In 1896, as part of his avant-garde Keynotes series, John Lane published Nesbit’s In Homespun, a collection of short stories set in the South Kent villages and ‘out away among the Sussex downs’. Here is Nesbit’s introduction to these ten tales, written in Kentish dialect.

THESE tales are written in an English dialect—none the less a dialect for that it lacks uniformity in the misplacement of aspirates, and lacks, too, strange words misunderstanded of the reader.

In South Kent villages with names ending in ‘den,’ and out away on the Sussex downs where villages end in ‘hurst,’ live the plain people who talk this plain speech—a speech that should be sweeter in English ears than the implacable consonants of a northern kail-yard, or the soft one-vowelled talk of western hillsides.

All through the summer nights the market carts creak along the London road; to London go the wild young man and the steady young man who ‘betters’ himself. To London goes the girl seeking a ‘place.’ The ‘beano’ comes very near to this land—so near that across its marches you may hear the sackbut and shawm from the breaks. Once a year come the hoppers. And so the cup of the hills holds no untroubled pool of pastoral speech. This book therefore is of no value to a Middle English scholar, and needs no glossary.

KENT, March 1896.

‘Coals of Fire’, the final story in the collection, features river dwellers who sail barges along the River Medway between London and Tonbridge. Nesbit opens:

All my life I’ve lived on a barge. My father, he worked a barge from London to Tonbridge, and ‘twas on a barge I first see the light when my mother’s time come. I used to wish sometimes as I could ‘ave lived in a cottage with a few bits of flowers in the front, but I think if I’d been put to it I should have chose the barge rather than the finest cottage ever I see.

Nesbit, a keen oarswoman and swimmer, took many boating holidays on the Medway with family and friends. William Archer noted that she had ‘a real love for English nature and a keen eye for it’. Nowhere is this more evident than in her descriptions of the lovely Kent countryside lying either side of the lazy River Medway. In The Wouldbegoods, she wrote:

We went along the towing path; it is shady with willows, aspens, elders, oaks, and other trees. On the banks are flowers – yarrow, meadow-sweet, willow herb, loose-strife, and lady’s bed-straw.
As dusk fell, she would play her guitar, sometimes strumming a song of her own composition. Her ‘Medway Song’ goes as follows:

MEDWAY SONG (Air: Carnaval de Venise)
Let Housman sing of Severn shore, Of Thames let Arnold sing, But we will sing no river more
Save this where crowbars ring.

Let others sing of Henley, Of fashion and renown, But we will sing the thirteen locks That lead to Tonbridge town!

Then sing the Kentish river, The Kentish fields and flowers, We waste no dreams on other streams Who call the Medway ours.

When on the level golden meads The evening sunshine lies, The little voles among the reeds Look out with wondering eyes.

The patient anglers linger The placid stream beside, Where still with towering tarry prow The stately barges glide.

Then sing the Kentish river, The Kentish fields and flowers, We waste no dreams on other streams Who call the Medway ours.

On Medway banks the May droops white, The wild rose blossoms fair, O’er meadow-sweet and loosestrife bright, For water nymphs to wear.

And mid the blowing rushes Pan pipes a joyous song, And woodland things peep from the shade As soft we glide along.

Then sing the Kentish river, The Kentish fields and flowers, We waste no dreams on other streams Who call the Medway ours.

You see no freight on Medway boats Of fashions fine and rare, But happy men in shabby coats, And girls with wind-kissed hair.

The world’s a pain forgotten, And very far away, The stream that flows, the boat that goes – These are our world to-day.

Then sing the Kentish river, The Kentish fields and flowers, We waste no dreams on other streams Who call the Medway ours.

Long passages in The Incredible Honeymoon (1921) and Salome and the Head (1909) two of Nesbit’s novels for adults, describe the river’s beauty. In Salome and the Head, she wrote:

The Medway just above the Anchor (at Yalding, Kent) is a river of dreams. The grey and green of willows and alders mirror themselves in the still water in images hardly less solid-seeming than their living realities. There is pink loosestrife there, and meadow-sweet creamy and fragrant, forget- me-nots wet and blue, and a tangle of green weeds and leaves and stems that only botanists know the names of.

Nesbit stayed in several of the pubs and inns that punctuated the river- bank. The real Anchor, which has been renamed the Boathouse, is a quaint fourteenth-century pub that stands just across the river from the medieval Twyford Bridge and weir. In The Englishman’s Country (1945), poet and nature writer Walter James Turner described the Anchor as a ‘beautiful inn with its nooks and corners answering no particular scheme of architecture’. Its origin was as a bargeman’s inn, but it became ‘a favourite anchorage for anglers, who have miles of water, swift or slow to yield them sport’.

In Salome and the Head, Nesbit wrote:

If you go to Yalding you may stay at the George, and be comfortable in a little village that owns a haunted churchyard, a fine church, and one of the most beautiful bridges in Europe. Or you may stay at the Anchor, and be comfortable on the very lip of the river.

Templar, her protagonist, stays at the Anchor, where Nesbit stayed many times. She included a description of breakfast there in Salome and the Head:

At the Anchor you breakfast either in a little room whose door opens directly on that part of the garden which is adorned by two round flower- beds edged with the thickest, greenest box you ever saw – this is next door to breakfasting in the garden itself – or you do breakfast in the garden. Once upon a time you used to breakfast in a hornbeam arbour, but now that is given over to bargees. The landlord of the Anchor is a just man, and apportions the beauty of his grounds fairly among his clients.

The morning being a prince of mornings, even for June, Mr Templar ate his eggs and bacon in the garden, drank there his three cups of tea, and there leaned back and smoked the after-breakfast pipe. There were birds singing in the alders opposite; the river, decorated with sunlight, looked warm and brown, like the shallow pools whose warmness quite shocks you when you dangle your feet in them from seaweed-covered rocks.

Edward and Katherine, her couple from The Incredible Honeymoon, stand ‘on the landing-stage of the Anchor, looking down on a sort of Sargasso Sea of small craft that stretched along below the edge of the Anchor garden’. When they take to the water on the next page, Nesbit uses this as an opportunity to condemn the hideously utilitarian architecture encroaching on this beloved landscape, a theme she returned to again and again:

A few strokes took them out of sight of the Anchor, its homely, flowered garden, its thatched house, its hornbeam arbor; they passed, too, the ugly, bare house that some utilitarian misdemeanant has built next to it, then nothing but depths of willow copse, green and grey, and the grassy curves of the towing-path where the loosestrife grows, and the willow herb, the yellow yarrow, and the delicate plumes of the meadow-sweet.

The George in Yalding, a riverside inn dating back to 1642, provided an alternative to the Anchor. Templar enjoys a drink there in Salome and the Head:

But he walked up to Yalding and leaned on the bridge and looked down into the mysterious shadowy depths that by daylight are green-water-meadows; saw two white owls fly out from the church tower; heard the church clock strike nine; had a drink at the George and a pleasant word with the George’s good landlord; and went back over the broad, deserted green space, tree-bordered, which Yalding calls the Leas, to that other bridge which is almost as beautiful as Yalding’s, and so to bed in a little bungalow close to the water, and there fell asleep with the sound of the weir soothing him like a lullaby.

In 1905 Edith sent a note to H.G. Wells, who was due to join them: ‘I can’t remember whether you were told that our inn at Yalding is the George – it would be dreadful if you were to seek us vainly at the Bull or the Anchor, she wrote.


Nesbit, E. In Homespun, 1896.
Nesbit, E. The Wouldbegoods, 1901, ch. 5. Nesbit, E. The Incredible Honeymoon, 1916.