Despite being only twenty five miles from the countries capital London, the Eden Valley lies undisturbed, covered in ancient woodland and meadows intersected by the gently meandering river Eden on its way to join the more vigorous river Medway. The area is situated in a part of the county known as the Weald and is bordered by Surrey from whence the little river Eden springs. It is the Greensand Ridge that stretches from Westerham through to Sevenoaks that is partly responsible for the deep valley, which in some parts is some 800 feet above sea level. Together both of these features create an area of outstanding natural beauty. With it’s biblical name and stunning scenery one would expect anything contained within the valley to be equally as attractive and Edenbridge certainly lives up to ones expectations!
Edenbridge is nestled deep in the valley on a bend of its namesake river and seems almost as ancient as the land on which it sits. A small and pretty town on the south west borders of Kent with Surrey and East Sussex it serves as a commercial centre for a number of small outlying villages. However as first impressions go Edenbridge seems very detached from everything associated with commerce; it has a delightful collection of historic buildings the majority of which at the towns heart are black and white timber framed Medieval buildings. It is this historic environment which is of immense value not only to the inhabitants but is also a draw for the many visitors who visit the area.
The very heart of Edenbridge, in fact the High Street itself can trace its roots back to the Romans. The settlement developed around a crossing point for the transportation of wood and other materials to London. However the area has been settled for much longer than the Roman period, there are ancient earthworks of the “Cantii” people on the surrounding hills as well as an Iron Age settlement.
During the Roman occupation the surrounding woodland that we now recognise was infact an impenetrable forest that the Romans with some difficulty managed to penetrate by building what was then the main road between London and Lewis.
When the Romans eventually abandoned the country the area was soon settled by Saxons and it is they who are responsible for the name of the town. A Saxon by the name of Eadhelm was the local chief and he was responsible for building the first wooden bridge. The bridge was called Eadhelm’s bridge which was eventually shortened to Edenbridge. The town has had a number of bridges, each a replacement for an earlier one built on the same spot. The wooden bridge was replaced by a Tudor, five arched bridge constructed of stone and then in 1834 the single arched bridge that can still be seen today was built.
During the Saxon period the area was sparsely populated and the main occupation of the people living here was the production of pigs. The animals had a plentiful supply of locally sourced food namely acorns! It was after the Black Death in the 14th century that the area began to thrive. It became a centre for industry the most important being iron, which we would normally associate with the Midlands. It was the wealth created by this industry that allowed the town to thrive during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries hence the number of wonderful buildings that we can still see today. One of the other major industries was tanning which lasted for much longer than that of iron. The production of leather lasted for over five hundred years, well into the 1970’s when the local tannery closed because it could no longer compete with imported leather. In some ways this was quite a sad event but the building still exists and fortunately the smell is long gone!
An extract from Hasted's History of Kent published in 1797, described the area in less than favourable terms;
“The farmhouses are old-fashioned timber buildings, standing single and much dispersed, all which give the country rather a gloomy appearance, but whatever it may want in pleasantness is made up by health, fertility of soil, and, it’s many local advantages equally profitable both to the landlord and occupier”
As with other towns good times come and go and the time of plenty eventually deserted Edenbridge in the 17th and 18th centuries because the more modern methods of production were less labour intensive, an improved transport system allowed areas further out to compete for the London market and the eventual relocation of the iron industry to the Midlands.
Edenbridge more or less went into a state of hibernation until the coming of the railway in 1840 and 1847. Just like London buses which always seem to come in two’s the railway decided that one line was not enough and built two railway lines, which today neatly confine the industrial areas of the town.
With the coming of the railway the labouring population boomed and provided a plentiful supply of workers for the construction of large country houses like Stanholm and Fairfield, built for the wealthy Londoners who were starting to move into the area. This ease of access which started a couple of hundred years ago still continues to this day with the many commuters who choose to live in such an idyllic environment.
An Eden in the Garden of Kent
Edenbridge is as lovely as you would expect of place named after a fruitful paradise. The only thing missing from the equation is an ideal man and woman let alone a serpent! Perhaps the book of Genesis was wrong and paradise has been waiting in Kent all along! I don’t mean to be flippant but Edenbridge surrounded by picturesque countryside and a town centre full of historic buildings certainly lives up to the aspirations of many. It is hard to believe that it is only twenty five miles to the countries capital city and yet it is so undisturbed, almost as though it has slumbered through the past few centuries and awakened refreshed but unchanged missing all the worst aspects of industrial revolution and two world wars.
It is probably its proximity to London that has enabled the town to become a living thriving environment and not moth balled. Many people who live here are able to commute each morning from this Arcadian dream to their offices in the city and an equal number are lucky enough to find employment locally. There are other places not as well preserved that have become museum pieces, tourist traps for people seeking a rural life that no longer exists. It also serves as a commercial centre for a number of small outlying villages. However as first impressions go Edenbridge seems very detached from everything associated with commerce; you would expect to see plenty of concrete and a street scene little different from high streets up and down the country. In Edenbridge you couldn’t be further from the truth; black and white timber framed medieval buildings sit alongside other equally ancient homes, a medley of ages that is extraordinarily attractive!
The town is still in use as a thriving centre of trade as it was when it received its original Charter from Henry III in the 13th Century to hold a market every Saturday. The only thing that has changed is that the local lord does not regulate the sale of bread and beer so you will not see bakers in the pillory for under weight bread or brewers in the tumbril. Both bread and ale were staple foods during medieval times and ale was drunk by everyone purely because the drinking water was so polluted. The average mans consumption of ale was around a gallon a day, on top of this was the amount required for the rest of the household so it formed an expensive outlay for the housewives of the time. Vast amounts of ale came from local breweries but soon enterprising housewives started making their own and selling any excess. Unfortunately as with cooking standards varied considerably, with some ales being thick enough to plaster with and others as clear as dish water! With this in mind Henry III decided to impose a law to protect the public from unscrupulous vendors. Ale wives were required by law to place a large pole with a bush attached outside their homes to signify that there was ale to be tested. An official ale taster or “Conner” as they were known would then visit the premises and test the ale. It was up to the “Connor” to decide if it was fit for consumption. As this job involved some responsibility the “Connors” were appointed by the government and worked under oath, both men and women had equal chance of becoming one as there was a fair amount of equality amongst the sexes at the time!
Unfortunately as with any system that involves money it was open to abuse. So the King decided to impose fines which on the whole were not much of a deterrent. Those found guilty of breaking the statute were sent to their local manorial lord who would levy the fine and possibly add further punishment to the miscreant
The assize of bread and ale came into force during the reign of Henry III which regulated the price, weight and quality of bread and beer establishing a correlation between the price of grain and the end product. This statute was changed slightly here and there to allow for rising grain costs but on the whole stayed in force until the beginning of the 19th century.
Whenever the government tries to impose a tax on a commodity there will always be someone enterprising enough who will try to evade the tax or supply the goods that are banned. In medieval times there were house wives who were willing to flout the law to earn a few extra pennies, centuries later whole communities including the clergy were involved in smuggling. Some would say that the smugglers were a romantic bunch who supplied their fellow country men with contraband. In reality this couldn’t be further from the truth and the Kent gangs were notorious for their violence. The Ransley Gang counted Edenbridge as part of their territory and the 14th century Ye Old Crown Inn was used as a place to fence their contraband. A hidden passage way was used to store casks with pipes that could be detached if the place was raided by the Custom and Excise men
It is amazing to think that outwardly such a quiet and genteel place is able to conceal such a murky past. Today it is the centre of commerce for the surrounding villages and yesterday it was the centre of trade for tax evading individuals wanting to make a fast buck!
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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