Secrets of Kent’s churches.

Midsummer,  and the Summer Solstice has passed, ancient traditions and customs are remembered, and the countryside begins to change again, following the age old patterns of the agrarian calendar.  In Medieval times, people rose at dawn and went to bed at dusk and many of their activities during the day were linked to agricultural activity –  A time for every purpose under heaven – In spring, the sowing of the seeds for food crops through to the harvests of summer, and then ploughing, ready to start all over again.  In autumn, the pickling and salting of fish and meats, the brewing of ales and beer.  Hundreds of years before refrigeration, and the ‘ping’ of the microwave, it was necessary to plan, and work, all year round to keep the lord in his manor and the peasants in the field from starvation during the long and lean winter months.

During a year when the endless months of rain, followed by a burst of sunshine has given Kent the largest, juiciest strawberry crop for decades (and just in time for Wimbledon) I realise that, with all the technology in the world, Mother Nature still holds the trump card!

A  day out in the Kentish countryside with a little group of just 12 people from Japan certainly gave me some food for thought !- Their interest was in Romanesque architecture, but also the symbols and curiosities of our Medieval churches.

The Church of St Augustine in Brookland is one of the most attractive and interesting churches in Romney Marsh, and here we started our tour.  As the coach pulled up outside, the cameras were already clicking to capture the mysterious belfry. Many  local legends claim to account for this famous wooden belfry and why it sits, firmly, on the ground to the side of the church rather than in the more normal situation of up on the roof. Did it  fall off in shock when a confirmed old batchelor and spinster of the parish married in the church – at a time when many people just didn’t bother to ‘tie the knot’ ?.   Through the stable doors and into the Church itself where all attention was focused on the famous circular lead font. Rare and important and absolutely fascinating. Our first reminder of those links with the months of the year and the agricultural activities associated with all of the seasons. Possibly the work of Norman French or Flemish craftsmen, the message is clear. The upper arches bear the signs of
the Zodiac and beneath, the lower arches, bear the occupations associated with these months.

I first looked at Sagittarius, and, as expected found the centaur with his bow and arrow, whilst underneath, for November, we could clearly pick out a man in a hooded cloak knocking down acorns with a stick to feed the swine.  My birth sign of Capricorn (Capricornus) showed a composite creature with a horned goat’s head and a winged body and serpent’s tail!  In December, the swine was not so lucky as the picture depicts a man with an axe and the pig is about to be consigned to the winter larder!  

After enjoying the other mysteries of this delightful church, we set off through country roads to the little village of Barfrestone.  

Here we visited the little Norman Church of St Nicholas, with its world famous carvings.  There is so much to see and admire here and curiosities and symbols galore to ponder over and analyse.  The famous South Doorway is the finest jewel in the crown.  The Master-Carver chose, for his theme, ‘ Our Lord in Glory ‘ or ‘Majestas Domini’ as designated in Mediaeval days.  Here we have a surprising and exciting link with Brookland.  In much the same way that the lead font showed the labours of the months, here our carver shows us the activities of the manor house and estate.  We meet the Men at Arms, fully equipped, and the Lady of the Manor as director and bread provider.  We can pick out the Minstrel with his viol and the Cellarer drawing a flagon of liquor from a cask.  A closer look shows us the Forester with his bow and the Miller with his bag of corn.   Every aspect of these carvings link the church with the village,and the village with agriculture, and agriculture with the seasons, and the seasons with the church.  A glorious cycle.  The countryside was looking fabulous, still a few bright yellow fields with the oil-seed rape crops, but now fields of bright red poppies line the roadside.  As we wove our way back into Canterbury, we just had to stop to buy some of those superb strawberries and early Kentish cherries being sold in a layby.  Whilst the rhythms of the agricultural year and life in the county has changed beyond recognition, that first bite of an English strawberry in the summer sunshine is still a moment to treasure.

