All Quiet on the Western Heights ?
When someone mentions the Kent coastal town of Dover, what immediately comes to mind?
Dover Castle, the English Heritage historic property that proudly overlooks the town? The iconic White Cliffs of Dover as immortalised in song? Dover sole, maybe, the popular restaurant fish dish? Or perhaps, the Dover to Calais ferry? More recently, it might be the town as a centre for migrants from the continent and further afield.
In truth, Dover is all these things. And more.
What probably isn’t mentioned too often is the Western Heights – an undulating long hilly steep grass bank of land set back from the sea on the road to Folkestone. From the top you can look out to the Marina in front and gaze across the town down to the east and take in the Castle and the start of the White Cliffs walk on to St Margaret’s. Of course, you can also watch the ferries come and go and stare out to Calais just 22 miles away. So everything you might associate with Dover is visible in one long sweeping gorgeous vista. The advantage is that while you’re admiring the view, you’re also standing on an area rich in history and natural beauty of its very own.
So, if you like exploring over bastions, barracks and forts; not to mention going down deep into grand shafts this is the place for you. You can wander across lost citadels and walk along vast earthworks. It’s the perfect place to re-charge your batteries – more of which later.
We visited Western Heights recently to celebrate my birthday. Let’s just say it was a special one. The halfway mark to getting a telegram from the Queen. Passing the roundabout turnoff to the Western Heights we parked down in the Marina area and headed to the Waterfront café owned by the Best Western chain. The front boasts a whole block of grand Victorian edifices and the Waterloo Mansions are particularly impressive with individual well-kept gardens adorned with spring flowers and ornamental statues.
Part of the Marina buildings have been sympathetically converted into the De Bradelei Warf shopping centre – a row of ‘out of town’ designer discount concessions. Magda may have been swayed by the shops but my head was turned by the view behind of the imposing Western Heights and what looked like battle lines being drawn into the folds of the hill. I couldn’t wait to climb the hill and see for myself the fortifications and citadels built over two centuries; first started during the War of American Independence and then developed to combat the threat of a Napoleonic invasion and later updated over both World Wars.
Eventually, Magdalena’s curiosity was spent – although fortunately not on any actual purchases. So we drove up the old Military Road and parked in the English Heritage car park at the start of the walk on the western edge of the Heights. Even here, the views were impressive and we were lucky that on a clear sunny day everything seemed so clear and in focus down to the last detail of the red smudge on the beaks of the swirling seagulls above. Truly, we could see for miles and miles and miles.
The Heights are well served by a large number of maps and guides which set out various trails and paths. Additionally, there are a series of information boards to mark the spot of various barracks, hospital and kitchen built to support a sizeable garrison of soldiers whose job it was to defend the fortifications from foreign attack and ensure that the port never fell into enemy hands. The fortifications were manned until 1961.
Back to those batteries – re-charged or otherwise! St Martin’s Battery has gun turrets, cannon positions and pillboxes with grassy tops for camouflage and wavy brickwork to confuse enemy aircraft. The ‘lost’ citadels, sunken into the hillside are every bit as imposing in their own way as those of Dover Castle itself.
All in all, the scale of the battle works is immense, the various fortifications imposing and the views spectacular. It doesn’t require too much imagination to picture soldiers of any era from Napoleonic, Victorian to WW2 parading along the front or re-charging the guns.
But it’s not all about the smoke of the gunpowder or the rattle of anti-aircraft guns. The social history of the life of the soldiers is well documented too. The discipline, particularly in the early days was harsh and relentless. Ordinary privates existed on meagre diet of porridge and coffee, meat and potatoes with suet pudding thrown in, sometimes, for good measure. There appears to have been a good measure of potatoes but the meat was often of dubious quality. The unvarying diet must have complemented all too well the repetitive drills and exercises designed to maintain battle readiness.
More information on the history of the Western Heights can be found via English Heritage who maintain the site http://www.english-eritage.org.uk/visit/places/western-heights-dover/history/
The Western Heights Preservation Society also conducts guided tours in the summer and can be found at www.doverwesternheights.org . Some sites such as the Drop Redoubt and the Grand Shaft are also open to the public on particular days or an admission charge. There are also battle and camp re-enactment weekends.
