diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 11, 2014

Beyond London (2): Sevenoaks (part 1)

I'm continuing my outer orbit of London in Sevenoaks. This administrative district is one of the largest of the seventeen touching the capital - the size of Bromley, Bexley, Croydon, Lewisham and Greenwich put together. It's in the northwestern corner of Kent, and it's also lovely, packed with rolling fields and rippling valleys. So I was utterly spoilt for choice in places to go, and also horribly hamstrung by the need to travel long distances on public transport. The rules of the project say I have to go to four interesting places in one day, which I just about managed, but I could have made a day out out of each of them. Starting in the northern half.

Somewhere to begin: Sevenoaks Museum
Don't rush. Sevenoaks is one of the many local authorities nationwide who've chosen to locate their museum within the heart of another public building, in this case the local library. This 1980s building is located in the least lovely corner of Sevenoaks town centre, up a major service road half way to Waitrose, just behind what passes for a bus station. Head up the ramp, and inside up again to a mezzanine where bored mums watch their children scrawling in crayon. The museum's through a door that has a notice on it to remind visitors to come inside, else they'd probably think the room beyond was closed. Here various artefacts are labelled and tucked away behind glass, the better to protect them after vandals ran amok last year and beheaded a rocking horse. Hop-picking gets a mention, and there's the obligatory cabinet on WW2, while up on the wall is the old station sign from Bat and Ball. The museum's trying its best to be interactive, but lacks a sense of place and has no sense of wow. And if you push through the door to the next room, oh, that's the art gallery, we're done. Don't rush.

The town is much more interesting, especially the High Street which has considerable character. It's not been taken over by nasty chain stores, and still has hardware stores and haberdashery in amongst the coffee shops. A triangle in the centre is called The Shambles, not quite up to York standards but with quirky narrow twisty streets. Yes, there are boutiques for ladies, and for ladies of a certain age, because we're in provincial Kent. And yes, there's a Sevenoaks Sound and Vision, because of course there'd have to be. But make sure you keep walking beyond HSBC onto Tonbridge Road. There are some proper old buildings along here, of the kind that Jane Austen and Charles Dickens once stayed in, and the 18th century cottages in Six Bells Lane are mighty fine. And best of all, if you find the right path east (and you have to hunt), within minutes you end up in the thousand acre deer park at Knole. At its heart is a massive Tudor mansion, and all around the antlered herds run free. Now that's how to do a day out in Sevenoaks, but not this time.
by train: Sevenoaks

Somewhere sporting: The Vine Cricket Ground
Kent is one of the top cricket counties, and at Sevenoaks it has one of the oldest grounds in the country. The Vine was given to the town 250 years ago by the nobility at Knole, and the home club are still obliged to pay a rent of one cricket ball to Lord Sackville each summer. The ground has a prominent position at the end of the High Street, opposite the war memorial, and its big claim to fame involves stumps. Initially cricket was a game with two stumps, but at a game between Kent and Sussex in 1773 they hammered in a third, for the first recorded occasion in the history of the game. There have been no county matches here since 1829, but The Vine is still home to one of the top teams in the Kent League, and the Second XI were out playing yesterday against Beckenham.

In the gaps between the showers, the white-clad folk thwacked leather against willow in the centre of the green. The crowd, it must be said, was limited. A couple of gentlemen lingered by the boundary, then wandered off, while a group of teenage girls strutted along the rail gossiping loudly and paying no attention whatsoever to the action. Rather more spectators will have been tucked away inside the pavilion, a weatherboarded building dating back to 1850, and more like something you'd expect to see at the seaside. It was therefore particularly exhilarating, as I wandered round the boundary, to suddenly see the match ball flying straight at me. It could have been a direct hit, so coincidental was the batsman's aim, but instead the ball slammed into the wooden perimeter rail and fell to the ground. Suddenly a dozen men were looking in my direction, none of them realising I'm a total klutz at throwing, but thankfully I managed to chuck the stitched globe semi-appropriately towards the approaching midwicket fielder.

The Vine boasts one more feature of some significance, in that it's the home of Sevenoaks' seven oaks. They're not the originals, not least because the town's name dates back far more centuries than the game of cricket. But the cricket ground's the place that Sevenoaks has chosen to maintain its eponymous feature since at least Victorian times. The current seven are Coronation Oaks, planted rather appropriately for Edward VII, or they would be had it not been for the Great Storm of 1987. This destroyed thousands of mature trees across Kent, and only one of the Coronation Oaks remained standing. Replacements were sourced, but they planted seven (for reasons of future consistency), making eight oaks altogether. And now there are nine (there definitely are, I counted), apparently for reasons of vandalism. They curve round the far end of the ground, near the tiny thatched scoring hut, by this time of year resplendent in full leaf. The difference between old and new is becoming less conspicuous with each passing year, but I don't think the name Nineoaks will ever catch on.
by train: Sevenoaks

Somewhere historic: Shoreham Aircraft Museum
There are dozens of WW2-related museums across the country, many of them related to planes. But this museum's rather different, and that's all down to its location. Kent suffered greatly throughout the war for being the county closest to mainland Europe, and also on the direct route for bombers heading to London. Countless aircraft made it through to their target, but many were shot down by British forces and crashed to the ground. Usually the crumpled fuselage was appropriated by the authorities, but not before local people had salvaged the odd souvenir, and it's these remains that form the basis of the Shoreham Aircraft Museum's collection.

Access is downhill from the station through a rather pretty village (but then they all are in the Darenth Valley). On first sight the museum looks like a normal house with signs out front, but head up the sidepath to access a larger compound behind. So long as it's a weekend between Easter and October you'll get inside, and then three quid gets you inside the museum proper. You might well meet Geoff, son of the original founder (the place has been going since 1978), or another of the enthusiastic volunteers that keep the place ticking over. In pride of place is the cockpit of a Ju88A-1 'Schnellbomber', recently acquired and part-restored, but the main body of the museum is in two rooms beyond.

Here are the crumpled engines of Messerschmitts and Hurricanes, along with associated bits of fuselage and wing sections, along with eye-witness accounts of how they crashed. It's these stories that bring the place to life, and add a human dimension to what could otherwise be a collection of metal. A wide variety of other WW2 memorabilia is interspersed between the aircraft parts, and there's also a small shop (currently selling commemorative mugs from the day over Easter when Jim Davidson popped in). Throw in a tearoom that doubles up as an art gallery at the bottom of the garden, and you have a very different, but very passionate, small attraction. Truly a museum for the fallen.
by train: Shoreham (Kent)

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