Before we start our literary exploration of Kent’s River Stour, here is some housekeeping. Since this is a virtual exploration, wellingtons and waders are not necessary, nor is a fly swat, umbrella or sunhat, and whether you pack your bag with haslet-filled huffkins along with your bottle of Bing or Fremlins Elephant Pale Ale, a bagful of Kentish Naps and a handful of Sharps toffees is up to you. One final point: you may pronounce it ‘Stoor’ or ‘Stower’, whichever you wish: it will answer to both!
The River Stour has the second largest catchment area of Kent, after the Medway. It rises near Lenham just south east of Maidstone and flows south east parallel to the chalk escarpment of the North Downs and the greensand ridge, and then broadens out into a valley where it meets the East Stour, which flows north west from Postling near Folkestone. The upper section of the river, above its confluence with the East Stour at Ashford is sometimes known as the Upper Great Stour or West Stour.
After Ashford the river is normally known as the Great Stour until it reaches Plucks Gutter below Canterbury where the Little Stour – which starts life as the Nailbourne in Lyminge – joins it, when it becomes simply The Stour in its tidal lower reaches. Confused? Here is a map to help you orientate yourself. As it nears the coast there is Stonar Cut which makes a short artificial cut in the natural river before it loops down to Sandwich and back again, finally flowing into the English Channel at Pegwell Bay. Beyond lie the Goodwin Sands, our ultimate stopping point.
The Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership tells us that the Stour could lay claim to be England’s most historic river. Certainly in Roman and medieval times the river was a major transport route, connecting Canterbury with mainland Europe. Fordwich, on the edge of the city, was an important port in the Middle Ages. And the river played a key role in the spread of Christianity with the arrival of St Augustine at its mouth in 597 AD, which would eventually lead to Canterbury Cathedral becoming the mother church of the Anglican Communion. As we will find it is a very literary river, with an eclectic body of writers from over the centuries dotted along its banks.
No writers seem to have perched on the banks of the East Stour or the West Stour, and so our first stopping point is Little Chart just south of Ashford. This was the home for many years of H.E. Bates, best known for The Darling Buds of May, set in a fictional village in this area. The 1990s film series with David Jason as Pa Larkin was actually filmed in the village of Pluckley, a little further south. Bates wrote the Darling Buds books in the years after the Second World War, but he was well known as a short story writer before and he also wrote about the countryside, especially the Kent countryside: In the Heart of the Country, Through the Woods, The Happy Countryman.
At the time of the Battle of Britain, H.E. Bates’s brother-in-law came to visit, and they decided:
‘We would go fishing. I myself hadn’t fished for years and neither of us had a hook or line to our name. Accordingly we went out and spent some magnificent sum, about two pounds I imagine, on the two cheapest rods we could find, hooks, lines, floats and shot. We dug vast quantities of worms and mixed great puddings of paste. We then armed ourselves with beer, cheese and sandwiches and set off finally for the two pretty little lakes that lie in the centre of the village, one of them containing an island of quince trees, with the limpid narrow young River Stour running alongside them by woods of alder and hazel and here and there under big old horse chestnuts and half drowned ancient willows.
Bates continues: ‘An immense peace enshrouded us; in a garden an old man placed an even older ladder against an apple tree glowing with early red fruit as with lanterns; a kingfisher streaked, copper and blue, through the dark tunnel of alders; a flight of mallards winged away above the quince trees; moorhens dived and disappeared and pranced their delicate way among the tall thick summer reeds. It was hard to believe that this was a battlefield. The paradox of war and the ethereal exquisite nature of summer dissolved together to form a sort of opiate, a state where time and its senseless, fragmentary paroxysms of pain and fear no longer existed. We simply were; we sat beside the still waters and there was nothing else that mattered.’
