As both the oldest county and a peninsula, it was inevitable that Kent would develop its own unique customs. One such was ‘ale sop’. This was a snack consisting of hot ale served with toast, or sometimes a biscuit, to be dunked in it. The combination sounds strange to modern ears, but there’s a logic to it. In the days before water purification, when the risk of typhoid was ever present, beer was the usual way to consume fluids. In fact, manual workers would generally have many pints a day, albeit less strong stuff than today. Similarly, bread was the most readily available source of nutrition. Warming up the beer and toasting the bread at an open fire was a quick and cheap way of making these staples slightly special. In fact, ale sop may have been considered something of a treat, since it was served to the staff of big Kentish houses on Christmas Day.
The Allectus coin
The anonymous detectorist who unearthed a gold coin at Dover in 2019 was in for a surprise: it sold at auction for half a million pounds, a record for a Roman coin minted in Britain. Curiously, it bore the profile not of an emperor but a short-lived imposter. In the turmoil of the third century, a military commander called Carausius mutinied and declared himself emperor of Britain and North Gaul. When the Empire struck back, his own treasurer Allectus murdered him and took over. Unluckily for the usurper’s usurper, by 296 he found himself up against the formidable Constantius I, father of Constantine the Great. The western Caesar kept the rebel army pinned down in Kent while a second invasion force landed near Southampton. Allectus, racing west to meet the threat, was overwhelmed and slain on the road from Londinium. Ironically, though his reputation was forever tarnished, the coin bearing his name was still in mint condition 1,723 years later.
The C19 idea of a ‘brotherhood’ of artists came from the ‘Nazarenes’ of Vienna in 1809. Fifteen years later, the first English brotherhood was formed in Kent. These were the ‘Ancients’, admirers of the great William Blake. All students at the Royal Academy, they were Romantics to a man and seekers after refuge from the age’s commercial spirit. Nevertheless, they were High Tories, which tended to make them a little conventional in their pursuit of spiritual emancipation. Lacking an abandoned monastery to retreat to as the Nazarenes had done, they went to stay for brief periods at Shoreham near Sevenoaks, where one of them had a nice house. The highlight was doubtless the day when the ageing Blake paid them a visit. Though none of the half-dozen or so achieved much while in the brotherhood, some went on to greater things; and they certainly gave the pre-Raphaelites something to shoot at a quarter-century later.
The Ashford Tank
Tanks were such an integral part of C20 warfare that it’s easy to forget their humble origins. During the Great War, Churchill encouraged the development of a new wonder-weapon that might breach the Germans’ trench defences. To confuse enemy spies, the new contraptions were disguised as water tanks, whence their name. Their appearance no doubt stunned the Germans, but they were never used to best tactical advantage. After the War, the Government decided to thank towns that had donated generously to the war effort by gifting them each an unused ‘female’ Mark IV tank – one lacking a barrel. Ashford, less than a hundred miles from the front line, was a grateful recipient. All but one of these tanks were sadly melted down during WW2, but Ashford’s had been converted to an electricity sub-station, and survived. Co-inventor Sir William Tritton no doubt approved: his father had been born in Hythe and married his mother at Blean.
Two places in Kent, one west of Maidstone and the other south of Canterbury, are united in being the site of ancient cemeteries of special interest to archaeologists. They both contained grave goods particular to the La Tène culture that dominated Europe in the late Iron Age, immediately preceding the Roman Empire. Believed to have been introduced to Britain by the Belgae, a Gallic tribe, they most notably included coinage and wheel-thrown pottery. The design of the latter was distinctly suggestive of Mediterranean influence. There were also bronzes in the Italic style, and even wine amphorae. The Aylesford-Swarling pottery style had spread north of the Thames by the time of the Roman invasion. It goes to show that, with its proximity to the continent of Europe, Kent was a major conduit for cultural diffusion. The Aylesford site, incidentally, was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans, whose next discovery would be the extraordinary Palace of Knossos in Crete.
Benjamin Beale from Margate is normally said to have invented the bathing machine in 1750, although there is evidence of such a device 15 years earlier. This was simply a means of getting bathers from the beach into the sea without being seen out of their day clothes. It was essentially a box on wheels that would be dragged into the waves by men, or a horse, or even steam power. Bathers would change inside, leaving their clothes on a shelf, and hop into the water on the far side from the beach. The particular innovation by Beale, a propriety-minded Quaker, was the “modesty hood” that could be lowered on the sea side, shielding bathers from the prying eyes of other bathers. Margate, which was then a premier resort, became bathing-machine city. Indeed, when Beale’s booming business was destroyed by a storm in 1767, he was offered the financial support to get it up and running again.
The Beast of Tunbridge Wells
When WW2 was going badly in 1942, minds were distracted by the story of a gigantic apeman in Tunbridge Wells. It supposedly terrified an elderly couple by approaching them from behind as they sat on a bench. Since its coat was bright red, it sounded like a version of the USA’s Sasquatch, or Bigfoot. It might have been forgotten, had not another clutch of sightings been reported seventy years later. ‘The Sun’ carried a story of a walker being confronted in the woods by an 8-foot tall beast with long arms and “demonic” eyes; it roared at him, and he ran off. The stories prompted scorn from local residents, presumably signing themselves ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’; they put them down to a hoaxster in an outfit. Since a beast like this is unknown to zoology, the best explanation might be that the town is a magnet to tourists, and such tales always add local colour.
The Beauty Show
In 1888, an 800-foot pier was built at Folkestone, accommodating an 800-seater pavilion. Saddled with a construction overspend and high running costs, it was a financial failure. That changed in 1907 when a new management team, the Forsyths, took the venue downmarket. In place of highbrow shows, in came all manner of populist entertainments that went down a storm. Most successful of all at the renamed Pier Hippodrome was the innovative ‘Beauty Show’, won by the demure Miss Vogel. So popular was it, especially with women, that a gentlemen’s beauty show was introduced the next month. The event was made an annual international fixture, and the civic ‘beauty contest’ became an institution all over the country. Only after the Women’s Lib protest at the 1970 Miss World contest, one month after Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’ came out, was it regarded as much other than a platform for girls who just wanna have fun.
The Bell Inn revenue inspectors
When smuggling was conducted around Kent’s shores on a scale that would have stretched the Mafia during the Prohibition, it was inevitable that anyone who got in the way of business operations was at serious risk. In the days before motorway bridges, disposal of criminally dead bodies was no easy matter; but plainly there was a deal of resourcefulness. Taverns were always popular resorts for smugglers, one such being the C15 ‘Bell Inn’, close to the sea-front at Hythe. When the large inglenook fireplace there was renovated in 1963, the builders uncovered the corpses of two C18 Revenue Officers bricked up behind a wall. They were fully dressed, and their uniforms and boots were in surprisingly good shape. Nothing more is known about them, although customers enjoying a drink or three have reported seeing their ghosts sitting by the fireplace. Presumably the two are ushered out at closing time by the ‘Grey Lady’, the ghost of a former owner.
