Unknown Kent: Donald Maxwell (1877) - Cliffe History

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UNKNOWN KENT by Donald Maxwell (1877)

The entrance to Cliffe Creek

I SUPPOSE there is no part of Kent so   little known to those whose lawful occasions do not take   them there on business as the river-shore, along the   northern limit of the county and the marshes below Gravesend   backed by a ridge of hill that divides the Thames from the   Medway. Of this last tract of country, known as the Hundred   of Hoo, no one seems to have a good word to say. The old   rhyme gave the dog a bad name—

He that rideth in the  Hundred   oi Hoo
Besides pilfering Seamen shall find dirt enow.

And writers since have stuck to   it. Mr. Walter Jerrold, in his Highways and Byways in Kent,   dismisses the whole region in a page and a half, though he   allows that “there is much pleasant country to be seen in   the wooded hills and cornlands stretching across the central   part of the peninsula and a charm in the broad marshes going   down to the river.” He says “the villages have not much to   detain us except that of Cooling.” Another Kentish   topographer, Mr. Charles Cox, in his Rambles in Kent, speaks   of the Hundred of Hoo as having “no claim to be picturesque   or attractive.” “Probably,” he writes, “this dreary   peninsula is the least visited of any part of Kent, and the   rambler is advised to shun it unless he is a churchlover.”   Guide-books, as far as I can remember, are equally   contemptuous.
My attention was first called to this part of the world   by the delightful scenes in Great Expectations. For   inspiration to a landscape painter it would be difficult to   find anything more suggestive than some of Dickens’s   word-pictures.
“Ours was the marsh country down by   the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the   sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the   identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a   memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I   found out for certain, . . . that the dark flat wilderness   beyond the churchyard, inter­sected with dykes and mounds   and gates, with scattered cattle feeding upon it, was the   marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river;   and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was   rushing was the sea.”

Here is another one— "The marshes   were just a long black horizontal line then, as I stopped to   look after him; and the river was just another


horizontal line, not nearly so broad   nor yet so black ; and the sky was just a row of long angry   red lines and dense black lines intermixed. On the edge of   the river I could faintly make out the only two black things   in all the prospect that seemed to be standing upright; one   of these was the beacon by which the sailors steered—like an   unhooped cask upon a pole—an ugly thing when you were near   it; the other a gibbet, with some chains hanging to it which   had once held a pirate.
“It was pleasant and quiet there,   with the sails on the river passing beyond the earthwork,   and sometimes when the tide was low, looking as if they   belonged to sunken ships that were still sailing on at the   bottom of the water."
“It was like my own marsh country,   flat and monotonous, and with a dim horizon; while the   winding river turned and turned, and the great floating   buoys turned and turned, and everything else seemed stranded   and still.”
These and many other equally   effective glimpses of an unknown country fired my   imagination many years ago, and, before I came to live in   the Medway country, I often rambled about that Thames   marshland. I remember landing in a sailing-boat at Cliffe   Creek, where there were some curious ruins of long-ago   disused kilns. Here is a sketch of them. I struck inland to   make Rochester, when on the way I beheld an amazing thing—a   crater in Kent.
Now I was going down to the sea in a   ship, and it is given to such people to see the wonders of   the deep and a few extras on land thrown in, so I ought not   to have been particularly astonished. I will recount the   tale, however, for it seemed to me worth remembering.

The New GEOLOGY or The Story of a Crater in   Kent

One summer afternoon, when the tide   had turned against her and when the wind had died down to an   almost imper­ceptible stirring of the air, a small sailing   craft dropped anchor off the creek at Cliffe. Her captain   and crew, with cheery optimism, had given Rochester as their   next address, so it was decided that an expedition for the   purpose of fetching letters should be fitted out.

I   volunteered to be the expedition. Sketch-book in hand, I   started on a ramble which had Rochester as a distant   objec­tive, chancing such finds as the landscape of the land   could afford. The marshes seemed asleep and the dull and   distant beat of the paddle of some steamer alone indicated   that the activities of time and tide were still proceeding.
Near Higham I left the marshes and   came upon the rising ground towards Great Hermitage, some   two hundred feet higher, with broad prospects of the distant   river now almost invisible in the haze, led on by the sight   of a windmill and some mysterious monument like a damaged   edition of Cleopatra’s needle. I could not find out what   event or what person this obelisk stood for, but a farm   labourer volunteered the information that someone, he had   forgotten who, had built it, he had forgotten when, to be   seen from the river, he had forgotten why. He also   volunteered the information that "The Stone Horse,” the   direction of which he pointed out (" Thank you, sir. It is   very thirsty weather”), was the departure point for the road   into Strood. I thought I would get better acquainted with   “The Stone Horse ” and see if I could get the landlady to   make me some tea. This, remember, was before the days when   it was considered necessary for the defence of the realm to   force travellers in country places to wait till six o’clock   for a drink, however hot the weather, for the practical   effect at most inns of closing the bar in the afternoon is a   general exodus of everybody connected with the place, so   that the pleasant amenities of tea are no more. At six   o'clock it is too late for tea, and by that time the   traveller is so thirsty that he will drink the place dry on   beer or any other liquid that can be obtained quickly. This   state of things is supposed by innumerable simple  and well-meaning people to   promote temperance.


I struck across some fields,   dipping down towards a little wood of young larches. The   place was quiet and seemed out of the world. The ridge of   Great Hermitage hid the region of the Thames, although an   occasionally long-drawn note of a siren, distant and   attenuated, still told of ships on their way to London. I   looked back as I walked, and a little to my left beheld an   amazing thing—a crater! The little larch wood, I saw,   overtopped a precipitous descent from the depths of which   rose wreaths of smoke slowly dissipating themselves in the   air as they ascended. Then an ominous rumble. Wonders   unceasing, I was just in time for the eruption. The ground   trembled, the roar grew louder and then died away suddenly   as a column of white steam appeared like a cloud escaping   from the nether regions.


