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Episode 9: Kent

Where is Kent?

In our ninth episode, we referred to loads of interesting Kent-based things - and promised links and photos, so here they are:

May Day

Many folklore customs have their roots planted firmly back in the Dark Ages, when the ancient Celts had divided their year by four major festivals. Beltane or ‘the fire of Bel’, had particular significance to the Celts as it represented the first day of summer and was celebrated with bonfires to welcome in the new season. Still celebrated today, we perhaps know Beltane better as May 1st, or May Day.

Down through the centuries May Day has been associated with fun, revelry and perhaps most important of all, fertility. The Day would be marked with village folk cavorting round the maypole, the selection of the May Queen and the dancing figure of the Jack-in-the-Green at the head of the procession. Jack is thought to be a relic from those enlightened days when our ancient ancestors worshipped trees.

These pagan roots did little to endear these May Day festivities with the either the established Church or State. In the sixteenth century riots followed when May Day celebrations were banned. Fourteen rioters were hanged, and Henry VIII is said to have pardoned a further 400 who had been sentenced to death.

The May Day festivities all but vanished following the Civil War when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans took control of the country in 1645. Describing maypole dancing as ‘a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness’, legislation was passed which saw the end of village maypoles throughout the country.

The Screaming Woods at Pluckley

The woodlands that surround Pluckley, allegedly the most haunted village in England, have been the subject of much local folklore about ghosts for centuries. Amongst other apparitions, the ghost of a local highwayman robber who was captured, lynched, and decapitated by angry villagers in the 18th century is said to wander the woodlands and is often claimed to have been seen by visitors.

However, the most terrifying stories about this woodland are undoubtedly the modern ones and do not involve ghosts but disturbingly unexplained deaths, murders, and disappearances that allegedly occurred here during the latter half of the 20th century.

On Halloween night in 1948, locals reported lights and sounds were seen and heard emanating from the woodlands. The following morning, a dog walker discovered the bodies of over 20 people lying in piles amongst the leaf litter. The deceased were identified as villagers from the nearby Maltman’s Hill area. Their bodies showed no visible wounds or signs of struggle and an autopsy failed to determine a clear cause of death, which led to the police labelling the deaths as caused by carbon monoxide poisoning and closing the investigation (a decision for which they were heavily criticized).

In the late 1990s, the Dering Wood was once again the scene of a mysterious occurrence when four college students who had gone camping in the woods went missing. Both of these stories seem to have originated from popular ‘creepy pastas’ shared on the internet .

Nevertheless, in spite of the dark and sinister reputation that surrounds the woodlands they still attract visitors who come to walk dogs, “hunt ghosts” or to watch wildlife.

Hengist King of Kent

Hengist, King of Kent, was born in Jutland (Denmark) to Chieftan Wictgils. The identity of his mother is not known.

He had a brother, Horsa. It is not known which of the brothers was the elder but since Hengist is always referred to first it is likely he was the elder.

The Castles of Kent

Hever Castle

The castles which survive in significant form in Kent number about 30. This is a relatively high density with one castle to about 30 square miles.

Dover Castle

Both Canterbury and Rochester Castles are located within Roman town walls. Dover Castle occupies the Eastern Heights above the site of the Roman harbour where there were earlier fortifications.

Rochester Castle

The other chief castles in Kent are at Tonbridge, Leeds and Chilham. They too had their origins in timber and earthwork.

Leeds Castle

Sissinghurst and Sutton Valence

Sissinghurst Castle Garden was the backdrop for a diverse history; from the astonishing time as a prison in the 1700s, to being a home to the women’s land army. It was also a family home to some fascinating people who lived here or came to stay.

Vita Sackville-West, the poet and writer, began transforming Sissinghurst Castle in the 1930s with her diplomat and author husband, Harold Nicolson. Harold's architectural planning of the garden rooms, and the colourful, abundant planting in the gardens by Vita, reflect the romance and intimacy of her poems and writings.

This is us, up the top of the tower at Sissinghurst!

Then, at the other end of the scale, there's Sutton Valence castle - which is basically just some stones at the top of a very steep hill... would not recommend!

