Abutilon Kentish Belle
It was the C11 Persian scholar Avicenna who named the Abutilon genus. It meant literally ‘Indian mallow’, which is also the vernacular English name. The fact that its origins are so exotic is a clue to its provenance. Abutilon proliferates across the tropics and subtropics. Some of its 200 or so species, however, were cultivated considerably closer to home. One was the handiwork of Albert V Pike, head gardener of Hever Castle in the 1950s. Because it had attractive bell-shaped flowers and was from Kent, he called it ‘Kentish Belle’. (Geddit?) What makes the species so distinctive is the calyx, the part holding the petals together, which unusually is not green but red, and creates a pleasing contrast with the soft-orange petals. It can grow to the size of a substantial bush in either acid or alkaline soil. There are not many better ways of brightening a garden for months.
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.
‘Angels One Five’
“Angels One Five” was RAF parlance indicating a flying altitude of 15,000 feet. It was also the name of a 1952 movie set in 1940 at RAF Neethley, a thinly disguised Biggin Hill. It concerns a young Scottish pilot called Baird, played by John Gregson, who at first is a cold fish but eventually has the chance to prove his mettle. Although only passably entertaining, it is a typically understated testament to the fortitude of the RAF pilots. It also bears witness to Kent’s resilience in the thick of the Battle of Britain. Most of it was shot for convenience in Surrey and Hertforshire, but the action starts with striking footage of Baird’s Hurricane flying across the Medway to the Isle of Grain. The names of operational hot-spots also have a familiar ring: Ashford, Dover, Ramsgate. In a rare moment of sentiment, the diffident Baird summons the courage to invite his would-be girlfriend out to dinner, in exotic Maidstone.
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.
Beauty of Kent
In Georgian times, a strain of cooking apple was cultivated that for a century and more went down a storm in England. There were multiple reasons: it was large, it was sweet, it smelt nice, its texture was good, it had a pleasing lemon complexion when cooked, and it was handy for Christmas. As late as 1901, it won a Royal Horticultural Society award. As more science went into breeding apples with looks as well as taste, however, there was trouble. Why? Because this old favourite was not the best looker. While mostly yellow, it had reddish streaks and patches, and was freckly. Recognising the problem, someone – an advertiser, perhaps, or a politician – had the idea of calling it ‘Beauty of Kent’, presumably in the hope that people would be persuaded to disbelieve their own eyes. A name like ‘Deptford Delicious’ might have set less misleading expectations. Although the cultivar fell from favour, Brogdale does still keep a couple of specimens.
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 7 billion gallons 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 a useful artificial addition to nature. As well as looking quite scenic in places, 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.
Biggin Hill is one of the most romantic names in aeronautical history. It was used as a wireless-testing site in WW1 until, in 1917, the Royal Flying Corps moved its headquarters there from Dartford. The airfield was a prominent RAF base in the Battle of Britain, its fighters claiming 1,400 enemy aircraft at the cost of 453 personnel. A priority target for the Luftwaffe, it underwent 12 raids in five months. After WW2, it became a joint military and civilian airport. RAF operations stopped in 1958, although one section is still military. Despite lying well outside the urban sprawl, it was sold to the London Borough of Bromley in 1974. The Council, as freeholder, secured a court ruling in 2001 barring flights with paying passengers. The famous Biggin Hill International Air Fair took place from 1963 to 2009, but relaunched in 2014 as a smaller Festival. The museum and chapel can still be visited.
Even before Whitehall annexed north-west Kent, a London MP had suggested the economic value of a cross-Thames road link between the East End and North Greenwich. One of London County Council’s first big infrastructure projects was a two-lane tunnel connecting Poplar with today’s A102. It got its name not from its internal appearance but the hamlet of Blackwall at its northern end, itself named after a stretch of river wall. Designed by Sir Alexander Binnie and completed in 1897, the tunnel had several bends, a ceiling that was in parts too low, and limited capacity that caused a chronic bottleneck. This problem was partially addressed by 1967, when a new, second tunnel doubled the number of lanes in each direction. Nevertheless, the problem of congestion remained, a fact the IRA sought to exploit in 1979 when it blew up an adjacent gas holder. Relief may finally be provided by a new tunnel running from North Greenwich to Silvertown.
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 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 walking at dusk along the single-track Old Chatham Road that passes underneath, however, and it’s a different story.
With WW2 effectively lost and no hope of beating the Allies to the atomic bomb, Hitler put his faith on so-called ‘retribution weapons’. Three came to fruition: the V-1 flying bomb or ‘doodlebug’; the V-2 rocket with its 2,200-pound warhead; and the V-3 supergun, firing shells 100 miles. Thanks to RAF bombers, the V-3 never became operational, but 9,521 V-1s and 1,358 V-2s were fired across Kent. The V-2s either reached London or landed in less inhabited areas, but many V-1s fell short, including the first (at Swanscombe on June 13th, 1944) and the last (at Orpington on March 27th, 1945). Kentish people grew to dread the familiar overhead rumble, which would fall silent seconds before the 1,875-pound warhead struck. The RAF did its best to shoot them down or tip them off course; but 1,444 V-1s still came down in Kent, costing 200 lives. They continued to be a worry until all launch sites were bombed or captured.
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.
Botany Bay, sha la la
Everyone who was in France in the spring of 1976 will recall the big teen-flick hit of the year, ‘A Nous Les Petites Anglaises’ (‘The Little English Girls Are Ours’). This was a light-hearted romp involving two adolescent French schoolboys who, having failed their English exams, are urged to go on a summer vacation in England to improve their language skills. They like the idea because they have heard that English girls are easy. It turns out that they are able to have more fun with French ones, partying and dancing le Rock. What makes the movie an interesting historical document is that it was filmed primarily at Ramsgate, with additional beach scenes just north of Broadstairs at Kingsgate Bay and Botany Bay. The American soundtrack composer, Mort Shuman, even wrote a rock ‘n’ roll number with the unlikely title ‘Ramsgate Rock’, not to mention the film’s catchy theme tune, ‘Botany Bay’.
The Bouncing Bomb
Although the Bouncing Bomb counts among the most celebrated of innovations in weaponry, its Kentish connections are less well known. Its inventor Barnes Wallace went to school in New Cross, began work at Blackheath, and during the War worked extensively at Fort Halstead, a weapons research facility near Sevenoaks. Although the concept of bouncing a heavy object across the surface of a body of water was initially tested at Chesil Beach in Dorset, the first trial using a wood-encased bomb was undertaken off Reculver on April 13th, 1943; and, one month later, a live bomb was exploded five miles off Broadstairs by a Lancaster bomber from RAF Manston. On May 16th, under the full moon, Operation Chastise was successfully carried out on the Rhine, albeit at great loss of life to both sides. So spectacular was the destruction of the Möhne dam in particular that Roosevelt and Stalin were finally convinced of Britain’s determination to win the European war.
The Boxley Abbey miracle
Boxley Abbey, north of Maidstone, was home to a celebrated picture of Rumwold, who must hold the record for being the youngest ever saint. He died in Buckingham in 662 at the age of just three days, having already distinguished himself by speaking from birth (in Latin), pronouncing himself a Christian, and even delivering a sermon before expiring. Just to prove his sanctity, Boxley Abbey displayed a holy portrait that was so light that even a child could lift it, but at times became too heavy to move. This faith-enhancing miracle had to be well worth a pilgrimage to witness. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, however, the secret was revealed: the portrait was held in place with a nail wielded by a monk hiding behind the partition. It just goes to show how even supposedly pious humans will employ any deceit to make converts, but do not look good when they are found out.
Ask most Kent people what brickearth is and they won’t have a clue. It’s a pity, because brickearth is a major reason why Kent became the Garden of England, as well as home to several brickworks. It is in fact so-called ‘loess’ sediment, which in Kent can run to three or four yards deep. To understand where it came from, you have to delve only into the relatively recent geological past. When glaciers thawed out elsewhere, they left behind rich deposits. Because these were powdery, they were whipped up by prevailing winds and dumped in receptive places like river valleys. The Medway and the Stour were particularly endowed. Apart from having an ideal structure for making house bricks, brickearth on top of clay or chalk both drains well and makes it easy for plants to absorb nutrients. If anyone asks why the National Fruit Collection and National Hop Collection are minutes apart, there is the answer.
The 3rd Regiment of Foot was the third to be formally established in the English Army. It was however the very 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, Lieutenant 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.
Anyone wanting to make a medieval pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury faced the prospect of a sore bottom. Proceeding on horseback at a walk might demand a travel time of 30 hours. Even at a trot, the trip necessitated something like 15 hours’ riding, with the same to follow on the way back; so it mattered to achieve a good but sustainable pace. It seems that pilgrims did find an optimal speed that their horses could tolerate, which came to be known as ‘Canterbury Pace’. According to etymologists, this may have been abbreviated to the modern equestrian term, a ‘canter’. It seems unlikely, however, that it would have matched a modern canter, which typically exceeds 12 mph – a challenging tempo for the small horses of the day on rugged by-ways. What can be said for sure is that Trottiscliffe did not lend its name to the trot, even if it is on the Pilgrims Way.
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.
A Canterbury Tale
Canterbury-born film director Michael Powell made ‘A Canterbury Tale’ in 1944 under the aegis of The Archers, his outstanding collaboration with Emeric Pressburger. Starring Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, and Dennis Price, it was a gentle wartime propaganda piece intended both to consolidate Anglo-American camaraderie and to remind the English what they were fighting for. The movie depicts a latter-day pilgrimage of sorts: a journey to Canterbury that provided Powell with an opportunity to show off Kentish rural life at its best. It starts in the imaginary village of Chillingbourne, featuring scenes shot in Chilham, Fordwich, Wickhambreaux, and elsewhere. After a rail journey to Canterbury, it culminates in a spine-tingling performance of Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’ by Price’s character on the Cathedral organ, followed by Sims’ heart-wrenching perambulation through the city centre recently devastated by the Luftwaffe. Though not much of a story, it is a remarkable document of Kent’s wartime experience, before the doodlebugs arrived.
