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Strange but not true: treacle mines and other tall tales from the Garden of England

If you've got any family history in Tovil, Frittenden, Lamberhurst or Challock , then you may well have heard stories of grandfathers and great-grandfathers coming home caked in thick treacle, and of how they needed to bathe for long hours in hot, weak acid to clean themselves up.

Or perhaps you will have heard the tragic tale of when heavy rain caused the shafts leading to the seams at Challock to overflow, and a terrifying pyroclastic wall of thick treacle swept down on the nearby villages of Boughton and Westwell, destroying both communities.

Miners working at a Kent colliery coalface in the 1920s. There are no known images of Kent treacle miners
Miners working at a Kent colliery coalface in the 1920s. There are no known images of Kent treacle miners

Fortunately, if you have heard such tragic tales, you will probably also know they're a total lie.

Cumbria might play host to the World's Biggest Liar competition, but at the opposite end of the country, the Garden of England is riddled with more than its fare share of befuddling tall tales and wind-ups.

Tales of treacle mining aren't unique to Kent, but the fictitious mines were once as ubiquitous here as real coal mines in Wales.

Why they started is unclear, but according to one theory, stories of the mines sprang up in the mid 19th Century in parallel with the rise of tourism - as a way of testing the gullibility of out-of-towners. And the theory might explain why Kent itself became riddled with so many of the non-existent mines, with day-trippers from London no doubt a common easy target for the ruse.

In Maidstone, the paper mills owned by Albert E. Reed became known as "The Tovil Treacle Mines" - and the company helped propagate the myth with a treacle mine-themed float in Maidstone carnival.

A Frittenden Treacle Mines Wagon on the Kent and East Sussex Railway. Picture Rikdom@flickr
A Frittenden Treacle Mines Wagon on the Kent and East Sussex Railway. Picture Rikdom@flickr

Nowadays tales of treacle mines are heard less frequently, and are even less frequently believed. The rise of the internet has made it harder to dupe the unwary traveller, and treacle mines are almost a byword for a piece of humorous whimsy - prompting, for example, a flurry of humorous letters to the Kentish Express on the subject back in 2003, in which correspondents made increasingly outlandish claims about the mines.

"Before the discovery of custard below the Melborn rock strata, no one had any interest in prunes, rhubarb or trifle", wrote Jeremy Shirley of Challock, while M Stuart of Kennington wrote descriptively of "miners working waist-deep in treacle with little room to wield the spoons with which the tins were filled..."

Which is a ridiculous claim, because anyone with any grounding in treacle mining knows the raw substance has to be cut from the rock bed with bladed shovels, before being heat-treated and filtered to a point where it can be manipulated with spoons.

Indeed you might wonder why the people of Challock and Frittenden are so keen to make light of the treacle mines myth. Could the truth be that the Treacle Mines "joke" is actually a way of disguising the Treacle Mines reality... and of jealously protecting a precious resource?

A more thorough investigation might be needed - but let's not get too bogged down in the sticky treacle mines debate. They are merely the opening to a deep labryinth of deception running far into the twisted historical psyche of the county; a history which arguably began with the...

White Horse Stone, and other stones of dubious origin:

Sitting square and flat bottomed at the edge of some woods at the base of Blue Bell Hill, like a ten ton sandstone cap atop the entrance of a secret treacle mine, is the White Horse Stone.

The White Horse Stone
The White Horse Stone

Legend has it the stone marks the resting place of the legendary Horsa, who along with his brother Hengist is said to have led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in their invasion of Britain in the 5th century; and who battled against British leader Vortigern beneath Blue Bell Hill. They lost, and Horsa was buried there, but his brother Henigst went on to defeat the Britons and become the first King of Kent.

Or maybe they didn't. And maybe they didn't exist at all.

Hengist and Horsa come ashore - with their standard bearing a white horse
Hengist and Horsa come ashore - with their standard bearing a white horse

The Anglo-Saxons did ultimately take control of the county, but some scholars say Hengist and Horsa themselves are a figment of the Saxon imagination - and suggest the twins are part of pan-Germanic myth, stemming originally from divine twins found in Proto-Indo-European religion. Which in other words means they were about as real as a treacle mine.