Geologically, Bethersden marble shouldn’t be called ‘marble’ – because it’s not metamorphic – and it doesn’t necessarily come from Bethersden: lesser deposits were also found in Sussex. Yet the material itself is as distinctive as its name. It was formed from bands of freshwater limestone left behind in the Weald when the waters receded. Its distinctive appearance is derived from the calcified remains of freshwater snails, giving it one of its more colourful alternative names: winklestone. As it can polish up to an attractive shiny appearance, it is has been used in architecture and building since medieval times in the same way as actual marble, with such diverse applications as the pavement outside the Red Lion in Lenham, the exterior of the Dering Arms in Pluckley, and the Archbishop’s chair at Canterbury Cathedral. Although Bethersden marble is scarcely mined now, relics of quarrying remain in the form of ponds, some now used as fisheries, dotted around the Weald.
Only half a century ago, Bewl Water was a valley occupied by the River Bewl. By 1975 it had been converted to a reservoir containing 31 billion litres of water, making it the biggest lake in the South East. The intention was to provide a dependable water source, diverting water from the River Medway whenever volumes reached a set level. Although its purpose was purely functional, its construction has had the unintended consequence of providing an outstanding artificial addition to nature. As well as looking beautiful in certain lights, it has become home to a plethora of animal species, especially birds. Like most large bodies of water, it is also a magnet to humans, providing not only angling but also numerous water sports and other leisure activities. Proposals to increase the offtake from the Medway in view of Kent’s now steepling population have however met with opposition, because of the risk of environmental degradation.
The Biddenden Maids
As Lady Godiva is to Coventry, so the Maids are to Biddenden. According to the legend, they were C11 Siamese twins who bequeathed to the village the ‘Bread & Cheese Lands’ whose revenue funded a ‘dole’ of victuals to the needy each Easter. The tradition continues today, lavishly funded by the sale of the Lands for housing. The Maids appear on both the village crest and the Biddenden ‘cakes’ handed out or sold to visitors. These biscuits are barely edible, being baked in batches every few years to a hardness that makes them durable souvenirs of the Maids’ generosity. The two were given suspiciously modern names and a back-story in Victorian times; but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that even the Siamese twins yarn was an invention. Most likely it was a traditional image of two loving sisters baked into the biscuit – like the cow on a malted milk – which gave some wag the idea.
The Blue Bell Hill ghost
Tales of a ghost on Blue Bell Hill between Maidstone and Chatham are thought to derive from a tragic accident in 1965. While returning from her hen night on the eve of her wedding, 22-year-old Susan Browne was killed with two friends after losing control of her Ford Cortina. Few locals didn’t hear the story, and most paid close attention when different drivers, always male, started reporting supernatural encounters with a female road user. It might be an eerie pedestrian who’d get mowed down but leave no trace, or else a hitchhiker who’d disappear from the back seat. Soon everyone using that road was looking out for paranormal activity. In retrospect, it’s easy to attribute those reports to either over-fertile imaginations or simple hoaxes; and the A229 is too slick a road nowadays to lend credence to ghost stories. Try driving after dark along the single-track Old Chatham Road that passes underneath, however, and it’s a different story.
Bluebeard the Hermit
Contrary to expectation, Bluebeard the Hermit was not a savage pirate who hung up his cutlass to go into social isolation. In truth, we know little about him, but he is a footnote in Kent history because of his role in Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450. The known facts are that he was a fuller by the name of Thomas Cheyny, he became a ringleader of the rebels in Canterbury, and he may even have initiated the revolt. His nickname simply followed the practice among rebels of giving themselves counterfeit names as they went about fomenting rebellion; the hermit was a favourite disguise. After the collapse of the revolt, ‘Bluebeard’ was summarily executed. It caused such public unrest that the Sheriffs of London, ordered to take the head back to Canterbury for display on the Westgate, were in fear of their lives, and demanded recompense. The head did make it home; but Bluebeard’s quarters adorned four other towns.
The borstal project was a triumph of idealism over realism. Its intentions were honourable: it sought to keep young males out of adult prisons so that they would not be groomed for a life of crime. The location chosen for the first institution in 1902 was the village of Borstal, near Rochester, which had once been a beauty spot. The emphasis was on reforming boys through education and discipline, rather than punishment; caning, for example, was forbidden, and birching rare. It worked well enough to be rolled out across the country, retaining the borstal name. Brendan Behan wrote a rose-tinted account of his time in one in the 1940s, when befriending Protestant boys moderated his Irish Republican sympathies. In 1979, however, the movie ‘Scum’ gave a stomach-churning picture of what borstals had become: a playground for psychopaths. In 1982 they were replaced by youth custody centres; yet the Kentish village’s name still lives on in India’s surviving borstal schools.
The 3rd Regiment of Foot was the third to be formally established in the English Army. It was however the first to be raised, having started life in Holland in 1572 as a unit designed to assist the Dutch against Spain. It took its nickname from the dull yellow facings on the men’s red tunics. It saw action at several famous battles, including Blenheim, Culloden and Sevastopol. When stationed in Malta in 1858, Lt. John Cotter coined the phrase “Steady, the Buffs!” which Rudyard Kipling made part of the language. In 1881 the Regiment became the Buffs (East Kent Regiment), based at the Howe Barracks in Canterbury, a ‘Royal’ tag being added in 1935. It merged with the West Kent Regiment in 1961 to form the Queens Own Buffs, but was eventually subsumed into the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, named in honour of Prince Charles’s first wife. Only the 3rd Battalion (of four) is still based in Kent.
Canterbury College, Oxford
‘University Challenge’ fans are familiar with Balliol, Keble and St John’s; but Canterbury College, Oxford? There once was such a thing, and it was a Kentish creation. In 1311, four monks from Christ Church priory in Canterbury were sent to study at Oxford in a hall close to the eastern city wall. A half century later, the project was expanded to a full college, situated just south-west of Oriel College. It came to an abrupt halt in 1540 when Henry VIII’s lucrative Dissolution of the Monasteries was expanded to include anything with monks in it. The college was closed down and the property redistributed to the erstwhile Cardinal College, named after Wolsey, which was briefly renamed ‘Henry VIII’s College’ following the Lord Chancellor’s demise. Presumably in deference to Canterbury, the King renamed both the college and its chapel, Oxford Cathedral, as ‘Christ Church’. Its hall is now familiar to Harry Potter fans as Hogwarts’ Great Hall.