The little river hadn’t been fished for years and as we cast in our lines it was like taking chocolate from innocent and unprotected children. Fat perch and roach, sometimes a small pike, an occasional rudd or silver bream: all came to us as if we were hypnotists. Even in the heat of the day we went on hauling them in. Then suddenly the opiate heat of noon was shattered. A dog fight broke out above us with such unexpected suddenness that I thought it was the boughs of the big tall poplars catching noisy fire above our heads. Machine-gun shells spattered down the full centre of the lake, rousing a thousand fish, big and small, from August slumber, so that they leapt out of the water in silver frightened shoals as if pursued by some monstrous legendary pike. We angled with a little more circumspection after that, seeking the shelter of trees; but though we heard once or twice again the rattle of machine-gun fire there was really nothing that could ever destroy the suspended beauty of that day, which had calmed at least one troubled mind and given it hope for the future’.1
After Ashford, at Charing, the river turns north east and begins to breach the North Downs; There are now 15 miles to Canterbury and there is one short tributary, the Brook stream which enters from the south east about a mile down from Charing. You could divert up the Brook stream (also known as the Spiders Castle Dyke) to its source at Brook, and visit the fine Agricultural Museum there: (it has an excellent example of the Kentish wrest plough favoured by John Boys).
The next stopping place is Wye, which used to be home to an agricultural college which closed in 2009. The College’s origins go back to the fifteen century when it was founded as the College of St Gregory and St Martin at Wye by John Kempe, the Archbishop of York, as a college for the training of priests. In 1898 it became an agricultural college and part of London University. The gardener Christopher Lloyd was a notable alumnus: from earliest childhood, a love of gardening, nurtured by his mother, had been the keystone of Lloyd’s life so after wartime service in the army he took a degree in decorative horticulture and subsequently joined the staff as a lecturer for two years. From there he returned to Great Dixter to make his living from the garden and devote his life to it. He wrote many books on gardening, notably The Well-Tempered Garden and Dear Friend and Gardener, an exchange of letters with Beth Chatto.
Walter James, Lord Northbourne, was Provost of Wye College for many years. He coined the term ‘organic farming’ in his seminal 1940 ‘Look to the Land’ and eighty years on, his ideas still have freshness and immediacy. Relevant sentences jump off almost every page – he is concerned with many things such as the effects of deforestation and flooding, the importance of renewing the land with organic matter, the danger of using chemicals, the challenge facing the farmer when he must choose between concentrating on marketing or on production, and the question of whether Britain could or ought to be self-supporting in food.
A little further on and we come to Godmersham Park, a Grade I listed house, set on the slope which rises above the river. Jane Austen visited her brother, Edward Austen Knight, who lived here, six times between 1798 and 1813. The house is depicted behind her portrait on the Bank of England £10 note issued in 2017. Writing in The Times in 1983 Geraldine Norman identifies Godmersham Park as the model for Mansfield Park.2 Certainly some of the topography of Mansfield Park is reminiscent of that of Godmersham: ‘by walking fifty yards from the hall door, [Fanny Price can] look down on the park and command a view of the parsonage and all its demesnes, gently rising beyond the village road’.
And now to Canterbury we wend, passing by the villages of Chilham and Chartham. The city of Canterbury is forever associated with Geoffrey Chaucer and his Pilgrims. Canterbury was their intended destination though they would not have come along the Stour and indeed they never reach Canterbury. Under Chaucer’s pen they travel from Southwark via Rochester along Watling Street, which is roughly along the route of today’s A2 but they only reach Harbledown, on a chalk hill above the city: for some reason Chaucer never finished the poem.
From there they would have looked down at a Cathedral which would have looked very different in the late fourteenth century – for a start there was no central Bell Harry Tower, which was not built until around 1500. However there is one latter-day pilgrim who did travel to Canterbury along the Stour, and that is Hilaire Belloc, probably best known today for his Cautionary Tales. Belloc loved the countryside, particularly the chalk lands of South-east England, and at the very beginning of the 20th century he made the journey along what he called ‘The Old Road’ from Winchester to Canterbury, an ancient track which became a pilgrimage route particularly after Becket’s death, and which is still known today as the Pilgrims’ Way.