A closer inspection revealed the   fact that I was looking down into the railway tunnel of the   line between Higham and Strood at a point where there is an   opening. It is a place with a curious history. I had,   indeed, lost my crater, but instead I found a ghost—the   ghost of a dead canal.

Time was, before the railway had   come to kill them, that canals were used for the transport   of heavy goods all over England. There are few places that   are far removed from shipping and the coast that have not   some waterway, linking it up with river and sea. Many of   these ways are now derelict or disused, as the Wey-Arun   Canal or the Royal Military Canal of Romney Marsh. Had not   the introduction of rail­ways checked the activities of the   canals no doubt there would have developed a much more   connected system of inland water transport. I remember once   seeing a map of projected canals in Kent. They were to run   all over the place. I cannot remember many details, but I   know one scheme was to link the Medway with the Royal   Military Canal near Appledore by cutting from a point near   East Peckham at a cost of £320,000. A bill was passed for   this in 1811, but there was much delay, and it was   finally abandoned, whether on account of the subsequent   foreshadowed railway projects or not I do not know.

The   tunnel which now carries the railway from Higham to Strood   was finished in 1824 for the waterway known as the Thames   Medway Canal. It was twenty-two feet in breadth with a   towpath alongside five feet wide, two and a quarter miles   long. An amusing account is given by a traveller who went   through this subterranean way by steam­boat soon after it   was first opened.
“After our eyes had become reconciled   to the transition to almost Egyptian darkness, relieved,   however, by the lurid glare of our flambeaux, we had   opportunity to contemplate our rather romantic situation.   The steamer filled up nearly the whole channel, and the   noise caused by the reverberation of the dash of the paddles   in the water, the indistinct light, and the consciousness of   being absolutely traversing the bowels of the earth,   produced a very odd sensation."
The canal was not a financial success   because, owing to difficulties of tide levels at each end, a   barge passing through was not able to get out again as soon   as she had made the seven-mile voyage. Thus, if there was   any wind, barges could often sail round via Sheerness and be   up at Strood as soon as through the canal, incidentally   saving dues. However, there was a good deal of use made of   it by the Maidstone barges.

The South Eastern Railway   bought up the canal. The towpath was broadened by carrying   out a platform on piles, and on this a single line was laid.   A correspondent of the Rochester Journal describes the   running of the first train on Christmas Day, 1844. He   writes— “I was in Frindsbury Church when the first whistle   sounded. After the service the Vicar and Churchwardens and   most of the congregation went down in a body to see the   wonderful machine. On coming through the tunnel the funnel   of the engine struck against the chalk at the top, so they   took it down and cut it nine inches shorter before they   returned to Gravesend.”
The crater-like opening into which I   was now looking was a basin in the subterranean canal for   the purpose of allowing barges coming in opposite directions   to pass, and a quay for the horses and drivers to do   likewise.


I returned by this same way at   twilight, and then it was that I saw the ghost of the old   canal come out to walk abroad. The railway tries to forget   its victim, but the ghost won't let it. Trains, brilliantly   lighted, tear by, whistling bravely to keep up their   courage, and then, shrieking into the tunnel on the other   side, make for lights and London, but they cannot escape the   memories of bygone days.
Down in the dim depths of that   strange chasm invisible barges glide silently to and fro and   ghostly feet tramp noiselessly upon the grass-grown quays:   for the railway is haunted.
Cooling is generally believed to be   the original of “Our Village" in Great Expectations. This is   no doubt on account of the tombs in the churchyard, stone   lozenges, with rows of little lozenges to commemorate a   number of children that died in infancy. These are so   exactly described by Dickens that somewhat unreasonably   everybody jumps to the conclusion that all the other   features of “Our Village" must be of Cooling. As a matter of   fact, Chalk contests the honour somewhat successfully, for   the church stands on the fringe of the marshes, alone and   about a mile from the village.
I live in Rochester, where we have   Dickensian Societies and all sorts of controversy about   these things. We write to each other and write to the local   papers and take sides when Jones and Robinson are at it   hammer and tongs as to what in the Dickens is the right   place. No one seems to remember that an author may take an   artist’s licence and mix things up a bit. It is great fun   and adds zest to everyday life.

The principal interest of Cooling   (Cowling) lies in the castle with a well-preserved   machicolated gatehouse. Built within the area of the walls   stands a perfectly modem and ordinary house, looking rather   incongruous. Its chief his­torical interest clings round Sir   John Oldcastle, in the time of Henry IV. He was arrested,   tried for heresy, and taken to the Tower of London. He   escaped once, but was re­captured and executed. The castle   held out stubbornly against Sir Thomas Wyatt on his   ill-starred march from Maidstone to London in the reign of   Queen Mary.
This stronghold was built by John de   Cobham in Richard II.'s time as a protection against foreign   pirates who had ravaged the district. The purpose for which   this old Manor House of Coulyng was thus fortified is still   declared in an old tablet affixed to the gatehouse. It is   significant that it is lettered in English in a period when   almost all such inscriptions and charters were in Latin—no   doubt as a sign that it was a defence against foreign foes.   It runs—

Knouweth that beth & schul be
That I am road in help of the cuntre
In knowyng of whyche   thyng
Thys is chartre & wytnessyng.

My acquaintance with riverside   Kent above Gravesend has been made in boats of various   kinds. Beginning when I was at school with journeys by   steamboat to Greenwich from London I have always delighted   in the wonderful shores of our muddy old Thames.

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