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 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 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 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 Kent 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 was not 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, was not up to the mechanical challenges, travel was slow, and the line lost money. The South Eastern Railway took it over in 1844.
The Dartford Crossing
Even before WW2, a Thames crossing was demanded between Kent and Essex, the Blackwall Tunnel now being well into London. Work started on a tunnel between Dartford and Thurrock in the 1930s, but was not completed until 1963, when it opened as the two-lane Dartford Tunnel. It soon suffered from congestion, and 17 years later a second two-lane bore was added. When the completed M25 added further to overuse in 1986, a radical new solution was proposed: a four-lane bridge to take all the southbound traffic. Rising 200 feet above the Thames and supported by 450-feet towers, it opened in 1991 under the neutral name ‘Queen Elizabeth II Bridge’, Essex residents having objected to the more logical ‘Dartford Bridge’. Although tolls were supposed to be abolished once the £120 million link was paid for, they continue today, despite which the crossing caters for 50 million vehicles annually. Yet another tunnel, between Gravesend and Tilbury, is under active consideration.
The Deal Man
In 1987, members of Dover Archaeological Group exploring in the Mill Hill area south-west of Deal discovered an extraordinary 7-inch high figurine. It was made of chalk, and had a human face carved upon it. The figurine’s facial expression was a masterpiece of economy, suggesting somewhat the look of a schoolmaster invigilating an exam. It was in a 9-feet deep ‘ritual shaft’, a feature of ancient burial sites that created a connection to the underworld; objects useful after death, especially animal carcases, were placed into one. The figurine probably fell from an alcove higher up the shaft, and was perhaps an effigy of a divinity, or a deceased’s loved one. Surrounding shards related to the early Roman occupation of Britain in the C1, so the figurine has been speculatively dated to 80 AD. It does not look at all Roman, however, being more akin to Iron Age Celtic art. The so-called Deal Man now resides securely in Dover Museum.
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 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 is 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 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 today’s 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 inconceivable 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 instituted 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 is 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.
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 is 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.
Flower of Kent
Despite its lovely name, the Flower of Kent tree is now the poor relation of the apple world. It is a cultivar, originally bred in Kent for its cooking apples. Unfortunately, being an old strain, it has been superseded in quality and yield by today’s choice from around the world. Most of the few examples still living are descended from a single ancestor in East Malling. One has been preserved in the Brogdale Collection. Another resides, perhaps surprisingly, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; it is said to have produced just a single apple. Nevertheless, the Flower of Kent has a claim to fame denied all other types of apple tree. It is the one under which Sir Isaac Newton sat pondering gravity at his home, Woolsthorpe Manor near Grantham, when it obligingly dropped a sample of its wares for his edification. What other fruit can claim such an influence on the history of science?
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.
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: diverse soils, Southern English sunshine, North Sea rain, hard-working Protestants, and markets at hand both in the capital and on the continent. What started the rot was that bug-eyed monster, development. Nye Bevan, from 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 authorities, 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.
Sidney Bernstein was determined to make cinemas as luxurious as theatres. Following the success of his first Granada Theatre in Dover in 1930, he commissioned a design template for a ‘Standard’ chain of cinemas. His interior designer was an exotic choice: Theodore Komisarjevsky, a former impresario in Moscow who’d fled Russia in 1919 when Lenin abolished theatres. Now a London director, he’d become such a notorious philanderer that Dame Edith Evans nicknamed him ‘Come-and-seduce-me’. His prototype Granada cinema opened in 1934 at the foot of Gabriel’s Hill in Maidstone. Seating 1,600, it was a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance: all friezes, gilt and drapes. Obviously Bernstein loved it, because it became the model for a dozen cinemas, and misled Maidstone’s baby-boomers into thinking all cinemas must emulate tsarist palaces. Disastrously, it never recovered its grandeur after a flood in 1968. It stopped showing movies in 1999, and is now used only for bingo on the ground floor.
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 flat 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 unsympathetic development in places, it would offer an uninterruptedly pleasant panorama of both Downs and Weald.
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, US 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.
What Edward Gibbon was to the Roman Empire, his contemporary Edward Hasted (1732-1812) was to Kent. Like many a wealthy Kent person, Hasted was born in London, but he grew up at the family home in Sutton-at-Hone, and was educated at the King’s School, Rochester. Although his life was beset by growing money troubles, he devoted over two decades to his magnum opus, ‘The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent’, an extraordinary record of the county as it stood at the end of the C18. It was originally published in four folio volumes from 1778 to 1799, but soon revised and republished in 12 octavo volumes. Colloquially referred to as ‘Hasted’, it contains a history of Kent, a survey of its institutions, and most notably a parish-by-parish gazetteer, starting with Deptford and ending at Canterbury. Written clearly and authoritatively, this conscientiously researched work remains a magnificent bequest to the county.
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. A recent High Sheriff of Kent, Remony Millwater of Sandwich, took over the role during lockdown and so was 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.
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.
Iris germanica ‘Kent Pride’
The Iris genus got its name from the Latin for ‘rainbow’, an appropriate choice given its tremendous diversity of vivid colours. There are nearly 300 species of iris, including the ‘bearded’ irises, formally known as Iris germanica, that sport a distinctive hairy protuberance. They are noted for their hardiness: it’s been said that in America they survive in temperatures ranging from -20° to +110° Fahrenheit. One variant is the delightfully named ‘Kent Pride’, which was first cultivated in Wrotham in the 1950s. It is noted for its rich colours, a combination of chestnut, cream and yellow. It generally flowers in May and early June but, if the rhizome is properly tended to and given plenty of sun, it can bloom three or four times in a season. Kent Pride may grow to a height of up to 3 feet, and looks particularly good in clumps, when it presents a wall of colour.
Isle of Grain
Most Kent people guess that the Isle of Grain is an area once covered in cornfields, or else an agricultural depot. In truth, ‘grain’ used to mean anything resembling corn, including sand. This gives a clue to its nature, tucked away on the end of the Hoo Peninsula. Being mostly marshland, it would make a beautifully secluded nature reserve if not for the power station, natural gas facility, and container port that surround its isolated village. Grain did use to be an island, albeit one dwarfed by Sheppey and Thanet. Yantlet Creek, the backwater separating it from Hoo, was once part of a waterway from the Thames to Sandwich. Barges from London passed through the Yantlet, the Swale, and the Wantsum, cutting miles off their journey and largely avoiding the open sea. Locals were happier to have it silt up, however, and saw the City of London in court when it tried re-opening the Yantlet in 1822.
Isle of Sheppey
Sheppey is the middle of Kent’s three large ‘isles’ on the north coast, but the only one still surrounded by water. There were once three islands, but Elmley and Harty merged with Sheppey in the C19. It is surprisingly big, about the same size as the better known Thanet. Although its name simply means Sheep Island, it does have some history. In its remote North Sea location, it was a favourite landing place for Vikings, who repeatedly plundered its monasteries. Nearly a millennium later, in 1667, Sheppey briefly became one of the few parts of post-Norman Britain to be occupied by a foreign power, after the Dutch captured the Sheerness fort. Samuel Pepys at the Navy Board thought it capitulated all too readily; but then, Sheppey always regarded itself as something apart. ‘The Times’ reported in 1838 that the island had become occupied by “pikey-men” (probably turnpike travellers), and mainland Kent was long referred to there as ‘England’.
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 substantial Wantsum Channel until it silted up in the C17. Geologically, Thanet is composed of a distinctively soft, white Upper Chalk, rich in flints, which has prompted the name of the Thanetian geological age. Like Sheppey, it became an island ca 5,000 BC, when rising sea-levels inundated much Kent land that now lies underwater. It was already inhabited in the Stone Age, and evidence of Iron Age settlements has been found; a hoard of objects from the Bronze Age was unearthed at Minster-in-Thanet. The island’s name, incidentally, is probably Celtic in origin, suggesting 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, 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’.
The Kent Coalfield
In the mid-C19, it was surmised that East Kent might contain valuable coal deposits. It was not until 1890 that Kentish coal was first discovered, specifically on the site of an abandoned effort to dig a Channel tunnel beside Dover’s Shakespeare Cliff. Since coal was such an essential source of heat and power, it seemed like a windfall. Test drillings were carried out around East Kent, and even as far afield as Cobham. Although the uneconomical Shakespeare Colliery closed as early as 1915, several others proved more durable, reaching peak capacity in 1936. Only four survived WW2, however: Betteshanger, Tilmanstone, Snowdown, and Chislet. Despite the pits’ perennial unprofitability, Kent miners were among the most militant in the NUM strike of 1984-5, but to no avail: by 1989, every pit had closed. Only sparse remnants survive, the industry’s most visible relic being a section of the East Kent Railway from Shepherdswell to Richborough that survives as a heritage railway.
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.
Cobnuts are simply a larger variety of hazelnuts, grown especially for eating fresh; but Kentish cobnuts are more than just cobnuts from Kent. They are a type that was bred in 1830 by a farmer from Goudhurst called Mr Lambert. They might be considered the Victoria plum of the cobnut world, being particularly tasty. Victorians used to enjoy them as a treat to go with the port, sometimes adding a little salt. For that reason, by the end of the C19 they had planted 7,000 acres of cobnut orchards, or ‘plats’, mostly in Kent. That number has now shrunk to barely 250 in Kent, making cobnuts a local commodity that is due a comeback. After all, they are natural, nutritious, and versatile, whether raw, roasted, or finely chopped or grated and incorporated in a cake. The last of these constitutes Kentish cobnut cake, which is particularly delicious when a little stem ginger is added to the recipe.