Time Machine Tour from Port of Dover Cruise Terminal

I think it true to say that no two tours are exactly the same, and one of the most rewarding things about working as a tourist guide here in Kent in the beautiful Garden of England is that you never know what you might find which might make your day, and your tour, extra special.

Reporting for duty at the Cruise Terminal recently, I had been assigned an afternoon tour which included a ride aboard a steam train of the Kent and East Sussex Railway. This is one of the country’s finest examples of a rural light railway.  The line gently wends its way from Tenterden for ten and a half miles through the unspoilt countryside of the Rother Valley, terminating in the shadows of the magnificent National Trust Castle at Bodiam.

That in itself is a pleasure, but the fact that a luscious cream tea, with light and fluffy warmed scones, butter, jam and delicious clotted cream with pots of tea and cake are served during the journey just literally puts the icing on the cake ! – Of course, in true team-work spirit one of my scones is always neatly wrapped up to be taken back to the coach driver on arrival in Bodiam.

However, on this particular day, on checking the website, I discovered that we were going to be experiencing a true journey back in time, as the railway was hosting a 1940’s weekend.

The sun shone in a blue sky, and the whole day was just amazing. Although this tour guide was no more than a twinkle in her father’s eye during those times, those years were not so far away, and parents’ memories, films, books and music  painted extremely clear pictures within, of course, living memory. This event just encapsulated it all perfectly.

Our very modern coach wended its way through picturesque Kentish countryside, looking extremely – red, white and blue.. very patriotic.. with anenomes, gypsy lace, and frothy white ‘may’ blossoms, bluebells galore, and red campions peeking out through the verdant hedgerows and fields lining the twisty roadsides.  Sudden bright bursts of yellow oil seed rape just added to the kaleidoscope which reflected our bright and cheerful moods as we neared our steam train and our cream tea!

However, I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the impact of the scene which greeted us in Tenterden.  On the home front, ladies in their flowery pinafores shared their cooking tips, the Home Guard (Dad’s Army) polished their guns (and boots) and regaled us with stories, which might have even made Captain Mainwairing feel a little panic-stricken !  Music rang out, and people strolled in their civilian 40’s clothes (so smart) and indeed their military uniforms..  Old buses and cars sat side by side with a tank and, to the delight of my guests, there were even a few USA navy lads, straight out of “New York – New York” …  Thank the Lord I had a train to catch or the coach driver might have suggested a quick jitter-bug !

On board our train,  an RAF Officer walked down the carriages apologising for the meagre rations (!) and warning us that our journey may be subject to air-strikes.  We were instructed that if such a thing should happen we must hit the floor double quick and shelter under the table until the ‘all-clear’  A few nervous laughs from my passengers resulted in a finger wagging… ‘ this must be taken seriously Ma’am’  !

Arriving in Bodiam was another fantastic moment, Glenn Miller music, and exhibits (including a typical 40’s Post Office Counter) had our cameras clicking non-stop.

Another interesting link for my guests was the Cavell Wagon – a railway carriage restored and cared for by the Kent and East Sussex Railway.  Nurse Edith Cavell assisted over 200 Allied soldiers to escape from German occupied Belgium during WW1. She was arrested and found guilty of treason. Her execution by firing squad took place in Brussels in October 1915.  In 1919 her body arrived in Dover (just where the Cruise terminal is now) and was taken to London in ‘The Cavell Van’ for a memorial service in Westminster Abbey before burial in her home town of Norwich.  Possibly the most famous use of the Cavell Van was for the transportation of the Unknown Warrior (again from Dover) to London in 1920 . The wagon was parked in Bodiam station.

Sombre moments, of course, but a great sense of community and ‘buzz’ and some very happy passengers. Jiving in the sidings !   Well, then I saw one lady, rather tearful.  When I asked her if all was OK, she told me that her father had been stationed over here during WW2, and had spoken (a little) about things,  but she had never ever believed that she might experience some of the sights and sounds which he would have known in those far off days.

