A Gentrified Country Market Town
Hidden within a secret pocket of the North Downs can be found one of the country’s finest market towns; Sevenoaks. This picturesque place is a little beacon of prosperity nestling on the northern slopes of the greensand ridge surrounded by the North Downs and the Vale of Holmesdale. Despite the excellent transport network which provides a thirty five minute commute into London and the M25 just a stone’s throw away Sevenoaks is still rural. The surrounding landscape is an idyllic vista of various shades of green and browns, with ancient woodland and old pasture giving the casual observer some idea of the amount of care that man has given this stunning environment but there isn’t an air of excessive trimness it has the look of land that has naturally evolved following natures due processes and not by the hand of man!
Sevenoaks is thriving because it is still a market town at heart and not simply an enclave for wealthy individuals who have left the city in search of a better life style. Surprisingly for a place that is still very rural it is quite used to welcoming newcomers and has done so throughout its history; Flemish weavers settled in Sevenoaks in the 14th century followed by others who brought the trades of paper making and industries like iron smelting. Today’s visitors must find it very difficult to believe that the area was in the industrial heartland for many years.
Sevenoaks originally started life as a hospice and place of safety for pilgrims travelling along the two main highways from London and Dartford which merged in this area and continued south across the weald to the coast. Its name comes from the Saxon word Seouenaca, which means seven oak trees and was given to the shelter for the travellers in 800AD. This building became a church in 1114AD and was dedicated to St Nicholas. All of the surrounding area belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury and was part of the Manor of Otford. There is very little written about Sevenoaks before the 13th century as its neighbour the village of Otford was the better known of the two places and it was this village that is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It was only a matter of time before people realised that Sevenoaks was strategically placed, straddling two main highways it was the ideal spot for a market. Some eighty years after the dedication of St Nicholas Church Sevenoaks was no longer part of the manor of Otford but was a manor in its own right because of its success as a market town.
The advent of market towns in the 13th century was a major development in Medieval England because it allowed people from the surrounding area to set up stalls to sell their produce. This started a social revolution as it became a way for rural people to earn money from their produce. In turn it generated wealth for the towns themselves and it was also a good way of raising taxes for the exchequer.
Sevenoaks is still the thriving town that it once was and what appealed to the Middle Age inhabitants is still a draw for today’s residents. There are just a few subtle differences as many of the buildings are still in use today! The ancient market is held every Wednesday and there is also a farmers market where you can buy locally grown products every second Friday and every third Sunday.
For a number of years there has been a trend for people who are comfortably off, especially professionals and their families to seek homes out of the city within Sevenoaks and the surrounding villages but despite the ever growing pressure from its burgeoning population the town has managed to accommodate everyone without too much impact upon its environment and has managed to retain its old world atmosphere, so much so that you probably would not realise where the old Sevenoaks ends and the new one begins!
Walking down the High Street and your eyes are greeted by a picturesque hotchpotch of historical buildings, from the ancient timbered gables of fifteenth century buildings to the mellow red bricks that signify Georgian origins. These old irregular properties are no longer just homes, a number of them now provide a charming setting for many of the independently run shops selling anything from artisan foods and jewellery to designer clothing and antiques. These little retail outlets are interspersed with pubs, restaurants and tiny bistros tucked away in quiet courtyards.
Thankfully one of the few things that have altered are the quaint Shambles which, in their glory days they were far from picturesque. The buildings that form the Shambles today were part of a large slaughterhouse. The animals sold in the neighbouring market would have been quickly slaughtered and any waste from butchering would have been left in the alleys for scavengers. The smell of the decomposing offal alongside discarded buckets of sewage and other household waste must have been unbearable. Today the area is fragrant with the aroma of coffee and freshly prepared food.
Sevenoaks is a lovely country town with a thriving vibrant community that encompasses many different people all of whom love this place and everything that it stands for.
Sevenoaks must rate as one of England’s finest country towns. It is certainly one of the best in Kent. Country towns are part of an Englishman’s psyche along with good beer and cricket. They are the settings for small specialist shops selling artisan jewellery, antiques or even clothing as well as Agatha Christy novels. They witness the highs and lows of not only the banking but the agricultural world as well; and yet the property market; because homes in these towns are so desirable tend to weather any storms that affect other business.
Yes Sevenoaks is a small market town like others scattered across the country and it has the good schools that seem to go hand in hand with those of a similar ilk, but that is where the similarity ends. Sevenoaks is not an enclave only for the rich and famous, it has a thriving vibrant community that encompasses many different people all of whom love this old market town and everything that it stands for. There is plenty of money in Sevenoaks but it isn’t vulgarly paraded as you would expect to find north of the Thames, you only need look at the shops and the people in them to give you some idea of the wealth.
As well as being steeped in a rich history, this little beacon of prosperity which comes with its proximity to London has plenty to offer its residents. It nestles on the north slope of the Greensand Ridge separated from the hills and valleys of the North Downs by the Vale of Holmesdale. The transport links are second to none providing commuters with a fast train service to the capital taking just thirty five minutes and the M25 just a few minutes drive away. Sevenoaks station is the fifth busiest in the county, with two million journeys made each year from both Sevenoaks and nearby Tonbridge.
It isn’t home to just commuters however, it has accepted and welcomed newcomers throughout its history; Flemish weavers settled in Sevenoaks in the 14th century followed by others who brought trades like paper making and industries like iron smelting. Hard to believe that the area was in the industrial heartland for many years! It is also home to Knole Park a place of great antiquity owned and cared for by the National Trust on behalf of all of us. It is hard to tell which evolved first – Sevenoaks or Knole? Neither would be the same without the other.
It is a shame to dispel the popular belief that the towns name come from the oak trees that line the boundary of the countries oldest cricket ground; The Vine 9 which is named for the vineyard that centuries ago flourished on this spot. The towns name comes from the Saxon word Seouenaca, a name that was given to a small chapel that gave shelter to travellers and pilgrims alike in the 800’s AD. The word means seven oak trees and comes from the trees that were growing in Knole Park. This building became a church in 1114AD and was dedicated to St Nicholas. All of the surrounding area belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury and was part of the Manor of Otford.
Walking down the High Street you are met by a picturesque hotchpotch of historical buildings as you would expect in any English country town. That is however where the similarity to other country towns ends. Where else can you browse amongst ancient gables and red bricked walls of the irregularly built shops and houses and then find yourself a stepping from a bustling High Street into a park surrounded by deer. The historical buildings and the stunning landscape give you some idea why the area is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As with other ancient places Sevenoaks has seen its fair share of tragedy and misfortune and there are several ghost stories about previous inhabitants who are unwilling to leave the place. At the front of the Chequers Pub stood the gallows that were used to impart summary justice on the miscreants of old. One of whom was a young man, hung whilst his mother watched from an upstairs window. She can still be heard sobbing to this day in the pub.
You don’t have to be poor to be unfortunate, the ghost of the Duchess of Cumberland, Lady Anne Clifford is said to wander along the avenue of trees north of the gate house at Knole, because of this it is now known as Duchess Walk. Lady Anne had the misfortune of marrying two men of ill repute. The second husband was the gambler Richard Sackville who managed to bankrupt himself. I’m surprised that she is still unhappy as she survived him and died of a ripe old age on her own estates surrounded by her family. This woman was one of the only females to have the audacity to take on Oliver Cromwell and win.
The last ghost is another said to be tied to Knole Park, he is a “Black Knight” whose presence has been seen amongst the old quarters at Knole; he is also seen astride his horse riding silently in the leafy shadows. It is said that he is seen whenever misfortune is about to befall Knole; I wonder if he is the cause of Lady Anne’s distress!
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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