Thursday, December 29, 2011

Steam Open Days at Preston Court Farm

If you're looking for somewhere (free) to go in Kent next weekend and have an interest in all things steam, I would recommend a trip out to Preston Court Farm (nr. Canterbury).

On 31st December 2011/1st January 2012, Preston Steam Services will once again be hosting their annual open days.

Preston Services trade in everything from full sized steam locomotives, steam rollers and traction engines to hand built scale models.

Many have been rescued from far flung corners of the earth and shipped back to Preston for storage before eventually being sold on to steam enthusiasts for restoration.

We braved the bitter cold on News Years Day 2011 and had an enjoyable time exploring. Apart from the stored engines and locos there was plenty of other things to see. Here are a few pictures to give you a flavour...

A few of the restored traction engines on display and in steam.

A showman's engine which would have been used at fun fairs etc.

A steam powered organ playing in one of the barns (very loudly!).

Little man testing the catering facilities. The burgers and bacon rolls were going like hot cakes.
Jenny, one of the steam rollers on show. She was built in 1925 by Wallis and Steevens.

If you have a spare £ 40 k and plenty of time and energy you could become the new owner of locomotive No 1. She was built in Glasgow by Neilson and Co in 1892 and used to haul coke wagons at Beckton Gas Works in East London.

A 1912 J I Case traction engine awaiting some T.L.C.

A collection of traction engines. On closer inspection most of these appear to have been rescued from North and South America.

Last but not least one of four Orenstein and Koppel steam locomotives dating back the mid 1920's. They were operated by the sugar company San Martin de Tabarcal in Argentina to haul sugar cane to the refinery.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Unknown Sailor

This is the grave of an unknown sailor under some trees in a corner of the graveyard at St James church in Grain.

I can imagine he would have been washed up on the shore line days, weeks or possibly even months after his ship was sunk by German bombs or mines in the Thames Estuary.

I stumbled across this grave earlier this year and it made me think of my own late grandfather who also served in the Merchant Navy during World War II.

He went to sea in 1942, aged only sixteen as mess room boy. His first voyage lasted five months and took him all the way to South America and back to the UK via West Africa . On the return from Freetown four ships in his convoy were sunk.

The Merchant Navy suffered huge casualties with ships being lost to enemy action from the 3rd September 1939 right up to VE day in May 1945.

A total of more than 32000 men made the ultimate sacrifice.

Fortunately he was one of the lucky ones and back came home safely to his family.

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Kent's Disappearing Pubs

I have been inspired to write this latest post by my fellow blogger Helen in Melbourne, Australia.

She wrote an interesting piece on her blog about the contribution to the world of the traditional British pub.

I have read reports that pubs are closing at a rate of two a day (although I suspect it could be even more than than this).

A combination of factors have lead to this criminal state of affairs. The smoking ban, increases in alcohol duties and the general economic downturn.

Many well established pubs in Kent have been closed including a number of historic ones like the Terrace Tavern below in Gravesend.

This pub has been closed for several months now and faces an uncertain future. As a riverside town Gravesend used to boast numerous traditional Victorian pubs like this but many have now disappeared and with them their unique architecture.

The Terrace Tavern is a particularly good example of Victorian decoration with the green glazed tiles, etched glass windows (hidden by the hoardings) and fancy ironwork. The Shrimp Brand Beers were brewed locally in Gravesend.

Another closed pub I came across on one of my recent walks is the Fox and Hounds at Darenth.

This pub is located on a busy main road between Dartford and Longfield. Despite the passing trade it still does not appear to have been able to generate enough trade to survive.

The Colyer Arms at Betsham named after a local Great War hero (more about him in a future post) is no longer with us.....

A few months later....

This was the only pub in the village. It's closure followed that of the local petrol station and shop. The village had already lost it's railway station in 1962 courtesy of Dr Beeching.

The pub will be replaced with housing.

The Polhill Arms at Halstead was another large pub on a busy main road close to Orpington. The pub was named after the Polhill family who were important local landowners in the 18th century.

Finally two views of the Chequers Inn in the affluent village of Ightam near Sevenoaks taken on recent walks. The first shows the pub for sale....

Then a couple of months later boarded up....

These are just a few examples of the pubs we have lost in Kent over the last couple of years. Sadly before we come through the other side of the current recession there will no doubt be many more added to the list.

If you have any comments on this post I would love to hear from you.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Youngest Person Ever to Fly?

This is a fuzzy old picture of Gravesend airport, or Gravesend London East, as it used to be more grandly known when it first opened in the 1930's.