As the late afternoon wintry sun was setting, we took one last look at the commanding view from the Heights and slowly made our way back down to the Marina.
Earlier, Magda had spotted the Hythe Bar seafood restaurant which occupies a lovely spot on the esplanade overlooking the Harbour. http://www.hythebay.co.uk/dover/dover.html
Well, as we were in Dover, we weren’t about to order burgers! The restaurant is light and airy with a modern, contemporary feel about the décor and a relaxed ambiance. We enjoyed seafood chowder and a ‘special’ of piquant prawns. For mains, obligatory fish and chips was crisp and plentiful with a taste which the soldiers on the Heights could only have dreamed of. Madga’s Pan Fried Sea Bass was tender and we both just about managed desserts.
Magda was not disappointed with the Dark Chocolate Marquise which was served with Morello Cherries and Black Cherry Sorbet. My more conventional choice of Bread and Butter Pudding with Crème Anglaise was soft and definitely creamy. The staff were attentive and we found time to have a pleasant chat about plans for Dover’s future development.
We’ve already made plans to come back to the Western Heights in the summer. So once you’ve gone down the Great Shaft with its three grand spiral staircases look up the Hythe Bar seafood restaurant for a pleasant way to finish the day.
Maybe, next time we’ll have the Dover Sole!
What’s the closest point on the English coast to France? Wrong! It’s not Dover, but actually St Margaret’s Bay, a spot about three miles north and east of the famous ferry port. The Bay and the nearby pretty little village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe was the starting point for our recent walk along the White Cliffs with Calais shimmering in the haze across the 18 miles of the Channel that separates England from France.
We had intended to start the walk at the White Cliff’s Visitor Centre in Dover but my navigation took us off the A2 early which was fortuitous as not only is St Margaret’s at Cliffe worth a visit in its own right but it also has a free car park. When out for the day, Magdalena’s logic is that any money saved from entrance fees or in this case car parking should be spent on ‘appropriate provisions’ for the journey. And as soon as possible, which is why she made an immediate bee-line for a local shop and boosted its sales with a bottle of water and an raspberry ice lolly. At least she got to taste the lolly which is more that can be said for my purchase of a Soreen malted loaf. But more (or should that be less) of that later.
Magdalena may have been quick but Vodaphone were even quicker in texting to inform me that I was now in France and different charge rates applied. Toute suite indeed but at least stocked up with provisions we were pret a manger!
Various informative display boards told us a little of the village, the Norman church and its previous famous inhabitants. It seemed Ian Fleming sold a house to Noel Coward nearby. Maybe they swopped stories on a summer day’s looking out to sea?
‘Any need for paperwork, Ian?’ –
‘No, Noel, as you know, my Bond is my word!’
Fleming would then call for a Martini shaken not stirred, but Coward would be already heading inside for the shade of the veranda, declaring that he wouldn’t give a mad dog for an Englishman out in the midday sun.
Peter Cushing was also a frequent visitor to St Margaret’s but his house was more likely to have been a Hammer House of Horror and probably perched high on a hill, off the beaten track and in need of some tender loving care – as the local estate agent might have put it.
After looking around the village for a while and noting the Cliffe Tavern as nice place to eat in the evening, we walked down towards the Bay. You can lengthen the walk by following the signs and heading west to take in the Dover Memorial monument.
Halfway down to the coast, nestled into the cliffs is the environmentally friendly Pine Garden area with six acres of gently undulating parkland and garden features and a tea house and museum across the path. Fronted by huge pine trees, it’s an ideal secluded place to stop for a while, but having visited before, we pressed on to the Bay itself which is where Channel swimmers take their first or last dip in the water.
The proximity of the continent gives the coastline and the surrounding cliffs a special feel and retracing our steps back up the hill, we found the chalk of the White Cliffs trail and the tranquil gardens were quickly replaced by coarse grass and windswept trees, braced by the constant buffeting of the Channel cross winds.