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 larger 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.
It is uncertain where we got the name ‘Welsh rabbit’ to describe flavoured cheese on toast. It was possibly analogous to ‘Folkestone beef’, a term disparagingly used by Kentish folk to describe fish. The name is first recorded in 1725, and English, Scottish, and Irish rabbits soon followed. It was quickly changed to ‘rarebit’, presumably to ease confusion. ‘Kentish rarebit’ inevitably combined cheese not with Worcestershire sauce or beer but Kentish apples. It is simply made, by cutting up an eating-apple very finely, stirring it into melting cheese, pouring the mixture onto toast, and grilling it. The combination might sound odd to some, but its lasting appeal is down to that extraordinarily good partnership of cheese and apple that anyone who’s had a packed lunch will know about. It’s not just a matter of sweet balancing savoury, but also complementary textures. Anyone who doesn’t find it scrummier than Welsh rabbit must be called Jones.
Almost everyone will have seen tracery without knowing what it’s called. As for the particular style called ‘Kentish tracery’, only hard-core aficionados of architecture will have a clue about it. Tracery is in fact the ornamental stonework that runs across the face of a vaulted window in a medieval church. It tends to follow set patterns, often emanating from a central floral design. The style of tracery emerging from Kent introduced the idea of ‘split cusps’. Where two curving lines met, a line dividing their cusp connected to the mullion or arch. It’s easy to spot because of the distinctive chevrons it created. It was actually innovated at Chartham church in the late C13, and the style was copied elsewhere in Kent, including at Bobbing, Cliffe and Ulcombe. It may seem abstruse today, but it obviously made a good impression on the devout church-goers of the era, being copied as far afield as Yorkshire.
Kent Lent pie
Anyone who thinks Kentish cherry batter pudding the most moreish thing they have tasted has not yet tried Kent Lent pie. Otherwise known as Kentish pudding pie, it is said to have been particularly popular down Folkestone way. It can be thought of as baked cheesecake with currants added. It is straight forward to make, by filling a pastry base with a mixture of milk, cream, rice, margarine, castor sugar, eggs, and lemon, peppering it with currants, and leaving it in the oven for 30 minutes. It got its name from the fact that it was an easy way for cooks to lighten the tedium of abstinence at Lent. In theory, it should work very well as an accompaniment to afternoon tea. Unfortunately, it is so addictive for anyone with a sweet tooth that it is impossible to resist revisiting the larder repeatedly through the evening. This, to be honest, probably makes it inappropriately sinful.
Kent peg tiles
Until the current explosion of expedient housebuilding, Kent’s rural housing ranked among Britain’s most attractive. The reason concerned the rich variety of clays available locally to builders. There are three clay bands running west to east across Kent: the Tertiary in the north, the Wealden in the south, and the Gault in between. Kent’s brickmaking prowess provided the basis for highly attractive coloration; but Kent’s chef d’oeuvre, dating back to Roman times, was its tiles. Old Kentish houses typically boast magnificently expansive tiled roofs, sometimes extended by a catslide almost to ground level; but tiles were also hung on external walls as protection against the elements. The attractive ‘Kent peg tiles’ used were for some reason slightly smaller than in Surrey and Sussex. They were literally pegged into a batten or the mortar, occasionally on end walls, often on the upper storey only. Their combinations of browns lend traditional Wealden villages in particular their gloriously warm appearance.
The Kent Rose is familiar in large gardens, being a useful groundcover – in other words, a plant good for keeping down weeds. It is distinguishable by its flowers’ relatively simple structure, with white petals and unusual yellow centres. The question is: why is it named after Kent? It turns out that it was created in 1988 by Poulsen Roser, the major Danish rose breeders. It was just one of a wide range of roses called ‘Towne & Country’ for providing dense, low cover, so the choice of name was probably arbitrary. It is curious, however, that the heraldic White Rose of York also happens to have a yellow centre. This is an interesting coincidence when one considers that, after the Yorkists’ fortunes reached their nadir in 1460, they launched their comeback from Kent. Poulsen Roser, incidentally, is based very close to Elsinore, the castle in ‘Hamlet’ where Ophelia habitually handed out flowers with symbolic meanings.
The Kingston brooch
Kingston is a village on the North Downs near Canterbury. It was the site of a C7 Jutish cemetery that in 1771 yielded a remarkable Saxon-era discovery: the beautiful Kingston brooch. It’s a surprisingly large affair – over 3 inches wide – and superbly made of gold with inlays of pearl, white shell, blue glass, and garnet in excellent condition. It was unearthed by one of those amateur grave-robbers who are the bane of modern archaeology. His name was Reverend Bryan Faussett, and he was the local rector. He set about digging up the whole cemetery in his spare time, compiling a large collection of artefacts. His great-grandson offered them for sale to the British Museum, which inexplicably declined. The brooch therefore ended up in the hands of another private collector. For some reason, it is now displayed in a Liverpool museum. This prompts the mischievous thought that Kent should open negotiations concerning the repatriation of its cultural heritage.
The Lady Lovibond
The myth of the Lady Lovibond will enthral people who, according to one’s perspective, are either romantic or gullible. The story goes that, in the C18, Captain Simon Reed ignored the old taboo against inviting women on board ship and took his new bride Annetta on a voyage to Portugal. Unfortunately, his first mate John Rivers was insanely jealous, and exacted revenge by killing the helmsman and driving the ship onto the Goodwin Sands, where all perished. The ship is said to have revealed herself in full sail every 50th anniversary thereafter, as credulous witnesses dutifully testify. Research has revealed however that, although the incident supposedly happened in 1748, there was no record of it before a ‘Daily Chronicle’ report in 1924. Could it be that a journalist made it up for a piece on Valentine’s Day? We won’t know until 2048. If only Instagram had existed in 1998, an eye-witness might have posted a snapshot.
Lamb’s tail pie
Although not uniquely associated with Kent, lamb’s tail pie was obviously easy to make in a county with a large population of sheep, and so was long a favourite hereabouts. Lambs used to have their tails cut off only after they had had a chance to grow plump and juicy. In the C18 it became customary to make good use of them, not by turning them into soup as per oxtails but taking a couple of dozen and mixing them with root vegetables in a pie. Certainly the recipe, which may have originated on Romney Marsh, remained popular for centuries. The dish went out of fashion when farming practice changed and lambs began to have their tails tightly bound with a rubber band; sadly, the lack of a blood supply causes them to drop off before they are of much use to a chef. Even so, a version of it can sometimes be found in Kent pubs.
Nowadays, a lathe is a device for shaping wood; but, for 1,400 years, it meant something else to every Kent person. It was in fact one of the administrative districts, rather larger than a modern borough, that divided up the county. The shapes of those lathes did not match today’s boundaries, however, and it’s believed that they must have corresponded to Jutish royal settlements. At the time of the Norman Conquest, there were seven: Borough, Eastry, Lympne and Wye in East Kent, and Aylesford, Milton and Sutton in West Kent. There were mergers in the C13, specifically Borough with Eastry and Milton with Wye. Among other things, the lathes raised funds for the Militia and convened legal sessions, supervised by the Sheriff. Incredibly, the system has survived in law up to the present day, although it ceased to have any practical purpose a century ago. The old Lympne lathe was nevertheless essentially reborn as Shepway District in 1974.
Libbet and daddy
In the days before the working class could afford to buy toys, Kent kids were never at a loss all the time that they had access to a branch and a knife. They would cut the branch to a length of around 18 inches and trim the branchlets to form a three-legged figure called the ‘daddy’. He would be stood on a firm surface such as a pavement, and a small piece of wood called the ‘libbet’ placed between his legs. One of the kids – mostly boys, one suspects – would take a stone and, from a short distance, attempt to knock the daddy over. If he was successful, the others would scramble to be first to grab hold of the libbet, which would entitle the winner to throw the stone next. No doubt this became a pretext for a robust free-for-all. The risk of twisted wrists and grazed knees is unlikely to commend the game today.
The Liudhard medalet
The so-called Liudhard ‘medalet’ – meaning simply a small medal – came to light in the 1840s. It was a C6 Anglo-Saxon coin that was adapted to be worn as jewellery, probably alongside others like it in a necklace. Its name is derived from its inscription ‘Leudardus’, signifying the Bishop Liudhard who chaperoned Princess Bertha on her journey from France to marry King Aethelberht in 580. It was found in a burial near St Martin’s Church, next to St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, which started life as Bertha’s private chapel. The medalet would typically have been worn to celebrate the wearer’s conversion to Christianity. On the ‘tails’ side is a double-barred cross, the first ever found on a northern European coin. The medalet found its way into the hands of Joseph Mayer, the private collector who also acquired the Anglo-Saxon Kingston brooch discovered seven miles away. Like the brooch, it now resides in Liverpool’s World Museum.
Lomea was a legendary island off the coast of Kent. But did it ever exist? The eminent geologist Charles Lyell believed it did, precisely where the Goodwin Sands now lurk. The Romans had reported three islands to the east of Kent, namely Thanet, Rutupiae, and Insula Infera (‘low island’) to their south-east. The Kent coastline has always been susceptible to dramatic changes on account of sea action, even within a single day. Clay and chalk, of which the island would have been made, do not provide the most resilient bedrock. If, as it’s said, an Archbishop removed Lomea’s sea defences for building with, it was doomed to disappear beneath the waves. A further theory says the Sands got their name from the Godwines, from whom King Harold Godwinson sprang. Could they have owned Lomea, and left to seek new realms in England when it submerged? It’s a romantic notion; but, disappointingly, it gets no support from modern geologists.
