Herbert Ernest Bates (1905-1974), a newspaper reporter originally from Northamptonshire, became well-known for his 1858 novel Darling Buds of May, which centred around the Larkin family and their adventures in rural Kent. The book and its sequels were later turned into a popular television series, starring David Jason and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Bates had moved to The Granary, Little Chart near Pluckley with his wife Madge in 1931 and remained here for the rest of his life.1 He wrote of his adopted county:

‘From the primroses and bluebells of spring to the wild strawberries and golden yellow rock-roses and even wild columbines of high summer we felt, I think that this was the shrine at which we had come so far to worship. Beside it our native Northamptonshire seemed bare and cold and desolate.’2

A prolific writer, publishing over 300 short stories as well as numerous novels and essays, Bates was to incorporate his love for Kent in his writing over the next forty years. His collection of four novellas An Aspidistra in Babylon published in 1960 exemplifies this, and although he does not explicitly name places, his well-observed descriptions of both towns and countryside illustrate his knowledge of the county. The titular story is set in a small English garrison town with a castle which ‘looks like an enormous bastion of pumice-coloured flint’ on top of chalk cliffs.3 The town had earned the nickname of Babylon due to the antisocial behaviour of visiting soldiers: ‘the rankers come into town to drink beer, eat fish and chips and get off with girls… get very drunk and rowdy and fight among themselves..’4 The Tonbridge Free Press wrote, it ‘immediately conjures up visions of Dover’5 continuing ‘Babylon the town is nicknamed, but where else but Dover will one find, on very hot days, that the chalk of the cliffs looks more naked than usual, and that the yellow chimney-pots on which the gulls sit look like organ pipes?’6 The channel steamer which comes in stern first across the harbour and the views of the French cliffs unmistakably situates the story in Dover.

An Aspidistra in Babylon begins with a description of the sea-front in the 1920s where the houses ‘ran in a sparkling crescent of white and cream under the massive shoulder of chalk cliff… the curving line … always looked like a freshly starched collar, intensely stiff and respectable, against the strip of biscuit -coloured shingle and the sea.’7 Christine whose mother runs a boarding house on the sea-front ‘on the quiet end of the promenade’ meets Captain Blaine who is looking for a room for his asthmatic aunt Miss Charlesworth.8 She begins a relationship with the much older man and plans to rob his aunt so that she can run away with him. When she discovers that one of her mother’s maids, Ruby, has slept with Blaine she is horrified, realising the tawdriness of her relationship with Blaine.

Reflecting on the events (which took place before the war) – before the ‘bombs ripped out the entire centre of the collar’9 of seafront houses, and Ruby was killed by a ‘thousand-pounder’ bomb which hit the Prince of Orange pub, Christine describes her younger self ‘as dull as one of the many aspidistras that cluttered up the rooms, the hallway and even the dining tables of our little boarding-house’10 and easily duped into her ‘first fiery infatuation’ by the trick of the light of a June day.11 Looking back she observes, that ‘the trick of light is over. From the far parapets of the castle and the high white cliffs down to the smallest glistening crests of the sheltered waves of the harbour and the blue plump feathers of the screeching gulls sitting on those impossible yellow chimney pots every detail shows up with unmistakable reality’.12

In another of the novellas, ‘A prospect of orchards’ set in the Kent countryside, Bates continues the theme of unhappy relationships . The narrator of the story meets an old friend, Arthur Templeton, as he travels home ‘on a cold April evening in a train that entered a tunnel and then emerged some minutes later, into a bright stretch of downland dried stark white by the long drought of Spring.’13 He learns that Templeton, who he used to play chess and box with, is a fruit grower, on which he comments ‘In a fruit growing district there is hardly anything less exciting than meeting with yet another man who grows apples.’14 When Templeton tells him that he is cultivating a new kind of apple, the narrator observes with boredom, ‘As I grow older I grow more and more convinced that there are two things the world does not need and can long do without. One is a blue rose; the other is a an entirely new kind of apple.’15 The narrator reflects on his former relationship with Templeton who was terrible at boxing and ‘whose pink hairless jaw I sent so many unresisted straight lefts that it became intolerably embarrassing.’16 As the train rushes through the Kent countryside, it passes an orchard ‘the white smoke whirling and ducking among the black, pink-knotted arms of blossom’.17. Templeton, pointing to the orchard, explains with embarrassing earnestness that he is not going to produce ‘that muck’ but an apple that tastes like a pear. As Templeton gets off the train, he entreats the narrator to visit his farm which he does after Templeton’s wife, Valerie calls up with an invitation for dinner two nights later.

