The arena of this collection of stories is the historical county of Kent, dating back to the Iron Age. That county stretched from Margate in the north-east to Dungeness in the south-west, and from Dover in the south-east to Deptford in the north-west. Notwithstanding some occasional fluidity in the Sussex boundary, those borders didn’t change for two thousand years. Everyone knew what and where Kent was.
The point needs making because, in the late Victorian era, national politicians in Westminster chose to expropriate large parts of the neighbouring counties to create the modern polity of London. A further bite was taken out of Kent in 1965. Today it is not only usual for Londoners to regard those acquisitions as though they were always part of the capital. Further parts of Kent like Gravesend and Dartford are also talked of as though they were already within London’s ever-expanding orbit.
Whether London’s relentless onward march is stoppable is a matter for future generations. This account, however, is concerned with the past and present. It’s important to remember that, when that first border-change was made, anyone alive would have thought of Deptford and Greenwich, Woolwich and Charlton, Blackheath and Bexley, Chislehurst and Bromley as being unequivocally Kentish – just as much as York is in Yorkshire. Suggesting to Darwin that Downe was in London (as the current Prime Minister has) would have earned a sharp correction.
Not only that: a sense of belonging to Kent, rather than the Metropolis, survived long after the politicians had their way. Until late in the 20th century, people born within the London County Council’s borders referred to themselves and their towns as Kentish. Even today, around half those living in the London Borough of Bromley take pride in being Kentish, to the extent of doggedly including Kent in their postal address.
It also pays to remember that, though Kent’s great neighbour to the north-west is in the ascendant, it was not always that way. After the departure of the Romans, Londinium was all but deserted. As late as the Domesday Book in 1086, the most densely populated parts of the country were on the east and south-east coast: Lincolnshire, East Anglia, East Kent, East and West Sussex. Most of today’s London, by contrast, was untamed countryside.
By that time, Kent had established itself as the most advanced region in the British Isles. That head start encouraged a distinctive culture that reveals itself in the county’s extraordinary history and cultural richness up to the present day – a tradition of which outsiders through the ages were understandably envious. No wonder the spirit of Kent lingered on in the capital’s new domain.
All said and done, political boundaries are transient things compared with geographical and cultural ones. Chatham did not cease to be Chatham – and the people of that historic town did not lose their proud history – when a roomful of officials decided that it was now ‘Medway’. Nor will the people of Kent ever be deprived of their heritage by metropolitan pen-pushers.
For that reason, the status of Kentish people, places and events is here extended to all within the compass of historical Kent; and Londoners living within Kent’s historical borders are most welcome to share in its marvellous heritage.