The Canterbury Scene
What’s strange about the Canterbury Scene is that there never was much of a Canterbury scene. The term refers to a group of North Kent musicians who shared an interest in psychedelic jazz seguing into progressive rock. Two men at the heart of it were singer-guitarist Kevin Ayers from Herne Bay and singer-drummer Robert Wyatt, who lived at Lydden. After leaving Simon Langton Grammar School in Canterbury, the two formed the Wilde Flowers, playing psychedelic rock, in 1964. The two left after five years to form Soft Machine, which early on rivalled Pink Floyd; the two bands twice appeared together at Canterbury Technical College, though their fortunes diverged dramatically thereafter. Ayers went on to work with several top names in the music industry, while Wyatt was paralysed after falling out of a window at a party. Meanwhile, their former Wilde Flowers bandmates back in Whitstable became Caravan, a prog rock band still active today.
The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (1400) was the first text in English to become world-famous. It is a collection of 24 stories supposedly told on a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury. The thirty or so pilgrims depart from the Tabard Inn, each charged with telling some tales en route; the teller of the best will win a free dinner. The idea was not original – Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’ preceded it – but Chaucer’s tales are consistently entertaining and varied. ‘The Canterbury Tales’ was written in Middle English, a double-edged sword insofar as the language is delightfully earthy, but a deterrent to the casual reader. For that reason, TV dramatisations have proved popular, bringing a colourful mix of satire and bawdiness. Each pilgrim was supposed to tell four tales, but Chaucer ran out of life before finishing, even after spending 13 years on them. Nevertheless, it’s debatable whether more Americans and Australians have heard of Canterbury through the Cathedral, or the Tales.
The English are not renowned for making world-class desserts. One of our best, however, is apple tart; and it is no wonder that one of our best apple tarts bears a name associated with the nation’s leading apple-growing county. The Canterbury Tart has a dessert-apple and lemon base covered by overlapping sliced apples, baked for 45 minutes and delicious served with a little cream or ice-cream. Numerous variants have been published, all of them simple to prepare and certain to bring satisfaction to several. The dish gets its name, extraordinarily, from none other than Geoffrey Chaucer of ‘Canterbury Tales’ fame. He provided the first written recipe for apple tart, specifying good apples, good spices, figs, raisins and pears, all cut up and coloured with saffron. That recipe is traditionally dated to 1381. Although the date is not easily corroborated, it may be worth bearing in mind that its 650th anniversary comes up in about a decade.
Chain Home (CH)
The CH early-warning system was a product of an age when Britain still valued genial geniuses over noisy know-alls. It was prompted by an assertion of prime minster Stanley Baldwin in 1932 that “the bomber will always get through”. One English boffin, Arnold ‘Skip’ Wilkins, sat down to ponder whether that had to remain the case. He worked out how to detect incoming bombers by the canny use of radio waves. By 1937, with the Nazi menace growing, five experimental stations were built under the codename ‘Chain Home’. There were two in Essex and one in Suffolk, but the forward-most were on opposite sides of Kent, at Dunkirk and Swingate. Recognisable by their multiple radar aerials, they were subjected to repeated bombing once WW2 started, but kept going. By the end of the War, there were more than forty nationwide. It’s been estimated that CH tripled the RAF’s fighter capability, beating off Germany’s far superior force by pitching brains against Braun.
The Channel Tunnel
A tunnel between England and France must have been mooted as soon as the land bridge connecting them was severed ten thousand years ago. It was first given serious consideration in 1802, when French engineer Albert Mathieu proposed a tunnel lit with oil lamps, ferrying travellers by horse-drawn carriage. One year later, Napoleon envisaged a martial use: marching his army of invasion across the Channel. The practical difficulties were always insurmountable, but discreetly masked by such objections as the threat to national security. Work did once start at the Kentish end, but it was just a gesture. Not until the affluent 1980s did the Channel Tunnel get the go-ahead. For safety reasons, it was only a rail tunnel. The aggrieved Margaret Thatcher insisted on a second tunnel for road traffic, but it never happened. The project came in 80% over budget, the tunnel was long underused, and it is most familiar now for problems associated with illegal immigration.
The Romans introduced wine-making to Britain, and there were over a hundred vineyards in England in the Tudor period; but the weather militated against both scale and quality. After heavy duties were imposed on French wine in 1703, the British developed a preference for fortified wines like port and sherry. It is global warming that has created a sea-change in recent decades, with a proliferation of brands emerging. Kent’s southerly latitude and limestone soil give it an advantage that has been richly harvested by Chapel Down. The business is named after a vineyard on the Isle of Wight that in 1995 acquired Rock Lodge of Tenterden, where its new headquarters was set up. Five years later, Chapel Down merged with Lamberhurst. The company is now the biggest wine-producer in the UK, and has established a national reputation for quality produce that includes, unprecedentedly, English sparkling wines that do not disappoint. The visitor centre plays host to 50,000 annually.
Charlton Horn Fair
The Charleton Horn Fair was one of the most riotous occasions of this or any county. One legend has it that King John, caught in flagrante with a miller’s wife, assuaged him with cash that paid for a fair every St Luke’s Day, and a patch of land that became known as Cuckold’s Point – the traditional symbol of the cuckold being horns. More prosaically, it may just be that Charlton Church was St Luke’s, and the saint was always depicted alongside a horned ox. Whatever the case, the custom arose of wearing horns at the annual fair. But behaviour grew more outrageous than wearing fancy dress. It became such a pretext for lascivious and drunken behaviour that Daniel Defoe complained bitterly about the “yearly collected rabble of mad-people”. Unsurprisingly, it was too much for Victorian propriety, and was banned in 1874. The Horn Fair was revived in 2009, although no doubt with a more sophisticated ethos.
The Chatham Chest
The war between England and Spain in the late C16, culminating in the defeat of both Spanish and English armadas, brought a toll in disabled sailors. Agitation for financial help induced the Lord High Admiral to press their case with Elizabeth I. The outcome was a pension fund that came to be known as the Chatham Chest. For 155 years from 1594, one thirtieth of every seaman’s pay – typically sixpence a month – was deducted for the fund. Payments were made to sailors according to the extent of their loss: an armless man, for example, earned £15 a year. The funds were kept in a literal chest, a strong box guarded by the Royal Marines at Chatham Dockyard. It had five locks, whose keys were held by five separate functionaries. It didn’t stop large-scale theft by officials; and Charles I exercised his divine right to steal the whole lot. It was eventually merged into the Greenwich Hospital fund.
The Chocolate Cream Killer
Christiana Edmunds was born in Margate in 1828, the daughter of the architect of the local lighthouse. She had a comfortable upbringing, though mental illness on both sides of her family perhaps accounted for her diagnosis of hysteria around 1850. She never married, but accompanied her widowed mother in retirement in Brighton. Around the age of 40, she took a shine to her doctor, whose wife she secretly poisoned, though not fatally, with a chocolate cream. She then began obtaining chocolate creams from a local confectioner, John Maynard, and returning them after adding her own ingredient: strychnine. Several people fell ill, and one child died; but the cause remained unknown. Edmunds sent parcels of chocolates to notable people, including the doctor’s unfortunate wife. As police suspicion grew, she sent herself parcels in the hope of incriminating Maynard. Eventually the doctor reported his suspicions, and she was tried for murder. Her death sentence was commuted to life in Broadmoor.
