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Kent history and legend: author and historian Alan Bignell on Sandwich to Gravesend and Maidstone to Faversham

By Angela Cole

Kent’s long and colourful history has left us many legends, most of them born of real events. Local author Alan Bignell, whose latest book Our Kent features dozens of tales, guides you across the county and delves into some of the history.

 

SANDWICH

Then ...

Do you know the one about the invisible ship that was part of a French fleet attempting to land in Kent? According to legend, the Sandwich Portsmen who put to sea to stop the French from landing only knew about it because they had with them a man called Stephen Crabbe. He claimed he could match the supernatural powers of a certain Eustace the Monk who was among the invisible crew and it was thanks to Crabbe, and some divine intervention in the form of a storm, that wrecked the French fleet but allowed the Kent sailors to return safely to port, that the St Bartholomew’s Day battle off the Kent coast in 1217 was won and the story became the legend that survives today.

 

Sandwich

Sandwich

Now ... 

The historic town on the River Stour is close to the sea, and one of the highlights of a trip to the coast there is Pegwell Bay, a nature reserve with a large waterfront beach, park and playground – and is ideal for birdwatchers.

You could also visit the Richborough Roman Fort, just outside the town, which is where the Romans invaded Britain in AD43, and head to the Salutation Gardens, a 3.7 acre plant lover’s paradise, designed in 1912 by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.


GRAVESEND

Then …

For centuries, Gravesend was the first and last port of call for ships entering and leaving the Thames, and the river was crossed here by the Cross Ferry. Legend has it that when Charles I used the ferry in 1623 he was arrested as a suspicious person when he extravagantly overpaid the ferryman with a gold coin.
The town’s most celebrated visitor, though, was Princess Pocahontas, the first native North American ever to come to England. She died at Gravesend aboard the ship in which she was to return to America and is thought to have been buried in St George’s churchyard in 1617. Unfortunately, that church burned down in 1727 and all records were lost. Was it the same churchyard into which, in 1211, it was reported a ‘ship in the clouds’ dropped anchor? The story went that the anchor was abandoned after a crew member swarmed down the cable but was unable to free it and the cable was cut. The story concludes with a local blacksmith using the anchor metal to make church ornaments.

The statue of Pocahontas next to St George's Church in Gravesend

The statue of Pocahontas next to St George's Church in Gravesend

Now …

Gravesend remains an attractive riverside town. The re-built St George’s Church is still visited for its Pocahontas connection and the statue of the native American princess is a must-see. The whole area is dotted with reminders of past port defences and nearby Swanscombe Heritage Park and Shorne Wood Country Park are just two of the local recreational resorts. The town’s Gurdwara is Europe’s largest Sikh place of worship and there are numerous local links to Charles Dickens. For shopaholics, Bluewater is just a short distance outside the town and Gravesend’s Chartered Borough Market, one of the oldest in Kent, celebrates its 750th anniversary this year.

Shorne Woods Country Park, Shorne, near Gravesend

Shorne Woods Country Park, Shorne, near Gravesend


CANTERBURY

Then …

The murder of Archbishop Thomas a Becket in 1170 thrust the city into a 300-year tourist boom, with people from all over Europe making pilgrimages to the shrine of St Thomas. Canterbury, too, was at the centre of the Plum Pudding Riots in 1647, against unpopular Parliamentary Puritanism. That led directly to the Kentish Rising which was only quelled after some bloodshed on both sides. But the city leans heavily upon its natives for much of its renown – people like 16th century dramatist Christopher Marlowe and 19th century the Rev Richard Barham, author of The Ingoldsby Legends, themselves an archive of legends that cling to city (and Kent) lore.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Now …

Canterbury is now a university city, but it remains primarily a tourist centre, with the cathedral still the focal point for many visitors. A more recent attraction is The Canterbury Tales interactive tour that introduces characters made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer in his narrative poem with the same title. More ancient history is to be found at the Roman Museum.
A pleasant refuge from the crowded main streets are the Westgate Gardens, and a boat trip along the River Stour reveals glimpses of the city that remain unseen by pedestrians. Nearby attractions include Howletts (at Bekesbourne) and Wingham wildlife parks, and there is a wide choice of cafes, restaurants and hotels in and around the city to welcome sightseers.

Westgate Gardens, Canterbury

Westgate Gardens, Canterbury


FAVERSHAM

Then ...

Faversham was a Roman port when the shoemaker brothers Crispin and Crispianus worked there. They became Christian martyrs and joined the saints. A more modest distinction clings to the memory of 16th century Mayor of Faversham Thomas Arden. He was murdered, after an almost farcical succession of failed attempts, by his wife, Alice, and her lover, and the crime inspired an unknown playwright (speculatively William Shakespeare) to write a play called Arden of Feversham. The murderers left footprints in snow when they carried the body out of the Abbey Street house and there was blood on the parlour floor when their crime was discovered – and they were duly executed.

Faversham Creek

Faversham Creek

Now ...

The old town, centred on the Guildhall, is a treasury of picturesque features, but also a vibrant community of commerce and industry. The Creekside is a delight to explore for its antiques and collectables and there are several bookshops that invite browsers, including the Preston Street Fleur de Lys Heritage Centre, a former inn which claims to be one of the places where the murder of Thomas Arden was plotted. Once a centre of north Kent hop farming, a highlight of the town’s year is the September Hop Festival and the market in Market Street is well worth a visit any time of the year.

 


MAIDSTONE

Then …

Maidstone, and specifically Penenden Heath on its northern edge, was the county’s principal rallying point for centuries. It was there that Archbishop Lanfranc won back church properties grabbed by the avaricious Bishop Odo in 1076, and Saxons held councils there long before that. It became the setting-off place for protest marchers led by Wat Tyler, Jack Cade and Sir Thomas Wyatt and it was where opposition to parliamentary puritanical extremism mustered for the Battle of Maidstone in 1648. Mote Park was the site of one of the town’s most colourful occasions when, in 1799, George III reviewed men of the West Kent Volunteers and King Street commemorates that event.
It was Maidstone’s Andrew Broughton who read the death sentence at the trial of Charles I, and Maidstone surgeon Thomas Trapham sewed the king’s severed head back on to his embalmed body before it was buried. When quarrymen, in 1834, found the remains of an iguanodon dinosaur, ‘Iggy’ became unique among British civic authorities’ arms features.

Allington Castle

Allington Castle

Now …

Kent’s County Town is moving with the times, in terms of shopping, attractions and traffic management but for some history, the museum in St Faith’s Street exhibits a wealth of artefacts from the distant past to relatively recent times and the Kent History and Library Centre also houses an excellent archives department.
Maidstone’s architectural features include historic All Saints’ Church, the Archbishops’ Palace and the Stable building, now housing the Carriage Museum. A short distance downstream is Allington Castle, which this Easter will start opening to visitors via the Kentish Lady, and a little farther in the opposite direction Leeds Castle is one of the county’s most popular tourist attractions.

DETAILS

To read more of Alan’s stories, pick up a copy of Our Kent by Alan Bignell, available online from kentstories.co.uk

Maidstone retired journalist and author Alan Bignell Picture Gary Browne

Maidstone retired journalist and author Alan Bignell Picture: Gary Browne

 

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