But that of course is just a theory. The main problem with the 'Horsa's gravestone' idea, is that the White Horse Stone and other surrounding Medway Megaliths - including the nearby Kit's Coty House and Little Kit's Coty House, along with the Chestnuts, Addington Long Barrow and Coldrum Stones at Ryarsh - all date back to around 4000BC.

That makes them more than 1000 years older than Stonehenge, and means they were sitting doing nothing for thousands of years before the Saxons turned up.

Kits Coty near Aylesford
Kits Coty near Aylesford

Originally communal tombs known as longbarrows, these megaliths lost their original purpose over time, and their identity became mixed up in the stories and legends of subsequent generations.

Of the many unlikely stories, one of the unlikeliest surrounds that of Little Kit's Coty House. A collapsed burial chamber, the confused jumble of sarsen stones that remain at the site also go by the name of the "Countless Stones", for legend has it they are impossible to count - an idea which many dispute, because there are 21 of them.

Little Kits Coty - known also as the Countless Stones
Little Kits Coty - known also as the Countless Stones

Mystery also surrounds the origin and destiny of the now vanished "General's Tombstone", a huge monolith which once stood 70-80 yards from Kits Coty, which according to notes in Kent County Council's online archives, was buried by a tenant in 1787. We can only guess at why. Perhaps this huge stone, associated with a pagan past, was felt to hold dark powers, standing as a beacon for the souls of ancient dead warriors - or perhaps it merely got in the way of a farmer's plough.

Any or all of those theories could also explain why a farmer dug up the General's Tombstone in 1867, and blew it up.

And so the General's Tombstone was consigned to legend - as was the farmer, who shortly after was swallowed up when a crevasse opened beneath him as he walked up Blue Bell Hill, and was never seen again. Actually, that's a complete lie invented for the purposes of this article. Do not repeat it, or you'll be cursed for a thousand years, or something.

Another 'genuine' Victorian account, relates to the testimony of a vicar Edward H.ne (to protect him, his full name was not provided in the original account), who while returning to Burham from a visit to Boxley Church, was apparently chased to the "Druid's Stone" - aka the White Horse Stone - by "a lean grey dog with upstanding ears" which he said "appeared as big as a calf."

Was it a phantom dog, or simply a playful Irish Wolfhound? Or perhaps it was something else entirely, such as...

The Great Dogg of Trottiscliffe, and other hellish beasts

When is a big cat, not a big cat? When it's the "Great Dogg of Trottiscliffe". That's dogg with two Gs, in case anyone's in any doubt over the monstrous credentials of this serious beast.

But without wishing to be disparaging to the chroniclers of times gone by, it seems many had trouble identifying basic species; which is maybe why some modern writers - such as Susan McGowan in her book The A-Z of Curious Kent - theorise the 'Great Dogg' legend of Trottiscliffe actually centred around a big cat.

Some say black leopards are at large in the Kent countryside, and some say they aren't
Some say black leopards are at large in the Kent countryside, and some say they aren't

Originally recorded by 19th Century writer Charles Igglesden, in his book Saunters in Kent, the Great Dogg is said to have attacked and killed travellers on several occassions, but while there are no recorded modern accounts of such a beast, there are alleged sighting of big cats at large on the North Downs.

Then again, who's to say the Great Dogg of Trottiscliffe wasn't some kind of Hellhound a'la The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Black Shuck of Norfolk legend, who terrorised the inhabitants of Blythburgh and besieged them in a church?

Of course, sceptics will suggest most of the so called "big cats" spotted in the Kent countryside are actually medium sized dogs, and it's fair to say the typical description following a glimpsed sighting of a "big cat" will often describe it as black and "about the size of a Labrador". Which means they could possibly be Labradors.

Could black labradors be responsible for most "big cat" sightings in Kent?
Could black labradors be responsible for most "big cat" sightings in Kent?

If they are, those mischievous escaped Labradors have done an effective job of winding-up villagers along the North Downs and beyond, spawning legends of the Beast of Boxley, the Beast of Blue Bell Hill, and the Sheppey Beast.

And then of course there's the Hucking Beast, with a name that somehow suggests something less terrifying and monstrous, and more familiar and annoying.