The airport was the starting point for many air speed record attempts by famous pioneer aviators such as Amy Johnson but I will write more about that in a future post.

Whilst looking through some old newspaper cuttings I came across an amusing article in the Evening News of 5th February 1936.

It would seem that the youngest person ever to fly, may have flown from Gravesend....

At the time the article was written, the airport's Chief Engineer was Mr H C Brown. According to the report his wife had just given birth to a baby boy called Kenneth.

On the Sunday morning, Mr Brown telephoned his close friend Mr Messenger, a pilot at the airport, to pass on the happy news and to invite him to become Godfather to little Kenneth.

Mr Messenger rushed over immediately to see his Godson and congratulate his friends.

To mark the auspicious occasion a fitting celebration was needed.

Without further ado Mr Brown quickly plucked his one day old son from his cot, wrapped him in furs and blankets, placed him in the car and they all set off to the airport.

On arrival at the airport, Mr Brown strapped himself into the open cockpit of Mr Messenger's biplane his baby son held tightly in his arms. Mr Messenger hopped into the pilot's seat and within a few minutes the three of them were airborne.

Mr Messenger flew with great care at up to 2000' feet over the Thames Estuary before landing safely back at Gravesend some fifteen minutes later.

Needless to say, the whole escapade took place without the knowledge of poor old Mrs Brown!

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A walk by the Thames and Medway Canal

Over the last year or so I have done a lot of walks all over Kent but haven't got around to writing about them yet.

So to make amends this post is about a pleasant afternoon walk I made last October along the former Thames and Medway Canal starting close to my office in Gravesend.

The 7.7 mile long canal was conceived as a way of connecting the River Thames at Gravesend with the River Medway at Strood (near Rochester). Prior to construction of the canal ships had to make a 47 mile voyage down the River Thames and then back up the River Medway.

The canal was started in 1799 with the construction of a basin in Gravesend (now used as a marina). The basin was accessed from the River Thames by locks which are still in operation today.

The projected construction budget was a totally inadequate £ 40,000 and by 1801 the canal had only progressed one mile. It should be borne in mind of course that the canal was dug entirely by hand.

Further funds were eventually secured so that the canal could be completed and opened on 14th October 1824. Work undertaken to finish the canal included the digging of a 2 mile long tunnel through a chalk hill and construction of locks and another basin in Strood.

The final construction cost was purported to have been £ 260,000.

Unfortunately the canal was never a commercial success.

Access to the locks at Gravesend and Strood was dependent on the tides. It was therefore often quicker for ships to make the longer voyage than to wait for the tide and use the canal.

To compound matters, by the mid 1840's the railways were taking off and rapidly stealing trade away from the canals.

In an effort to combat this threat the canal company built their own railway which ran parallel with the canal and shared the tunnel that had been dug through the chalk hill.

Uniquely the railway line was carried over wooden trestles in the tunnel while barges could continue to ply the canal underneath.

In 1846 the railway including the tunnel was sold to the South Eastern Railway (SER). The SER decided to fill in the section of canal running through the tunnel to enable a double track to be laid.

This effectively cut the canal in two, permanently severing the connection between the Thames and Medway.

Barges continued to use the stretch of canal from Gravesend as far as the British Uralite (asbestos) works at Higham and to the aptly named Dung Wharf (no prizes for guessing what that was used for!).

In 1934 the canal was finally abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Efforts are now being made to restore parts of the canal but as you can see from the photos above it is still very much a work in progress.

A cycle path now follows the canal bank and eventually goes all the way through to Rochester.

I continued along this path about a mile or so as far as the former British Uralite Works and then just before the railway bridge took a footpath to the left across the marshes towards the Thames river bank.

The marshes are partially drained by dykes like the one above (which are teaming with fish). It is very peaceful and a haven for wildlife.

Eventually the footpath reached the river bank and linked up with the long distance Saxon Shore Way mentioned in a previous post.

At this point as the light was beginning to fade I decided to follow the river back towards Gravesend.

The foreshore at this point is strewn with the timbers of numerous long lost sailing ships.

If you take a close look on the "beach" you will see literally thousands of old broken bottles.

These were once used as ballast by the sailing ships and barges arriving in the Thames and had to be dumped before any cargo could be loaded.

The sun setting over the river with Tilbury power station in the background.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Long John Silver Cumbers

This rather dapper looking gentleman is Sydney Cumbers, affectionately known as Long John Silver due to his distinctive eye patch and nautical attire.