There are several walks across the cliffs and a variety of walks and walkers criss- cross the coastline. So soon after VE day, it seemed strangely appropriate to hear both French and German voices carrying across on the currents. The great thing about the cliff top walk is that there is no single cliff but a series of protruding ledges some more precipitous than others but most journeys pass by South Foreland Lighthouse, now owned by National Trust.
On a sunny day, its gleaming white exterior bids a cheerful welcome and Mrs Knott’s tea room inside offers a selection of cakes and bakes as well as an equally welcome comfort break from the wind. Named after the wife of the last lighthouse master, the tea rooms retain much of their original period décor and we weren’t the only couple to take photos of the quaint porcelain cups and china tea pots.
The tea stand had copies of old newspapers and commemorative issues of royal celebrations and I drank my speciality tea reading the Daily Telegraph’s account of the historic landing of the first man on the moon in 1969. Then I found the cricket pages and the report of Hampshire’s not so historic victory over Surrey in the John Player League somehow occupied my attention until Magdalena declared it was time to go.
After walking a little while longer, we ate our sandwiches tucked into a slightly less windy spot and I discovered that my pack of Soreen had somehow fallen out of my bag, perhaps when we were looking at maps earlier on the way. I hope it was picked by animal or human and went to a good home. Either way, both my bag and my stomach were a little lighter for its passing.
Over the next hill, down below we saw Dover harbour and out to sea the steady stream of ferries sedately crossing the channel. We were now walking across Langdon cliffs. Having read up a little bit before the trip, I knew this was the place to see Exmoor ponies and when we fell into conversation with a local woman bemoaning the state of shopping in Dover I asked about the ponies if only to change the subject. She promptly declared that she had been coming to this spot for many years but had never seen any ponies – despite the fact that a nearby display featured equine drawings.
Eventually our longer legs took us ahead of the woman and round the next bay several distinctive black ponies duly appeared on higher hilly ground close to us. I looked round and spotted the woman on the trail below. We decided not to hang around to share this happy moment and perhaps the ponies left before she arrived leaving only enough evidence of their droppings. That and the realisation if you look out to sea for France you aren’t going to sea ponies or even see Exmoor Ponies on land.
There’s a car park just before the White Cliffs Visitor Experience. At the back somewhat out of site, there’s also a display board unhelpfully facing away from the path and towards the terraces. It informs visitors that they are standing on what was once a prison, built in 1884 for convicts to help in the construction of the port. In 1908 the prison was converted into army barracks. On this sober note, Magdalena quickly headed back into the sanctuary of the tea room for more rations of an altogether different kind.
The great thing about turning round and retracing your steps is that you get to see and experience all the things you missed first time round. And so on our return journey, we took a slightly different route and spotted lumps of coal from seams buried deep under the chalk and evidence of rail sleepers still protruding from the soil to transport the coal to the harbour at Dover.
We saw the white windmill behind the lighthouse with a revolving cap that turned towards the wind, built as late as 1929 – the last windmill to be built in Kent. We saw the work that has begun to restore and open to the public Deep Fan Bay Shelter which provided wartime accommodation for hundreds of soldiers of the Fan Bay gun battery.
In short, we began to truly experience the myriad of human endeavours across the cliffs and across the ages to use the natural environment of the White Cliffs for profit, or defence or to just live between the cliff and the coast, between chalk and coal, in peace and in war. We saw lots of things but we never saw my pack of Soreen.
It’s Easter Bank Holiday Saturday. There are strong, gale force winds forecast and already people are huddled into their coats, heads forward, eyes down, hands thrust deep into pockets. Except those who are trying to keep their wholly hats on. There’s a definite threat of rain in the air. It’s murky and the sea is a grainy shade of grey.
And we‘ve decided to visit Ramsgate.
But all is not lost. The cunning plan is to visit the wartime tunnels which served as air raid shelters for the town during the second world war. No wind. No rain. And the temperature is a constant 11 degrees celsius which will make it warmer than walking along the promenade.