The Cinque Ports
The Confederation of Cinque Ports came about in response to the King of England’s need to have ships at his disposal. Since the kings of the day were Normans, the agreement struck with (mostly) Kentish coastal towns still has a French name. It was formalised by royal charter in 1155. In return for providing 57 ships for 15 days a year, the participating towns could enjoy privileges including certain tax, justice and salvage rights. The initial participants were Sandwich, Dover, Hythe and New Romney, with Hastings making up the five. They changed from time to time, for example when New Romney harbour silted up and was replaced by Rye. There were also associated ‘limbs’ like Folkestone and Ramsgate, as well as numerous ‘connected’ towns and villages. The practical arrangement died out by the C15, but the honorific post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports still entitles the holder to reside at Walmer Castle.
The housing estate that now constitutes Coxheath occupies an area that was once a nationally infamous military camp. Initially occupied in 1756, it was so large – three miles by one – that it was able to accommodate 15,000 troops and their wives during the American Revolution. This made it a significant town in its own right, and traders poured in from London and Maidstone to cater for them. So too did prostitutes, and the nefarious goings on suggested the nickname ‘Cocks Heath’. Light relief from weapons training was provided by the Duke of Devonshire’s celebrity wife, whose cavorting with fashionable friends became a source of national chatter. The great playwright RB Sheridan even co-wrote a popular musical entertainment about it, called ‘The Camp’. It was of course of no avail, because the intervention of the French swung the Revolution decisively in favour of the rebels. After Waterloo, France and England made up for good, and the heath reverted to farmland.
The Crab & Winkle line
In the early 1820s, railway pioneer William James lobbied for a line to run the six miles from Canterbury to Whitstable. Its benefit, he claimed, would be to relieve traffic problems in the city centre. Work started in 1825 under the auspices of two engineering legends, George Stephenson and, later, his son Robert of ‘Rocket’ fame. The gauge was set at 4ft 8½in, which subsequently became the International Gauge. Opening in 1830, the Canterbury & Whitstable wasn’t the first railway line in Britain, but certainly the first in the South-East. It catered not only for freight, but also passengers travelling in open wagons to the coast; whence its nickname, the ‘Crab & Winkle’. Anxious to secure regular use, the operators set a world first by selling the first-ever railway season-ticket. Nevertheless, the primitive engine, Invicta, wasn’t up to the mechanical challenges, travel was slow, and the line lost money. The South Eastern Railway took it over in 1844.
The style of windows distinctive to Pluckley is unmistakable, once you know what they look like. They are simply narrow rectangular windows, twice as high as they are wide, with an additional semi-circular pane at the top. They may also be grouped in twos, threes and fours. The story is that, during the Civil War, the first baronet Sir Edward Dering climbed through the round top portion of a window to escape from Roundheads who suspected him of raising an army for the King. Two centuries later, his descendant Sir Edward Cholmeley Dering decided that this happy story shouldn’t be forgotten, and had similar windows installed at the family pile, Surrenden Manor. From there, the practice was extended to properties throughout the family estate. They can now be seen on buildings all around Pluckley, as well as neighbouring Little Chart. Presumably Hermann Goering wasn’t keen on them: the Luftwaffe expended much energy on shattering them during WW2.
The Devil’s Kneading Trough
If there’s one thing the Kentish countryside lacks, it’s the glorious hilly panoramas of the West Country. Just north-east of Ashford, however, the Wye Downs do give a flavour of them. This nature reserve of national standing is the outcome of glacial action on the chalk North Downs, resulting in a series of coombes: downhill depressions that look like dried-up river beds. The most spectacular is the one known as the Devil’s Kneading Trough. It’s not necessary to wonder whether there was an ancient myth about Lucifer coming here to make pastry. There was nothing original about naming a dramatic natural feature after a familiar object it resembled and attributing ownership to the Bad One: think Devil’s Dyke, Devil’s Punch Bowl, or numerous Devil’s Elbows. What can be said is that, as well as an extraordinary array of orchids, the area offers a Romantic escape from town living, and a devil of a view.
Dover’s Bronze Age boat
In 1992, the remains of a boat were unearthed during construction of a new underpass in Dover. Having been identified as something extraordinary, it was painstakingly removed by archaeologists. Sadly, because of its position close to buildings, a portion of unknown size had to be left in the ground. Once cleaned up and studied, the remains turned out to be more than 3,500 years old. Although older ships have been found in Egypt, the remains of boats tend to be fragmentary. The Dover boat is therefore quite likely the oldest largely intact boat in the world. This 30-foot-long cargo boat, built with oak timbers, would have required perhaps 18 men to paddle it. In its suitably subdued gallery at Dover Museum, it is fascinating to imagine it at sea even before the Ancient Greek seafaring tradition got underway, yet simultaneously frustrating to know that the rest of the craft is still lying underground only yards away.
As Whitstable has its oysters, so Dover has its sole. Contrary to a common misconception, Dover sole is not actually peculiar to the Dover area. It is a flatfish species technically named Solea solea that also goes by the names of common sole and black sole. It is actually native to a region ranging from Norway to the western coast of North Africa, but particularly abundant in the North Sea, English Channel, and Irish Sea. The Dover connection derives from the fact that the town’s fishermen cornered the market for supplying Victorian London. This is however a particularly good fish to attach a town’s name to. Brownish, mottled and rough to the touch, it is renowned for its tender yet firm flesh, not to mention its seriously good flavour. Certainly they agree it’s a good brand in the United States. Just as they call maize ‘corn’, the Americans have their own Dover sole, which is actually a flounder.
Not to be confused with Durovernum (the Roman name for Canterbury), Durolevum is interesting for only one thing: no one can say for sure where it was. There is just one tantalising contemporary reference to it, in a C3 gazetteer called the Itinerarium Antonini. It is mentioned as a fort on Watling Street. What’s puzzling is that its location is specifically given as 16 miles from Rochester and 12 from Canterbury. Follow those directions, however, and you arrive somewhere with nothing going for it. It’s not hard to imagine a Roman scribe 900 miles away, lacking that information but fearing the boss’s wrath, hazarding a guess in the hope that it was near enough. So where was it? We don’t know; but the best candidate is Judd Hill, just west of Ospringe. It does seem to offer the right sort of archaeological evidence, and makes sense given the village’s later significance as a stopover.
The Earl of Kent
To appreciate the significance of the title ‘Duke of Kent’, it’s worth considering how few other royal dukedoms there are in the UK. Aside from the Dukes of Lancaster and Edinburgh (a.k.a. The Queen and Prince Philip), there are just six. Kent’s claim to such elevated status goes back to Saxon times. Because Kent was an independent kingdom until Wessex took over, it was customary for the King’s eldest son to be the Earl of Kent. That title was held by King Harold’s brother, Leofwine, when both were killed in 1066; yet William I continued the tradition by conferring the title on his half-brother, Odo. It is noteworthy that the only Earl of Kent who appears in Shakespeare is in ‘King Lear’. In this play packed with doubtful or downright evil characters, the one unambiguously noble individual, Cordelia aside, is Kent. It is hard to imagine that the Bard would have awarded the role to the Earl of Essex.