Belloc picks up the Stour at Charing and his route takes him round the north of Godmersham Park, and then past Chilham Park. A few miles from Canterbury Belloc tells how he comes ‘to the old earthwork which was at once the last and the greatest of the prehistoric remains upon the Old Road, and the first to be connected with written history’. Near here he sits on the gravelly bank of the Stour, and looks eastward towards the city, recalling the first Roman invasion when the British were defeated at Bigberry [sic] Camp, above ‘that dignified little stream the Stour, rolling an even tide below’.3 He then joins Watling Street, and crosses into Canterbury through the Westgate.
The major reason for pilgrimage to Canterbury was to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop murdered on the 29th of December 1174 by four knights of King Henry II, who had unwisely exclaimed ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!’ on hearing that Becket had excommunicated some bishops with the words ‘May they all be damned by Jesus Christ!’ The Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr of Eastbridge was founded in the 12th century to provide overnight accommodation for poor pilgrims to Becket’s shrine. It is now one of the ten almshouses still providing accommodation for elderly citizens of Canterbury - cite_note-Hill-1 and is a grade I listed building. The decades after the Black Death (1346-1353) saw an increase in the popularity of pilgrimage, and several other large inns to accommodate visitors to the city were built at this time. Huge numbers certainly visited the city in the 1420s for the fifth fifty-year jubilee of Becket’s martyrdom.
There was a huge influx of French Huguenot weavers after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1680 – 200,000 arrived at that time. These were both worsted weavers and very skilled silk weavers – in the 1700s the latter group moved mainly to Spitalfields and with some then moving on to Sudbury on the Suffolk Stour. (In Canterbury we have another connection with Sudbury: Simon of Sudbury was Archbishop from 1375 and Lord Chancellor of England from 1380 until his assassination in 1381 during the Peasants’ Revolt.) From the fourteenth century Walloon weavers had established themselves working on broadcloth further to the west in the Weald. One of the most photographed historic buildings in Canterbury, the Old Weavers House is a gorgeous half-timbered building on the River Stour. Elizabeth I granted the Flemish weavers the right to establish their businesses in Canterbury, and they are known to have used this and other similar buildings nearby. There was already a French Church in Canterbury, and there continues to be one within the Cathedral where Protestant services are still conducted.
Canterbury is the birthplace of Aphra Behn, the first professional woman writer in the English language. She was an English playwright, poet, prose writer and translator from the Restoration era, and she also lays claim to have written the first English novel. Her early life was in Kent, though it is hard to piece together, until later when she lived in London and her writing begins to give insight to potential life experiences. One of these is a possible trip to Surinam, alluded to in her novel Oroonoko (1688), which begins with a letter stating, ‘this is a true story’. It is hard to tell how far this is factual, but Oroonoko had ‘influence on the development of the English novel’ with its hard-hitting account of slavery, regardless of how closely it reflects on Behn’s own experience.
Canterbury was also the birthplace of Mary Tourtel, the creator of Rupert Bear, who was born in 1874 into an artistic family. Her father and one of her brothers were stonemasons and stained-glass designers at Canterbury Cathedral and her eldest brother, Edmund, was an artist with an interest in painting animals. Mary attended the Sidney Cooper School of Art in Canterbury and before becoming the writer and illustrator of Rupert Bear for the Daily Express between 1920 and 1935 created characters and scenes akin to the Kentish landscape: the jury is out on the location of Nutwood, the idyllic village where Rupert lives with his parents.
Edward Hasted, the 18th century historian whose History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent is a document in which the Stour is discussed from time to time.
The City of Canterbury is situated in a pleasant valley about two miles wide, surrounded by hills of a moderate height, and easy ascent, with several springs of fine water rising from them. Besides which the river Stour runs through it, the streams of which, by often dividing and meeting again, water it still more plentifully, and forming islands of various sizes, in one of which the western part of the city stands, contribute to purify the air, and make the soil fertile. Such a situation could hardly be destitute of inhabitants, nor was any spot more likely to unite numbers together to form a city, than one so well prepared by nature as well for defence as cultivation.
