Meandering along country lanes past hop gardens, Oast houses and orchards you will eventually arrive at what has been described as “The Jewel of the Weald”. Tenterden is set in the middle of Kentish countryside and has a beautiful mellow glow thanks to the rows of red brick tile-hung Georgian houses and the red-brick paths that line the town. It is not often that a place exceeds expectations but Tenterden certainly does.
It doesn’t matter from which ever direction you enter town, the vision that greets your eyes is idyllic. It is almost as if a film producer has re created a scene from a long awaited Jane Austen novel! With its broad tree lined High Street it is easy to imagine a lumbering stage coach laden with passengers giving way to the sprightly Post Chaise Mail carriages during the early 18th century. The only similarity with today is the fact that it is normally a mud encrusted four wheel drive giving way to a Ferrari!
Apart from modern forms of transport very little has changed along the High Street, the majority of the buildings are either Elizabethan or Georgian in origin; two great periods of architecture that are very difficult to better. Like a fine wine they have mellowed with age and have left their youthful prettiness behind to become beautiful Similar to a man in the company of gorgeous women it is easy to be carried away and loose control of your wallet in one of the independent shops that cater for the many visitors that come to the town in search of unusual gifts for friends and relatives.
This town doesn’t suffer from the pretence of a rural life that in reality doesn’t exist with gleaming four wheeled drives that have never seen a speck of mud parked along the side streets, Tenterden is in the farming heartland of the Weald where local farmers rub shoulders with newly retired bankers and where four wheeled drives are used for the very purpose that they were manufactured.
A first glance of the High Street will tell you that Tenterden is fairly ancient. Its formation is entirely due to the invading Saxons and Jutes of the 8th century. These new settlers started clearing some of the Wealden Forest to make pasture land for their pigs and this is where Tenterden gained its name. Some of the forest was cleared by people from Thanet which at one time was an island off the Kent coast. These people were known as the “Tenet-Ware” and den refers to pig pasture hence “Tenet-Ware-den. There is little here today that resembles pig pasture
Tenterden lies on a peninsula of high land between the Rother Levels and the River Beault Valley. Visitors to this idyllic country town would be amazed to know that Tenterden was at one time very close to the sea hence one of the reasons that it became part of the group of Cinque Ports.
Although Alfred the Great was the person who was responsible for creating a naval force it wasn’t particularly large and by the time of Edward the Confessor the Vikings along with the French were seen as a bit of a threat to the kingdom. So he gave three ports, Dover, New Romney and Sandwich certain privileges which were quite a profitable concession for the towns and in return they were expected to provide 57 ships, each with a crew of 21 men and a boy, for 15 days every year. These ports were joined by Hythe, Hastings and then eventually Rye. By the time of Henry II the towns were known collectively as the Cinque Ports.
Tenterden had a shipbuilding yard and became what was known as a “limb” of the town of Rye, during the medieval period there were around 42 “limbs” and main members of the Cinque Ports association. The town was expected to support Rye to fulfil its obligations to the Crown. The port of Tenterden was at Small Hythe, where ship-building became a major industry and ships as large as 400 tons, carrying 250 men, were constructed.
Unfortunately sea levels fell during the 15th century and the majority of the Cinque Ports lost their influence. Rye, once a coastal port became a river port and suffered from the subsequent loss of income and Tenterden, isolated from the sea which is today ten miles away was unable to continue with ship building. However its ties with the maritime world remained only not quite so obvious; St Mildred’s Church was a place of work for the husband of Horatia who was Lord Nelson’s only daughter and the tower of the church was where once a signal beacon warned the residents of the coming of the Spanish Armada.
The retreat of the sea was not necessarily a bad thing for Tenterden as the land that was uncovered was particularly rich and made ideal grazing especially for sheep. The surrounding hills that were once covered in forest and had provided ample wood for the ship yards were now clear and in the place of trees were hop gardens and orchards which continued to line the pockets of the local landowners. The coming of the railway to Ashford and Headcorn in 1842 opened the doors to a much larger market place – London and this helped to continue Tenterden’s role as a leading market player in the area!
From ship building to wool and hops to apples they have all provided wealth for the towns inhabitants but perhaps one of the more unusual sources of revenue is from grapes – Tenterden is home to an award winning vineyard, it seems that the inhabitants have had the last laugh at the French!
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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