Go off the beaten path to discover these strange gems

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Tired of Howletts or lazing around Leeds Castle? Then, as the weather begins to improve, why not consider a trip to one of Kent’s most unusual tourist attractions?

There’s no doubt that the county is full of gorgeous destinations for the perfect day out, from the majesty of Canterbury Cathedral to the mighty Dover Castle.

Tired of regular days? Then we have some suggestions that are a bit, shall we say, “different”

But what about gaping at the bones of a long-dead saint? Or go through a maze of tunnels dug in the ground and lined with shells that look like a cult horror movie?

We take a look at some of the weirdest attractions – past and present – that have entertained the masses over the years.

Do you have a penchant for the macabre? Then a church in Hythe offers you something that will float your odd boat.

St. Leonard’s Church looks like a lovely classic medieval church from the outside and its website talks about welcoming everyone in the name of God for its regular services.

Yet you may well find yourself uttering the phrase “what in the name of God?” when you peek around its crypt – or ossuary, to give it its proper name.

St. Leonard's Church, Hythe.  Photo: Gary Browne
St. Leonard’s Church, Hythe. Photo: Gary Browne

Because inside there is “Britain’s largest and best preserved collection of ancient human skulls and bones”. Who knew there was even competition for such a claim?

Within four vaulted bays are shelves containing more than 1,000 skulls, topped with a nearly two-meter pile of bones.

In short, if you’ve ever wondered how it was possible to cram 2,000 people into a small space, then here’s the answer.

The bones are thought to be those of local people buried in the cemetery – and possibly in nearby cemeteries – dating back to the 13th century, and as the sites were closed, their bodies were dug up and the remains deposited here.

It's not everyday you share a small room with 2,000 people
It’s not everyday you share a small room with 2,000 people

Be clear, this won’t be a one minute laugh trip to see the macabre spectacle.

But it is a unique experience and one that should make you reflect on those who once occupied our lands.

Down a side street off the main road that winds through Cliftonville in Margate is a truly bizarre tourist destination that you really have to experience to really appreciate.

Wander through an adjoining cafe and gift shop, and once you’ve purchased your tickets, you have the chance to descend a flight of stairs and experience some 70 feet of tunnels. Impressive, in itself.

But even more so when you consider that every inch of the wall and ceiling is covered in carefully created designs using more than 4.6 million seashells.

Imagine how many buckets you would need to collect that number.

Maybe the golden sands of Margate were full of seashells before they built this.

Why the aptly named Shell Grotto exists is anyone’s guess.

Theories range from the connection to the Knights Templar, the meeting place of a secret cult or – and perhaps more likely – the madness of a wealthy person with more money and time than common sense.

Anyway, since its discovery in 1835, it has proven to be a fascinating place to visit and ponder marveling at the patience of sticking all those cockle and mussel shells to the walls.

The Shell Grotto is a remarkable - and very unusual - place
The Shell Grotto is a remarkable – and very unusual – place

And, frankly, it makes selling tickets to the venue a whole lot easier given the mystery surrounding its origins.

There’s even a “quiet room” just to let your imagination run wild as to all that happened there.

Is it worth going there? Yes. You will be amazed at how the streets of Cliftonville rest on such an unusual and enchanting place.

Until very recently, the fear of nuclear war seemed confined to the history books – which only those who grew up in the 80s or earlier can remember to be a scary and jittery potential reality.

But as recent events have demonstrated, as long as these weapons exist there is a chance that someone, somewhere will decide to raise the bar.

Inside Gravesend Cold War Bunker
Inside Gravesend Cold War Bunker

Which makes visiting a Cold War bunker today even more disappointing.

The bunker that welcomes visitors to Gravesend consists of 13 rooms and was designed to house an underground command post in the event of a nuclear attack.

Like most towns in the county, steps had been taken to be able to keep the company going in one way or another in the event of a missile attack.

Today it’s decorated as it would have been in the 1950s and even features a government promotional film warning us what to do if the worst should happen. It’s both fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

The Signal Room in the Cold War Bunker
The Signal Room in the Cold War Bunker

There’s even the casing of an old nuclear missile – once part of the country’s nuclear arsenal – on display.

When hordes descend on the shingle beaches of Whitstable to stuff their faces with oysters and ice cream, a popular refrain as they gaze out over the waters of the Thames Estuary is “what are those things over there” . And they’re not talking about the Kentish Flats windmills or the good people of Sheppey.

No, they will be looking at the alien-like creatures that make up the Red Sands Sea Forts. And if the weather is calm, you can take a boat trip to see them up close and personal.

Built during the Second World War and part of the Maunsell Forts – a series of similar sea defenses built at strategic points around the British Isles – they were designed as a layer of defense in the event of an attack by the Nazis by sea or Aerial.

By the way, those perched off Whitstable shot down some 22 planes and 30 doodlebugs. They therefore deserve our respect.

Boat tours allow you to float under the eerie structures
Boat tours allow you to float under the eerie structures

Decommissioned in 1958, they quietly rusted on the horizon – eight miles from the coast – sometimes seeing life as a base for pirate radio stations or, in one case, the backdrop for a music video for The Prodigy. The project to transform them into a luxury hotel, to the surprise of some, foundered a few years ago.

Trips are weather dependent, but take you around the site – although you should stay on the boat as access is perilous.

Unless you’ve taken a vow never to pay attention to Kentish history, you know Thomas Becket well.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury and his brutal assassination by knights – believing they were acting on Henry II’s orders (or were they directly commanded, no one really knows) – supported a tourist industry in and around the cathedral from almost the time his lifeless body fell to the stone floor in December 1170.

Revered as a martyr across Europe and made a saint by the pope three years after his death, pilgrims began to travel to Canterbury to both pay their respects, pray and ask for help with their troubles.

Thomas Becket, immortalized in a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral
Thomas Becket, immortalized in a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral

Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales are based on a group of medieval travelers doing just that.

But in the centuries since his death, so has a strange trade in the relics of the slain archbishop.

The cathedral monks often sold what they claimed were vials of his blood and fragments of his bloodied clothes. In reality, the amount of bones and clothing claiming to be from the Catholic priest could undoubtedly be glued together to be the size of a small army and a vast wardrobe. Don’t expect the cathedral shop to sell them today.

Yet even now you can witness what claims to be part of the Cleric’s body.

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Thomas Becket’s ‘finger’ at St Thomas Church in Canterbury. Photo: Historical and Archaeological Society of Canterbury

In St Thomas of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church, a short walk from the cathedral and kept locked behind iron stakes, you can see a small display chest which claims to feature a finger from the man himself.

He was introduced to the Catholic Church (remember, Becket died before the Church of England was created and separated from Catholicism) in 1953 by one of his descendants.

Next to it is a piece of his garment, donated to the church in the 19th century.

And, who knows, maybe it’s the real deal. May be.

At least this, and all the other places here, will get you talking.

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