The London Stone
Probably Kent’s least accessible sight is a 25-foot stone column on the shore of the Thames near Grain. Standing opposite the Crow Stone, its counterpart at Southend in Essex, it has a curious history. In 1197, Richard I, the francophone King of England who spent most of his life abroad, was short of money. He sold the City of London the fishing rights for the river from Staines in Middlesex to the mouth of Yantlet Creek. The deal’s legality was spurious, not least because all English domains had been purloined by his Norman ancestors, so the City was arguably receiving stolen goods. Although its ill-gotten jurisdiction over the river extended over 30 miles into Kent, the City demonstratively asserted its rights by erecting the Stone, and last restored it as late as the C19. Two more stones stand at Upnor, one reading “God preserve the City of London”. Come the next Kentish revolt, all look candidates for toppling.
In 1954, with the limitations of the historic Lympne Airport’s grass airstrip growing increasingly obvious, an all-weather alternative was built for Silver City Airways on nearby Romney Marsh. Lydd Airport initially performed well as a ‘Ferryfield’ transporting cars across the Channel: by 1960, a quarter of a million passengers were passing through annually, making it one of the country’s busiest airports. However, it was already struggling commercially in the face of growing competition from modernised sea travel, and by the 1970s had become largely dedicated to airfreight. In the 1980s a package-holidays operator, Hards Travel, purchased it for ferrying passengers to the continental coast for onward transportation by coach, but by the early C21 it was familiar only for Lydd Air’s scheduled hops to Le Touquet, which were discontinued in 2018. Although licensed for Airbus A319s and Boeing 737s, Lydd now offers only charter flights. Its relatively inaccessible location and proximity to an RSPB centre militate against a renaissance.
Though practically forgotten, its buildings now razed to make way for an industrial estate, Lympne Airport was for nearly 70 years a significant Kentish aviation centre and place of historic aeronautical importance. The site’s value was obvious, away from population centres but next to the sea. It was first developed as a WW1 airfield, attracting its first bombing raid in 1917. Turned to civilian use after the War, it had three uses: a venue for competitive trials of new aircraft; a start-point for long-distance flight records, including one by Amy Johnson; and a terminus for air-travel to France. During WW2, it was heavily bombed and reserved for tactical and emergency use. Starting in 1948, Silver City ran air ferries there, but moved to Lydd Airport in 1954. Skyways then ran coach-plus-aeroplane services between London and Paris until 1974. Though renamed Ashford Airport in 1968, it was increasingly superseded by Lydd, and closed in 1984.
The Maidstone ‘iguanadon’
Around 1820, the geologist Gideon Mantell dug up the teeth of a huge, unrecognisable reptile. Because of their resemblance to iguana teeth, he named it an ‘iguanadon’. In 1834, a more substantial discovery was made in a Maidstone quarry. Mantell adjudged it a more complete skeleton of the same species, an early example of what would soon be known as dinosaurs. Unfortunately, Mantell wasn’t always accurate in his suppositions. For instance, when a replica of his ‘iguanadon’ was built at the Crystal Palace in Penge, it had on its nose a horn that later turned out to be a thumb-spike. We now know that the Maidstone specimen is not actually an iguanadon but a species called Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis that belongs to a separate clade. This does not diminish its status in the county town, which proudly incorporates its famous former resident in the coat of arms. However, the Maidstone United mascot Iggy ought really to be renamed Manny.
In the 1960s, when adverts still featured performers selected to represent the kind of person who might buy the product, the venerable actor Bernard Miles was the perfect man for Mackeson Stout. He would appear alone on the TV screen eulogising the beer with the memorable slogan “Looks good, tastes good, and by golly it does you good”. Although he adopted a West Country accent, the beer was in fact created in Hythe by the Mackeson family, who had acquired James Pashley’s century-old brewery there in 1801. Known as a ‘milk stout’ because it contains lactose for added sweetness and body, it was first brewed commercially in 1909 and distributed nationally before eventually being acquired by Whitbread (now Anheuser-Busch) in 1929. As late as the 1950s it accounted for half the company’s sales volume. It continued to be brewed in Hythe until 1968, and is still produced elsewhere today, albeit no longer advertised.
The Maidstone Studios
Maidstone Studios came into being in 1982 as a contractual obligation. Having won ITV’s new South/South-East regional franchise, TVS was required to open a production facility for the South-East. Maidstone, just an hour from London, had already been identified as the location, so the Studios were built on the site of Vinters Park west of New Cut Road. After TVS lost the franchise to Meridian in 1991, they were sold to an international group; but, in 2002, they were acquired by a local consortium led by former BBC producer Geoff Miles. The business offers a host of facilities around its two main studios, although some of the site is now disappearing under housing. Among the Studios’ many productions are ‘No. 73’, in which Sandi Toksvig made her debut, as well as ‘Art Attack’ and ‘Mister Maker’. As Jools Holland records his ‘Later…’ shows there, Maidstone becomes the nation’s focal point every New Year’s Eve for his ‘Annual Hootenanny’.
Royal Flying Corps pilots started resorting to the farmland west of Manston in 1915 because planes attempting to land at their clifftop base at Westgate were apt to end up in the briny. Developed with men and equipment from Detling, it played an important role in combating Gotha bomber raids in 1917-8. In WW2, as an RAF fighter aerodrome, it was very heavily bombed, but after the Battle of Britain became the base for testing the bouncing bomb for ‘Operation Chastise’. On a generally fog-free hilltop only a mile from the Kent coast, it provided a dependable emergency landing site. In 1944, it housed the first squadron of Gloster Meteor jets, which in 1945 set a world speed record nearby. The USAF used it as an airbase during the Cold War, but in 1960 it was converted to a civilian airport. Operations ceased in 2014 owing to commercial losses. The fate of the site still lies in the balance.
One of the problems facing London’s defenders in WW2 was the sheer size of the sea approach to the Thames Estuary, which allowed enemy planes and u-boats the opportunity to intrude unmolested. Kashmir-born engineer Guy Maunsell addressed the problem with his eponymously named Forts, which were constructed on land, towed out to sea, and anchored in the seabed. There were two types. Of the four “Naval” forts, one, known as Tongue Sands, was off Margate. It collapsed in 1996; but two of the three “Army” forts built at Gravesend – Red Sands off Sheppey and Shivering Sands off Herne Bay – are still in situ. These alien-looking structures consist of seven turrets on stilts, originally linked together and equipped with anti-aircraft guns, a searchlight, and living quarters. They proved their worth by accounting for 22 enemy aircraft and around 30 V-1s. From 1964, however, they had an unexpected new lease of life as the homes of pirate radio stations.
Men of Kent and Kentish Men
Because the population of Kent has become so diluted by incomers from other regions in recent decades, the Man of Kent/Kentishman divide has been reduced to little more than a curious piece of folklore. Originally, however, it had a more formal and possibly antagonistic connotation. No one knows for sure, but it is quite possible that Kent east of the Medway was populated primarily by Jutes, and the west by Saxons. This tribal division would have been underscored by differences in legal systems – gavelkind versus primogeniture – and Jutish cultural sophistication in contrast to Saxon boorishness. Certainly Kent was uniquely divided into two dioceses, Canterbury and Rochester. Even within current lifetimes, it has been customary to exercise a friendly apartheid, and for Kentishmen and maids to acknowledge the same kinship between them as exists between Men and Maids of Kent. As long as they argue about nothing more than where precisely the dividing line falls, it’s just a bit of fun.
Metropolitan Board of Works
Before taking its first slice out of Kent, Westminster paved the way with a Trojan horse. In 1855, it introduced the Metropolitan Board of Works, an innocuous-sounding organisation intended to coordinate essential services such as sewage, road building, and fire fighting in areas contiguous with London. This apparent efficiency measure was hard to argue with. Later on, however, it turned into a copper-bottomed way for dodgy bureaucrats to get their hands in the till. Their corruption became so endemic that, even when they had come to be known as the ‘Metropolitan Board of Perks’, they ripped ratepayers off without scruple. Westminster responded to public outrage by deciding that the MBW’s activities must be democratised. In 1889, London County Council was born, and a prestigious slice of Kent was torn away in the small print. LCC differed from the MBW in one respect: old corrupt officials could periodically be replaced at the ballot box with new ones.
The Millais Oak
One of Sir John Everett Millais’s most striking paintings is ‘The Proscribed Royalist, 1651’, which he actually painted in 1852-3. It portrays a Puritan woman anxiously concealing a young man in a hollow tree. As the title makes clear, the lad was a refugee from the decisive Battle of Worcester that temporarily denied Charles II his throne. The scene was an obvious reference to the famous incident when Charles actually had to hide in an oak tree in Boscobel, Shropshire while making good his escape. Millais’s two models were Anne Ryan, whose portrait he also painted, and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes, aged just 20. The painting is now owned by Andrew Lloyd-Webber. And its connection with Kent? Millais painted it at Hayes, near Bromley, where there was a hollow tree that provided the hiding-place. It became known as the Millais Oak, and is still standing just south of Croydon Road.
