Aylesford in old picture postcards
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The only site in the British Isles which has experienced continual habitation by Mankind since the dawn of history some 250,000 years ago, down through the ages to modem times, is Aylesford in the County of Kent. lts peculiar geographical situation, with weather conditions more favourable than any other similar site in the United Kingdom, has been a predominating factor in influencing Mankind's evolution and establishment in this area. Sheltered from northerly winds by the immense outerop of chalk on the North Downs known as Blue Bell Hill, Aylesford nestles serenelyon a bend of a ti dal section of the River Medway.
In ancient times, the area was of immense strategie importance because here was the first point along the course of the River Medway where it could be forded at low tide.
Aylesford lies 7lh miles south of Rochester, 9 miles east of Wrotham, 13 miles sou th-west of Sittingboume, and 3 miles north-west of Maidstone. By road, Aylesford is 34 miles from London, and 39 miles distant by rail. Aylesford lies 51° 18' north and 0° 29' east.
The geological formation in this area includes chalk to the north, clay to the east, and sand in the north of the village. Scattered ragstone seams are also evident.
During the progressive excavation of sand for commercial purposes from Aylesford sand pit, remains of the woolly mammoth. have been discovered. Such an occurrence illustrates that this area was tundra south of the ice cap during the last glacial epoch some 8,000 B.C. Palaeolithic flint emplements
of the Acheulian and Mousterian cultures are the earliest vestiges of primitive Mankind.
Scattered around the banks of the River Medway are several megalithic tombs. These are now denuded of barrows, and are unfortunately damaged. They be ar quaint names like Kit's Coty, Lower Kit's Coty, The Coffin Stone, and the White Horse Stone.
Bronze Age cists excavated in Aylesford sand pit have produced examples of contracted inhumations. A hoard of gold ornaments from this period have been found on the banks of the River Medway, and are preserved in Maidstone Museum.
Extensive Roman villas and temples have been destroyed in the process of providing materials for subsequent building. Pottery and coins are contained in Maidstone Museum. The course of a Roman road can still be traeed through the parish. Anglo-Saxon graves have produced fine examples of pottery and glass. Between 1880 and 1921, official census reports listed an area of 4,377 acres. The population in 1881 was a mere 2,719, rising to 3,131 people in 1921 and 3,636 by 1931.
The parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul does not conform to any particular architectural style. It contains many features typical of severa1 periods of re building. The tall tower is main1y Norman, with an additional storey added during the 15th century. The church itself was re built during the 14th and 15th centuries and restored during the 19th century. This two-gabled building, with twin north and south aisles and chancels, contains many monuments dedieated to notabie Iocal families, viz., Cossington, Colepeper, Rycaut, Banks, Finch, Betts, and Brassey.
The graceful ragstone bridge dates from the 14th century. The central span was widened in 1824 to allow the passage of river traffic. This bridge is a delight to artists and photographers.
Aylesford is the first place in England where Carrnelite friars became established in a new community in 1242. After the suppression of the monasteries in 1538, this priory became a country mansion. The priory church was demolished and the remaining half of the cloisters were re-modelled. This was destroyed in 1930 by fire, and was successfully restored. The Carmelite order purchased the site in 1949, and returned to their home. Since then, they have completed an ambitious venture re building chapels on the site of the original priory church, and restored the remaining ancient fabric.
To the south of the village area is the estate of Preston Hall. Here a sumptuous country mansion was created in the 1850's. It was surrounded by elegant gardens and extensive parklands. The estate has long since been converted into the role of a hospital complex. A small adjacent village is administered by the Royal British Legion for the support and rehabilitation of disabled ex-service men.
The very intriguing property known as the 'George House' was a coaching inn near the frequented route between Roehester and Maidstone. Since 1969 the property has been a private residence. The oldest surviving public house is Whitbread Fremlin's tied house, the 'Chequers Inn'. The oldest building in the High Street is now called 'The Litt1e Gem', and is the only free-house in the parish. At the southem end of Roehester Road is Conrage's tied house 'The Bush'
which is a modern well-appointed public house. Other Courage tied houses are 'The George' in Millhall and 'The Pottery Arms' in Forstal Road, and 'The Lower Bell' on the north end of Roehester Road.
The development of Aylesford as an established and thriving community was not an insular process. Evolution demanded that neighbouring communities, and geographie considerations, dominated the course of Aylesford's historical development. Thus, we have vestiges of many cultures and families who have settled here, developed, and since passed on to the inevitable higher calling.
Photographs Nos. 1, 7, 9-10, IS, 19, 21-22, 25-31, 35-38, 41, 43-44, 47, 62-66, 69-70 and 76 are reproduced from the collections of the Aylesford Society.
No. 12 is by kind permission of Tony Baldoek of Wettern Brothers (Southern) Ltd., formerly Aylesford Sand Cornpany.