Bates describes the Kent countryside vividly: ‘It was very warm for April and under a white-blue sky blackbirds were singing with choking, thrilling richness among miles of pink and snowy boughs. There are springs of accidental perfection when, for a few days, all the blossom of all the orchards meets, cherry and apple and plum and pear, like a great lacy gathering of cloud; and this was one of them.’18

On arrival at the Templeton’s farm, the narrator observes ‘a vast espalier pear-tree that in its pruned stiffness was exactly like some compound arrangement of ladders for scaling the side of a ship. It was the only orderly thing in sight. All along its black, scaly branches there was not a single spray of flower.’19 In contrast, the orchard is ‘haphazardly filled in with young plums where wind or man had removed an older tree.’20

The narrator spends the evening with Valerie Templeton and her friends who play Dvorak on an assortment of instruments. Arthur is no where to be seen, and the narrator later discovers him in the pig shed looking after a pregnant sow. He returns to visit the farm a week later after another sudden invite, but this time it is raining hard and the blossom is falling: ‘The valley that with its many orchards had looked so like a delicate encampment of cloud had now begun to look soiled and ragged under drenching evening rain.’21 The narrator laments that ‘There is something intangibly melancholy in the first vanishing of spring blossom.’22 Valerie makes a pass at the narrator in the bathroom as she dries his hair. He recoils and tells her to ‘Have fun with Arthur!’23

As the narrator’s relationship with the Templetons develops, the landscape becomes harsher. ‘the dregs of the never handsome duck-pond had dried to a black-green crust that sprouted a crop of skeleton elder-boughs and rusted tins’. 24 and the espalier pear tree becomes ‘a mere trellis of blistered timber’.25 He learns that the Templetons are in an open marriage, with Arthur in a relationship with Anthea Barlow, a viola player. However, the narrator realises that Arthur is fundamentally lonely. When Arthur brings up the subject of their boxing matches, the narrator asks him why he didn’t hit back enough and Arthur says, ‘I suppose because I rather liked you.’26 The narrator realises the root of Arthur’s loneliness. Arthur’s desire to turn an apple into a pear is a metaphor for his repressed sexuality.

Bates uses the Kent landscape to reflect the emotions of his characters whilst also encapsulating a way of life that is fast disappearing. With the barracks closed in Dover and apple orchards declining, his stories reflect a moment in time that act as an important commentary on life in mid-twentieth century Kent.

As well as fiction, H.E. Bates wrote a biography of Edward Garnett, literary mentor and agent, and friend of D.H. Lawrence, who lived near Edenbridge. Two of Bates’s books My Uncle Silas and Sugar for the Horse were illustrated by Edward Ardizzone who lived at Rodmersham Green.

Bates died in Canterbury on 29 January 1974 and is interred at Charing Crematorium.

This article was published: 27 December 2023.

  1. Bates, H.E. Flying bombs over England, 10. 

  2. Bates, H.E. The Blossoming World, 88. 

  3. Bates, H.E. An Aspidistra in Babylon, 7. 

  4. ibid., 8. 

  5. Tonbridge Free Press, Friday 19 February 1960, 8. 

  6. ibid. 

  7. Bates, H.E. An Aspidistra in Babylon, 7. 

  8. ibid., 18. 

  9. ibid., 7. 

  10. ibid., 10. 

  11. ibid., 30. 

  12. ibid., 48. 

  13. Bates, H.E. ‘A prospect of orchards’ in An Aspidistra in Babylon, 110. 

  14. ibid., 111. 

  15. ibid. 

  16. ibid., 109. 

  17. ibid., 111. 

  18. ibid., 116. 

  19. ibid., 117. 

  20. ibid. 

  21. ibid., 123. 

  22. ibid. 

  23. ibid., 126. 

  24. ibid., 133. 

  25. ibid., 134. 

  26. ibid., 135.