East Kent Railway
Shepherdswell near Dover has a claim to fame: as the terminus of the old East Kent Railway line. The track ran about ten miles to Richboro (sic) Port, although that station was never opened. The EKR was opened in 1911 to connect up the region’s coalfields; and, though they were mostly unprofitable, it continued to operate for 77 years. The impetus for it was provided by Colonel HF Stephens, son of a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who was the railway buff’s railway buff. He took a real hands-on approach, right down to designing the single-track Golgotha Tunnel. Today, 2.4 miles of the EKR are painstakingly preserved as a heritage railway, and Shepherdswell – which used to provide a connection to the London-Chatham-Dover line – is a magnet to railway fans, also offering a museum, a model railway, and rides on two miniature railways. The next stop up the line, Eythorne, occasionally plays host to special events.
Edenbridge Bonfire Night
It’s odd that the people of Kent, so long the bugbear of central authority, have traditionally burned an effigy of Guy Fawkes every year. This was after all a man bent on blowing up both King and Parliament. Certainly it occurred to Edenbridge Bonfire Society over 20 years ago that there are better candidates for virtual burning. Their ‘Celebrity Guy’ alongside Guy Fawkes changes every year. Their choices used to be unpopular celebrities, but have recently been mostly political figures. The organisers duck accusations of bias by mixing it up; so, when Donald Trump was incinerated in 2016, he had Hilary Clinton’s head in his grasp. Similarly, Boris Johnson in 2018 was balanced up by John Bercow the next year. The event is a huge affair for Edenbridge, with a torchlight procession followed by fairground rides, a DJ and the firework display. The town has a fair claim to hosting the most enthusiastic public burnings in Britain.
An elephant fit for two kings
In 1255, the Sheriff of Kent got an order from King Henry III that must have given him a mammoth headache. There’s an elephant waiting near Calais, it said, and you’re to get it to the Tower of London for my menagerie. The county had little practice in shifting pachyderms around, its only previous experience being one that arrived at Sandwich with the Romans in AD 43. This one was a gift from Henry’s French brother-in-law, Louis IX. It was ten years old and ten feet high, and Louis had been gifted it by the Egyptians, who were after an alliance against the Syrians. It’s not recorded whether the Sheriff ferried it straight to Deptford, or landed it at Dover and made it walk; but he did rack up nearly £7 in expenses. There’s a story that it made mincemeat of a Kentish bull that took umbrage at its presence, though that may just be a rural myth.
Languages aren’t manufactured; they evolve. If two parts of any tribe are parted geographically, their languages eventually grow mutually unintelligible. Two such mutually unintelligible languages are English and German. Go back 75 generations, however, and the ancestors of today’s English and German native speakers were one and the same people. English is formally a West Germanic language, alongside German, Dutch and Frisian, that started life as the dialect spoken by invaders who brought it with them. It began evolving into Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, as soon as they arrived on this island. They landed first near Sandwich, and established their first major polity across Kent. Their language later underwent collisions with Viking Danish and Norman French, affecting syntax and vocabulary respectively; but it survived and spread nationally – unlike the Franks’ language in France, which died out because they adopted the local Latin dialect. English, now the world’s lingua franca spoken by 1.3 billion people, was born in Kent.
It’s hard to imagine that Faversham, now known for little but the Shepherd Neame brewery, was a royal town centuries before Windsor. Aethelberht I, the first King of Kent, resided there for decades until his death in 616. It made an obvious choice of headquarters for Kentish kings, being close to Watling Street, the Roman camp at Durolevum, Canterbury Cathedral, and the sea. In 811, the Mercian king Coenwulf issued a charter describing “Febresham” as the “King’s little town”. It had a resurgence of royal approval in the C12, when King Stephen and his wife Matilda chose it as the site for a major new abbey where they and their son were later buried. With such a location and heritage, it is no surprise that there were 21 royal visits between 1201 and 1821. Just to clinch the point, Faversham is the only English town that may sport the royal three lions as its coat of arms.
Fordwich is a tiny community of fewer than 400 people just to the north-east of Canterbury. It was once rather important, when it was an inland port on the Wantsum Channel where the ships bringing stone from Caen for rebuilding works in Canterbury used to dock; it actually became a limb of the Cinque Ports. It faded from history when the channel silted up and Thanet ceased to be an island. Remarkably, however, it still has two claims to fame. The first is that it is the smallest borough by population in the country. It did cease to be a town in 1880, but was re-instated in 1972. Its quaint town hall, rebuilt in 1555, is also said to be England’s smallest. The second has to do with the River Stour, which flows through the town. In his ‘The Compleat Angler’, Izaak Walton made famous the ‘Fordidge trout’, as large as a salmon but, sadly, exceedingly hard to catch.
It used to be an axiom that freedom was an Englishman’s birthright. Even William Penn boasted of it; and it was such a cornerstone of the Founding Fathers’ values that it became the last word in the American anthem. The point was worth making because freedom is exceptional. The normal human proclivity is for autocracy or oligarchy, to which tyranny comes easily. So what made England – cradle of habeas corpus, Magna Carta and Mother of Parliaments – so different? One answer is the Jutes. Well before they settled in Kent, they were renowned for their espousal of freedom, and brought it with them. Nor did it die out. Drayton, the C17 Warwickshire poet, wrote of Kent, “Of all the English shires, be thou surnamed the free, and foremost ever placed, when they shall reckoned be”. It is fitting that, when in 1787 two men sat down to plot the destruction of one human universal, slavery, they did it on Kentish soil.
A big issue facing Christianity from the start was predestination. If all was pre-ordained by God, where did that leave free will? The consensus was that God’s will was supreme, but there was endless dispute about the detail. Reformation theologians generally went along with Catholicism on this; but a major challenge was presented by the Freewillers. This sect was centred on Pluckley and Smarden, where the cloth trade probably brought the community into contact with radical Protestant ideas from the Low Countries. It represented the first schism in Protestantism, exacerbated by the fact that it was able to run its own separate services. Its leader, Henry Hart, wrote passionate texts concerning free will, albeit not very articulately. Needless to say, Queen Mary took a very prejudicial point of view. Some members were burned in Canterbury; but, by the time the order for Hart’s arrest went out in 1557, he was already dead. The sect left no trace.