Farmer 1: "That damn thing's chewed its way through the fence again..."

Farmer 2: "What, the fox has got in there?"

Farmer 1: "No, it's that Hucking Beast."

Whatever the origin of these beastly tales, be they black leopards, lynx, Labrador, or Wolfhounds; all these beasts must bow down to....

Crabzilla:

The King of the Crabs, Captain of the Crustaceans, Supreme Shaman of the Shellfish...

Before Crabzilla scuttled into the lives of the good people of Kent, the idea of a 50 foot crab lurking off the British coast was the stuff of nightmares and ludicrous fantasy.

The canning factory has not been constructed that could can... Crabzilla
The canning factory has not been constructed that could can... Crabzilla

And fortunately it still is, because Crabzilla was a massive hoax - but a magnificent one nonetheless.

It all began back in October 2014 - when a realistic satellite image, appearing to show a massive crab in the sea next to Whitstable Harbour, appeared on supernatural website Weird Whitstable.

According to the website the crab had been spotted by two boys at the popular crabbing spot.

"This shocking image of a giant crab under a popular crabbing spot in Whitstable was taken last weekend," it added."The boys were unaware of the danger, but as several passersbys shouted to them, the crab slipped silently away under the water, into the dark, sideways."

Nonsense, you might say, but it wasn't long before media coverage of the shocking image went global - which was slightly odd, considering the picture was obviously fake.

The image that spawned a legend. Artist Quinton Winter had no idea what Crabzilla would become.
The image that spawned a legend. Artist Quinton Winter had no idea what Crabzilla would become.

Nevertheless, by that time the crab had gained a name, Crabzilla, and earned its place in Kentish folklore - even though Whitstable artist Quinton Winter admitted he'd knocked up the picture of Crabzilla using a satellite image and a photo of a common crab.

He's probably been dining out on the story ever since; which is preferable to Crabzilla dining out on the population of Whitstable.

If Crabzilla had been real, perhaps he'd turned up in vengeance for....

The Shell Grotto in Margate:

Said to be studded with 4.6 million shells, the Shell Grotto is an ornate subterranean passageway lying beneath a cottage in Margate - but who made it, why and when?

Now a popular visitor attraction, the Shell Grotto's website states there are various theories around its nature and origin, but none are conclusive - some preferring to believe it was an ancient temple from antiquity, others suspecting it was a latter-day folly built for amusement.

The Shell Grotto in Margate
The Shell Grotto in Margate

Whatever the truth, no one of modern times knew about Margate's shell grotto until an article appeared inthe Kentish Mercury on May 9 1838.

It read: "Belle Vue cottage, a detached residence, has lately been purchased by a gentleman, who, having occasion for some alterations, directed the workmen to excavate some few feet, during which operation the work was impeded a large stone, the gentleman being immediately called to the spot, directed a minute examination, which led to the discovery of an extensive grotto, completely studded with shells in curious devices, most elaborately worked up, extending an immense distance in serpentine walks, alcoves, and lanes, the whole forming one of the most curious and interesting sights that can possibly conceived, and must have been executed by torch light. We understand the proprietor intends shortly to open the whole for exhibition, at small charge for admission."

And they're still charging for admission.

One thing's for sure, that gentleman and all who followed must have been surely glad he made those "alterations", or the Shell Grotto might never have been found at all.

If only those workman had dug a bit further, they might have hit treacle and really hit the big time.

But it wasn't to be. Finally, from the depths of the Shell Grotto, it’s time to don our mountaineering equipment and head of the lofty heights of Romney Marsh, making sure we’ve got the phone number handy for...

Romney Marsh Mountain Rescue team:

Are you getting tired of this by now? So are the Romney Marsh Mountain Rescue Team.

The highlands of Romney Marsh
The highlands of Romney Marsh

Apparently you used to be able to buy T-shirts and other memorabilia from the Romney Marsh Mountain Rescue Team, which created much mirth due to the fact the Marsh is very flat and has not one mountain.

But while there are still a few mentions on Google and a neglected Facebook page, it seems the joke ran its course.

As has this article.

For less-tiresome, actual real news, click here .

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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