Centre, Sandwich, UK

About one mile from Sandwich town centre is the White Mill Rural Heritage Centre.  Built in 1760, this ancient mill was originally used to grind wheat, barley, and oats.

It currently has no sails but is part of a restoration project.  Twice a week a group of talented volunteers meet to restore the windmill to its former glory.  They are also developing the site as a rural heritage centre.

As well as the windmill, you can see displays of agricultural tools and visit the Miller’s Cottage.  We even went up inside the windmill to see the inner workings.

The Heritage Centre is open 3 times a week and admission is free.  You can walk from town, or take a short drive.

Richborough Roman Fort

If you love history, one of the best things to do outside Sandwich is visit Richborough Roman Fort and Ampitheatre.

Owned by English Heritage, Richborough may have been the site of the first-century Roman landing in Britain.  Consequently, it is now one of England’s most important Roman settlements.

Today, you can see the ruins of the Roman defence walls and the encircling ditches.  Several information boards around the site give a brief insight into the history of the attraction.

Sandwich Bay

Sandwich does have its own beach, but you’ll need to pay to drive there, as it’s a private road.  It’s a shingle beach, but there is sand when the tide is out.

Things to do near Sandwich

Deal, another of the Cinque Ports is only 7 miles away.  One of the best things to do in Deal is explore Deal Castle, a defensive fortress built by Henry VIII.  Afterwards, take a stroll along Deal promenade and visit the pier.

If you prefer a sandy beach, head in the other direction to the picturesque seaside town of Broadstairs.   Famous for its association with Charles Dickens, Broadstairs is a bustling town with plenty of places to eat and drink.  You can also visit the iconic Botany Bay.

Alternatively, you can be in the or the vibrant fishing port Whitstable in only half an hour.  Amble round the Harbour Market, or head up to Tankerton Beach, before returning to the castle and shops.

Another great place to visit near Sandwich is Canterbury.  This historic city is famous for the murder in its cathedral and consequent pilgrimages to visit.

How to get to Sandwich, Kent

Sandwich is in one of the furthermost South East corners of England.  However it is really accessibly by car.  You can take the M25/M26/M20 if you are coming from the South or the M2 from London.  It is about 75 miles from central London.

The fastest train from London to Sandwich leaves from St Pancras and takes just under 2 hours.

What are your favourite things to do in Sandwich, Kent?  We’d love to hear your comments below.

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