It was a great day out.  Thank you Kent and East Sussex.  All days should end with a celebration, so will it be a little Gin and Orange ? A little ‘digging for victory’ vegetable stew or perhaps back to 2013 with a bump!






Hungry ? Try a Guided Tour of Sandwich in Kent

Last week, the sun was shining brightly and it was warm ! – What is so unusual about that you might ask ? Well, after a very long and somewhat chilly winter, and ‘reluctant’ spring, we had begun to forget what a sunny day looked like !  However, this was the perfect spring day, looking exactly as a 5 year old might capture it on paper, clear blue sky, and the sun a splendid round golden spider-like orb beaming down to the earth.

Just right, then, to head off to the coast ( to swim? certainly not) – this was the chance to recce Walmer and Deal castles, and, camera in hand, check out what spring was bringing to East Kent

Both Walmer and Deal Castles were built by King Henry VIII in the 16th Century as part of his coastal defences against a threat of invasion by the Catholic Powers of Europe. Originally, designed to guard the Kent coast and The Downs anchorage, Deal was the largest of the three ‘Tudor Rose’ style castles built along this section of the coast.

Walmer Castle

Walmer Castle, Deal Kent

is one of the most fascinating visitor attractions in Kent. Over the centuries it evolved into the official residence of the Lord Warden of The Cinque Ports.  These busy little coastal towns defend the coast and country before the advent of King Henry VIII’s Royal Navy. The Duke of Wellington held the post for 23 years and enjoyed his time spent at the castle and in more recent years Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother made regular visits to the castle.

HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother at Walmer Castle

The armchair in which Wellington died and an original pair of ‘Wellington boots’ along with some of the rooms used by the Queen Mother, and her much beloved gardens are among the highlights to explore.

During its active life as a fortress, neighbouring Deal Castle had between sixteen and eighteen gunners. They earned about 6d (two and a half pence) a day during the Tudor period and lived on the ground floor of the castle in chilly, spartan and shared accommodation. It is likely that quite a few of them were married, so imagine the life of these men with their wives and children in tow!

It was positively chilly on this warm April day as we ventured down below sea-level. What must it have been like on a 16th century January day !  However, we did remark upon the fact that the wine store would have been very effective !

Deal Castle, Deal, Kent

A Century later when the Royalist garrison of 224 surrendered to Parliamentary forces during the Kentish Uprising of1648, the following items of food were discovered in the castle:


10.5 ‘hogsheads’ (huge barrels) of wheat,
10 Holland cheeses and 10 Suffolk Cheeses
12 firkins of butter,
2 hogsheads of beef and 8 pieces of beef in water !
20 pieces of pork in salt, and 17 Norsea Codd in water.

This would have been a typical basic diet for garrison troops and sailors for centuries until the invention of canning and refrigeration in the 19th century. The food would have been preserved in salt and packed firmly into large barrels.

All this talk of food made us feel hungry, so we decided to venture inland to the small market town of Sandwich.  A favourite little town of mine, with some delightful, independent shops selling antiques, books, curios, furniture, arts and craft, jewellery (and yes money hadto be spent!)

Town Sign with Cinque Ports Arms

The first recorded mention of Sandwich was around 664 AD but there was probably some kind of settlement in Roman times as the site is very close to Richborough Roman Fort (Rutupiae).

The name of the town is, most likely, Saxon in origin, and probably meant ‘ a settlement on the sand ‘  Once a ‘Head Port’ in the Confederation of the Cinque Ports and the original ‘Gateway to England’ – a thriving, important port.  Over the years with the silting up of the waterways, the town of Sandwich is now a few miles inland.  Looking out over the River Stour it is difficult to imagine, Richared The Lionheart departing on a Crusade, or Queen Elizabeth the first surveying the English fleet at sea from the quayside.

