The Capital of the Weald
It might be too early for the blossom that annually drapes the fruit trees in the surrounding orchards to provide us with a colourful escape from the drab winter that shows every sign of lingering; but the shops that line the High Street will be a riot of colour featuring every shade of red through to boudoir pink in celebration of St Valentine. There is no respite from this particular festival even in the heart of the garden of England and who would want to deprive themselves of a little colour in the winter gloom?
Cranbrook provides us with an idyllic vision of everything that we cherish about rural England. It can be found set within the High Weald of Kent amongst sleepy country lanes, winding gently through hop gardens, apple and cherry orchards. This ancient market town remains relatively small, more of a large village than a town. Its centre seems untouched by time; in fact it looks more like a film set for Miss Marple or the Darling Buds of May than a working town. With a range of fine fifteenth to seventeenth century timber-framed homes and shops along the two main streets interspersed with weather boarded houses that were used a century or two ago as the equivalent to modern day “infill”.
This lack of uniformity is delightful, Cranbrook despite the modern day pressures plaguing small towns and villages up and down the country has remained largely unspoilt, and it is still the peaceful place that inhabitants from previous centuries would still recognise. It has a peaceful High Street with no brash chain stores, just shop fronts from a bygone era. There are narrow streets and alleyways remnant of its medieval heyday. The beautiful buildings contain a vast selection of shops selling antiques and gifts to specialist delicatessens, which along with the charming backdrop are an enticing distraction for the tourists who spend long leisurely afternoons browsing.
Cranbrook doesn’t exist just for the indulgence of the many visitors; its residents are very well catered for with a host of independent shops selling life’s many necessities as well as a few luxuries. This little market town is also able to indulge those members of society that consider themselves gastronomes, with an enticing array of good restaurants as well as those offering simple fare. It doesn’t end here! Cranbrook is famous for the quality of its schools that are on an equal footing with the very best in the country. Together with the pubs, shops and restaurants they are all essential to the fabric of Cranbrook
Similar to other settlements of the time it came into existence because of the junction of several major routes as well as the close proximity of natural resources need to sustain a developing community. The town more than likely gained its name from the Crane Brook that flowed through the settlement!
It might astound many to know that this diminutive town was once regarded as the Capital of the Weald because of its location and the successful broadcloth industry. Farming has for centuries provide the foundation for the generation of wealth within the region. Sheep farming was a major industry in itself as the wool from the animals was originally sold on to European weavers. This changed in the early 1300’s when Edward I decided to tax wool which had by that time become one of our largest exports. In an effort to increase the exchequers falling revenue Flemish weavers were encouraged to leave their native land by Edward III and start weaving in this country. They needed little encouragement as it would prove to be financially advantageous for them as their raw materials would be far cheaper. This smart business decision by the king heralded the start of the broadcloth industry in the Weald as a whole.
The area had all of the natural resources required by the weavers from timber, water and of course wool. By the middle of the fourteenth century the town was the primary cloth market in the Weald and by the fifteenth century it had become the centre of cloth making and weaving in Kent. The most famous cloth to be produced was called Cranbrook Grey, a bolt of which was purchased by Queen Elizabeth 1 on a visit.
Many of the wonderful old buildings that survive to this day owe their existence to the master clothiers who lived in the area and the amount of wealth that they accrued. They built substantial properties that doubled as homes, offices and warehouse. They are very easy to spot as they built their properties in a Flemish style with distinctive gable ends which face the street, there are around nine that are still in use today! A master clothier known as Thomas Henley left more than 30 properties in his will within Cranbrook and the surrounding villages. Unfortunately the sixteenth century saw the gradual demise of the industry and it started a slow decline until the last clothier John Stunt died in 1740 and production ceased. In similarity with the manufacture of iron, another Wealden industry, the production of cloth moved north and became established in the industrial heartland of northern England
Cloth making provided Cranbrook with its greatest period of prosperity and endowed the town with a wonderful selection of period properties for future generations to cherish!
