A gold mine for the church!
Nestled at the foot of the North Downs, in an area of outstanding natural beauty, lies the historic village of Wrotham. A place so old and mellow that it has become as much a part of the landscape as the chalk hills which tower above, offering distant views of the Weald of Kent and beyond. Although it is surprisingly rural in this part of the world it isn’t isolated as Sevenoaks is five miles to the West and two major arteries, the M26 and M20 skirt past with seemingly little impact on this peaceful realm. In fact the village remains oblivious to the 21st century mayhem that takes place daily on both motorways!
Wrotham pronounced “rut ham” lies less than one hour’s drive from London and yet you could be forgiven for thinking that you have entered another world! Historic buildings grace the streets with a large thirteenth century church at its heart, believed to be the first one dedicated to St George in this country. It is quite possible that the Archbishops of Canterbury worshipped in the church as there was once a palace within the village which belonged to them. Although it looks sleepy Wrotham is deceptive, a lot has happened within the village confines, including Henry VIII receiving the long awaited news that he was once again a bachelor and free to marry Jane Seymour as Anne Boleyn had just been executed!
It is more than likely that the village started life a long time before the arrival of the Romans, whom it is claimed left a disease resistant variety of the Pinot Noir grape behind when they hurriedly left these isles. A vine believed to be descended from its Roman ancestor was found in the church yard and renamed the Wrotham Pinot
What was once major has now become sleepy, the narrow winding lanes that we now see as an enhancement of the rural charm of the village were once major arteries that influenced the development of the settlement. These lanes were not forced upon the countryside like the motorways with the odd tree planted as a sop to the displaced wildlife, but have evolved slowly with the constant tramping of feet. They merge so well with the surrounding landscape that they have become a part of it! The banks usually covered by a tapestry of wild flowers are peaceful places; the pilgrim has been replaced by the rambler. The old tracks are believed to have been formed over 250,000 years ago when the UK was still joined to Europe by Lower Palaeolithic hunters following their quarry. This is hundreds of years in advance of Stone Age men chasing woolly mammoths across the escarpment.
The old highway was aptly re named the Pilgrims Way in Medieval England. Bisecting the village, it was the M25 of its time, thronging with the penitent on their way to Canterbury and ultimate forgiveness. The Pilgrims Way stretches across southern England from Winchester in the West to Canterbury in the East and is 120 miles (192 km) in length. The route that the pilgrims followed was dictated by the natural geography of the land. What was immovable was circumvented; this not only included steep hills and exposed ridges but also areas where clay predominated. The ground where clay was dominant was only used in summer when it was hard and dry as it became impassable in the winter. The old highway also avoided the woods of the Weald where possible because of the risk of attack by vagabonds or wolves.
Strangely enough it was pigs that gave the village its name. Wrot is believed to mean snout, wrtan means root up and ham is Anglo Saxon for settlement. Although the village bears a Saxon name people have lived in the area for thousands of years, the caves in Oldbury Hill contained traces of occupation left by settlers some 9000 years ago.
The earliest inhabitants of the settlement of Wrotham made good use of the surrounding resources, the village was enveloped by a huge forest which provided wood, nuts, berries and most important of all acorns. It was acorns and pigs that would eventually enable the village to become wealthy.
When the Romans left these isles to fend for themselves Anglo Saxons and Jutes quickly filled the void and co existed; the Jutes lived in isolated farmsteads where as the Anglo Saxons preferred settlements. The Jutes divided their territories into lathes, which once the population grew became hundreds. A “hundred” was an area that was defined by its ability to support one hundred people and had its own governing council.
By the end of the 10th century the hundred of Wrotham was an affluent place and belonged to the Archbishops of Canterbury along with land stretching from Ightham to Tunbridge Wells. This was a huge area and the taxes of the time were levied upon the rights to graze pigs in the forest that stretched across the region; these were known as pannages. If you compare Otford which paid the Archbishop one pig for every ten that grazed on the forest floor, Wrotham paid the Archbishop five hundred pigs.
The pannage paid by the residents of Wrotham were the highest in Kent at the time which shows just how industrious they were. In this respect little has changed the village attracts successful business people who are captivated by the historic buildings and idyllic lifestyle that is within an easy commute to the city!
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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