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Classic books with links to Kent

By Chris Britcher

As many of us prepare to jet off on holiday – or simply head to the beach or our back garden – ensuring you have some good reading material is essential.

So why not settle down with a book which has its roots in Kent?

There have been plenty of classics – past and present – which use the county as a back-drop or simply inspiration, allowing you to recognise some of the locations the books' characters frequent.

Kent's most famous author Charles Dickens
Kent's most famous author Charles Dickens

And while the likes of the Canterbury Tales are rather obviously focused on the county, there are plenty of others which may interest you.

Here are just a few:

The Thirty-Nine Steps - John Buchan

It’s a classic thriller dating from more than 100 years ago, but John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps has lost little of its excitement over the years.

First published in 1915, it has been turned into a number of movies and TV series, and never been out of print since it was published.

Following hero Richard Hannay as he travels across the country on a tale of political intrigue, it leads him to the steps in the title inspired by a stairway in Broadstairs.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

On a family stay at Cliff Promenade there was a nearby flight which cut through the rock to the beach.

Buchan’s son would write in 1990: “My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced; there are 39 steps.”

You can’t access the steps - unless you live close to them, only then do you get presented with a key to the private passageway.

Bone Clocks - David Mitchell

Author David Mitchell has emerged as one of world’s most respected writers with seven books to his name and a host of critical praise.

Having graduated from the University of Kent he wrote his first book in 1999.

But it is 2014’s The Bone Clocks, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, which prompted Stephen King to call it one of the best of the year.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

An ambitious book of six sections, it follows the life of Holly Sykes who hails from Gravesend.

Starting during her childhood in 1984, as a teenage runaway, it follows her life and has been hailed by many as one of his finest works.

On her travels she takes in Rochester, Sheppey and Faversham.

Darling Buds of May - HE Bates

So everyone is probably aware of the popular TV drama which brought a slice of Kentish sunshine into our homes in the early 1990s, but the book on which it was based was first published in 1958.

The author lived in Little Chart, near Ashford, in the imposing The Granary – which still stands today – and based Pop Larkin on someone he saw emerging from a local shop.

Darling Buds of May by HE Bates
Darling Buds of May by HE Bates

The series of books follow the family through their many adventures in the Kent countryside.

The TV series would use nearby Pluckley as its main location which has become synonymous with the book.

Plague Land - SD Sykes

Granted, Sarah Sykes’ novels may not paint the finest picture of the county – her historical Somershill Manor series start in a plague ravaged Kent in the 14th century – but they do provide a fascinating glimpse back into what life would have been like at the time of the Black Death.

Plague Land by SD Sykes
Plague Land by SD Sykes

Living in Goudhurst, the fictional Somershill Manor estate is based near Tonbridge at a time when half the county’s population have fallen victim to the killer plague.

It plunges the book’s main character, Oswald de Lacy into a drama as he returns to run the estate, after growing up in a monastery, following the death of both his father and two brothers only to be caught up in a murder mystery.

Stig of the Dump - Clive King

One for the younger reader, but a classic none the less.

Author Clive King moved to Ash, near Dartford, as a child and attended the King’s School in Rochester in the 1930s.

He based finding a stone age man in a chalk cliff on his time in the village.

Stig of the Dump by Clive King
Stig of the Dump by Clive King

He explained: “Of course, there wasn’t actually a stone age man living in a cave at the bottom of it, but Ash was a very boring place to live and I thought what it needs is something to wake it up. So I invented Stig.”

The author died in July at his home in Norfolk. He was 94.

Darkmans and Wide Open - Nicola Barker

Nicola Barker has developed something of a reputation for odd characters in odd settings.

In 1998 she set her book Wide Open on Sheppey in perhaps a manner in which the local tourist board would not be frantically racing to use in future literature.

But Sheppey’s landscape provides a suitably unsettling backdrop for the odd cast and storyline.

Darkmans by Nicola Barker
Darkmans by Nicola Barker

Then, in 2007, she returned to the county for her acclaimed Darkmans, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

As the Guardian review reads: “Who else but Barker would produce an 838-page epic with little describable plot, taking place over just a few days and set in - wait for it - Ashford?