River Stour and Sandwich Quay today

Today, the quiet narrow backstreets are home to boutiques, quaint houses, little alleys and a wealth of timber-framed houses and churches with great stories to tell.  Street names also have their stories: No-name Street,

No Name Street

Short Street, and Holy Ghost Alley.

You can find a great choice of restaurants, tea rooms and traditional pubs, with food ranging from Thai through to fish and chips!

Some day, I hope you may visit Sandwich with me, and hear how, but for a quirk of history, your lunchtime snack might have had a very different name.  However, in the meantime, let me introduce you to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich !

John Montagu
by Thomas Gainsborough

Now whether he was a very busy working statesman or whether he was equally busy playing cards and gambling, it is said that he didn’t want to pause to eat.  He would ask for his meat to be brought to his table/desk in between two pieces of bread.  Others would ask for ‘ the same as Sandwich’! – so the sandwich was born.  I wonder what John would have made of tachos, tortillas, wraps, pitta, bridge rolls, panini and BLT Clubs?!  or ordering take-away on his mobile phone?   We shall never know, but can enjoy his legacy.

Well, having reluctantly left a great little shop where we got tempted into buying some ‘new’ dining-room furniture (a bargain)! We found ourselves enjoying smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches

A sandwich in Sandwich

and a glass of locally produced ‘English Wine’ (Cheers! 4th Earl) and wondering how to re-arrange the house to accommodate our find !

English Wine
Barnsole Vineyard, Kent

Walmer, Deal and Sandwich are all within a 20 minute drive of the Port of Dover and individually or separately make a great day out.



Top Secret – 007 shore excursion from Dover ?

May is my favourite month. ‘The Garden of England’ wears a frothy white lacey gown, with a cloak of bright lush green.  I have childhood memories of watching Kentish woodland become carpeted in white, blue and yellow.  This is the time for wood  anenomies, cellandines, and bluebells to be in full bloom.  I can remember once leaving some picked bluebells on a red-ants’ nest whilst playing in the sunshine and on my return they had all turned pink ! The wonders of nature ! Many poets and writers have had plenty to say about May.  Another schoolgirl memory was learning all about Robert Browning (1812 – 1889) and his poem; ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’ – the second verse begins:

And after April, when May follows,
And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark! where my blossomd pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops – at the bent spray’s edge –
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture the first fine careless rapture !

William Shakespeare wrote of ‘The Darling Buds of May’ and English author, H.E. Bates, borrowed the phrase for his novel: The Darling Buds of May, the first of the Larkin novels which tells us how Pop, Ma, Mariette and the children beguile Charley, a rather naive and shy tax inspector, into abandoning his investigations and to take up residence at their rural paradise in 1950s Kent !  

The novel was taken up by UK’s Yorkshire Television and a delightful series about The Larkin family was filmed here in East Kent, starring David Jason and Pam Ferris as Pop and Ma Larkin, and pre-Holywood, Catherine Zeta-Jones as their daughter, Mariette.

I love the village where this was filmed and the church and in springtime, it still has the idyllic feel captured in the book and television series.  A fabulous theme for a guided tour !

However, another writer who knew Kent well and whose favourite month might well have been May was Ian Fleming, creator of Bond – James Bond !

He wrote in his novel, Goldfinger, of a game of golf  played between Bond and Goldfinger at Royal St Marks ! – probably based on the Royal St George’s Golf Course in Sandwich, Kent.  Fleming had played many a game here over the years, and one can imagine the beautiful May day, with the larks singing over this great seaside golf course – today occasional host to The British Open Golf Tournament. I wonder whether Ian Fleming would have relaxed afterwards in the club house and sampled one of those famous dry martinis -‘shaken, not stirred’ !

Throughout East Kent we can see signs, sites, villages, houses and views associated with Ian Fleming and his James Bond novels ! He even writes of James Bond turning off the A2 at Lydden (where I used to live) and following an older road into Dover and I know, well, exactly where he would have spotted, what he described as, ‘the wonderful cardboard castle’  For sure, Dover Castle is so impressive that many a visitor has asked ‘ is that real’ ?  Well it certainly is, and very much worth a visit here in Kent.