Mission Control, Lympne
The 1964 movie ‘First Men in the Moon’ was memorable only for Ray Harryhausen’s remarkable talent for bringing alien creatures to life with stop-frame animation. The rather better book on which the movie was based had remarkably been written 63 years previously. The author was of course H. G. Wells who, having been born in Bromley and moved to Sandgate, was not averse to setting his books locally. It therefore should not be such a surprise that, when inventor Mr. Cavor takes off on his journey to the Moon, he departs not from Cape Canaveral but Lympne in Kent. Just as quirky is the fact that, on returning from his 500,000-mile round trip, he lands in the sea off Littlestone. The scriptwriters for the movie – who included the usually dependable Nigel Kneale – rather more realistically had him come down off Zanzibar. However, they placed Cavor’s home not in Lympne but, for some curious reason, Dymchurch.
National Hop Collection
Kent, Surrey, and Sussex share the honour of having pioneered the English hop industry. Starting in the early C16, it later spread to the South Midlands, and the two regions now share the hop market between them. Sadly, the industry is only an eighth of the size it was in the 1960s, but Kent retains its leading status. As Brogdale acts as a store of fruit-tree species and Bedgebury of pines, so China Farm at Harbledown keeps Britain’s collection of historic hops, with back-up from Queens Court Farm at Ospringe. Not all are used currently in brewing, but their genomes store facets of hoppiness that may prove useful. After Wye Agricultural College closed in 2007, the respective repositories were set up by Tony Redsell, chairman of the National Hop Association, and Faversham-based Shepherd Neame, one of Britain’s oldest brewers. It is worth reflecting that, without the expertise that goes into hop science, England’s national drink might be dull as ditch-water.
Here’s a handy mnemonic for drawing a map of Kent. Imagine a dog’s head, with the Medway estuary as an eye, Thanet the nose, and Romney Marsh the dewlap; the Downs are the upper and lower lips, and the White Cliffs of Dover the teeth. The odd name ‘Downs’ is simply derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for hill. The North Downs add substantially to the visual appeal of Kent, relieving the flatness that might otherwise render it as featureless as Norfolk. Their chalk was laid down by the sea that covered Kent in the late Cretaceous period, the 35 million years preceding the extinction of the dinosaurs. Subsequently forced up by the Weald-Artois anticline and then eroded, their south-facing side is steeper than the northern. Apart from the Rivers Darent, Medway, and Stour that slice through them, they provide the Kentish Weald with an uninterrupted wall. On the Surrey border, they contain Betsom’s Hill, Kent’s highest point at 883 feet.
The North Downs Way
Just after WW2, someone had the good idea of creating a new long-distance walk across Kent as an alternative to the Pilgrims Way, much of which had lost its original character by being paved. Unfortunately, this ‘North Downs Way’ took twenty years to get started, and another ten to be completed. The idea finally agreed was that it should run from Farnham in the west of Surrey to the south-east Kent coast. By following the line of the North Downs, its whole length would run through unspoilt areas of outstanding natural beauty and provide fine views south across the Weald. The route actually divides east of Boughton Aluph, with one branch running through Canterbury and the other through Wye before they reunite at Dover. The Way’s total length therefore depends on which route one takes; but it provides at least 125 miles of genuine countryside hiking either way.
So familiar are oast houses in Kent that we tend not to appreciate the impression they make on visitors, which is not unlike that given by Majorca’s distinctive windmills. Sadly, few locals have more to say about their original purpose beyond “they were something to do with hops”. They were in fact ovens, the word ‘oast’ being derived from the Germanic word for kiln. They contained an internal platform onto which newly picked hops were heaped. A wood or charcoal fire was lit beneath, and the rising heat dried them out. The peculiar design of the roof consisted of a white cowl to let out the heat along with a white sail that made it rotate with the wind for a better updraught. Originally rectangular, oasts were increasingly made circular in the belief that these were more efficient. Of the 5,000 built nationally, three-fifths were in Kent, but the vast majority have now been converted to residences.
Origanum Kent Beauty
Origanum is a genus of herbs in the mint family that originates in Mediterranean areas. Two of its species are oregano (Origanum vulgare) and marjoram (Origanum majorana). Another species, Origanum Kent Beauty – confusingly known also as ‘marjoram Kent Beauty’ – is not actually edible but enjoys popularity for another reason, namely its visual appeal. Being what is called a ‘subshrub’, it is ideal for planting in rockeries, borders, or pots. It has pretty pink flowers, but also conspicuous bracts – small leaves that encircle the flower, like a ruff – that turn a lovely dark pink. These are complemented by unusually pale-green leaves. When the flowers bloom together, they give a strong impression of coloured hops, which may of course be what inspired the Kentish name the plant has taken with it around the world. It benefits from plenty of sun and well-drained, slightly alkaline soil, and comes back in the spring after dying back in winter.
There was a time when every Kent person would have known what an ‘owler’ was. For two centuries, owling was the standard codename for smuggling, it being usual to pretend that gangs of men out after dark were bent on catching birds. From the Middle Ages onwards, England was highly dependent on its wool trade, and competition with France led to swingeing import duties being imposed. Big money was to be made from smuggling wool and sheep in through Kent. The particular hotspot was Romney Marsh, but coastal communities all around Kent joined in, with many publicans providing sanctuary and even vicars lending the use of their churches. It was standard to advise locals simply to look the other way, as in Kipling’s ‘A Smuggler’s Song’. After all, the perpetrators were no angels. Notorious gangs like those from Groombridge and Hawkhurst were as murderous as the mafia, until the Royal Navy finally reined them in after 1815.
Nikolaus Pevsner was born in Leipzig. Although he had converted early from Judaism to Lutheranism, he felt it prudent to flee Germany when Hitler came to power, yet still was interned briefly in Britain when WW2 broke out. He made his name with ‘The Buildings of England’ (1951-74), an encyclopedia of English architecture, each of whose 46 volumes was dedicated to a particular county; he added Scotland and Wales later. There were two substantial Kent volumes, both written on Pevsner’s behalf by John Newman, a classics teacher at Tonbridge School and resident of Kent for most of his life. Newman did such a good job that Pevsner declared his efforts the best of the whole series. The ‘Pevsner Architectural Guides’, which each contain numerous photographs, are now recognised as a seminal reference work, and the Kent volumes are an obvious next port of call for fans of the popular Ideal Homes section of Old Bunyard’s Kent Pride.
The Pilgrims Way
‘Pilgrims Way’ is an outstanding piece of branding. This is after all just a country walk, much of it metalled; but it is hard to stroll along it without getting a sense of re-treading ancient footsteps. The name specifically designates the path from Winchester, the Anglo-Saxon world’s political capital, to Canterbury, its ecclesiastical hub. It is only a section of a longer and more ancient way from Wiltshire to Dover, and the last stretch from Chilham to Canterbury is a spur off that three-millennia-old route. The course followed by the Pilgrims Way has a practical logic to it, exploiting the solid terrain above the Wealden clay with no need to ascend the North Downs. It has been claimed that the name goes back only to the Victorian era, but there are in fact much older references. Ironically, England’s most famous group of pilgrims, Chaucer’s fictional group, actually made their way to Canterbury down Watling Street.
One of the major challenges facing commanders of the Allied invasion of France in 1944 was providing fuel to keep their armies moving. It was easy for the Germans to hinder the progress of oil tankers across the Channel with mines, or simply to bomb them. Lord Mountbatten had the ingenious idea of laying pipelines, an idea that led to Operation PLUTO (Pipe Lines Under The Ocean). The operation broke into two parts with equally Disneyesque names: Bambi, running from Sandown, Isle of Wight to Cherbourg, and Dumbo from Dungeness and Greatstone to Boulogne. The first, though more important, delivered disappointingly little fuel. Dumbo, however, was a roaring success. The main pipeline ran down through Marden and Appledore to the coast, where the pumping stations were disguised as bungalows that still survive as residences. Machines called Conundrums laid 17 trans-Channel pipelines that eventually delivered nearly 180,000,000 gallons of petrol to the forces invading Germany, so accelerating the end of national socialism.
Richard of Eastwell
The story of Richard Plantagenet (ca 1469-1550) is the stuff of fairy tales. He was raised by a schoolmaster without knowing his parents’ identity. In 1485, a noble arrived unexpectedly to take him to Leicestershire. There he met no less a personage than King Richard III, who was about to fight Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field. The King revealed that he was the boy’s father. If the battle went well, young Richard would be acknowledged as his son. As history records, however, the King was slain. The boy fled, and became a bricklayer. In 1546, he was working at Eastwell Manor, Sir Thomas Moyle’s home. Hearing the story, Moyle offered him a stewardship; but Richard wished only to live in seclusion. He was permitted to build a hut on the site of what is now Plantagenet Cottage. His death was recorded in Eastwell church’s parish register, but his burial place, and the veracity of the legend, remain uncertain.
The Ringlemere cup
When detectorist Cliff Bradshaw unearthed the Ringlemere cup near Sandwich in 2001, he exposed more than just a fascinating artefact. Archaeologists realised that it was probably not an Anglo-Saxon grave good but more likely an ancient votive offering. It was buried in a barrow over 15 feet high, 40 yards wide, and at least 3,500 years old, that may have been preceded by a henge. Unfortunately, centuries of ploughing had flattened most of it, and the cup itself had been crushed in the recent past. It was nevertheless possible to make out a goblet nearly 6 inches high, made from a single piece of gold with a separate handle riveted on. It was round-bottomed and therefore not stable, suggesting a ritual purpose. It was exhibited for a while at Dover Museum, but now resides permanently at the British Museum. Bradshaw was paid £135,000 for his share of the treasure trove, and the same amount went to the landowner.