We park just off Marina Esplande and near Granville Theatre. Unbeknown to us at the time, we are actually on top of the very tunnel we’ve come to visit. When it comes to finding a place, Magdalena and I have very different approaches. She reads a map and I ask for directions. So, by the time a very kind lady out walking her dog has pointed out the way, she’s already halfway there bounding down the steps to the shore and the tunnel entrance.
The tunnels were only re-opened to the public in May 2014 having been completed in just nine months in 1939 as war clouds loomed all too prominently on the horizon. Later, David, our guide, tells us that it took the same length of time seventy years later to get BT to install telephone cables into the tunnels.
Built on the site of a former railway tunnel which closed in 1926, www.ramsgatetunnels.org now offer guided tours allowing visitors to explore over a kilometre of deep shelter tunnels dug up to 100 metres under the town. Arriving shortly before the 12.00 tour, we hadn’t booked tickets and so felt lucky that there were still places available on the last tour of the day at 4pm.
There’s a little retro café shop at the entrance and a free museum dedicated to Operation Dynamo and Ramsgate’s role in the evacuation of over 300,000 British troops from Dunkirk in 1940. We looked around the various displays, ration cards, tunnel passes and old photos of life in the tunnels during the war.
Having a couple of hours or so to spare, we decided to walk around the town.
After a while, we realised that there was only going to be one winner trying to walk uphill into the wind and it wasn’t going to be us. And so before the wind stopped us, altogether, we stopped at Albion House www.albionhouseramsgate.co.uk for coffee and cakes.
Perched high on East Cliff, overlooking the Royal Harbour, it was built in 1791 and is surrounded by beautiful Regency architecture and crescents. It was the perfect setting to enjoy a break from the blasts outside which had practically blown us into the tea room. The coffee cake was as sumptuous as the surroundings and regency style chairs added to the ambience. We paused there as long as we could until we realised that tunnel time was fast approaching. At least it was down hill this time.
And so it was back to the tunnels. With 14 entrances above ground, the tunnels were built to provide shelter to up to 60,000 people during a bombing raid. At the time, the railway tracks were still present and ‘tunnel town’ as it was called must have resembled a shanty town akin to that of the navvies who built the original tunnels into Ramsgate. Having been bombed during the first world war, the town’s mayor, successfully petitioned have the shelters built
The plans were considerably aided by the fact that an enterprising railway company had built the tunnel right under the cliffs and into the heart of Ramsgate and to the seafront – to allow for tourists to be transported directly to the Merrie England amusement park on the promenade. A couple of the original fun fair rides are on display in the tunnel entrance. The original and current railway station is over a mile away, in land.
The tour begins with a short video and footage of the aftermath of the devastating air raid of 24 August 1940 when 29 civilians died as a result of Luftwaffe bombing. Hundreds of homes were damaged and people ended up living in the shelters until other temporary accommodation could be provided.
Next, we donned hard hats and lights and embarked upon our journey through the tunnels. Along the way we passed bunk beds and a series of hollowed out entrances where chemical toilets were placed. The guide kept us entertained with stories of life in the shelters. The right hand side of toilets were meant to be for ladies and the left for gents. But men caught short after a night drinking weren’t too particular about which side of the tunnel they used.
Some parts of the tunnels closer to the surface were reinforced with concrete but even so, a nearby hit overhead could still be felt underground. On one occasion, a bomb knocked out all lighting in the shelters and when the guide instructed us to turn off our own lights it was a eerie feeling to be suddenly plunged into total darkness, if only for a few seconds.
During the tour we stopped at a flight of stairs which led up to the very entrance near where we had parked. When the sirens sounded, local residents had only five minutes to get to the safety of the shelter. The entrance was wider from the ground to allow for quicker passage through the tunnel but even so, around 1, 500 people would quickly stop whatever they were doing and descend from this point into the safety of the shelter.
After the war, the tunnels were largely neglected and entrances were hastily blocked up or vandalised or just fell into disrepair. A town busy re-building for a new age didn’t have the funds to maintain its underground heritage. Local residents used the tunnels to get from one part of the town to another and avoid the rain! It was said that Ramsgate was a town where the kids didn’t hang around on the street corners, they played underground instead.