The little seaside village of St Margaret’s Bay is central to the James Bond –  Moonraker – story.  It was here that Ian Fleming bought the house, called White Cliffs, down on the beach, in the 1950s.  It can easily be recognised today.  This was his holiday home for a crucial decade when he conceived and wrote many of the James Bond books.

This blog would reach epic proportions if I were to point out all the links and sites associated with this author and his ‘007’ and a day or half day touring Kent, really is an interesting way to understand the background to and essence of these novels, and, later, films ! Even Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11  joined in the fun as she  made a spectacular entrance into the Olympic Stadium at the Opening Ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics when she appeared to  parachute out of a helicopter with James Bond (Actor Daniel Craig)

I have to finish, again on a personal note, whilst living in Lydden in the 1970s, I worked for our local bus and coach company, and the number of the National Express Bus from Dover to London in those days, as now, was 007 !  Many say that Ian Fleming used this service, and certainly… as a local… he would have known these buses.. so, did he sit, pen poised, watching the bus go by and did he find, from this bus, his inspiration for his famous spy?  I like to think so.

Mr Fleming liked to wait unti the clock struck 6 pm  before enjoying his martini cocktail.. today, in just 10 minutes, I might just raise a glass and toast his memory  as this glorious (nearly) May day draws to a close over The Garden of England.  Cheers !


The mystery of Richard Plantaganet – hidden down in Kent

As a South-East England Tourist Guide, I often travel the road between the city of Canterbury and Tenterden on my way to The Weald of Kent in the beautiful Garden of England.  Always plenty to see and to talk about, but recent finds under a car park in Leicester could just be providing me with some additional food for thought as we pass near to Eastwell Manor.  Today Eastwell Manor is a delightful 20th century country house hotel, spa/ wedding/conference venue.  However the history of the site goes back much further and hides an intriguing mystery at its heart.  Imagine, if you will, the year is 1546, and a magnificent brick-built house is being constructed for  one Sir Thomas Moyle. To his surprise he came upon a bricklayer, quite an oldish gentleman reading a book –  a most unusual skill for a 16th century labourer! – Who was this man, and what was his story? According to antiquarian, Francis Peck’s writings we learn that there was a young man named Richard who boarded with a Latin schoolmaster until he was 15 or 16. He did not know who his real parents were, but was visited four times a year by a mysterious gentleman who paid for his upkeep. This mystery person once took him to a “fine, great house” where Richard met a man in a “star and garter” who treated him kindly. At the age of 16, it was written,  the gentleman took the boy to see King Richard 111 at his encampment just before the Battle of Bosworth. The King informed the boy that he was his son, and told him to watch the battle from a safe vantage point. The king told the boy that, if he won, he would acknowledge him as his son. However, should he lose he told the boy to forever conceal his identity. King Richard was killed in the battle, and the boy allegedly fled to London.  He was apprenticed to a bricklayer but kept up the Latin he had learned by reading during his work.  So was this Richard the Bricklayer, really Richard Plantaganet, illegitimate son of King Richard 111?  A rubble-stone tomb with modern pointing, within the floor plan of the now ruined nearby church has a plaque with the following legend: Reputed to be the tomb of Richard Plantagenet, December 22nd 1550! So many questions and the mystery remains to this day, but now we understand that the body of King Richard 111 has been found under a car park in Leicester, do we seek to find out if his son lies in a disused churchyard down in Kent ?