The Garden of England
When Dickens wrote in ‘The Pickwick Papers’, “Kent, sir. Everybody knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops, and women”, he was alluding to a notion dating back to Tudor times. The Garden of England was all about agricultural productivity. Kent had everything: fertile soil, Southern English sunshine, North Sea rain, hard workers, and markets at hand both in the capital and on the continent. What started the rot was that bug-eyed monster, development. Nye Bevan, luxuriating in his bijou cottage in Charing, introduced the eponymous mass-housing projects that obliterated large areas of the Kent countryside after WW2. Just 60 years later, Kent received only one sixth as many votes as North Yorkshire in a national poll to identify the modern-day Garden of England. Bevan’s handiwork is now being revived by today’s powers-that-be, whose hearty embrace of ribbon development is turning Kent into Greater Bexley before our very eyes. Future generations will presumably know Kent as the Patio of London.
Gavelkind is little heard of since the 1925 Administration of Estates Act abolished it; yet it was once a hallmark of Kent’s unique legal status. The name comes from the old Germanic words meaning ‘gift’ and ‘kin’. The custom in Kent before 1066 was to divide an estate equally between sons or, if any were deceased, his male or female heirs. The Normans however imposed their system of primogeniture, whereby all went to the oldest son. The persistence of gavelkind almost exclusively in Kent – comparable customs existing only in parts of Wales and Ireland – testifies to the concessions exacted from William I in return for the county’s acquiescence. Gavelkind had a number of other distinctive features, notably the principle that convicted felons did not automatically cede all their property to the Crown. It was a merciful exemption from the dreaded ‘attainder’ that medieval monarchs used liberally to punish enemies and enrich themselves; not that it ever deterred Henry VIII.
The Goodwin Sands
They may sound attractive, but the Goodwin Sands are a ships’ graveyard. They are a 10-mile ridge of chalk off Deal – an underwater extension of the White Cliffs – covered by about 80 feet of sand. At low tide, the waters above them may be as shallow as 2 feet. They lie adjacent to extremely busy shipping lanes, from Thames to Low Countries and North Sea to English Channel; and, between the sands and the shore, there is additionally the area known as the Downs, a favourite anchorage. When a gale blows up, there is always a risk of ships going aground, which in the days before iron ships presented a high risk of a wreck. Even with the benefit of three lighthouses at one time, and later a lightship, the Goodwin Sands accounted for over 2,000 vessels before more sophisticated navigational aids became standard. Because of its strategic location, the region has also hosted a number of sea battles.
The Greensand Way
Ramblers are familiar with the Greensand Way that wends its way from Haslemere in Surrey to Hamstreet near Ashford. Not all know how the ridge it follows got there. Kent’s geology looks complex, but is easily understood. Imagine successive layers of sediment, each miles deep, laid down on top of each other over many millions of years. Then imagine a giant seismic fist punching them upwards from the centre. Finally, imagine the weather eroding it all down again, the more resilient layers remaining the highest. The result is the horseshoe-shaped topography we see today – half of it in Sussex – with the soft clay Weald at its low centre, the chalky North and South Downs at its high outer edges, and the sandstone Greensand Ridge in between. The Greensand Way public footpath simply follows the northern ridge. If not for occasional impediments devised by some antisocial landowners, it would offer an unbroken panorama of both Downs and Weald.
The Royal Hospital for Seamen, like the Eastbridge Hospital in Canterbury, was never actually a hospital, but had that name in the sense of an institution offering hospitality to the needy. It was opened in 1692 at the behest of Queen Mary II, who liked the idea of a naval equivalent of the Chelsea Hospital for soldiers. The obvious location was the Placentia Palace in Greenwich, beside the Thames not far from London, and close to Greenwich Park. It was to be a large affair, housing over 2,000 retired sailors; so a problem arose when it was realised that it would block the view of the Thames from the Queen’s House. It was therefore re-designed by Sir Christopher Wren as today’s distinctive four blocks, which preserve a bit of a view through their middle. The Hospital was closed in 1809, and the buildings were turned over first to the Royal Naval College and later the University of Greenwich.
The Greenwich Meridian
Like Sandwich, Greenwich is a Kent town known literally around the world. Its fame is owed to the Greenwich Meridian, plus the Greenwich Mean Time derived from it. Before coordinates became available, plotting a ship’s course was risky and often dangerous. Longitude could at least be reckoned by arbitrarily drawing a line from pole to pole and calculating one’s distance from it by the height of the sun. There were various candidates for where an international standard ‘prime meridian’ should be. In 1851, Astronomer Royal Sir George Airy proposed one at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Its world status was established when, in 1884, President Arthur called a conference at Washington DC to get global agreement. Greenwich was the winner. (France demurred, and continued to use Paris for some decades). Americans now refer to Greenwich Mean Time – from which all other time zones are inferred – as ‘Co-ordinated Universal Time’, presumably fearing confusion with Greenwich Village, NY.
Gypsy tart is the Marmite of the dessert world. This uniquely Kentish dish was served at least once a week to schoolchildren from the 1960s to the 1980s, and still conjures memories of delight or disgust. Rolling Stone Keith Richards still recalls getting no satisfaction from it at his Dartford school. What’s for sure is that gypsy tart is a highly efficient way of injecting copious sugar, fats and calories into young stomachs. It’s easy and cheap to make, requiring simply flour, butter, egg, evaporated milk, and brown sugar, baked for 40 minutes. The origin of the name is uncertain, but the fact that until recently most Kentish housewives would have had no contact with real gypsies except through hop-picking suggests that the recipe was learned from Londoners on their summer vacation. It is now possible to buy gypsy tart not as the familiar rectangular slice from school but as individual tarts, thanks to Morrison’s.
Hengist and Horsa
Although both the Venerable Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle attest to the existence of Hengist and Horsa – meaning ‘Stallion’ and ‘Horse’ – there is reason to doubt them. The idea of two brothers founding a nation, as these two legendarily founded Kent, is a foundation myth cliché: think Romulus and Remus. Their names also give reason for suspicion, the rearing horse being a potent tribal symbol in their northern Germanic world. So they and their names were perhaps more symbolic than real. However, as with Arthur, it’s practically certain that Hengist was based on a real personage, since an invading Germanic chieftain did evidently defeat Vortigern and establish the Kentish throne in 455. We may question Bede’s assertion that he was the great-great-grandson of Woden; but it’s quite possible he was the great-grandfather of King Aethelberht I. Whether he really had a brother who died in the decisive battle against the Celts, we may never know.
High Sheriff of Kent
The title ‘Sheriff’ conjures up the image of a Wild West lawman armed with a .44 revolver; and law enforcement is indeed the connection with the original Saxon sense. It is a contraction of ‘Shire Reeve’, an important Royal official who was primarily responsible in the Middle Ages for maintaining the law, collecting taxes, and supervising elections. Although the Sheriff has continued to enable the legal process, most of those responsibilities were centralised in the C14, and the role became largely ceremonial. Nowadays, in addition to accompanying royal visits and supporting voluntary work, the Sheriff’s unpaid role includes tending to the needs of travelling High Court judges, for which reason the title changed in 1974 to High Sheriff. The post, which goes back a millennium, sees a new incumbent appointed every March. The current High Sheriff of Kent, Remony Millwater of Sandwich, took over the role during lockdown, and was therefore uniquely obliged to make her Declaration on Zoom.
