Is there any place in England with so many epithets and eulogies as Kent? A glance at at a recent holiday brochure includes at least a dozen flamboyant phrases from the "Garden of England" to the "Gateway to England" then the "Gateway to Europe". We are told that "All lines lead to Kent", that there is a "Wealth of heritage" and we are encouraged to "Discover the many faces of Kent" which is "famed for hops, fair maids and civility".
Additionally, there is the well-worn image of the White Cliffs of Dover, the hopfields, oasthouses, blossoming orchards, attractive timber and pantile houses and magnicifent villages such as Brenchley and Matfield in the High Weald so lovingly commemorated by Siegfried Sassoon. There is the elegant Royal Spa of Tunbridge Wells; the massed daffodils at Hever Castle; the autumnal tints at Scotney Castle; the yellow roses of Chartwell and the "loveliest castle in the world"-Leeds Castle.
Who could ask for more? But there are also Whitstable oysters, and pubs
galore, reflecting the great brewing tradition of the county still thriving in Faversham
with Shepherd Neame and Framlins; local wines from Lamberhurst, Biddenden and Penshurst.
The Swan Inn at Sutton Valence is one of the oldest pubs, but there is a galaxy of famous names such as The Wheatsheaf, near Hever Castle, once Anne Boleyn's home;The Dog and Bear at Lenham visited by Queen Anne; The New Flying Horse at Wye, with panelling from Westminster Hall, and The Woolpack Inn at Chilham with its Grey Lady Ghost.
"The Kent coast has something for everyone" - how often we have heard that claim for all our seaside areas! It "offers the whole spectrum of resorts"; yes, we have to admit this is true, even more reluctantly if we come ourselves from some more mundane, everyday area of Britain's coastline! From the Londeners' retreat along the north coast at Sheerness and Margate to the "classy coast", at Ramsgate and Broadstairs, then south to Sandwich, Deal, Folkestone, Hythe and Romney Marsh, there is an example of everything that is best in England's seaside. This coastline reflects Kent's position as the front line of England's defence throughout history, too. The landscape shows this with its castles and forts at Richborough, Reculver, Lympne, Walmer and Deal, but most impressively at Dover Castle, as well as a series of Martello Towers built to resist Napoleon's impending invasion. The first and last view of England has always been the Kent coast. In the past a succession of invaders saw it - now a never-ending succession of tourists sees it. What they see is their first and last impression of Britain. But although Kent has always been a zone of passage it is an area rich in its own character, history, heritage and people.
Inland, the great cathedral cities of Canterbury and Rochester focus national history as well as local history. They remind us of Chaucer's Pilgrims and the arrival of Christianity and St. Augustine in 597. But, as we might expect, Kent has had more than its fair share of personalities of the past, from the unknown prehistoric Swanscombe Woman, Julius Ceasar, Thomas a Becket, William Caxton, Sir Philip Sydney, Christopher Marlowe, Anne Boleyn, William Adams of Gillingham (who discovered the mysteries of Japan), to Wolfe, Pitt and Chirchill, all associated with Westerham, and Dickins with links to Broadstairs, Rochester and Gravesend. Then there is the great naval tradition of Gillingham, Chatham and Gravesend with its fading echoes of Drake, Nelson and Hawkins, and memories of Dutch Raids and the return of Charles II in 1660. When his party arrived at Dover the royal procession moved in triumph to Canterbury and Rochester, through towns ablaze with decoration - tapestries hung from windows, flags flew from roof-tops, and everywhere there were crowds cheering themselves hoarse. Kent has, indeed, seen many beginnings and many endings.
But with this plethora of history and heritage, what are the people
like? First of all, it is difficult to find a true native as the area is so cosmopolitan.
It is so easy of access that it has taken in strangers from time immemorial to become
settlers, long before Hengist and Horsa arrived. Perhaps in a distant corner of the High
Weald we shall be sure to find a native but even there the omnipresent car has rendered
If we do find a native will he be a Man of Kent or a Kentish Man? This is a tricky problem, still likely to cause offence in some quarters. Simply, a Man of Kent comes from the east of the River Medway and a Kentish Man comes from the west of the river. There is a pub in Canterbury called The Men of Kent. The division may have arisen when the Jutes, who settled in Thanet over 1,500 years ago, moved into the area we know as Kent, calling on part East Centingas and the other West Centingas. There have been two Kent dioceses since AD605 - Canterbury (East Kent) and Rochester (West Kent). Unfortunately, it appears that the Men of Kent resisted William the Conqueror more stoutly than the Kentish Men, who weakly surrendered. Afterwards, according to Alan Major in A New Discovery of Kent Dialect, the bravery of the Men of Kent made them proud while Kentish Men were believed to be weak-minded, and so a keen rivalry developed.
Whatever the description today the latest market research shows a number
of interesting characteristics for all Kent natives. They live in one of England's most
populated areas, even though this is not always apparent. They own more cars per family,
and more phones, though, oddly enough, they have fewer washing machines than other areas.
They are amongst the highest-paid people and their properties some of the most valuable in
the country, fetching the highest prices.
Many are commuters with a great concern for the environment, which has been evident in the fight against the inroads of urban sprawl. As in the past, wealth seems to have been a characteristic - now we have the stockbroker belt, while it was said years ago that "a yeoman of Kent" was rich enough to buy out a gentleman of Wales, a knight of Calais and a "lord of the North Countrie". Certainly, the splendour of churches and houses supports this. No longer does the native need to rely on a "Kettle-bender", which is bread sop eaten by the poor. And he will probably play the stock market now rather than "kick up Jenny" (a game of skill with ninepins and lead ball hung from the ceiling).
The Man of Kent loved freedom and won from William I the promise that
there should be no bondsmen or villeins in Kent. The old law of inheritance called Gavelkind
was unique, too, for it ensured the division of land between all children and not just to
the eldest, as was the Norman custom. This may have caused difficulties in tracing
ownership later but it gave a just stability and was a counteraction to feudal rule. Gavelkind
was legal until 1925.
Just as this custom has gone so it is hard to find real Kent dialect, but the High Weald and Romney Marshes are the best places to look and to carry Alan Major's dictionary in hand in case you hear any "lurry" as you walk along a "lyste-way" where you may, perchance, see a "losh-horse" or if you look down you may find a "Marygold" or a "Match-Me-If-You-Can".
Kent is the epitome of England, for the past and for the future. It
exhibits historical continuity of a high order from prehistoric times to the Battle of
Britain and the Battle of the Channel Tunnel. Its beautiful landscape and townscape
exemplify every stage in this process. The new Man of Kent will continue to be under more
stress than almost everyone else - the countryside is filling up and urban sprawl looms
large; motorways, airports, reservoirs and the tunnel rail link threaten the environment;
coastal pollution, the decline of the Thames Estuary, nuclear power stations, natives
being edged out of country villages by high house prices and newcomers, the increasing use
of Kent as a concentrated zone of passage - all pose long-term threats. Worst of all,
according to geologists, Kent and the south-east are sinking slowly but surely into the
Life will certainly not be monotonous for the Man of Kent or the Kentish Man in the future!
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© Bryan Waites