There are plans to open up another section of the tunnels which are currently blocked due to a subsidence which would allow a further section to be explored.
The tour lasts up to an hour and a half and is well lit and not claustrophobic in the least. The floor surface, although uneven parts is easily walkable, and the height of the tunnels allows all but the tallest to pass through without much discomfort.
It finishes with a series of mocks up of how the improvised accommodation would have been constructed. Usually this consisted of Hessian sacks strung up for curtains and a bit of privacy if that was possible. Rushing into the shelter must have been a nerve-wracking experience in itself. Rivaled only by leaving after the ‘all clear’ siren was sounded in the hope that your house was still intact.
These days we take so many things for granted. Privations even for the shortest period of time are loudly complained about and endured with a sense of indignity of ‘why us?’
We left with a sense of appreciation of the fortitude of human spirit and even the blast of wind that greeted us on the seafront didn’t seem that bad.
Millions of words must have been written in praise of Canterbury since Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales in the late fourteenth century.
And indeed most of them, whether reverential, spiritual or just appreciative, have hardly been misplaced. It is a truly wonderful city – although whether the post war town planners preserved its heart or else embalmed and cut off its lifeblood amid a series of arterial roadways, junctions and contraflows, is quite another matter. So, let’s visit Canterbury!
Most travellers head for the Cathedral or the Cathedral Church of Christ, Canterbury, if you want to be precise. But if you want to visit and even older building and find peace and contemplation, I suggest you go to St Augustine’s Abbey instead (English Heritage). You’ll find plenty of saints but fewer sinners. When I went there couldn’t have been more than a dozen souls in a vast expanse – although the Cathedral was in view most of the time.
I suppose I’ve always enjoyed visiting historic Abbeys. It’s partly the cut away nature of the ruins that allows more than a slice of the imagination to fill in the gaps. Castles are all very well, but trying to picture the life of medieval monks does require a certain amount of contemplation. In reality, there were often relatively few monks and it was the lay brothers and others who did most of the actual work, required to support a lifetime of prayer and remembrance.
And so to the saints resting after their temporal labours! Apart from St Augustine himself, it’s the burial place of his successors, Saints, Lawrence, Mellitus and Justus. There also space for early Saxon kings, such as Ethelbert’s tower and Queen Bertha, commemorated by a Queen-in gate. The Normans extended the original church and the twin western towers were the last to be completed by Abbot Hugh I in 1120. At the time the Abbey and the Cathedral, both Benedictine houses would have looked similar. The ruins of the chapel of St Pancras are partly built of Roman brick and thought to date from the 7th century. The built up remains of Abbot Wulfric’s rotunda are also clearly visible and just pre-date the Norman Conquest.
At the Dissolution, the church was largely torn down with stone being transported across the Channel to aid the defences of the castle at Calais.
The Abbey became a sort of royal staging post on the London to Dover route as can be seen from Tudor brickwork above the blocked up Norman arcades on the north aisle. Work must have been completed in double quick time, because Anne of Cleeves stayed there in 1539 on her way to an ill fated marriage with Henry VIII.
This and not the cathedral was the original centre of Christianity in England. Overlooking the cathedral, the Abbey was itself overlooked and its significance largely forgotten until the early nineteeth century. Close by is St Augustine’s College, built in the 1840’s to train missionaries across the Empire. It was the college’s founders who were largely responsible for putting the Abbey back on the historic map and beginning restoration work. It’s now King’s School and is distinguished by an impressive Abbey Gate, (Fyndon’s Gate) built around 1300 by Abbot Fyndon.
Nearby is St Martin’s Church which can claim to be the oldest church in regular use in England since it’s though to even pre-date the building of the Abbey. The oldest parts of St Martin’s are probably Roman with Saxon additions. It’s certainly worth a visit as part of a trip to both Cathedral and Abbey.