Hasted came from further north in Kent, but moved to Canterbury in 1770, where he was a Justice of the Peace, and later published a Guide to Canterbury (1807). His three sons attended the King’s School. This school, reputedly in existence since 597 AD, has spawned some notable writers. The playwright Christopher Marlowe, born in Canterbury in 1564, studied there, as did William Harvey, born in nearby Folkestone in 1578, who discovered that the circulation of blood was pumped through the body by the heart.
In the late nineteenth century the novelists Somerset Maugham and Hugh Walpole were students there. One of Maugham’s best known characters is Willie Ashenden in Cakes and Ale – and he may have created the surname from the many towns and villages in Kent and the Weald with the suffix – enden or with the prefix or name ‘Ash-‘: indeed there are two places names ‘Ashenden’ near Tenterden. In this novel Maugham satirises Walpole as Alroy Kear, a busybody literary figure from London. Walpole also crops up as the model for one of the young men (another is based on E.M. Forster) in Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1909 novel about a romp around Kent, The Caravanners, which ends in Canterbury Cathedral. Until recently Walpole was read thousands of times every day: a passage from Jeremy was the smallest print on the text card which the optometrist would proffer during an eye-test. It begins:
He moved forward a few steps: the house was so dark behind him, the world so dim and uncertain in front of him, that for a moment his heart failed him.
That is the section the optometrist knows off by heart: it is as far as most people get.
The travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was expelled from King’s for holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter, after which, in December 1933, he set out on his long journey across Europe to Constantinople. He later recollected his time at the school:
Copious reading about the Dark and the Middle Ages had floridly coloured my views of the past and the King’s School, Canterbury touched off emotions which were sharply opposed to those of Somerset Maugham in the same surroundings; they were . . . probably identical, I liked to think, with those of Christopher Marlowe earlier still. I couldn’t get over the fact that the school had been founded at the very beginning of Anglo-Saxon Christianity – before the sixth century was out, that is: fragments of Thor and Woden had hardly stopped smouldering in the Kentish woods.
I liked nearly everybody, from the headmaster and my housemaster down, and prospered erratically at dead and living languages and at history and geography – at everything . . . except mathematics. I found my mind wandering at games; loved boxing and was good at it; and in summer, having chosen rowing instead of cricket, lay peacefully beside the Stour, well upstream of the rhythmic creaking and the exhortation, reading Lily Christine a novel by Michael Arlen, and Gibbon and gossiping with kindred lotus-eaters under the willow-branches.4
She was twenty-four, a ravishing and sonnet-begetting beauty and I can see her now and still hear that melting and deep Kent accent. . . . I knew that such an association [broke taboos, but] nevertheless I headed for the shop the moment I could escape. But the black clothes we wore, those stiff wing-collars and the wide and speckled straw boaters with their blue and white silk ribands were as conspicuous as broad-arrows. I was caught red-handed . . . and my schooldays were over.5
The film producer Michael Powell was the son of a hop-farmer at nearby Bekesbourne, on the Nailbourne – of which more later. His 1944 black-and-white film A Canterbury Tale (which obviously takes its title from Chaucer), was the first of two collaborations with Emeric Pressburger. Set during the Second World War, three modern-day incarnations of Chaucer’s pilgrims—a melancholy Land Girl, a plainspoken American GI, and a resourceful British sergeant—are waylaid in the English countryside en route to Canterbury and forced to solve a bizarre village crime: the action was filmed in and around Bekesbourne. Another film producer Carol Reed (The Third Man, etc.) was at King’s, and even Judy Garland passed by in 1962 when she made a film with Dirk Bogarde. In I Could Go on Singing she visits her son at his school: while Canon Shirley, the formidable headmaster at the time, forbade filming on the school grounds, it took place around the Cathedral. During filming Garland sat demurely on a chair – somehow not in the lively character as we know her - outside the Choir School, but intently watching the filming which she would presumably later join.
