Out on a limb


Travel about 12 miles north west of Rye and we come to the delightful and picturesque town of Tenterden. The name is from the Old English word Tenetwaradenn, which indicates that it was originally where the men of Thanet kept their pigs. The first mention of human habitation seems to date back to the 14th century, when Heronden was well known for its place in the wool industry. Its great advantage was the ability to export wool, and other goods, directly out to sea, via a tributary of the River Rother just outside the town at Smallhythe.

This sea access meant that Tenterden became a Limb of Rye, one of the Cinque Ports, so in addition to taking its part in the provision of ships, it was also able to enjoy its privileges. These rights were very important to the town and included such wonderful names as Toll and Team, which gave them authority over cattle sales and transport, Sac and Soc, which was the hearing of civil and criminal cases. Mundbryce was important, giving authority to enter private land to maintain and build sea flood defences, Flotsam, Jetsam and Ligan, the right to what was left of shipwrecks and Infangthief and Outfangthief, rights of execution and imprisonment of criminals, especially thieves.

Although a small hamlet now, from the 15th century, Smallhythe was an important Royal shipbuilding centre, with records telling us that ships for the navies of King Henry IV, King Henry V and King Henry VIII were built there. First recorded in about 1300, in 1449 it received a Royal Charter from King Henry VI. We know that in 1410, a ship weighing 100 tons, Marie, was constructed for King Henry IV. In 1414, King Henry V visited Smallhythe to check on construction of two ships for him. They were George, a 120 ton balinger – this was an oared galley that could also be wind powered, and Jesus, the first English ship to weigh 1,000 tons. In 1514, 37 boatbuilders from Smallhythe walked to Woolwich, to help build what was then to be the world’s biggest warship, 1,400 ton Henry Grace a Dieu, which had a crew of 1,000 men. Henry VIII had ordered it to replace the much smaller, 600 ton Regent, which had been crafted at Reading Street near Smallhythe in 1486, and sunk in battle in 1512. Royal commissions ended in 1546, when King Henry VIII ordered The Great Gallyon, with a weight of 300 tons. The Great Gallyon was also the last large ship to be built at Smallhythe. Gradually the river silted up and the marshes drained, marooning Smallhythe (which means small harbour) about 10 miles from the nearest sea coast. A catastrophic fire on July 31 1514 had destroyed some of the hamlet, warehouses and quays, which were never replaced.

Smallhythe had become accessible from the sea when the Knelle dam, on the Wittersham Levels, had been built by order of Geoffrey de Knelle, to ensure that his land would not be flooded, towards the middle of the 14th century. The River Rother had been ‘resited’ north of the Isle of Oxney. In 1636 the dam was destroyed during a storm, which allowed the Rother to resume its original course. Small boats were still able to reach Smallhythe until the early years of the 20th century, when it became silted up.

The principal historical attraction of Smallhythe is now, of course, Smallhythe Place. Its exact age is unknown, but it probably post-dates the 1514 fire. Certainly, some of the timbers in the barn show marks of burning, so they may have been recycled or damaged in a small, more localised conflagration. Its original use is unsure. It may have been the house of an official called the Port Reeve, although no records of such an appointment survive. Other possible uses were as a local court, tavern or just the residence of a ship builder. Now its claim to fame is as the country home of the renowned actress Dame Ellen Terry, great aunt of another great member of the acting profession, Sir John Gielgud.

Smallhythe Place really was a case of love at first sight. Dame Ellen was travelling from Rye to Tenterden with Sir Henry Irving in the last years of the 19th century. Passing the very attractive building, she asked to be informed if it ever came on the market. In 1899 she received a postcard with a Tenterden postmark stating, ‘House for sale.’ She moved in later that year, owning what she lovingly called her ‘daffodilly farm’ until she died there in July 1928. Her daughter, Edy Craig inherited the property, living there with two female friends, all three of them dressing as, and giving themselves names, as men. Vita Sackville-West, who knew them and their eccentricities, used to call them The Trouts. They deliberately refused to understand anything about paying rates, taxes or repair bills, with Vita helping them through the, to them, immensely traumatic donation of the property to the National Trust.

Back in Tenterden, we find that the town had a school by 1521, which by 1666 had the status of a grammar school. The parish church of St. Mildred (the 8th century royal abbess of a church at Minster, buried in Canterbury,) dates from the 12th century. The tower, almost 40 metres high and built in 1461, is of Bethersden marble, a limestone known for containing coloured seashells. In the Lady Chapel is the 17th century monument of Robert and Martha Whitfield. Martha is known to have once to have been in trouble for ‘chiding and brawling’ with another local woman in the church. The illegitimate daughter of Admiral Viscount Nelson and Emma, Lady Hamilton, Horatia, married Reverend Philip Ward, on 19 February 1822. He was vicar of Tenterden. Their son, Horatio, became his father’s curate, serving there between 1849 – 53. Horatia’s paternal grandfather had been a clergyman, whilst Mr Ward was the third generation of his family to be ordained. Members of the family of Jane Austen are buried at St. Mildred’s.

St. Mildred’s tower was one of the chain of beacons that served as a warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It also played a key role in the Anglo-French Survey of 1784 – 1790, which established the exact distance between the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the Paris Observatory.

The railway came to Tenterden in 1903, when Tenterden Town station opened. Closed in 1954, part of it reopened in 1974, for the Kent and East Sussex Railway, a fine heritage steam society which runs to Bodiam. For the first time in a number of years, in 2023 the line will be open as far as Junction Road, past Bodiam. A great idea as part of a visit to the beautiful town of Tenterden.

Image Credits: Chris Lawson .

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