It’s at least ten years since I visited Smarden in Kent, and over twenty since we moved away from my childhood home there. But last month I was en route to Ticehurst in East Sussex for a trip with Barbour and, when I checked a map, I realised it was only half an hour or so from Smarden.
I was astonished that it was so close; if asked I would have guessed at least an hour. But, I guess as childhood is almost completely circumscribed by the activities that take place on the doorstep or at school, a thirty minute journey in the opposite direction of either home or school might as well have been a trip to the moon for all the likelihood that we would have taken it.
So I detoured off to Kent, and spent the afternoon in a self-indulgent memory haze driving through Headcorn, Pluckley, Biddenden, Cranbrook, Sissinghurst and all the local villages, on my way to and from Smarden. (About an hour and a half south east of London.)
It’s a perfect Weald of Kent village - originally a medieval weaving village, the centre of Smarden can barely have changed in 150 years or so, bar a new Village (Charter) Hall, and a workshop from maybe the 50s, that was a sawmill in my childhood but is now a community centre.
Many of the buildings are either half-timbered or weatherboarded – what Americans call clapboard, and date from the 15th century onwards. (The Weald refers to the ancient forest that once covered all of this area, and the -den suffix on so many Kentish village names means ‘a clearing in the woods’.)
The most notable house is the Cloth Hall – built in 1430, and this is 16th century The Dragon House, (below) where I remember lil’sis’ friend Christian lived and is memorable only to me because it’s the first – and last time – I watched Bambi, and cried myself to sleep.
Although we lived in a white weather-boarded Georgian house, Jubilee House, built in 1772, on the edge of the village, right in the middle was a lane leading to Vesper Hawk Farm, which belonged to family friends. Lil’sis and I spent much of our childhood playing in the barns, fields and streams there with the three daughters of the family. From an activities point of view, it was as close to an idyllic country childhood as you could imagine.
I went to Smarden Primary for a year, although that year seems like many in my memories. I remember quite clearly standing at the gate on my first day of school aged five, with my best friend Philippa Parfitt. Although that playground is about ten times the size in my head.
I remember posting sweetie wrappers through the gaps in the lead plaque of the village pump.
And I found it rather reassuring that the butchers is still the butchers.
The church of St Michael played a huge part in our childhoods: it was a focal point of the community, and we went every Sunday, where the children were encouraged to take collection, read the lesson and get involved. I even learnt to bell ring there.
We used to play for hours in the churchyard: different times then. Our parents would pretty much open the back door and off we would go for the day, to range around the nearby countryside on our bikes, explore Vesper Hawk, and play around the village.
This is the entrance to the churchyard:
And from the other side:
Smarden was a Best Kept Village in Kent for years. It’s immaculate period detailing meant that the big excitement in my day was the filming of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, starring Elizabeth Taylor, and there were often crews filming period dramas in the streets. (Somewhere I have a faded photo of us all as tiny children on an ancient haywain in the farmyard of Vesper Hawk for an Alpen commercial in the late 70s.)
I broke my arm, slipping on a tuffet of wet grass on this path on the way to church one winter’s day, pretending to be Batman in a too large, hand-me-down cape. My arm is still bent at 45 degrees all these years later.
I used to read the lesson in church from this stand.
Smarden church is known as the Barn of Kent, because of its very unusual soaring, scissor-beamed ceiling. (That’s the bell loft all the way down at the end, where I spent many cold Wednesday evenings pretending to know what was happening at bell practice.)
The view from the nave into the chancel, where the rood screen would have been placed before its removal during Henry VIII’s Reformation in the mid 16th century.
I think the reason why I was always a historian, and ended up reading theology and religious studies was because of my immersion in this glorious medieval village and church. Not because of any religious leanings, but because of a fascination with learning about what had gone before.
These church benches were new to me, and when I went in for a closer look, I read the inscriptions to Johnny and to Katherine Mather-Black, who were friends of my parents, and lived in one of the half-timbered houses above.
I astonished myself by starting to cry as I drove into the village, and I don’t think I really stopped for the hour I was there. Lil’sis & I were so happy in Smarden, and when we left when I was 13 to move to Northamptonshire we left our childhoods behind. We never made any friends in out small village in Northamptonshire, as we became boarders at our day school in Kent, so our education wasn’t interrupted, so our time in Smarden seems like it was set in aspic.
If you intend to visit the this part of Kent, it’s an easy drive 1hr30 drive down the M20 from London, and both the cathedral city of Canterbury and the glorious Sissinghurst Castle, home of Vita Sackville-West and now a National Trust property are easy drives from Smarden. If you wanted to lunch, I thoroughly recommend The Three Chimneys pub at Sissinghurst, where we often ate. It has a lovely pub garden, and is a ten minute drive from Smarden. It also makes a great stop if you are heading to the Channel ports.