Someone else who played a peripheral part in all this was the former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo, who was at King’s from 1957-1962 when ‘[w]e wore strange uniforms, wing collars, black jackets, boaters [the same as Leigh-Fermor had worn nearly thirty years previously]. And when I was older I got to wear a scarlet gown which made me feel very important’. No wonder, then, that as school captain in 1962, Morpurgo caused filming to be suspended for a while, when he raised the number of extras who were wearing the school uniform with the film’s director, saying that this was a discredit to the school. A complaint was made by the chairman of governors and Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Hewlett Johnson, who said that ‘the “boys” looked very scruffy. . . . I hope they will be kept out of the film.’ Eventually the problem was resolved.
We can’t leave Canterbury without talking a little more about Hewlett Johnson, Canterbury’s other turbulent priest known as the Red Dean, whose left-wing ideas led to him being a supporter of Communism from the 1930s. His influence spread surreptitiously beyond the Cathedral, assisted by his one-time secretary A.T. D’Eye, a lifelong companion and mentor on socialism. D’Eye was an Oxford Extramural Resident Tutor and taught in the Kent coalfield and one of his most successful classes - on International Relations – began at Betteshanger Colliery in the 1930s. There are suggestions that this particular class had a role among miners’ leaders in pursuing the 1942 strike, in wrestling with the issues it raised, and in representing the strike to the wider world. A huge CND banner was spread across the roof of the Red Dean’s house in the Precincts in the early 1960s, and he would attend CND meetings, sitting with his gaitered legs crossed, and beadily eying younger members of the audience as possible recruits for his politics.
A couple of miles downstream we come to Britain’s smallest town, Fordwich, which marks the tidal limit. It has never boasted more than a few hundred inhabitants, but its right to style itself a town dates from 1184, when King Henry II granted it a Merchant Gild Charter, reflecting its importance as the de facto port for Canterbury. Fordwich opens Chapter 4 of Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler:
‘I know a little brook in Kent, that breeds them (trout) to a number incredible, and you may take them twenty or forty in an hour, but none greater than about the size of a Gudgion: There is also in Kent near to Canterbury, a trout: (called there a Fordidge trout) a trout (that bears the name of the Town, where it is usually caught) that is accounted the rarest of Fish, many of them near the bignesse of a Salmon, but known by their different colour, and in their best season cut very white; and none of these have been known to be caught with an Angle, unless it were one that was caught by Sir George Hastings (an excellent Angler, and now with God), and he hath told me, he thought that trout bit not for hunger but wantonness; and it is the rather to be believed, because both he then, and many others before him, have been curious to search into their bellies, what the food was by which they lived; and have found out nothing by which they might satisfie their curiosity. He ends: And so much for these Fordidge trouts, which never afford an Angler sport, but either live their time of being in the fresh water by their meat formerly gotten in the Sea, (not unlike the Swallow or Frog) or by the vertue of the fresh water only; or as the birds of Paradise, and the Camelion are said to live by the Sun and the aire.’
Below Fordwich the river begins to be fringed with marshes. At Plucks Gutter we are surprised to find the Somerset Maugham Boathouse: was Maugham an oarsman, we ask ourselves? The answer is somewhat more mercenary: Canon Shirley had asked Maugham to donate funds to the school, and some of these funds were used to build this boathouse in 1953.
Here the Stour is joined by the Little Stour which starts its life as the Nailbourne which we mentioned earlier. This stream has its source near Lyminge not far from Folkestone and flows along the Elham valley, through Bishopsbourne, Bekesbourne and Littlebourne where it becomes the Little Stour. It is a winterbourne, and therefore sometimes fails to flow. According to legend it was St Augustine who performed a miracle and brought water to the Elham Valley at St Ethelburga’s Well in Lyminge. When there is a drought and the stream runs dry it is because of Woden and Thor (whom the local people had previously worshipped) who were displeased with what St Augustine had done. It is also local superstition that the Nailbourne only flows once every seven years and that when it does flow it is a sign of bad luck.