All landlords are familiar with the problem of getting guests to drink up and leave at closing time, but they do not normally have such an issue with keeping people out. The inn at Ringlestone, north of Harrietsham, was built in 1533, and has the usual tales of highwaymen, smugglers and ghosts attached to it. Much more interesting, however, is the tale of the two women who ran it from 1958. Florence ‘Ma’ Gasking and her daughter Dora were notoriously picky about who they let in, supposedly after a huge gang of motorcyclists had once turned up. They devised a system of secret knocks at the door so that only welcome guests could enter. Unwelcome visitors could expect to be threatened by a block of concrete balanced above the door. For getting rid of anyone who turned unruly, there was even a shotgun behind the bar. Stories that they actually used it are probably exaggerated.
A C19 writer described Romney Marsh as the Fifth Continent. Making allowances for geographical ignorance and local bias, you get his point. After Kent’s undulating terrain, the unending flatness and overarching sky of this 100-square-mile region give an impression of being transported far away. The area is well defined on a map, ever since the Royal Military Canal was built around it as a defensive moat. Much is below sea level and at high risk of flooding. Its most famous occupants, the sheep bearing its name, are no longer so numerous, but there is a wealth of interesting wildlife if you know where to look, particularly by way of birds. It was not always so appealing: for centuries while the area was being reclaimed from the sea, conditions were harsh and malaria rife. Its remoteness also made it a draw to smugglers and would-be invaders; but the defences built over the centuries lend piquancy to long walks.
The Romney, formerly called the Romney Marsh but known locally as the Kent, is the world’s sheep. Its biggest advantage is immediately obvious: a heavy but even fleece. Having evolved from a longwool medieval strain that was crossed in the C18 with the English Leicester breed, this relatively large sheep delivers not only excellent yields of wool but also tasty meat. Breeders say that it is hardy, adaptable, and good at foraging, though not as fertile as other breeds. Its fame spread when, in 1853, the first flock was exported from Stone to New Zealand, where it displaced the established Merino flocks. By 1965, around three-quarters of the New Zealand sheep population was Romney. The New Zealand lamb industry essentially began on February 15th, 1892 with the export of 4,900 carcasses to Britain – a date still celebrated there. Nowadays, because of health regulations, most Romney exports around the world come from New Zealand and Australia.
The Royal Arsenal
The fact that Great Britain’s Royal Arsenal was in Kent owes everything to Greenwich-born King Henry VIII. He shifted the nation’s naval centre from East to North Kent in 1515 by getting his flagship Henri Grace à Dieu built at Woolwich. As shipbuilding became increasingly significant there, it made sense to have the munitions required for warships stored at the neighbouring Gun Wharf. This was superseded in 1651 by the Royal Arsenal. Situated at a nearby private estate called Tower Place, on land previously devoted to producing rabbit meat, it was initially known as The Warren. The Board of Ordnance bought the 31-acre estate outright in 1671, after which the Royal Arsenal escalated dramatically in scope, developing massive munitions research and manufacturing capabilities. It eventually covered nearly 1,300 acres and employed around 80,000. Its importance diminished after WW1, and it closed in 1967. The name lives on as that of the football club founded by some of its workers.
The Royal Dockyards
Although Portsmouth was the site of England’s first naval dockyard in the C15, it went into abeyance as Kentish towns along the Thames came to the fore in the Tudor era. Woolwich, Deptford and Erith became the focus of naval construction, although the last of these was abandoned because of susceptibility to flooding. Their advantages went beyond their proximity to the Placentia Palace at Greenwich. They were handily placed for the Tower of London’s munitions store, and got the benefit of London’s many artisans and craftsmen. They were originally known as King’s or Queen’s ‘Yards’, in other words, places where ships were manufactured on slipways; but they increasingly were depended on for dry docks, where repairs and maintenance took place. By the time Chatham and then Sheerness were added, they were taking on the nature of naval bases, with recruitment and training to the fore. Not until the C18 did Britain’s naval focus shift back to the south coast.
Royal Military Canal
If you think about it, building a 28-mile canal in an arc from Folkestone to Appledore and down to Hastings is pretty pointless, given that the route is no shorter than by sea. The truth is that the Royal Military Canal was not intended to carry goods-laden barges. It was in fact a military device suggested by Lieutenant-Colonel John Brown in 1804, during the Napoleonic Wars. It was suspected that the French would choose to invade through Romney Marsh, and there had been an implausible plan to flood it in that event. Brown ingeniously proposed the Royal Military Canal instead as an elaborate defensive moat. Encircling the Marsh, it would not only slow the French army down when they reached it, but also be heavily armed, and so exact a great cost. Fortunately, it was never needed. It now provides a picturesque location for several leisure activities, as well as for wildlife.
This strange term was the name of a most heart-warming custom in Folkestone. A whiting is of course a fish. More specifically, it is the small and tasty member of the cod family that was featured in Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Mock Turtle’s Tale’, in which a whiting tries to persuade a snail to stray too close to escargot-loving France. Every December, fishermen in the town would take eight choice whitings from each boat’s catch. The whole lot would then be sold off as far afield as Canterbury, and the money raised used to pay for a Christmas Eve celebration. The skipper of each boat was entitled to host his own ‘entertainment’, presumably meaning that he could invite both crew and other guests. As for ‘Rumball’, it was a corruption of ‘St Rumwald’, the infant saint, whose protection they sought. The custom died out by 1800, but fishermen continued to call their Christmas get-together ‘Rumball Night’.
From space, Samphire Hoe resembles a vast aircraft-carrier parked against the White Cliffs just west of Dover harbour. In reality it is a narrow strip of land taken from the sea. It was actually the answer to a tricky question: what was to be done with all the marl excavated during the construction of the Channel Tunnel? Being the site of an earlier attempt to build a tunnel in 1880, as well as a completely useless coalmine dug in 1895, it seemed as good a place as any to dump five million tons of chalk. The resultant 75-acre expanse of new land at the foot of Shakespeare Cliff was formally opened in 1997. Its name was the winning entry in a competition, ‘Samphire’ being a cliff-dwelling plant referred to in ‘King Lear’, and ‘Hoe’ borrowed from ‘Plymouth Hoe’. It is now a nature reserve offering day-long leisure use between sea and cliff, incorporating a pleasing circular walk.
Most people are familiar with the story that, while playing cards in the mid-C18, the 4th Earl of Sandwich ordered a plate of meat stored between two slices of bread, and so invented the now ubiquitous dish that bears his name. Less well-known is the fact that he lived in Huntingdonshire, and had little to do with Kent. His baronetcy was named after Sandwich only because the fleet commanded by the 1st Earl happened to be off Sandwich at the time of the Restoration. Although meat served in bread was not an original idea, the Earl can at least be credited with making Sandwich the best known Kent town on Earth, it now being the standard word for a sandwich not only across the English-speaking world but also in France, Germany, and Scandinavia, to name but some. The word has even turned into a verb, so that, for example, two football defenders can ‘sandwich’ an attacker, albeit illegally.
The Sandwich runes
In Canterbury’s Royal Museum, now the Beaney House, is a pair of strange stone objects, 16 and 17 inches long and 5 or 6 inches in diameter, whose purpose is not immediately obvious. Their tapered shape suggests they were in fact grave markers. They were found around 1830 by labourers in the area of Sandwich and Richborough. What catches the eye is the markings on them. On one, these are indecipherable; but the others are clearly runic. Contrary to popular belief, runes have no magical significance, being merely a simplified form of the Latin alphabet that could be scored onto a hard surface. The more legible stone bears a name at first interpreted as “RÆHÆBUL”; however, the evidence is ambiguous, and the belief has been challenged academically. What is indisputably interesting is this proof of written culture in Kent dating back at least 1,200 years, an evocative record possibly left behind by Danish invaders.
Like the Kentish Plover, the Sandwich Tern frequents a large area of the planet’s surface, yet has a local name. The reason is the same: it was formally classified by the great Kentish ornithologist John Latham, whose type locality – in other words, the place his specimens came from – was Sandwich. It is very easily recognised, with its modest size, black cap, yellow-tipped beak, and swallow tail. It breeds in dense colonies often close to the larger and more aggressive Arctic terns, which flock together to fend off predators. The males have an endearing habit of courting their mates with a fish supper. Unfortunately, however, they are not only noisy but also have a particularly grating call that sounds to us like a rusty lock being turned. Though the species has borne the name of a fine Kent town around the world, Americans can be forgiven for thinking the bird’s monicker suggests a predilection for picnics.
Saxon Shore Way
The Saxon Shore was a system of forts running all around the eastern and southern coasts of England, as well as the northern coast of France. The meaning of the term, a direct translation of the Latin litus saxonicum, is disputed. The forts may have been built by the Romans to keep Saxon invaders out, or they may have been occupied by Saxons, serving as Roman auxiliaries, hired to deal with raiding pirates in the lawless C3; the latter seems linguistically more plausible. The less wide-ranging ‘Saxon Shore Way’ was first created in 1980. It follows the Kent coast all the way from Gravesend to Hastings as it was in Saxon times, in other words before the sea receded in the south of the county. Running for 163 miles, it is not only scenic but also exposes hikers to the diversity of the Kent coast, from riverbanks and pebbly beaches to white cliffs and sandy dunes.
The Screaming Woods
The Woodland Trust does not like ghost-hunters one jot. The source of its chagrin is the so-called ‘Screaming Woods’, otherwise known as Dering Wood near the world’s self-styled most haunted village, Pluckley. The Wood, which was once part of the Dering family estate, was for years a wonderfully peaceful resort for walkers. Since being ‘discovered’ by credulous teenagers, however, it has become a draw to handfuls of overnight intruders desperate for stories to impress their friends with. The attendant vandalism and littering understandably anger the Trust, which however has expressed its pique by closing the car park to the general public. Since the car park is closed at night anyway when the vandals arrive, the closure looks as rational as belief in ghosts. Though warning signs attribute nocturnal ‘screaming’ in the woods to rutting foxes, there may be another explanation. Coppicing in the Wood creates slender trunks that rub against each other in the wind, producing unearthly but perfectly explicable noises.