Nos. 55-59 are reproduced by kind permission of Country Life.
Nos. 13-14 are by courtesy of Bill Crook.
Nos. 2, 23, SO, 54, 60 and 67 are reproduced by kind permission of 'Kent Messenger' South Eastern Newspapers Limited.
Nos. 4-5 and 32-34 are by courtesy of Gladys Nebbs. No. 39 is by courtesy of Albert Peter Sibley,
No. 8 is by courtesy of the Tonbridge Historical Society.
No. 72 is by courtesy of Lady Tyrwhitt-Drake,
1. There is probably no other village in Kent which has been photographed and painted more often than Aylesford. The focal point of allure is that part of the village which clusters around the 14th century ragstone bridge over the River Medway, and the parish church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul which dominates the panorama from a crest of high ground. To the left of our picture is the Chequers Inn and Ferry House. The row of terraeed houses in the centre were built in 1840. To'the right is the very intriguing property known as the George House, which was formerly a coaching inn. The red tiled roofs of many gables are features of several periods of architecture, combining harmoniously into the charm which constitutes Aylesford,
2. The Domesday Book, compiled shortly after the Norman conquest in the 11th century, divided west Kent into two lathes. The lathe of Aylesford extended from Gravesend and Hoo in the north, to the Sussex border in the south, from Boughton Malherbe and Frinsted in the east, to Stamsted and Shipboume in the west. By the beginning of the 20th century, the parish had shrunk considerably to comprise Kit's Coty estate, the Lower Bell, Tottington, Cossington, Roehester Road, Pratling Street, Forstal Road, Cobtree, Preston Hall estate, MilIhall, Station Road and Eoeles. Our picture, taken from the church tower looking eastwards from the High Street towards Cobtree, shows only a small part of this parish,
3. The history of Aylesford's development has been profoundly influenced by the River Medway. The lower reaches are tidal as far upstream as Allington. In 1802 the Lower Medway Navigation Company obtained an Act of Parliament granting them powers to dam the river at Allington, make towing paths, render the river navigable, and to levy tolls. Allington lock became an essential facility for an increase in commercial river borne traffic travelling upstream to Maidstone. Originally, this was a flash loek built about 1792, which consisted of a pair of tidal doors, and a weir alongside, During the late 1840's the flash lock was replaced by a conventional pound loek. Between 1911 and 1915 further improvements were made.
4. Over the last twelve miles of its course, the River Medway forms a drowned estuary, nearly a mile in width. Over many centuries, this geological condition has been the cause of seasonal flooding along the banks of the lower reaches during freak weather and tide conditions. The early 20th century improvements at Allington lock, with subsequent control of upstream flood waters, has reduced the hazard of flooding at Aylesford and other villages along the lower reaches.
5. Torrential ram followed by many hours of heavy snow over Christmas 1927 caused severe flooding in many Kentish towns and villages. Mr. and Mrs. L.W. Day ofRose Cottage Aylesford, returned home late on Monday evening 26th December to find that the force afwater had split an eighteen inch wall, with water spurting into the sitting room. At midnight on 26th December Mrs. Tester of Park Row noticed water triokling through the fireplace and under the front door. She was marooned upstairs until Wednesday morning. At. St. Peter's Church of England Primary School Brassey Annexe (Infants) the high water mark reached a height of two feet and six inches. The water was at its deepest at the railway crossing.
6. During the early part of the 19th century, water-borne commercial traffic on the River Medway increased. By Act of Parliament, the Company of Proprietors of the Navigation of the River Medway were granted powers to improve the waterway. In 1824 the two central arches and single pier of Aylesford's 14th century bridge were demolished and replaced by a single span of sixty feet, Subsequently, large boats were accommodated on the upper stretches of the Medway.
7. Vessels sailing upstream came in on the flood tide, when the current of three-four knots assisted negotiating the twists and turns in ihe river's course. Thames and Medway sailing barges lowered their masts to pass under the graceful central span of Aylesford's bridge. This was achieved by letting out the stayfall slowly, taking the weight on the windlass. When the barge had been carried forward under the bridge, by its own momentum, the mast was raised again. The shooting of a bridge required great skill and careful timing. For this, a third hand called a 'huffler' was hired, Even a steam tug found shooting the bridge to be a hazardous manoeuvre.
8. Such cargoes as coal from Newcastle, timber from London, cement from Burharn and Sittingbourne, bricks and roof tiles from Eccles and Aylesford, sand and gravel from Aylesford, passed upstream under the 14th century bridge, through the lock at Allington to markets at Maidstone and Tonbridge. Return cargo es of Kentish ragstone from the Allington quarries, and grain from Tonbridge, passed downstream to supply consumer demands along the River Thames and the east coast of England. Our picture shows Medway sailing barges with their sails furled, moored alongside the wharf at Tonbridge.