diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 12, 2017

For Heritage Open Weekend this year I took myself to Sandwich on the east Kent coast. Or rather it used to be on the Kent coast until the channel connecting it to the sea silted up, and beached the town two miles inland. In early medieval times Sandwich had been the second most important port in the country, and one of the big five of the Cinque Ports. But after the 16th century all the money moved out, and redevelopment basically stalled, with the happy consequence that Sandwich is now one of the most gorgeously unspoilt towns in England. Seriously, I was well impressed. [12 photos]

The old town snuggles between the River Stour and the former town walls, with a dozen or so streets lined by houses of character and distinction. I kept thinking surely the next lane won't be so impressive, maybe it'll have a horrible 1970s rebuild on it, but it was, and it didn't. Frontages with half-timbered overhangs, townhouses with Dutch influence, cottages built from bricks nicked from the local Roman fort, all combine architecturally to create a Pevsnerian wet dream. 1-41 Strand Street is reputedly the longest run of extant medieval buildings in the country - once facing the sea, now hemmed in by something more modern.

One of the original town gates survives down by the Quay, a barbican and toll bridge, on what used to be the main road north to Ramsgate. These tolls ensured the town stayed afloat after the ships left, and were last charged in 1973, just before Sandwich was swallowed up administratively by Dover District Council. Beyond the bridge the marshes used to be the commercial stronghold of drug company Pfizer - Viagra was invented here - but they moved out a few years ago shedding thousands of manufacturing and R&D jobs. The town retains a white collar vibe, but feels rather more of a retirement hideaway, and it's easy to see why you'd stay.

13 Sandwich buildings were on the list for Heritage Open Days, which kept me busy for a full six hour stay, and most of which you wouldn't normally get inside. A back garden on Strand Street, for example, which on closer inspection turned out to be the remains of a 12th century chantry, its high walls cobbled together from a variety of historic stone. A couple of ex-churches deemed surplus to requirements, given that Sandwich only needs one parish these days, one with a tower to climb. One of the oldest United Reformed churches in the country, its roof supported by two ship's masts donated by Huguenots fleeing persecution in France. And, as they say, many more.

The best tour of the day, indeed possibly of my year, was round Sandwich Guildhall. Kevin the Town constable greeted us at the back door dressed in full Town Constable regalia, which appears to involve old naval dress, a frilly ruff and tricorn hat. Walking in front of the mayor is one of his jobs, caretaking another, and giving tours of the Guildhall a third. He led us round the new bit, the old bit and the very old bit, built with maritime wealth in 1579. Amongst the treasures on the tour were part of a gold coronation canopy from 1761 (Cinque Port Mayors are always invited to a coronation), a mace handled by Queen Elizabeth I (and by me), and downstairs the town's historic courtroom. Visitors to the town's small museum also get to see the courtroom - the rest is tour only.

Down very-much-not-new New Street is the small cottage where Thomas Paine ran a shop. If you were American you'd be more likely to know who he is - a champion of human rights and one of the founding fathers of the fledgling United States. Tom only spent a year in Sandwich, but met his wife here and married her too, in one of those churches that's no longer a church. His shop was still a sweetshop a few decades ago, but is now a holiday let, which is why the owner doesn't mind the local populace traipsing through it once a year. Downstairs is irregularly charming, upstairs the floor slopes alarmingly, and apparently American tourists aren't as interested in staying here as you'd expect.

Out beyond the station is St Bartholomew's Chapel, funded by French booty from the Battle of Sandwich in 1217, and part of an even older Hospital facility. It's surrounded by 16 quaint cottages dedicated to housing older local townspeople - a very polite contest for residence starts up every time one of the existing tenants dies. On the other side of town is the White Mill Rural Heritage Centre, an agricultural collection surrounding one of Kent's few surviving windmills. Being left unsupervised to climb two sets of steep ladders to the milling floor was quite an experience, but I made it safely up and back down without accidentally dying.

Not every building open for the day was old. The Art Deco Empire Cinema is a mere youngster - 1937 vintage - and had cancelled matinees to allow visitors to peek into the auditorium. Even better it was possible to join the owner in the projection booth, where the traditional reeled projector was recently replaced by a more practical electronic beast, fed by films on hard drives delivered by courier. I'd always wondered. The Masonic Hall is even younger, a postwar lodge now fitted with a very-necessary stairlift to the upper temple. My guide showed me round and earnestly explained how the long rituals soon make sense and bring a sense of shared camaraderie. When pressed on precisely what that big rock was for, or why the carpet had a bold chequerboard pattern, however, he was far less forthcoming.

Thirteen buildings meant encounters with 13 sets of volunteers, mostly old, and deeply attached to their own special part of the town. One of the ladies in one of the churches seemed genuinely delighted that someone from London was actually interested in her leaflets and treasures, and another seemed amazed that I'd travelled down by train so quickly - she'd never dream of making the reverse journey. I had a long conversation elsewhere with a gentleman, originally from Clapham, whose failing health meant family were now asking him to leave his adopted hometown, so was making bittersweet plans to sell up. It's true to say the people of Sandwich made as memorable an impression on me as its architecture.

Visit on a normal weekend and you'll only get inside the Guildhall Museum, the windmill and a couple of the churches. That said, the streets are lovely in themselves, and dotted with small shops and dining opportunities to keep you occupied (including, yes, a cafe called The Sandwich Shop). Next time I go back I shall walk a mile out to Richborough Fort, a Roman bridgehead during the invasion of Britain, and maybe hike across the famous golf courses to the sea (the Open's coming back to Royal St George's in 2020). But overall, simply take my word how relentlessly well-preserved this Kentish jewel is, and it's all thanks to silt.

» Visit Sandwich
» Sandwich Town Trail leaflet
» Discovering Britain - self guided walk (with fantastically detailed 44 page pdf)

n.b. Southeastern Trains are running an extra-special ticket offer this September, with super off-peak returns to various coastal towns for just £10, so long as you book before 6pm the previous day. Specifically that's London to Broadstairs, Chatham, Deal, Dover, Faversham, Folkestone, Margate, Ramsgate or Whitstable - saving over £20 on the usual fare. Sandwich isn't on the list, so I bought my ticket to Deal and then another ticket for the last six minutes, which was still a bargain. And I'll be using the offer again to reach the Folkestone Triennial before the end of the month, just as soon as the weather improves.

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