Kent is loosely speaking a large triangle whose two long sides are sea coasts. Consequently, its coastline is unusually extensive, even remotest West Kent lying no further than 27 miles from a seashore. With 350 miles of coastline, Kent may even have the longest of any county, but this depends on whether the banks of river estuaries are counted as coastal. Suffice it to say that Kent is spoilt for richly diverse seaside. Apart from natural beauty, it boasts several attractive seaside resorts enjoying national fame. During the Victorian era, East Thanet was the Riviera of the day, attracting the rich and famous. Overseas travel led to neglect, which only recently has been addressed. So effectively has the decay been reversed, however, that three of Britain’s top 10 resorts in a recent nationwide study – Deal, Margate, and Ramsgate – were in Kent; and Deal was the nation’s No. 1. With Kentish summers growing increasingly clement, things look set fair again.
Although Shepherd Neame claims to be the nation’s oldest brewery, founded in 1698, the Three Tuns brewery in Shropshire is in reality 56 years older; the Faversham-based brewer’s claim hinges on evidence that brewing took place on the same site by 1573. Nevertheless, it is appropriate that the county that constitutes the nation’s hop-growing heartland should boast such a longstanding brewing heritage. The brewery’s name is a marriage of those of Samuel Shepherd, who bought the brewery from the founder’s daughter in 1741, and Percy Neame, who joined the company in 1864 and whose descendants continue to own and run it. Shepherd Neame is not just old, but successful. It produces over 200,000 barrels a year, including a wide range of beers such as its signature brand Master Brew, the well-branded Spitfire, and the cheeky Bishop’s Finger, and exports to three dozen different nations. It also owns more than 300 pubs and hotels.
Although it sounds like a quaint country custom, ‘shoe money’ was a means whereby canny Londoners down in Kent to pick hops extorted cash from unsuspecting locals. The idea was that, if anybody crossed a hop-field while it was being harvested, they would be told that they needed to ‘pay their footing’ by handing over an amount of ‘shoe money’. This led to a short ritual whereby the walker would have his or her shoes brushed with a sprig of hops before being allowed to continue on their way. Anyone who refused to pay up was liable to be tipped into a hop basket. The money raised nominally went into a fund that paid for bread, cheese and beer to be enjoyed by pickers at the end of the season. The practice migrated to cherry orchards around Faversham and Sittingbourne. It was actually a C19 predecessor of the practice of bandit windscreen-washing now familiar at outer-London traffic lights.
Sir Edward Dering’s Regiment of Foot
In the early days of the Army, regiments were raised by landed gentlemen who commanded them as colonels. Sir Edward Dering of Pluckley established a notably enduring one in 1689. It triumphed at Blenheim in 1704, but surrendered at Saratoga in the American Revolution, and in 1782 was re-designated the 24th Regiment of Foot. It subsequently took part in the Napoleonic, Boer, and World Wars. Its most inglorious and glorious moments came on consecutive days in 1879, during the Zulu War. On January 22nd, it was all but annihilated in a surprise dawn attack at Isandlwana. The next day, a detachment of just 141 Army regulars with 11 colonial troops miraculously defended Rorke’s Drift against several thousand warriors. The 24th won seven of the 11 Victoria Crosses awarded, the most ever awarded to one regiment in a day. Later renamed the ‘South Wales Borderers’, the regiment was merged with another in 1969 to create the Royal Regiment of Wales.
Several Kent villages possess a road called The Street, but Tankerton’s is like no other. It’s not a thoroughfare but a spit – a strip of shingle stretching half a mile out to sea that’s fully exposed just twice a day. It was a bank of the River Swale before sea-level rose enough almost to obliterate it. At low tide, visitors can walk from the beach to the very end, where they get a splendid view in both directions along the coast and, with some imagination, a sense of walking on water. Despite the apparent risk, only the most incautious pedestrian is likely to get more than wet feet when the tide turns, but it’s said that swimming on either side can be risky owing to the irregular currents. The Street is one of Kent’s most memorable seaside experiences to be had gratis, albeit that longer spits do exist elsewhere. Ironically, America’s longest, near Seattle, is named after Dungeness.
In 1935, a fossil hunter called Alvan Marston unearthed an ancient piece of skull in a gravel quarry at Swanscombe. He informed the British Museum, but raised no interest. He kept looking, and nine months later found another piece that fitted together with it. Not until 1955 was a third piece found that also fitted. Although it was named ‘Swanscombe Man’, the skull was probably that of a Homo heidelbergensis female dating from around 400,000 years ago. Only the back and sides of the skull remained, but nothing like it had been discovered in Britain before, and few comparable examples were known around Europe. Numerous artefacts including hand tools had already been discovered at the site, and their makers obviously knew how to hunt, there being evidence of butchered deer, horses, and rhinoceros. A 10-acre area around the site is now designated the Swanscombe Heritage Park. The skull itself resides at the Natural History Museum.
The American Revolution removed Britain’s main political justification for tolerating slavery, which was to placate slave-owning colonists. In 1780, former ship’s surgeon James Ramsay returned to Britain after witnessing at first hand the brutality meted out to slaves and campaigning vigorously against traders and owners. After becoming vicar of Teston and Nettlestead, his views attracted the support of local gentry, notably Admiral Charles Middleton of Barham Court. They and others formed a pressure group, known as the Testonites, bent on getting slavery abolished. In 1786, they invited William Wilberforce to lead their movement; he informed William Pitt the Younger of his mission at Hayes, Bromley a year later. Within 20 years, Britain had uniquely outlawed the slave trade. The Royal Navy’s massive West Africa Squadron, formed in 1808 at great cost to combat slave trading, rescued 150,000 slaves, but lacked powers to halt African enslavement and interdict alien ships. Slavery remains rife across much of the globe.
Thames & Medway Canal
When the Yantlet Creek silted up, shipping headed for Woolwich and Deptford from Chatham Dockyard had to sail over forty miles around the Hoo Peninsula. In the late C18, a 7-mile canal from Strood to Gravesend was mooted in order to shorten the journey. Over time, its value came to be seen not as military but commercial. Construction delays mounted and costs escalated, however, especially when a two-mile tunnel from Strood to Higham was added. The Canal did not open until 1824, having cost over £250,000. It was an operational failure, as delays could entail an even longer voyage than by sea. Inserting a passing place inside the tunnel provided no definitive solution. Eventually, in 1846, the tunnel was purchased for the new North Kent railway line, leaving only the section of canal from Higham to Gravesend. This stretch did remain in use until 1934, and is now the subject of efforts to preserve it as a recreational facility.
The Thames Barrier
The devastating flooding of England’s eastern seaboard in January 1953 sparked consternation about the vast economic damage that might be wrought on London by a worse occurrence in the future. It was decided in 1966 that a movable barrier should be built near Woolwich to stop the Thames breaking its banks further upstream. In 1969, London engineer Charles Draper devised the idea of gates that normally lie flat on the riverbed – permitting the river’s seaward flow and allowing ships to pass – but can be rotated upright to shut out the waves in the event of an impending inundation. The final design embraced a series of such gates driven by motors on piers spaced across the 570-yard breadth of the river between New Charlton and Silvertown. Construction began in 1974, took eight years, and cost over half a billion pounds. Since its opening in 1984, the Barrier has been put to use on about 200 occasions.
The Thanetian Age
The Thanetian Age was not as substantial as the Devonian Epoch – it was less than one tenth as long – but it does ensure that one part of Kent is known to all the world’s geologists and palaeontologists. Unlike the Devonian, the Thanetian was named by a foreigner, the Swiss geologist Eugène Renevier, in 1873. He applied it to the last part of the Paleocene Epoch, specifically from 59.2 to 56 million years ago. The reason for the name was that this was when the ‘Thanet Formation’ was laid down: a geological stratum representing the easternmost rim of the London Basin, stretching from Herne Bay to Pegwell Bay. It is made up of sandy deposits from the bottom of a relatively shallow sea that existed when the planet was restocking with new species after the mass extinction of 65 million years ago. Analysis suggests that the Kent climate was then subtropical, which cannot have been all bad.
Marquetry is the craft of decorating cabinets and the like by attaching differently coloured pieces of wood in intricate patterns. Tunbridge Ware was a particular style, developed in the C17, that flourished in the C19. One innovative exponent was James Burrows of Tunbridge Wells, who around 1830 started creating novel visual effects with half-square and tessellated wood mosaics. Only natural wood colours were used. His apprentice Henry Hollamby created his own manufactory with about 40 employees. They were no doubt motivated by the explosion of fashionable visitors to the Chalybeate Spring at Tunbridge Wells who, like most tourists, were anxious to show off souvenirs of their travels once they got home. Around ten cottage enterprises were producing Tunbridge Ware at one time, creating distinctive designs for objects from tea caddies to snuffboxes. Their trade finally petered out around 1890 when fashions changed, although their workmanship still impresses. Tunbridge Wells Museum has a display of their handiwork.