Canterbury Cathedral

Founded by St Augustine in 597 AD, Canterbury Cathedral is a unique place of worship, a major pilgrimage destination, a masterpiece of art and architecture, and one of the UK's most-visited historic sites.

Often referred to as ‘England in stone', the Cathedral has been at the centre of momentous events and upheavals.

It is the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and resting place of royalty and saints.

Canterbury Cathedral’s role as one of the world’s most important pilgrimage centres is inextricably linked to the murder of its most famous Archbishop, Thomas Becket, on 29 December 1170.

The spot where Becket was murdered...

When, after a long-lasting dispute, King Henry II is said to have exclaimed “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”, four knights set off for Canterbury and murdered Thomas in his own cathedral. A sword stroke was so violent that it sliced the crown off his skull and shattered the blade’s tip on the pavement.

Healing miracles were soon attributed to Thomas and he was made a saint by the Pope in 1173, just three years after his death.

Eleanor in the monks' herb garden

St Augustine's Abbey

St Augustine’s Abbey was was one of the most important monasteries in medieval England. For almost 1,000 years it was a centre of learning and spirituality.

The abbey was founded in 598, after St Augustine arrived in Kent on a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Within 100 years, the work begun by Augustine had converted the whole of England, and the abbey that bore his name was at the heart of English Christianity.

St Augustine’s developed over the centuries into a great Romanesque abbey, one of the grandest and most influential in Europe. However, this power and prominence was not to last. The Suppression of the Monasteries under Henry VIII saw much of the once great abbey destroyed.

In later years, St Augustine’s became the site of a royal palace, a poorhouse, a gaol and a school.

The abbey now forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised for its great importance to the history of Christianity in England.

St Augustine's grave...

St Martin's Church

St Martin's is the oldest church in the English-speaking world that is still in use.

It's architecture is part Roman, Saxon, Norman and medieval.

It was here that Queen Bertha prayed in 580 AD and later where St Augustine based his first mission in 597AD until King Ethelbert granted him the land for the Abbey and the Cathedral which, with St Martin's, now form Canterbury's UNSECO World Heritage Site.

Martin at St Martin's!

Canterbury Roman Museum

An underground Roman Museum in Canterbury, home to one of the UK’s only remaining in situ Roman pavement mosaics and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

When workmen, digging trenches for a new drainage system, reached eight feet below street level they unwittingly unearthed a beautifully preserved Roman floor mosaic.

Fast-forward to the aftermath of the Second World War, when excavations began under the cellars of shops destroyed by bombing, and another startling discovery was made.

Archaeologists had just revealed an under-floor heating system, wall paintings, and a dazzling mosaic corridor. The site was no longer an isolated floor mosaic, but the remains of a very large, and no doubt very costly, Roman Town House.

The Beaney Museum

The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge is an Art Gallery, Library and Visitor Information Centre situated in the heart of historic Canterbury.

The building takes its name from its benefactor, Dr James George Beaney, a Canterbury-born man of modest background who studied medicine before emigrating to Australia, where he found his success.

Upon his death in 1891, Dr Beaney left money in his will to the city of Canterbury to build an ‘Institute for Working Men’ with amenities for men from poor backgrounds such as his own.

Dating from about 850 AD, The Canterbury Cross has acquired widespread fame as a symbol of the Church of Christianity throughout the Anglican world.

Discovered in 1867 during excavations in St. George's Street, Canterbury, it incorporates a number of sophisticated techniques into its Saxon design.

The Wantsum Worm

According to legend, a horrible creature lurks around the Isle of Thanet. It’s the kind of thing that would be drawn onto old maps, with the words ‘Here be dragons’ written alongside.

Aside from the story Eleanor told in this week's podcast, the serpent has been seen several times in the last century or so.

The first recorded sighting of a sea serpent in Thanet was in 1917 from The Paramount, an auxiliary naval patrol boat. It was cruising around a mile off the coast of North Foreland when the crew reported an encounter with a 15m-long snake-like creature covered in dark green scales with a spiny dorsal fin “like some gigantic conger eel”.

