Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Saxon Shore Way

The Saxon Shore Way is a long distance footpath following the South Bank of the River Thames from Gravesend out along the North Kent coast towards the Thames Estuary and eventually as far as Hastings in East Sussex.

As the weather was glorious (again for a change) last Sunday we decided to go for a walk and stop by the River for a picnic.

We started our walk in Mark Lane, Gravesend following the disused Thames & Medway Canal (about which I will write another post one day when time permits!) for about a mile.

The canal is quite overgrown but is a haven for all sorts of wildlife nowadays including voles and a good spot for birdwatchers, even though the main rail line from Gravesend to the Medway towns runs along the opposite bank.

As you walk along you will pass the National Sea Training College where many thousands of British merchant navy seafarers have learned their trade over the years. It was good to see the Red Duster (merchant navy ensign) flying proudly over the building.

A little further along, resembling Fort Knox, is the Metropolitan Police Specialist Training Centre which opened in 2003. The site covers an area of 38 hectares and looks like a mini city. It has been fitted out with various mock street layouts including houses, flats, shops, a bank, a pub, a night club, a football stadium, an underground station and even a train and an aircraft.

Officers from the Met receive fire arms and public order management training. My office is very close by and we usually refer to it as "playing cowboys & indians" judging from the noise of gunfire and explosions coming from their direction!

Just past the training centre we took a turn off to the left by a large pylon and headed towards the river bank for our picnic. We got there just in time to see a container ship called the Maersk Jeddah making her way up to Tilbury Docks.

Ships change pilots at Gravesend for the trip into Tilbury and also pick up their tugs if required. From the top of the bank, which forms part of the Saxon Shore Way, looking down river you get an excellent view out across the marshes towards the estuary.

The view upriver is unfrotunately not quite so easy on the eye - Tilbury Power Station over in Essex and the various jetties and boatyards on the Kent side.

As we had little man in tow and his legs were beginning to ache (mainly due to chasing his football rather than too much walking....), we decided to follow the Saxon Shore Way back towards Gravesend.

As you head up river after approximately a mile you will come to a pub called the Ship & Lobster which is well over two hundred years old and is known and the first and last pub (on the River Thames.)

It is well worth calling in for a drink or two and, if you find yourself in the area one weekday lunchtime, taking advantage of the very reasonably priced menu. The pub has a colourful history which I will relate in another future post. If you pass the pub you will find yourself back in Mark Lane at the start of the canal.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tracing the family tree in Chelsfield, Kent

Picture by Matthew Black

The Bo Peep Public House, Chelsfield, Kent

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, last Sunday we were hot on the trail of the family tree in Kent.

After an enjoyable few hours in Shoreham, we decided to move on to the village of Chelsfield which is located not far away on the outskirts of Orpington.

Many of my ancestors were farm labourers in Chelsfield in the 1800's and some of them actually resided at the pub pictured above - the Bo Peep.

I can think of worse places to live!

Unfortunately the village of Chelsfield is not as picturesque as Shoreham having had the misfortune to be transected by the busy Orpington by-pass constructed in the 1920's.

Just off the by-pass is the Parish church of Chelsfield, St Martin of Tours, which dates back (at least) to the 1100's and was the place where many of my ancestors were baptised, married and buried.

St Martin was born in Hungary in 316 AD and was forced to join the Roman army at age 15. Five years later, he spontaneously shared his cloak with a poor beggar and subsequently had a vision of Christ wearing the cloak. He became a Christian and left the army eventually becoming Bishop of Tours in 371 AD. He died in France in 397 AD.

Unfortunately, we were not able to find any gravestones bearing our family name. This is almost certainly due to the fact that our ancestors were lowly farm labourers and sadly would not have been able to afford any type of lasting memorial.

Another possible, although less likely explanation is that a German bomb exploded in the churchyard during World War Two destroying many graves and damaging the church's Victorian stained glass windows which were later replaced...

The sun shining through the stained glass made a stunning picture...

One of the other stained glass windows has an interesting story behind it...

The top panel of the window has a picture of a grasshopper on it.

We were racking our brains to think of any religious significance attached to this particular creature. We couldn't think of any bible stories that mention a grasshopper.

Back home, on closer inspection, it transpires that the window is dedicated to the Norman family associated with Martin & Co Bank, Lombard St, London.

Martins Bank was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham in the 16th century but ended up in the hands of Barclays Bank in 1969. The grasshopper appears on the Gresham family crest.

According to a legend, the founder of the Gresham family, Roger de Gresham, was a foundling abandoned as a new-born baby in long grass somewhere in Norfolk in the
13th century and found there by a woman whose attention was drawn to the child by a grasshopper!

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Monday, August 10, 2009

The White Cross of Shoreham, Kent

This Sunday past we found ourselves in the unusual position of being without junior in tow for the whole day (his great aunt had invited for a trip to the zoo!).

Being too good an opportunity to miss, and as it was such a nice day, we decided to take a drive out into the countryside along the Darent Valley in North Kent.

The River Darent flows for 21 miles from Westerham to Dartford where it joins the River Thames.

I have been researching my family history for the last couple of years and traced the earliest ancestors back to the late 1770's living and working on the farms in Shoreham, one of the picturesque villages through which the Darent passes.

As you travel along the A225 between Eynsford and Otford, if you look across to your right just before the turn off for Shoreham village you can't fail to notice the large white cross marked on the hillside.
As a small boy I had seen it many times before and always thought that it marked the spot where a bomber had crashed during World War Two (more about that later in this post...)

It was in fact cut into the chalky hillside by the villagers as a mark of respect and remembrance for the fallen of the First World War. Work on the cross started in 1920 and it was officially completed on Empire Day in 1921.

In the centre of the village by a bridge crossing the River Darent is a war memorial listing the names of the fallen from both World Wars and inscribed:-

"Remember as you look at the cross on the hill those who gave their lives for their country 1914 - 1919"

A stone's throw from the war memorial there is an excellent museum - the Shoreham Aircraft Museum. Run by enthusiasts, it contains a large collection of artefacts and memorabilia from the Battle of Britain period including parts excavated from both RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft crash sites in the local area.

One of these aircraft was a Dornier Do 17 bomber which was shot down by two Spitfires of 609 squadron and crash landed at Castle Farm, Shoreham on the 15th September 1940 (this probably explains where I got the idea about the cross when I was younger).

One of the uninjured German crew members was picked up by a local Home Guard unit who, seeing how shakenand pale he looked, took pity on him and treated him to a drink at the pub before handing him over to the authorities.

The entrance fee is a very reasonable £ 3 per adult and there is an authentic 1940's style tea rooms set in a sunny courtyard. Very nice cakes and big mugs of tea. Even the lady behind the counter was wearing period clothing - a nice touch.

The museum has set up a Battle of Britain local RAF memorials project and the intention is to erect memorial stones to each of the airmen who fell within a ten mile radius of Shoreham. Several have already been dedicated. A very worthy cause.

After spending some time looking around the museum we had a leisurely stroll through the village past a number of inviting hostelries including the Olde George Inn and down to St Peter & St Paul church where many of my long lost ancestors would no doubt have been dunked, hitched and despatched!

Later in the afternoon we moved on to another local village, Chelsfield where my ancestors moved in the early 1800's but more about that in my next post......