diamond geezer

 Monday, October 11, 2010

What did you do for 10/10/10? Probably nothing special. You've got a life, and stuff to do, and quite probably people to do stuff with. You probably had a kitchen to paint, or some clothes to buy, or some kids to keep busy, or a meal out booked with those nice people down the road. You don't need to work out what to do with your weekend because your weekend's worked out before it arrives. And that's fine by me, I'm not jealous or anything. My kitchen doesn't need painting, my wardrobe's not empty, I don't have dependents to entertain, and those nice people down the road are away. So my 10/10/10 was blank. I thought I'd let you in on how I decided what to do with it.

10/10/10's not a date we'll ever see it again, and I wanted to do something to mark the day. So I reached for an atlas in search of somewhere 'ten'-related or with a prominent 'ten' in its name. I tried London first but found an unhelpful gap in my gazetteer between Temple Mills and Thames Ditton, so looked further afield. Tenby was too far, and the Tendring peninsula too broad. But Tenterden, on the High Weald at the bottom of Kent, looked perfect. Not only was it a genuine tourist hotspot, it was also only two letters different from tententen. So Tenterden would be my 10/10/10 destination, no questions asked. Trust me, you can do this sort of thing when you live by yourself and there's nobody there to say "are you insane or something, come on, let's go grab a coffee."

Except there was a problem. Tenterden doesn't have a National Rail station, and the closest was beyond walking distance. Normally a town of this size would have a decent bus service, but Sundays in Tenterden are a different matter. Five buses from Ashford, at roughly three-hourly intervals, and if you miss those you're buggered. I refused to be put off. I planned my risky day out including a High Speed whizz down from Stratford to connect with the only feasible bus, plus some additional travel at the Tenterden end. I schedule these things militarily, you know.

I allowed plenty of time to get to Stratford International. It's still a white elephant station in the middle of a building site, accessible only by bus from the end of Stratford platform 11, so if you don't arrive early enough you've no chance of catching your train. Alas my train arrived late, which is usually unheard of on the High Speed route. Then somewhere past the Medway it stopped for ten minutes to let a Eurostar go by. And then it travelled past Ashford, slowly, so that it could reverse back in from the other side to find a platform space. My 30-minute journey had taken 50, and I'd just missed my crucial Tenterden bus. Never mind, there'd be another along in (sob) three and a quarter hours.

I went to see the station supervisor to see if anything could be done. He was being harangued by various members of the public wanting to know where the bloody trains to Canterbury were, preferably in their own language. I didn't hold out much hope, but asked jolly politely and off he went to make some calls. No chance of a refund, my train hadn't been late enough. No chance of a bus from another station up the line, because it was Sunday. So I was pleasantly gobsmacked when he came back with the offer of a taxi, all the way there, free of charge. Never let it be said that all Southeastern's employees are jobsworths, because this bloke was a true diamond geezer. I was, obviously, extremely grateful. And arrived in Tenterden several minutes before the bus I'd missed.

TenterdenSo, was Tenterden worth the journey? Erm. It was a pretty enough town, yes. One main street, all shoppy up one end and all tree-lined with grassy bits at the other. A Waterstones and a Smiths, but also an ironmongers and several half-timbered pubs. Nothing excessively antique-y, more a pleasant retail centre for the surrounding area, but with slightly more teashops than perhaps it ought. Sunday trading looked fairly brisk, all told, but I hadn't come here to shop. A lot of bikers were in town, not because they'd also missed the bus but because mid-Kent's swarming with motorcycles when the sun comes out. At least there was a museum, which ought to have been good for whiling away half an hour or so, except had closed for the winter last week so whiled away only 30 seconds.

Worth the journey? Not by itself, no. Thankfully there was a major distraction to the north of the town, which happily filled three hours plus, and which I'll tell you about tomorrow. And then I found myself back in Tenterden with, damn, more than two hours to go until the next bus back to civilisation. I did what I usually do in such circumstances, which is to walk somewhere that's approximately half the time differential away, and then walk back again. In this case there was a National Trust property just over two miles away, along a wholly unsuitable road without a pavement, so obviously I walked there.

Smallhythe PlaceSmallhythe Place: You probably don't remember Ellen Terry. She was a great Victorian actress, and much-loved - possibly the Judi Dench of her day. So you might wonder why the National Trust own her house, and why it was full of people on Sunday. Surely there can't be that many theatre luvvies in deepest Kent, come to view the great lady's costumes, portraits and knick-knacks. Well I'm sure there were some. But most were here because her house is a 500-year-old cottage, all Tudor beams and creaky wonky floorboards. It used to be the Port House for the seaside village of Smallhythe, which seems unlikely given that the coast is nearly ten miles away, but in medieval times the Channel stretched a lot further inland. That reedy patch at the bottom of Ellen's garden used to be the quayside, and many important royal shipbuilding commissions were completed here. Global warming may one day undo this 16th century silting-up, returning the Cinque Ports to the coast and reverting the nearby 'Isle of Oxney' to a proper island. Smallhythe Place was Ellen's retirement home, after a frenetic career with Shakespearean highlights. She knew all the contemporary greats, from Oscar Wilde to Ivor Novello, and her grandnephew turned out to be Sir John Gielgud. Ellen died at Smallhythe Place in 1928, with the house passing to her daughter who erected a commemorative theatre in a thatched barn in the back garden. Worth a special visit to see, probably not. But worth a detour when your next bus is two hours plus away, absolutely yes.

And yes, I got home fine thanks. I'm tenacious like that.

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