Wallinger’s white elephant
When the Ebbsfleet rail interchange was opened at Northfleet in 2007, someone had the idea of advertising its presence for miles around with a vast statue to outdo the Angel of the North. Of the five oddball designs submitted, the winner was Mark Wallinger’s gigantic concrete white horse. Given the historic significance of Kent’s Invicta horse, it sounded sensible; but then the visual got about. Wallinger, a Turner Prize winner and Essex man, was evidently having a laugh at Kent’s expense. He had reduced the county’s defiantly rampant stallion to a bridled gelding that looked less Gormley than gormless. When the planning application was passed unanimously by Gravesham Council, Kent County Council objected and submitted a more appropriate design. It was summarily rejected by the arty judges. Fortunately, the project ran massively over budget and was shelved, so the Kentish pitchfork army could stand down. Pace Orwell, this is one case where two legs are better than four.
Now practically unknown to most Kent people, the Wantsum Channel was for centuries one of the county’s major waterways. Its name came from the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘winding’, but it was also called the Genlade, which may be connected with our modern word ‘inlet’. As long ago as the Roman era, it was an important route for ships travelling from the English Channel to the Thames estuary. For that reason, the Romans built a fort to defend each end, one at Richborough, the other at Reculver. Originally a strait two miles wide, the Wantsum steadily got silted up until, by the C8, its breadth was down to around 660 yards. Medieval monks accelerated the process with land reclamation. Although it long demanded a ferry for crossing to the Isle of Thanet, the last ship navigated it in 1672. Today’s River Wantsum is no more than a stream feeding into the Stour, and the village of Stourmouth is miles inland.
The thoroughfare from the Kent coast to the Thames crossing near Westminster was the first and foremost Roman road. It followed an ancient track that the Romans metalled to enable rapid movement of troops. It had four coastal start-points, namely Regulbium (Reculver), Ritupiae (Richborough), Dubris (Dover), and Portus Lemanis (Lympne), that converged at Canterbury before proceeding westwards. The road eventually extended via Verulamium (St Albans) into the heart of modern-day England, terminating at Viroconium (Wroxeter) in Shropshire. Its modern appellation derives from the Waecla, a tribe that lent Verulamium its early Anglo-Saxon name, Waetlingacaester. Watling Street’s Kentish stretch eventually became known as the Great Dover Road, almost all of which now corresponds to the A2. The section running from Kent’s historical border with Surrey up to the Bricklayers Arms roundabout – which itself commemorates a Southwark inn whose name honoured Kent’s brickmaking industry – is called the Old Kent Road, nationally famous as the first square on a Monopoly board.
One way to picture the Weald is as a garden. The Greensand Ridge is a high stone wall enclosing a sunken flowerbed, the Low Weald, which in turn surrounds a raised tree-covered lawn, the High Weald. It is a semi-detached affair, the Kent-Sussex border running through the middle. It should be added that its westernmost parts extend into Surrey and even Hampshire. It is not a particularly fertile garden, the Low Weald having clay soils and the High Weald rather thin soil over sandstone, so they are best suited to fruit farming and pasture. Nevertheless, the rolling Low Weald is scenic, and the High Weald densely wooded. It was previously known as Andredes Weald, meaning Pevensey Wood, and still has an appropriately high level of forestation compared with most of England. Apart from outstanding natural beauty, its unique geology has also provided valuable material bonuses in the form of iron, ragstone, clay, and timber.
Wealden hall house
Hall houses are not uniquely Kentish, but have survived in Kent much better than elsewhere. They accommodated late-medieval families of some standing, part way between a stately home and a cottage. Timber-framed and rectangular, they originally had wattle-and-daub walls and thatched roofs. The interior followed a standard pattern, with a pantry and a buttery at one end and a full-width parlour at the other. Above these were bedrooms. In between was a full-height hall with an open fire in the centre, its smoke escaping through a hole in the roof; this was later generally replaced with a chimney stack. Front and back doors faced each other through the hall. A full second storey was usually added later, with the bedrooms organised in a circuit rather than off a corridor. Most hall-houses have undergone much modification over time, but a fascinating reconstruction can be visited at the Weald & Downland Museum near Chichester, Sussex.
Wealden iron industry
Believe it or not, the Weald was a centre of iron production centuries before Sheffield. The reason was the ready availability of both ironstone in the local clay beds and timber that was convertible to charcoal for smelting. There is evidence of a significant iron industry by the time the Romans arrived. Later furnaces or ‘bloomeries’ have been discovered from Smarden to East Sussex, which helps explain the proliferation of high-value medieval estates in West Kent. After all, this was big business. One foundry in Brenchley, for example, employed 200 men in the C16. Until the early C17, Kent was a key supplier of bar iron to London; Lamberhurst Foundry even cast the gates and railings for the new St Paul’s Cathedral. The later focus was on providing cannon for the Army and Navy. The growing use of coke during the Industrial Revolution eventually rendered charcoal-based production too expensive, and the balance of industrial power irrevocably shifted north.
Whispering the death
One of the most painful aspects of a death in the family is the requirement to share the news with all affected parties. There was a time however when those affected parties included the livestock. It was a custom in Kent as late as the C19 that, if a family member at a stately home died, one of the staff was required to go to each of the cows and sheep and whisper the news in their ear. It was plainly a widespread practice in the county, there being records not only from Dartford but also from the other end of the county, in Eastry. In the latter case, it was actually the bees kept at the house that needed to be informed. The origins of the practice are lost in the mists of time, but it does say something about the close connectedness between humans and domesticated animals in centuries past.
The White Cliffs of Dover
Although they resemble the ultimate megalith, 350 feet tall and ten miles wide, the White Cliffs of Dover are more fragile than they appear. The problem is the manner in which they were laid down 70 million years ago. The calcium-rich remains of single-celled coccoliths fell in zillions to the seabed, and were compacted by later sedimentation. The chalk cliffs emerged when a North Sea lake burst through to create the English Channel, and erosion sharpened their profile. That erosion continues today, and now faster than ever: in 2001, a section the size of a football pitch fell into the sea. It is a poignant development, considering the White Cliffs’ longstanding status as a symbol of English defiance. When the well-named Walter Kent, a Jewish-American writer, wanted to urge Britain to continue resisting Nazism, he pictured a tomorrow when bluebirds would fly over the White Cliffs. He was apparently unaware that the bluebird is not a native species.
Willikin of the Weald
Wherever there is a legendary figure, a historical personage will be advanced as the original on whom the legend was based. One such was William of Cassingham (now Kensham) near the Sussex border. In 1216, during the 1st Barons’ War, Prince Louis of France invaded England at the behest of the barons who had rebelled against King John. Willikin, as a loyalist, formed a guerrilla band of longbowmen in the Kent and Sussex Weald that despatched thousands of French. They eventually ambushed the retreating invaders at Lewes, and Louis effected his army’s escape via Winchelsea to France only by the skin of his teeth. Returning with reinforcements to besiege Dover Castle, he arrived to find Willikin already burning the existing French camp, and diverted to Sandwich. With Willikin’s continuing help, the siege was finally broken, and Louis retired for good. The new King Henry III duly rewarded Willikin, who is now understandably proposed as the original Robin Hood.
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All text: © Old Bunyard 2020. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.
Abutilon Kentish Belle: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Ale Sop: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Allectus coin: © Dix Noonan Webb, 2019.
Aylesford-Swarling pottery: ‘Map Gallia Tribes Towns‘ by Feitscherg, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. (Cropped).
Beauty of Kent: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Bell Inn revenue inspectors: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Bethersden Marble: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
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Durolevum: ‘View from Judd’s Hill on the Syndale Park estate – geograph.org.uk‘ by pam fray, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. (Cropped).
East Kent Railway: © Keith Rylands, 2020.
Faversham: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
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Garden of England: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
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High Sheriff of Kent: © High Sheriff of Kent’s office, 2020.
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Invicta: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
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Kentish cherry batter pudding: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Kentish dialect: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Kentish glory: ‘Endromis versicolora – Skackspinnäre‘ by MikaelMilden, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. (Cropped).
Kentish plover: ‘Kentish plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)‘ by Shantanu Kuveskar, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. (Cropped).
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Kent Lent pie: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
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Kingston Brooch: ‘The Kingston Brooch, World Museum Liverpool‘ by Reptonix free Creative Commons licensed photos, licensed under CC BY 3.0. (Cropped).
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Lathes: ‘Kent Administrative Map 1832‘ by XrysD, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. (Cropped).
Libbet and Daddy: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Liudhard medalet: ‘Liudhardmedaletreplica‘ by Ealdgyth (Own work), licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. (Cropped).
London Stone: ‘London Stone, Yantlet Creek‘ by Roger W Haworth, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. (Cropped).
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Manston Airport: ‘Manston Airport aerial view‘ by James Stewart from England, licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Cropped).
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Metropolitan Board of Works: ‘MBW = Metropolitan Board of Works‘ by secretlondon123 from London, England, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. (Cropped).
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North Downs: © Old Bunyard 2020.
North Downs Way: © Old Bunyard 2020.
Oast houses: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Pevsner’s Kent: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Pilgrims Way: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Richard of Eastwell: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Ringlemere cup: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Ringlestone Inn: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Romney Marsh: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Romney sheep: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
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Royal Military Canal: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Samphire Hoe: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
The sandwich: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Sandwich tern: ‘Thalassus sandvicensis Rye Harbour 1‘ by Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom, licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Cropped).
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Screaming Woods: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Seaside: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Shepherd Neame: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Street, The: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Swanscombe Man: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Thames & Medway Canal: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Thames Barrier: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Thanetian Age: ‘The eroding cliffs of Reculver Country Park – geograph.org.uk – 6930‘ by David Rayner, licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Cropped).
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Watling Street: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Weald: © Old Bunyard, 2020.
Wealden hall house: © Old Bunyard, 2021.
Wealden iron industry: ‘Święto Śląska piec p‘ by Przykuta, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. (Cropped).
White Cliffs of Dover: © Old Bunyard, 2020.