“Kent, Sir, everyone knows Kent, apples, hops, cherries, and women!”
So said Mr Jingle in Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers” (1837), and to this day, the image rings true. Of all the English counties, Kent has one of the most distinctive identities. Because of its unique location – between London and English channel, into which the county juts out as a slight peninsular toward the continent – Kent has become known for its agriculture, and maybe more significantly, as a gateway to and from the continent, as well as a bastion of defence in times of war. So today, as the Olympic Torch travels from the seaside at Deal, one of the ancient Cinque ports, via the beautiful Cathedral city of Canterbury, to Kent’s County Town of Maidstone, let’s go on a brief tour of all things distinctively Kentish!
The Garden of England
In reality, 21st-Century Kent is a hugely diverse and populated landscape. The hop fields, oasthouses, and market gardens, from which it won its title as Garden of England over the past few centuries in response to the ever-growing demands of London, never covered more than 10% of the land. But the image stuck. Kentish landscape, with its small cultivated fields and rolling hills became viewed as the epitome of Englishness, and Dickens was one among many writers who cultivated this picture with relish. William Cobbett, a champion of social justice who went on solo tour of England that took in nearly as much territory as our Olympic Torch, waxed lyrical of the countryside near Maidstone:
“This is what the people of Kent call the Garden of Eden…a district of meadows, corn-fields, hop-gardens, and orchards of apples, pears, cherries etc and filberts, with very little if any land which cannot, with propriety, be called good. There are plantations of Chesnut and of Ash frequently occurring; and as these are but long enough to make poles for hops, they are at all times objects of great beauty…these are the finest seven miles that I have ever seen in England or anywhere else.” (Rural Rides, Vol. 1, 1830.)
Of course, as with most idealized images, darkness lurked beneath. Cobbett became appalled by how poor the people working this rich, prosperous landscape were, the profits being peeled off by “rich bullfrog farmers” and bankers, a hated system that made a “hell of a paradise” (Cobbett’s Political Register, 1830). But most of Cobbett’s contemporaries merely saw the beauty and were happily swamped by the romanticism. To Douglas Allport, the author of a Guide to Maidstone (1842) a perusal of the landscape transported him to a world that echoed contemporary fashions for chivalry, gothic revival, and the then popular novels of Sir Walter Scott. He wrote that one would envisage the “sturdy Saxons and Britons struggling for mastery”, and the “Oaks of Kent” would again be “resonant with the horn of the swineherd, the rush of the fear-winged hog, and the gentle droppings of acorns on the mossy turf that carpeted the wild glades of your ancestral forest.”
Vanguard of Liberty
Maybe the most world famous evocation of Kent comes from the depths of World War Two, when Vera Lynn sang about those bluebirds (!) over the white cliffs of Dover. But Kent’s strategic significance in times of war has shaped its identity and landscape for centuries, and to this day there are no shortage of castles, forts, dockyards, and military museums to explore. Kent’s motto is “Invicta!” (unconquered) emblematic of her fortress-like role. Indeed, it has often been asserted that Kent remained unconquered even in 1066, and not only because William landed in Sussex. So the legend goes, at the Battle of Hastings, the Men of Kent had been at the vanguard of Harold’s unfortunately defeated army. When the Conqueror then marched through Kent, he was greeted by the “natives”, disguised with the boughs of their sturdy, home-grown oaks. Suddenly emerging, they ambushed the usurper. In recognition of their valour, William granted that the Men of Kent, or depending on the version of the legend, the Kentish Men,* could keep their ancient rights, including the inheritance practice of gavelkind and their position at the vanguard of the army.
Kent has survived many invasion scares over the centuries. At the height of the threat from Napoleon’s armies in 1803, the Cumbrian born poet William Wordsworth drew upon Kent’s fortress-like landscape, and the Men of Kent to pen a rousing piece of propaganda.
Vanguard of Liberty, ye Men of Kent,
Ye children of a soil that doth advance
Her haughty brow against the coast of France,
Now is the time to prove your hardiment!
To France the words of invitation sent!
They from their fields can see the countenance
Of your fierce war, may see the glittering lance,
And hear you shouting forth your brave intent.
Left single, in bold parley, ye of yore,
Did from the Normans win a gallant wreath;
Confirmed the charters that were yours before, –
No parleying Now! In Britain is one breath;
We all are with you now from shore to shore:-
Ye Men of Kent, ’tis Victory or death.
But there’s so much more to Kent than the famous images. Today, the torch wends its way though reams of historic landscape, seaside towns steeped in memories, and a living, working county in the here and now. Sadly, for many people in recent years, Kent has become no more than a transport route, a place you pass through quickly on your way to and from the continent, and all one sees of it is motorways and rail links. So I hope today is a chance for the world to look and see: Kent’s also a place well worth stopping in.
* Usually, though not always, it is considered that those who hail from east of the Medway are Men of Kent/Maids of Kent and those who hail from the west are Kentish Men/Kentish Maids.
Kay Berrisford is the author of the two ‘Greenwood’ novels, Bound for the Forest, and Bound to the Beast, a tale of Herne the Hunter. Her first contemporary novella, Catching Kit, set in the Olympic city herself, London, is published on July 24th.