Holly-Boy and Ivy-Girl
The children’s game of Holly-Boy and Ivy-Girl was an old East Kentish tradition, and a strange one. The boys and girls divided into separate teams. Each built a human effigy. The boys made a female figure out of ivy, while the girls made a male one out of holly. Once this task was completed, each team had to steal the other’s effigy and burn it. The game was particularly played around Christmas time. It’s anyone’s guess what was the point of it. It’s likely that the two figures represented cynical views of the opposite sex, the holly symbolising masculine belligerence and the ivy feminine parasitism. What’s less clear is what the stealing and burning ritual represented, beyond a bit of fun. An optimistic interpretation might be that it was a cathartic act: the two sexes debunking the other’s negative stereotype of them, and so being free to find more agreeable ways of interacting at Yuletide.
Right on the ancient border between Kent and Surrey, east of modern Dulwich, stands One Tree Hill, an outstanding geographical landmark. It was here that, according to unlikely legends, Boudicca was killed, and Dick Turpin kept a lookout. On May Day 1602, Sir Richard Bulkeley took Kentish Maid Queen Elizabeth I there for a picnic when she visited him in Lewisham, Kent. The tree they sat under while admiring the superlative view from the top of the hill was subsequently named the ‘Oak of Honor’; it was spelt that way not as an Americanism but because that was the correct Latin spelling, as in ‘honorific’. The current oak, the third on the site, is actually 115 years old. Now the area is formally under London’s control, the hill is administered by Southwark, previously in Surrey. However, the leafy suburb immediately to the east, north of Forest Hill, is still named Honor Oak, and was long part of Kent.
Hoodening is another decidedly odd East Kent custom. It was traditionally carried out around Christmastide by a group of farm labourers accompanied by musicians, with three men at the heart of it: one bearing a spoof horse’s head on a pole and covered with a blanket, another leading him with a rope or whip, and a third dressed as ‘Mollie’, who spent his time chasing girls. The horse’s head contained clacking wooden teeth, operated by the horse man, that were used to annoy grown-ups and terrify children. Typically the group went from door to door, performing for the residents in much the same way as carol singers, and expecting some financial or other reward. Numerous attempts have been made to explain the name ‘hoodening’, but most are characterised by enthusiastic amateurism. If the explanation is not simply that the custom involves donning a horse-like hood, then the true origin is probably lost in the mists of time.
The huffkin is a Kentish invention that deserves greater recognition. It comes from a time when each region innovated its own speciality bread, before centralised production kicked in. It was traditional to serve huffkins to hop-pickers at the end-of-season supper, when they were known as ‘hopkins’. Huffkins are very simple – 4-inch wide, 1-inch deep bread rolls – but of a singular lightness, both within and without. They are simple to make, consisting of flour, water, yeast, and a little salt and lard. The trick lies in baking them nice and slowly, and then wrapping them before allowing them to cool so as to retain a soft crust. What makes huffkins entirely individual however is the distinctive baker’s thumbprint in the middle, which literally gives each one its maker’s imprimatur. A Kentish cherry was traditionally placed in the thumbprint, but huffkins found nowadays on pub menus most often contain a savoury filling.
Imperial War Museum
It might appear that Britain had enough on its plate in 1917, but that was precisely the time when Liberal MP Sir Alfred Mond proposed a National War Museum to celebrate Britain’s military achievements. The emphasis was not to be simply displaying exhibits, but dramatising stories of courage and hardship. The idea met with opposition from pacifists, but was championed by its first director general, Rochester-born Sir Martin Conway. His belief in the project was vindicated by the fact that, when it opened at the Crystal Palace in Penge in 1920, 94,179 visited on the first bank holiday after its opening, and 2.3 million in the first 18 months. It remained there for four years, but was then taken to South Kensington. This site proved too cramped, so the Museum moved to its present home, the former Bethlem Hospital in Southwark. The name was changed to the Imperial War Museum, incidentally, in acknowledgement of India’s contribution to the British Army.
The Invicta motto, usually combined today with Kent’s white horse rampant, is almost ubiquitous in the county, and for a century or more has been a default name for any new Kentish club, building or project. Young people tend to suppose, if they actually think about it, that it is something to do with being unbeaten in the Battle of Britain. In truth, the motto’s origins are more than ten times older. They lie in the Norman conquest of England, when Kent uniquely stood up to William the Conqueror and obliged him to grant the county special palatine status. ‘Invicta’ means quite literally ‘Unconquered’. It was two fingers up to the Normans, saying implicitly, “So you conquered the English? Not us, you didn’t”. Over the centuries, it was a constant reminder to Kent of its role as bulwark against authoritarianism – a role the county still used to perform within living memory.
Isle of Thanet
The so-called Isle of Thanet is so obviously not an island that its name seems fanciful. In reality, Thanet was once literally insular, separated from the rest of Kent by the Wantsum Channel. This 600-yard wide waterway was as substantial as the Isle of Sheppey’s Swale, even requiring a ferry to cross it. Both Thanet and Sheppey became islands ca 5,000 BC, when rising sea-levels inundated much Kent land that now lies underwater. Geologically, Thanet was composed of a distinctively soft, white Upper Chalk, rich in flints, that prompted the name of the Thanetian geological age. It remained apart until the C17, when the Wantsum silted up; the last ship navigated it in 1672. Thanet’s name, incidentally, is Celtic in origin, and may suggest the former presence of a lighthouse. More colourful is a C7 Archbishop’s theory that it was derived from the Greek ‘thanatos’ (meaning ‘death’), and that a handful of Thanet soil could eliminate snakes.
Jezreel’s Tower was the vast folly that scarred Gillingham’s skyline for 75 years. It was the brainchild of the eccentric James White, alias Jezreel, who was born in 1840. After serving as a private at Chatham, he became an acolyte of Joanna Southcott, a religious fraudster who had made the usual predictions of the impending Second Coming. Jezreel – a showman with a Buffalo Bill appearance – took over her sect’s Chatham branch in 1881, attracting 1,400 followers. His Tower was to be the great temple where all financial contributors could live and worship. Initially intended as a 144-feet cube, it ended up on the squat side. Jezreel, who forbade drinking but was often drunk, went before in 1885. The scam was perpetuated by his youthful widow, Clarissa, who drove a fashionable carriage while feeding her Jezreelites only potatoes and bread. She died in 1888 with the building still uncompleted. It survived as a factory, but was knocked down in 1961.