The Abbey is a pleasant place to stop and wonder, and then wander about in peace a amid the ruined stonework and grassy banks; appropriately enough all the while just a stone’s throw from the centre of the modern city.
Magdalena’s birthday was coming up and so was the inevitable question – where should we go to celebrate? Every year had followed a similar pattern; a trip to London involving a museum or exhibition; a nice meal and culminating with taking in a West End show. Well, this year it was time for change. Handmade Kent (there’s a clue in the title) is all about extolling the many pleasures of the Kent countryside and coastline. So, having previously visited Rochester, Reculver, and Margate, I decided to continue our journey along the north east coast to the pretty seaside town of Broadstairs.
We arrived about 10.00 and our thoughts immediately turned to breakfast. Several places caught our eye but we eventually plumped for the Royal Albion Hotel with a view of Viking Bay. The interior was dark brown leather sofas and wooden tables set against a light white background with an airy relaxed atmosphere. My full English was a predictable choice but certainly hit the spot and the Americano coffee left a pleasantly frothy yet bitter taste. The birthday girl was a little more stylish in her choice – Eggs Benedict topped off with salmon.
We very nearly visited the museum inside Crampton Tower by the railway station but instead decided to walk off the excellent food with a wander along the bay. Actually Broadstairs has seven bays. The town’s main beach Viking Bay is horse shaped with a pleasant cliff top promenade walk and several foreign schoolchildren groups were screaming happily as they braved each other to splash into the sea. Why do I get the impression that for tourists to actually swim in the North Sea they would have to scream first?
Accidentally on purpose, our leisurely walk took us in the direction of Morelli’s Gelato on Victoria Parade. Morelli’s first opened their ice cream parlour in the thirties and is something of a Broadstairs institution. Although we’d hardly yet walked off our breakfast, we quickly found we’d walked into an ice cream purple heaven. I took a deep breath and ordered a conventional banana milkshake, and soon found that Magdalena wasn’t going to be so unimaginative. Her only problem was to choose just three flavours. Several head scratching moments later and she was walking back with pistachio, hazelnut and mint ice cream which occupied her attention for a good half an hour.
So far, we’d eaten, gone for a walk and then eaten again. So it was time for another walk; this time to the village of St Peter’s about twenty minutes inland. The reason for visiting this lovely village was because I’d booked a St Peter’s Village Historic tour. This was a two-hour walking tour of the village interspersed with a series of entertaining costumed presentations about the sights, buildings, history and characters of the village. The walk only covers about a mile in total, which gives you an idea of the number of engaging group and individual activities along the way. The quality of the acting may have varied at times but the enthusiasm of the volunteers never wavered.
We quickly learnt about Methodism and smuggling, conditions in the workhouse and breakfast concerts for the fashionable elite of Broadstairs. Humour was never far from the presentations, especially from the trio of reprobates lying locked in the stocks who traded repartee in between telling us how they’d ended up in such an unfortunate and lowly position.
There can’t be much more enjoyable ways of learning about Broadstairs’ rich history. But eventually we had to drag ourselves away, only because I’d booked afternoon tea at Bleak House. Well, after a two hour walk, not to mention another half hour back to the coastal cliff top location, we were in need of more food.
Now a hotel, Bleak House, was the former home of Charles Dickens. You can visit the study where he wrote ‘David Copperfield’ and the upright writing board which allowed him to gaze at the sea view for inspiration. There is also a Smuggling Museum which houses various exhibits and artefacts from local shipwrecks. It was originally a fort and is the only four story grade II listed mansion in Broadstairs – although it has been enlarged since Dickens’ time.
We ate inside in an ornate room although we could have chosen to battle with the swooping seagulls out on the terrace.
The complimentary bubbly was a nice touch and the staff kept refreshing our tea, which was served in a huge pot. There was a selection of sandwiches, fruit scones, clotted cream, mini patisseries and preserves and we had plenty of time to admire the grandeur of the surroundings while steadily working our way to the top of the tea stand.
