The Medway at Teston, Kent
South east England has often been the gateway through which change came to Britain. The Romans landed first on Kent's coast in 54BC when Julius Caesar mounted his initial expeditions to Britain. It is thought that Julius Caesar fought his first battle against British tribes at what is now known as Bigbury Hill Fort near Canterbury. When the Romans invaded Britain properly in 43AD, they once again landed in Kent. After the Romans left around 410AD, Saxon invaders first landed in Thanet in the fifth century. The missionary Augustine landed in 597AD, once again in Thanet, his arrival heralding a major strengthening of Christianity among the generally pagan Anglo Saxons. The Normans landed at Hastings in 1066. In 1940 the Battle of Britain was fought in the skies over the south east. Echoes of all these historical moments can be heard in this part of the country.
Roman light house and Saxon church at Dover Castle
There are certain places in the south east where all these changes seem to be held together. At Dover Castle there is a Roman lighthouse, a Saxon church, a Norman keep, fortifications from the Napoleonic wars, and an underground naval headquarters used in the Second World War. At Pevensey there is a Norman castle built within perimeter walls of a Roman fort. There are also additions relating to later conflicts, right up to block houses and gun emplacements built in 1940. As John Talbot White says of Pevensey Castle in his book The South East: "Three successful invasions - Roman, Saxon and Norman - and three unsuccessful invasions - Spanish, French and German - are reflected in the historic development of the site." (P116)
The south east has also experienced great change in the role it has played within Britain. A region which is often termed "The Garden of England" could actually claim to be Britain's first industrial area. Iron working was known before the Roman invasion. This industry developed further to serve the Roman army and navy, and continued to evolve when Roman troops withdrew in 410AD. The doors of Staplehurst church in Kent have elaborate iron work dating to the early twelfth century, as have church doors at Woking, Merton, Merstham, Crowhurst, Charlwood and Ockley. By 1254 Sussex iron masters could meet royal demands for 30,000 horse shoes and 60,000 nails. Late in the fifteenth century when skilled workmen from the continent introduced new techniques, iron forges and mills proliferated. In West Hoathly in mid Sussex almost every building has links with the iron industry. The Tudor and Stuart navies depended on the south east's iron industry. If you walk over the wide open spaces of Ashdown Forest today, you do so because tree cover was taken to provide charcoal for naval iron production.
View of South East England from Leith Hill
Industrial decline came in the early eighteenth century. Coal instead of charcoal came into use for iron making. As the south east did not have accessible coal deposits, industry moved north. In place of industry the south east turned to fruit and hop growing. It was in this period that the Garden of England came into being. The image of England's Garden is usually one of sheep, fruit trees in blossom, and oast houses. Sheep had been grazed since the Domesday survey in 1086. Fruit had been grown by the Romans, and the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale near Faversham, Kent still grows Roman apple varieties. The south east's modern fruit industry dates back to efforts made by Richard Harrys, fruitier to Henry VIII. Descendents of varieties Harrys introduced, such as Pippin apples can still be bought in supermarkets. Hops were brought back from Flanders in 1533, and had become a major industry by the nineteenth century.
It is worth pointing out that the Garden Of England came into being at a time of fundamental change in the way people viewed nature. In the sixteenth century nature had still been something to shut yourself away from, something essentially hostile. By the eighteenth century human domination of the natural environment was complete, and there were no "natural" areas of land left in Britain. Gardens were now being made to look like natural landscapes. There was no clear demarcation between nature and gardens, and the south east itself could be termed a garden. This would not have happened in earlier times.
Now the Garden of England is itself becoming history. Sheep are grazed less, and traditional fruit orchards are being replaced with more efficient dwarf trees. Oast houses, once used for drying hops, have been demolished, or converted into homes. The Hop Farm at Beltring, which has a collection of impressive oasts, is now a visitor attraction, with former oasts used as museums and play areas.
The south east has always been a place of change, a place where the rhythms of a wider world come into Britain, either as invading armies, or more subtly as people with new ideas and skills. The land itself is changing. If you walk along the Seven Sisters white cliffs, and look down at recent cliff falls, there is a real sense of the sea advancing. The Seven Sisters are beautiful, and walking there part of me wondered whether it would be good to stop the change. As a boy I remember being taken to the Channel Tunnel visitors' centre. We would climb a tower and look out over the vast building works of the tunnel. The spoil from this tunnel has created a whole new stretch of land, called Samphire Hoe, in front of the white cliffs just east of Dover. The famous white chalk cliffs in this area now stand back from the sea's relentless attack. But without the sea to undermine the cliffs and keep them in motion, they are slowly becoming covered in vegetation, and are not white anymore. The white cliffs are only as they are in being changed.
Images of the South East
Scotney Castle, Kent
Bluebell Railway, East and West Sussex
Ashdown Forest, East Sussex