Canterbury Guided Tours Are Getting Warmer

It seems to me that whenever, I am busy training new professional Blue or Green Badge Tourist Guides, to work here in Kent, something always happens ! Something, not on our Curriculum, nor in the Syllabus, where we talk of History, Geography, anecdote, food, drink, entertainment and Leisure.  All of these are, of course, important topics for our ‘would-be tourist guides’. We are prepared to walk and walk, and talk and talk, to learn how to  recognise the most ‘Visually Important Points’ and  how to protect and project our voices. We are prepared to avoid slipping on uneven surfaces, compete with Buskers and Street Entertainers, and we get to grips with ensuring that our future visitors will be welcomed, kept safe,  and informed in a thoroughly entertaining way! So what is it that happens, the minute a tourist guide training course is under way ?  What sets out to dampen the enthusiasm of excited and keen new guides ?  Well, good old Mother Nature seems to take a hand.  I think she must have a Calendar and has seen my Timetable  for our Canterbury City Guide Training Course.  Trainees, arrive looking beautiful (or handsome) smart, tidy and ready to learn and perform.  Then, within minutes of starting our tour practise,  either the heavens open and torrential rain descends upon us, reducing notes, maps and paperwork to a soggy mush, or a bitter ‘chill-factor’ turns our fingers and noses to a startling shade of blue !  We may rush for our trusty umbrellas, just to find that a sudden and totally unexpected wind, also rushes in,  speeding around the corner of an ancient cathedral to catch us in the cloisters (!) Umbrellas turn inside out, hats fly over the precincts wall, and trousers become sodden, and footwear squelchy.  Training courses start in November, and we just know we may have some 17 weeks of this ahead of us ! The  most wonderful part of practical guide training might just conceivably be the meeting in the Pub at the end of 3 hours, with steaming hot chocolates all round ! Isn’t it wonderful, then, when, we notice, that the days are gradually getting lighter, and there are signs of catkins, blossom, and even spring bulbs just poking through the snow? The ‘Garden of England’ is coming back to life, and the sun is making the city feel warmer and warmer, and Easter and a new season seems to be just around the corner. Of course, visitors to Canterbury, and Kent are always given the warmest of welcomes, all year round, and whilst Mother Nature may challenge the stamina of trainee guides, she normally manages to smile her sunniest smile on all of our visitors ! So, onwards and upwards, I think that Canterbury tours are definitely getting warmer.

Cruising into Kent ? Shore Excursions with Creativity

Creativity Travel has packed away the Christmas decorations, dusted off the office files and hung up the new Calendar with all the beautiful and cheery photographs of South-East England. A peep out of the window through the wintery looking trees takes my eye straight, across the valley of the River Dour, to the magnificent Dover Castle, and Pharos (Roman Lighthouse). Known as ‘The Key to England’, Fortifications here have guarded ‘The Gateway to England’ for over 2000 years. Strategically situated on the iconic ‘White Cliffs of Dover, this is the amazing sight which greets guests cruising into Dover Cruise Terminal.It is well worth getting up early to take some stunning photographs on the approach (with or without the bluebirds)!

So how will guests spend their day in our ‘Port of Kings’ ? The opportunities are endless, and our visitors are absolutely spoilt for choice. Yes, London is just over an hour or so away, and Canterbury, with its historic and beautiful cathedral is just 20 minutes up the road.

I am Yvonne, MD of Creativity Travel and local ‘Blue-Badge’ tourist guide, and I am busy dreaming up new ways to see life, ‘off the beaten track’, and away from the ‘maddening’crowds! Kent is full of spectacular views, country lanes, villages, craft stores, home-grown produce, local (W.I. and Gardeners) cake sales and coffee mornings and visits where you can taste, smell, hear, feel life in ‘ The Garden of England.

Chauffeur driven car-tours around Kent, small mini-buses, or even larger private groups…. Apple and Pear blossom in spring, the wonderful strawberries and cherries (and English sparkling wines) in summer, and the rewarding harvest views of early autumn.. OK, Yvonne, stop dreaming, perhaps it is still mulled wine time, but never too soon to plan for a perfect, individual and personal guided tour in Kent…. Sweet dreams