We slowly walked down a series of winding alleyways back the town. By now the afternoon sun had given way to persistent light drizzle and we stopped by the Palace Cinema. Built in 1911 it was formerly a puppet hall and most of the a hundred or so seats are below street level, which gives it the appearance of being smaller than it really is. Whatever its actual size it looks decidedly quaint from the outside. Sadly for us, all the tickets for that’s night performance were already sold out for. Screenings are often preceded by a live music performance by the resident organist who also co-owns the cinema. The cinema’s website has a link where you can see a clip of him playing.
The light was fading as we walked back to the car but over a month later, as I write this piece, the memories are still vivid. The bright lights of London may have their attraction but the look in Magdalena’s eyes outshone them all as we left Broadstairs glittering in the distance.
‘Dirty Dartford; peculiar people. They bury their dead above the steeple’!
What a strange way of starting a blog post about a Dartford history, but like many an old saying there’s a grain of truth in the dig at the folk of this corner of North West Kent. The cemetery at East Hill is above the Church at St.Edmunds Burial Ground but there’s never been a steeple. Brush away the ‘dirt’ and you’ll find all sorts of people – peculiar or otherwise – have been crossing Dartford since time immemorial. Indeed, the town’s very name comes from the ford – or bridge – at the crossing of the river Darenth. Nowadays the words ‘Dartford Crossing’ mean something very different to the thousands of motorists who daily drive across into Essex and beyond racing past the recently de-commissioned toll booths.
Dartford can truly claim to have a first class carriage to itself as the early inventor of steam engines, Richard Trevithick lived, worked and died in the town. A pioneer of steam whose fortunes rose and fell with the regularity of one of his engine pumps, he died a pauper and was buried in the cemetery. At the time Trevithick was lodging in the Bull public house which still stands in the centre of the town and his body was carried up the hill. Penniless at his death he was interred in an unmarked grave. Today a plaque marks the approximate spot. A giant of a man for his time, in height as well as vision, so in death, he looks out over the town and indeed the railway station. It’s there that a series of plaques to commentate the development of the train records Trevithick’s ‘Catch me who Can’ 1808 early steam powered locomotive.
In honour of Trevithick, I caught the train to Dartford and crossed the bridge by the Orchard Theatre and the space recently vacated by Waitrose and descended into the town. The bridge across the river Darenth is not far away. Sir Edmund Spencer’s epic Elizabethan poem Faerie Queen records the river as ‘the silver Darenth, in those waters, cleane, ten thousand fishes play’. Today, you can follow its course southwards through the park behind the public library and museum via the Darenth Valley Path. About five miles down river is Lullingstone Castle and the Roman Villa which is owned by English Heritage and makes for a pleasant summer walk.
But back to the town. Holy Trinity church on the western side of the river is an impressive flint and stone building with a compact square tower. Inside there’s a monument to Sir John Spilman, who started a paper mill nearby, a traditional industry associated with the town and nearby Horton Kirby. The coat of arms of his wife, reveals a man dressed in a jester’s cap, which also appears on their tomb. The story is that this may be the original of the term ‘foolscap’? Apart from the Bull, the other notable pub is the half timbered Wat Tyler, on the corner of Bullace Lane. Tradition has it as a stopping point for Tyler and his band of rebels on their way to London and a parley with the young King Richard II.
The museum and public library are impressive examples of civic buildings and stand next to the entrance to Central Park. The park opens out into an expanse of walk ways and a newly renovated tea house. At the end is an athletic track – the home of one of Dartford’s two running clubs not to mention a Triathlon club. My own memories of the park are more of a running than a walking nature as it forms the last leg (very appropriately) of the local Dartford half marathon which I’ve run several times. By the time I’ve reached the park, I’ve had more steam coming out of me than a Trevithick loco although fortunately I’ve not broken down quite so many times.
I’ve also taken part in the Dartford Bridge 10k (although not actually over the Bridge) and the Dartford 10m race which starts from the town’s football club.
Throughout the centuries Dartford has always been at the hub of history. And with Goodman’s Dance Hall, opposite the park, owned by the Chief Judge from Strictly, it can even claim to dance to the march of time. So whether it be road, rail, river or running, Dartford’s always on the move.