The novelist Elizabeth Bowen lived in Lyminge for a short while as a girl of 11 but none of her works reflect the area, though she sets novels in nearby Folkestone and Hythe. However, her friend the novelist and critic Jocelyn Brooke lived in Bishopsbourne, and Brooke incorporates some of the mythical feelings which surround the Nailbourne in his fiction, imagining the Bishopsbourne of his childhood as an idyll, a kind of English middle-class Eden. Simon Wilson says: ‘He seems to recall “the village … held in a perpetual trance of summer afternoons.”’ It becomes ‘the symbol of a happiness’ which promised to return every year. Yet to Brooke’s childhood imagination this entrancing, languid summerland was constantly threatened by a winterland of subterranean creatures, ‘a dark, alien race, their naked bodies crouched in narrow, pitch-black corridors,’ who might emerge at any moment to abduct him to their terrible caverns. Liminal places – shafts into the underworld – from which these demonic presences may emerge, dotted the countryside of his childhood. We must bear in mind that in reality beneath the surface of this charmed land thread the passages of the East Kent coalfield which were being developed at the time of Brooke’s childhood.
Joseph Conrad also lived in Bishopsbourne towards the end of his life and according to one biographer showed no desire to involve himself in the life of the village.
The village river, the Nailbourne, however, was rather too eager to become involved with him: Most dramatic of all was the occasion when Conrad one day stamped his foot in temper in the front hall and went straight through the rotting floorboards. Further investigation showed that the Nailbourne, which back in the eighteenth century had been diverted to a north-easterly path round the house, had still retained part of its original flow under Conrad’s front door.
So we move on from Plucks Gutter where the river turns southwards to the once-thriving port of Sandwich, after which it loops back on itself to the north before entering the sea at Pegwell Bay. The Stonar Cut at the beginning of the loop obviates the need for seagoing craft to take the longer route around the loop at Sandwich. The place-name ‘Sandwich’ is first found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it appears as Sondwic in 851 and Sandwic in 993. In the Domesday Book of 1086 it appears as Sandwice. The suffix -wich comes from the Anglo Saxon, meaning a dwelling or fortified place where trade takes place and the name means ‘market town on sandy soil’. In 2014 an original copy of Magna Carta, issued in 1300, was found in its Guildhall archives, together with a copy of the Charter of the Forest. It was only the second time in history that the two documents have been found together. They are now displayed alongside other historical artefacts in the Sandwich Guildhall Museum. The Charter of the Forest of 1217 re-established for free men rights of access to the royal forest that had been eroded by King William the Conqueror and his heirs, redressing some applications of the Anglo-Norman Forest Law that had been extended and abused by King William Rufus. Many of its provisions were in force for centuries afterwards. It was originally sealed in England by the young King Henry III, acting under the regency of William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke.
Thomas Malory sets an episode from Le Morte d’Arthur in Sandwich. When Arthur ruled, he tells us, they say the Emperor Lucius sent messengers, exacting tribute from the king. His refusal was courteous but firm: he claimed lordship over Rome himself. He would go to Rome and take possession of the Empire. At his Parliament in York, it was decreed his navy should be massed off Sandwich. And so:
That night the royal ship was berthed by Sandwich
The worthy King lay apart in his cabin.
He slept, and slumbering dreamed this dream.
From out of the west a dragon flew gleaming.
This beast was mighty, with claws of gold
and silver worm-loops traced on its breast.
From its burnished bronze nostrils flashed flames of fire,
scorching the crops, steaming the sea.
As Arthur watched, from the east came a boar
with paws like posts that could pummel and punch
and tusks like giant thorns that could tear at the flesh.
The two beasts thrashed in a terrible battle.
The sea boiled red with the dragon’s blood
and it seemed that the boar would quell the worm.
But the angry worm flew to the heights
and summoned its strength to bear down on the boar
and flailed at the beast with spangled wings
battering and pulping the grizzly boar
till it floated as flotsam on the winnowing waves.
The king was fearful for this dreadful dream
and sought out soothsayers to learn the meaning:
They told how the boar betokened a tyrant
to be slain by the king and his noble knights.
These wise words set free Arthur’s burden.
The King was cheered and hoisted his standard
to bid his fleet take the swan’s road to Flanders.