Although the Saxons and later the Angles came to occupy a much larger area of English territory, it was the Jutes who first settled a significant region and established themselves as a polity. This they did in both Kent and the Isle of Wight from the C5 onwards. Because the Germanic culture was largely oral, there are only sketchy records of where precisely they came from; but their homeland is believed to have been the northern part of what is now Jutland in Denmark, immediately to the north of the Angles. Although their name gives clues as to their earlier provenance, there is more than one possibility. It could be that they were a branch of the Goths, perhaps the most dynamic Germanic tribe, who swept through most of Europe and even North Africa. The Jutes appear to have brought with them their own legal concepts, which included the distinctively Kentish ‘gavelkind’.
Kent County Lunatic Asylum
The Kent County Lunatic Asylum was built on Barming Heath in 1833 to cater for the entire area of historical Kent as far as Deptford. It soon filled up, and St Andrew’s House was supplemented with first the Queen’s House and then the Hermitage Block. By the 1940s, it was tending to 2,000 patients. It even had its own cemetery containing 7,000 burials, with poignant memorials to nurses who had died at suspiciously young ages. Apart from four pointless name changes, ultimately to Oakwood Hospital, it served its purpose efficiently until 1957, when there was a fatal fire. In 1994, however, fashionable theory collided with financial expediency to bring about its closure under the auspices of ‘Care in the Community’. Though Maidstone Hospital shouldered some of the load, the burden of care and supervision of the mentally ill fell mostly on families and GPs, who continue to bear it today. Oakwood Hospital is now the St Andrew’s residential estate.
Kentish cherry batter pudding
It was Henry VIII who got the English cherry industry started, with 105 acres at Teynham. Kent dominated the market, boasting 12,500 acres of cherry orchards by 1900. Women on tapered 12-foot ladders dropping cherries into baskets used to be a familiar sight. Since not all of the crop was sold elsewhere, it is unsurprising that Kentish cooks came up with good ways to dispose of the remainder. One of the best is Kentish cherry batter pudding, a variant of clafoutis. It’s nice and simple: add a drop of cherry liqueur and cream to your batter mix, pop in some Kentish cherries, bake for 40 minutes, and serve with a dusting of icing sugar and a splash of cream. It might not sound much, but it has an uncanny knack of disappearing instantly from the plate. After the Kentish cherry industry’s 90% contraction in a century, it is pleasing to report that cherry orchards have been making a comeback.
The term ‘dialect’ is colloquially used to mean a regional accent with some odd words thrown in. A tighter definition is a halfway stage in the development of a new language. Scots, previously known as Inglis, is a classic example. It is easily understood when written down, but its exotic pronunciation and esoteric vocabulary make it hard for other English speakers to follow conversationally. The whole of England has nothing comparable, except perhaps Geordie. Though people speak of a Kentish “dialect”, there has been nothing to match that definition since Kent was conquered by Mercia and then Wessex, and the Jutish dialect was swamped by Anglo-Saxon. Not only do Kentish people today speak identically to most other South-Easterners, but the rural Kent brogue was easily understandable across England even before the C20 influx from London. Kent has nevertheless coined a huge number of curious local words, now mostly defunct; they can be inspected online in Kent Archaeological Society’s lexicon.
Kentish Fire encapsulates the uniquely Kentish spirit of defiance. It made its original appearance at meetings to dispute the Roman Catholic Relief Bill of 1829, which the Government wished to pass in order to defuse a threatened Irish rebellion. Kentish people would express their collective mass disapproval by cheering ironically at great length and volume. It became a cunning way of making popular sentiment known even though it conflicted with the politically correct view favoured by the establishment. Confusingly, ‘Kentish Fire’ also came to mean something very different: a way of expressing approval by clapping in a particular manner, consisting of three groups of three claps and then one more; the effect was not unlike that of the 2-3-4-2 pattern popularised in 1966 by England football fans. Since the ironic cheering and synchronised clapping phenomena arose around the same time, it seems possible that they were linked: the one reserved for pro-Catholic speakers, the other for their Protestant critics.
Moths are unwelcome visitors to both lampshades and wardrobes. If one has to be named after your county, however, you could do worse than Endomis versicolora, a true beauty among insects. This ‘Kentish glory’ was once common in Kent and some other counties as far afield as Herefordshire. Although global warming has made the English climate much more agreeable, it has grown too hot for the Kentish glory. It is now found within the British Isles only in the Scottish Highlands, and is officially rated as scarce. It’s one of the bigger domestic moths, with a wingspan of 2 to 3 inches. The female, which is bigger but also less colourful, is purely nocturnal, and flies about releasing pheromones with which to attract mates. The male is said to be able to detect them from more than a mile away. Fortunately, he also circulates by day, which is why Scots can still appreciate his good looks.
The Kentish Knock
The Kentish Knock barely qualifies as Kentish, actually being slightly closer to Clacton than it is to Margate. It is a shoal, in other words a sandbank lying just below the surface of the sea. Being so far out in the North Sea, 22 miles from the North Foreland, it is particularly perilous for sea captains who don’t know their exact position. For that reason, it has since 1840 enjoyed the services of a lightship, prominently marked ‘Kentish Knock’, which replaced an earlier buoy. Even that has not provided complete safety. The famous wreck of the SS Deutschland in 1875 was just one example of the shoal’s Siren-like quality. It has also acted several times as a magnet for trouble of a military nature, and even had an important sea battle in 1652 named after it. Nowadays, it is fortunately better known as an ideal habitat for various marine species, including hermit crabs, catsharks, and rays.
Strangely, the Kentish Plover is known in coastal regions from the West of Africa to Japan, yet very little in the county after which it is named. This pretty little wader was first classified in 1758 by the great taxonomist Carl Linnaeus as Charadrius alexandrinus, acknowledging the fact that it was found on Egyptian shores. The species was fully written up by the eminent ornithologist John Latham in 1801. The two specimens he examined happened to be from Sandwich, this being the time when the bird still came to Kent to breed in numbers, before egg collectors and property developers drove it away. As a Kentishman from Eltham, Latham understandably gave it a more local name, Charadrius cantianus. Despite no longer being a visitor to these shores, it is still called the Kentish plover in English-speaking countries from India to America. It is thriving around the world, now classified as “Least Concern”.
Kentish rag is not a Scott Joplin classic, but the stuff that made London. Since South-East England consists mostly of chalk and clay, it was just as well that a layer of grey limestone was laid down in the Cretaceous era, and then pushed to the surface by the Weald-Artois anticline to form a narrow ragstone ridge from Hythe to Sevenoaks. Not only was it hard, but its colour softened pleasingly when exposed. The Romans saw its potential, and ordered excavation of tons of Kentish rag at Tovil, beside the Medway, for building London’s walls. If anyone wonders how Kent’s county town got started, the answer is that it made stone. Over the centuries, numerous other quarries were dug there. The countless walls and buildings constructed with Kentish rag include a veritable ‘What’s What’ of architecture: the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the castles of Dover, Leeds, and Rochester, not to mention Maidstone’s own Archbishop’s Palace and Prison.
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