For that’s what Darkmans is, and it is phenomenally good.”

Doctor Syn - Russell Thorndike

The Romney Marsh will, surely, one day become the perfect setting for the Kent equivalent of TV detective Vera.

For now, perhaps, its most notable literary outing comes in the form of a string of books penned by Russell Thorndike in the early part of the 20th century.

Doctor Syn
Doctor Syn

First published in 1915, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, follows the exploits of the swashbuckling Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn who ends up in Dymchurch as the local vicar after a life on the high seas, only to end up leading the town’s smugglers.

It is set in the 18th century.

Not only does it use local landmarks, but it regularly attracts thousands each year to the Day of Syn weekend - which this year takes place over the August bank holiday and celebrates the books and characters.

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Problem - Arthur Conan Doyle

OK, so the famous detective doesn’t spend a great deal of time enjoying Canterbury’s magnificence, but he and Dr Watson do make a visit to the city, albeit briefly, on one of his most famous of all adventures.

In what was originally designed to be, as the name suggest, his final outing, and saw him ultimately – spoiler alert – fall to his apparent death along with arch nemesis Dr Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, Holmes and Watson are heading to Dover by train when they pull in at Canterbury.

Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

In a bid to try and lose Moriarty, they disembark then jump on the next train to Newhaven.

It forms part of the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection.

Some of the most celebrated authors of our time have also lived and worked in the county - many taking inspiration from their surroundings for their work.

Ian Fleming

The James Bond creator couldn't have made his central character more Kentish if he'd tried, but given he spent so much time in the county in the second part of his life it was perhaps not surprising.

Have first visited St Margaret's Bay near Dover to stay with friend and playwright Noel Coward, he eventually took the lease on a neighbouring property, before he and wife Ann moved to properties in Bekesbourne, near Canterbury, and then Sandwich Bay.

Key attraction was Royal St George's Golf Club - the Open venue which Fleming was so enamoured with.

Ian Fleming
Ian Fleming

For Bond, he had him raised by his aunt in Pett Bottom, near Canterbury (he wrote some of You Only Live Twice in the local Duck Inn), and, legend has it, took his 007 codename from the Canterbury to Dover bus.

Royal St George's appears in Goldfinger (albeit as Royal St Mark's), while Moonraker has him detailing the car journey from Maidstone down to Dover.

And in the early 1960s he wrote Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car for his son Caspar - inspired by a visit to Higham Park near Canterbury.

HG Wells

Dubbed the 'father of science fiction' HG Wells penned the likes of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Having been born in Bromley in 1866 when it was still part of Kent, he moved to Sandgate, near Folkestone when he was 30 for the benefit of his health.

HG Wells
HG Wells

After living in two houses in the town, he commissioned an architect to build Spade House on Radnor Cliff - which continues today as a residential home.

He used the local area for inspiration in both his books The Sea Lady and Kipps.

Charles Dickens

Perhaps the greatest author of all time and surely one of the most influential, Dickens' links with the county are well known.

From his family home at Gad's Hill in Higham - now a public school - to his heavy use of Rochester in his books, he also penned David Copperfield while staying in Fort House in Broadstairs - a prominent building whose name changed in his honour to Bleak House.

Whether it was actually the building which inspired the book of the same name remains something of a thorny subject, but his patronage has ensured the Thanet town remains very much on the trail of literary tourists.

From the Medway marshes to a graveyard in Cooling, he drew on his surroundings for books which defined the Victorian era and set a standard for all others to follow.

EL James

If ever you needed prove of the old adage 'sex sells' then look no further than former University of Kent scholar EL James - real name Erika Leonard.

Her Fifty Shades of Grey series have sold a staggering 125 million copies worldwide and spawned three - critically derided - movies.

Photographer turned artist Raphael Mazzucco presents a Fifty Shades of Grey art collection at Bluewater with author E.L. James
Photographer turned artist Raphael Mazzucco presents a Fifty Shades of Grey art collection at Bluewater with author E.L. James

But she's unlikely to be too bothered about their reception given she has a net worth estimated to now be around the £70 million mark.

She's, er, come a long way since studying in Canterbury but her influence has kick-started the erotic fiction craze.

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