Although in reality a small market town set in the Weald of Kent, Cranbrook is probably better known as the capital of the Kentish Weald. This idyllic vision of rural England encompasses all that we have come to know and love about our heritage. A capital doesn’t need to be over sized; Cranbrook is perfectly proportioned and displays the very best of the Weald.
Weather boarded houses were used a century or two ago as a modern day equivalent to “infill” amongst the timber framed buildings that are far senior in age. This lack of uniformity is delightful! Cranbrook despite the modern day pressures that plague small towns and villages up and down the country has remained largely unspoilt, it is still the peaceful place that inhabitants from previous centuries would probably still recognise.
This Wealden capital was little more than a hamlet in a clearing in the Forest of Andresweald, where a few pigs may have reared to forage on the abundance of acorns that littered the floor. There is no mention of Cranbrook in the Domesday Book but the church is recorded in the Domesday Monachorum of 1089 as Cranebroca and Crenbroc in the Testa De Neville ( a survey carried out by Henry III and Edward I around 1270 – 1280)
Similar to other settlements of the time it came into existence because of the junction of several major routes used by travellers. The area provided everything that the inhabitants needed to survive timber from the surrounding woods, a source of income from the travellers and water from the Crane Brook. The brook flows through the town merging with other small streams until ultimately joining the river Medway at Yalding. Perhaps the brook provided the town with its name as Cranbrook means a brook with herons or cranes. Although Cranbrook is situated on a bed of Tunbridge Wells sand there are bands of clay that act as barriers stopping the rain water disappearing, this helps conserve the water and is responsible for the many ponds and small lakes that are found within the area.
It does seem in many ways more of a village than a small town but as with most things appearances can be deceptive. It hasn’t suffered the enforced growth that has plagued nearby Tonbridge and Ashford so construction has been kept to a minimum and allowed the retention of many period properties. The two main streets are lined with fifteenth and seventeenth century timber framed shops and houses. There are narrow streets and alleyways remnant of its medieval heyday. The beautiful buildings contain a vast selection of shops selling antiques and gifts to specialist delicatessens, which along with the charming backdrop are “manna” for the tourists enabling them to spend long leisurely afternoons browsing.
It may appear to the many tourists as though Cranbrook is a museum piece, a relic of times past that has been preserved purely for their own indulgence; this couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are plenty of shops selling both functional items for the residents and fripperies for the visitors. The inhabitants are the reason for Cranbrook’s very survival; the schools thrive and are amongst the very best in the country; together with the pubs, shops and restaurants they are all essential to the fabric of Cranbrook. Without the community making best use of all of these facilities Cranbrook would follow the decline of many small country villages and towns. Once the village school, pub or shop disappears the village no longer has a 'hub' and the community spirit dies this is very unlikely to happen here with the many schools and pubs! The locals have not become outnumbered by incomers wanting second homes, the ease of the transport network means that people can commute to the city or work nearby without too much hardship.
It is hard to imagine that in centuries gone Cranbrook had a thriving industry of it’s own that was in part due to an influx of Flemish clothiers and the natural resources that were close at hand; timber, water and of course wool. The most famous cloth to be produced was called Cranbrook Grey, a bolt of which was purchased by Queen Elizabeth 1 on a visit to the area. Cloth making provided Cranbrook with probably its greatest period of prosperity; it started during the reign of Edward III (1327 – 1377) until its decline in 1740.
By the middle of the fourteenth century the town was the primary cloth market in the Weald and by the fifteenth century it had become the centre of cloth making and weaving in Kent. Many of the old buildings that survive to this day owe their existence to the master clothiers who lived in the area and the amount of wealth that they accrued. One of them a Thomas Henley left in his will more than 30 properties in Cranbrook and the surrounding villages. A number of the leading master clothiers built large Flemish style cloth halls with their distinctive gable ends facing the street. These cloth halls doubled as homes, offices and warehouses. There are around nine that still survive around the town! Unfortunately the sixteenth century saw the gradual demise of the industry it started a slow decline until the last clothier John Stunt died in 1740 and production ceased. In similarity with the iron industry the production of cloth became established in the industrial north of England
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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