After my recent trips to far-flung corners of the South East, and even up to Cambridge, it was nice to explore rather more local sights yesterday when I took a very enthusiastic group around the beautiful Kentish Wealden town of Cranbrook.
Although everyone in the 25-strong group was fairly local, many having driven through and past Cranbrook for years, nobody had ever taken the time to walked around this ‘Historic Market Town’ at a leisurely pace exploring its remarkable history.
We met up at the spectacular Union Windmill – the tallest working smock mill in the country. I arrived ahead of the group to be greeted by the volunteers from the Cranbrook Windmill Association with apologies for the weather. Until that moment I had been thankful for a lovely sunny autumnal morning without so much as a hint of a chilly breeze – but this of course was the problem: no wind = no grinding of flour.
This was, however, but a minor hitch in an absolutely fascinating tour up all seven floors of this masterpiece of engineering, built in 1815 by a Mrs Dobell for one of her sons in her own back garden! Our group included engineers, architects and keen bread makers, as well as those of us who particularly enjoyed the spectacular views and photo opportunities across Cranbrook’s medieval streets and red-tiled roofs from the vertiginous walkway just below the Mill’s rotating cap.
Descending The Hill from the Mill, and crossing the Crane-Brook we saw magnificent timbered and tiled clothiers’ houses prompting stories about the history of the woollen broadcloth trade that was the foundation of Cranbrook’s prosperity from the 14th to the 17th Century.
Diverting via the narrow Twitten where a Hatter’s Factory once produced fashionable beaverskin hats (it is said that the use of mercury to treat the pelts gave rise to the expression ‘Mad as a Hatter’!) we paused for coffee at the George Hotel and imagined the visit of Queen Elizabeth I to that very spot during her Royal Progress though Kent in 1573, possibly inspecting the valuable broadcloths stretched to dry from the iron tenterhooks that are still visible on some of the beams.
Following a visit to St. Dunstan’s Church. often called ‘The Cathedral of the Weald’, on account of its size and grandeur, with its rare total immersion font, stunning perpendicular gothic nave (all financed by those wealthy clothiers) and fascinating memorials, we walked round to Cranbrook Museum – a real hidden gem located in a 15th Century farmhouse. With its focus on local life through the ages this had something of interest to everyone among its wide ranging collections. Once again the hospitable people of Cranbrook – this time the local History Society – had opened the museum especially for our visit.
Then it was time for lunch and an opportunity to reflect on the new places,people and events the group had found out about right on their own doorstep. Before we parted it was agreed that this should be the first of South East Tour Guides’ local ‘Exploring Wealden Towns and Villages’ series to help members of the group discover more about some of the other fascinating places in the Weald of Kent.
Next request is Tenterden!