Sandwich later gained significantly from the skills brought to the town by many Flemish settlers, who were granted the right to settle by letters patent from Elizabeth I. Sandwich was the only town in England that housed more so-called ‘strangers’ than native Englishmen in the 16th century. Historian Marcel Backhouse estimated there were at least 2,400 Flemish and 500 Walloon exiles living in Sandwich at the time. The population today is only 6,600. Techniques of silk manufacture were imported, enhancing the Kent cloth industry. As well as weaving, these settlers brought with them techniques of market gardening, and were responsible for growing the first English celery, which was already - and still is - very popular in Flanders. The Huguenot refugees also brought over Flemish architectural techniques, that are now as much a part of Kent as the thatched cottage.
And now we move on to the elastic-sided gumboots and ear trumpet of Jennings and Darbishire, the creations of Anthony Buckeridge. At University College London Buckeridge had involved himself in Socialist and anti-war groups: during World War II he was called up as a fireman. Protest was in the family: not only did he later become an active member of CND, but his first wife, Sylvia, was a niece of the Pankhursts. After the war they moved to Sandwich, and he turned to teaching at St Lawrence College, in Ramsgate. Here he used to tell his pupils stories about the fictional Jennings (based however, on an old schoolfellow Diarmid Jennings), a prep schoolboy boarding at Linbury Court Preparatory School, under headmaster Mr Pemberton-Oakes. Buckeridge wrote a series of radio plays for BBC Children’s Hour chronicling the exploits of Jennings and his rather more staid friend, Darbishire; the first, Jennings Learns the Ropes, was first broadcast on 16 October 1948. In 1950, the first of more than twenty novels, Jennings Goes to School, appeared. The tales make liberal use of Buckeridge’s inventive schoolboy slang (‘fossilised fish hooks!’, ‘crystallised cheesecakes!’, ‘petrified paintpots!’ and others).
The Stour discharges into the sea in Pegwell Bay. In nearby Ebbsfleet is the site of the landing of the first Christian mission to southern England, by St Augustine, in 597 AD, commemorated by St Augustine’s Cross where St Augustine is said to have met the Saxon King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha. Bertha was already a Christian, which may well have accounted for the welcome afforded St Augustine, who was given freedom to preach and invited to establish himself and his monks at Canterbury.
Pegwell Bay has unstable areas at low tide amongst the otherwise firm sands, and further out to sea are the even more treacherous Goodwin Sands. A name which most probably will not be familiar is Eleanor Alice Burford. But say Jean Plaidy and most people of a certain generation will recognise her as the writer of historical romances. Burford liked Sandwich and lived there in the 1970s in a 13th century manor house she named the King’s Lodging. She had several other pseudonyms, but Plaidy was the name she published under most often – ninety-one novels. The second most prolific name was that of Victoria Holt with thirty-two. Here is an extract from Victoria Holt’s novel The Shivering Sands, which has a fictional representation of the Goodwin Sands as a setting.
‘the sand moves as you watch and forms itself into strange shapes, like monsters some of them . . . with claws . . . waiting to catch anyone who wandered there and pull them down. There were gulls circling overhead. Their cries were so mournful, Mrs Verlaine. Oh, it was frightening, so lonely, so desolate. They say the sands are haunted. I’ve talked to one of the men from the North Goodwins Lightship and he says that when he’s on watch he sometimes hears wild heart-rending cries from the sands. They used to say it was the gulls, but he wasn’t so sure. Terrible things have happened there.’
And we end with a summing up of those terrible things, alluded to by the German poet and novelist Theodor Fontane in this 1857 poem.
These are the shoals of the Goodwin Sands,
they are not sea, they are not land,
they slither replete, heavy and slow,
like a serpent, to and fro.
And ships, which have grappled with storm
and overcome the raging foam
and travelled all over the world
without being shattered, without being wrecked,
see their homeland, see their goal.
Then the serpent slithers under the keel
and coils round the ship, coils round the crew
pulling them down to their death, their grave.
The sea is still, the ebb is near.
Mast-spikes stick up here and there
And where they surface in the gloom
they are crosses over the tomb.
This is a churchyard, half sea, half land, -
these are the shoals of the Goodwin Sands.