The crew fired upon it, and one shot hit the dorsal fin. The creature “began to thrash about wildly and violently” before sinking beneath the water.

In 1950, John Handley, a tourist, was swimming off the Cliftonville coast when a gigantic beast lifted from the sea around 90-metres away. He described its head as around an arm’s-length wide and resembling an enormous horse.

Then, in 1999, two anglers on Folkestone pier described “a huge animal” that was around 30m long which they watched through binoculars diving and resurfacing for around half an hour...

The Beast of Tunbridge Wells

It is an historic and quaint ‘middle England’ town which doesn’t really like creating a scene. But if the reports of one terrified walker are to be believed, the residents of Royal Tunbridge Wells could have a giant Bigfoot-like creature in their midst.

A man walking in the woods beside the town’s common claims to have spotted an 8ft tall beast with demonic red eyes and long arms. Sightings in the town go back decades.

The Kentish Apeman was first spotted on the town’s common during World War Two 70 years ago. A man called ‘Graham S’ told a story of how an elderly couple saw it in 1942. Writing for the community website Tunbridge Wells People, he said: ‘They were siting on a bench when they became aware of a shuffling noise behind them.

‘Upon turning around they saw a tall, ape-like creature with eyes that were burning red moving slowly towards them. They both fled – terrified.’

The Lady Lovibond

The Goodwin Sands is a graveyard for ships that have sunk in its foreboding waters. It is said that 50,000 people have lost their lives on the sandbank.

This stretch of water is the home of one gruesome manifestation, the phantom ghost ship of the Lady Lovibond.

Legend has it that the vessel was bound for Oporto, Portugal, with a cargo of flour, meat, wine and gold. The Captain, Simon Peel, was celebrating on his honeymoon with his new wife, when Rivers the ship’s mate deliberately ran the ship aground in a jealous rage. All hands were lost to the dark sea.

The Lady Lovibond is said to appear every 50 years as a ghost ship.

The Rochester Sweeps Festival

This international celebration of folk music and dance has become one of the largest May Day celebrations of its kind in the world.

For three days historic Rochester is transformed into a riot of colour and sound with the best musicians and bands on the folk circuit and hundreds of Morris dancers from across the country clattering their clogs and clashing their sticks up and down the high street.

It is one of the largest gatherings of Morris sides in the world, with the streets, parks, bars and pubs of historic Rochester filled with live folk music and dance over this three-day spectacular.

For more details on this event, including event programme - click here!

The Leeds Castle Spectre

From mysterious prophesies, phantom stories and even ghostly sightings, there are plenty of legends to pick from in the 900-years of history at Leeds Castle.

For this week's story, Eleanor was inspired by the legend of a ghostly queen who haunts the grounds with her spectral hound.

There are two likely sources for the tale, one being Eleanor of Gloucester, the other being Joan of Navarre, the Queen of Bones.

In 1419, Joanna of Navarre, widow of King Henry IV of England, was accused of necromancy: ‘of compassing the destruction of our lord the king in the most treasonable and horrible manner that could be devised’ - i.e. that by sorcery she had attempted to destroy King Henry V!

Such an accusation must have been quite unexpected for Joanna. After Henry IV’s death in 1413 Joanna had chosen to remain in England, closely in touch with her family-by-marriage. She continued to live in her various dower properties which would remain hers until her eventual death.

Relations between her and Henry’s children and siblings were reported to be excellent, particularly with her stepson, the new King Henry V: Joanna was given an honoured place at Court, with a role as Queen Dowager in all ceremonial events - particularly the rejoicing after the victory of Agincourt in 1415.

And yet she was accused of necromancy and treason against the king by her father's confessor, John Randolf, a Franciscan friar, and two others of her household, Roger Colles and Peronell Brocart. Father Randolf was said to be the one who had lured the Queen Dowager into witchcraft.

As a result, on the instructions of the Royal Council, Joanna was arrested from her manor in Essex and for the next three years kept prisoner at Rotherhythe, Pevensey Castle, and Leeds Castle.

She ended up owning Leeds Castle, and is buried alongside her husband in Canterbury Cathedral.

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