Sydney Cumbers had a boyhood dream to go to sea but sadly the loss of his left eye at an early age ended that ambition and instead he went into the family business in the City of London.

Due to the success of the business, in the 1930's he was able to afford a weekend river front retreat in Gravesend (not far from the Mission House where General Gordon had taught Sunday School).

He named his house "The Lookout" and set about redecorating it with all manner of nautical paraphernalia from ship's wheel to models.

Different parts of the house were named after parts of a ship such as the bridge and the forecastle and it was described by some visitors as being "like a ship laid out ready for sea"

In particular he amassed what was thought to be the world's largest private collection of ship's figure heads. In total over one hundred with the oldest carved in 1663.

When staying in Gravesend, Cumbers would practically have an open door. Anyone with an interest in ships and the sea was welcome to call into "The Lookout" for a chat.

In 1953, the lease on "The Lookout" came to an end and due to his advancing years, Cumbers reluctantly decided to move to a smaller more practical residence.

The move of course meant that a suitable home had to be found for his burgeoning collection which apart from the figure heads included another thousand plus items.

Fortunately the famous tea clipper Cutty Sark had recently returned to the UK for preservation at Greenwich.

The Cutty Sark Preservation Trust gratefully accepted the donation of Cumbers collection which would eventually be displayed aboard the clipper.

Here is an interesting 1951 vintage Pathe news clip I found which will give you a better idea of the inside of "The Lookout".

Sydney Cumbers died in 1959.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My North Downs Challenge

A few months ago I signed up to take part in a charity 20 mile North Downs Challenge on behalf of St Mary's church in Kemsing. Some parts of the church date back to the 11th century so are understandably in need of some attention.

Earlier this month I duly reported in at the church hall along with many others who had taken on the challenge, and was given a very detailed set of instructions to follow, so detailed and clear in fact I never had to look at my map all day.

The very first part of the walk involved a steep climb out of Kemsing to join the North Downs Way. This certainly got the heart pumping!

On the ascent I passed close by Otford Manor, an impressive arts and crafts style house which is now used as a Christian retreat. The Manor is built on top of one of the highest points in Kent and has excellent views across the North Downs.

After climbing all the way to the top of the hill and following the North Downs Way for about an hour, the route dropped back downhill into the village of Otford which I have mentioned before in My Darent Valley Walk Part 2.

The route passed close by the remains of Otford Palace originally built for the Archbishops of Canterbury but later seized by King Henry VIII.

I continued through the churchyard along the Pilgrims Way through the village for a short distance before heading across the fields towards Twitton. This is one of my favourite parts of the Darent Valley as you actually find yourself away from the noise of traffic and for a change all you can hear is birdsong.

Twitton can't even be classed as a village as it consists of only a handful of ancient farms including Filston which served as check point 1. Distance covered 4.7 miles (7.62 km).

At each check point the organisers had laid on complimentary refreshments which were very welcome as it was a hot day. After leaving Filston Farm there was another steep climb to the top of the valley.

The route then followed the length of the valley for some distance passing by the village of Shoreham and eventually descending through fields full of wild flowers such as daisies and poppies before passing through Lullingstone golf course.

A field full of daisies. As I crossed a stile at this point I spotted a lizard but unfortunately he shot off like a rocket before I could get a picture. Somehow I don't think I'll end up being a wildlife photographer....

The poppies are amazing this year and can be seen for miles. Shortly after passing the field full of poppies, Lullingstone Castle came into view.

I dropped down to the foot of the hill and followed my old friend the Darent Valley Path to check point two at the Lullingstone Visitor Centre.

Shortly before reaching the check point I was pleasantly surprised to bump into one of my old scout leaders who I hadn't seen for about thirty years, heading in the other direction with a party of kids on a point to point exercise along the Darent Valley.

Check point two - distance covered 9.8 miles (15.2 km). A quick sandwich and a drink before pressing on along the Darent Valley Path through Shoreham village then back up the other side of the valley to the little hamlet of Romney Street.

Romney Street consists of a handful of houses and The Fox and Hounds pub which also doubled up as Check Point three. The pub features in many books about walking in Kent and was a welcome oasis after a long uphill slog.

Check point three. Distance covered 15 miles (24.19 km). My knees beginning to ache a bit at this point but I couldn't give up.

For most of the walk I had been accompanied on and off by a nice lady about twenty years older than me so if she could manage it so must I.

Just after leaving the pub we had another unexpected surprise....

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster flew over low and slow heading towards London.

The route continued on through Knatts Valley and (yet) another golf course to the little village of Woodlands. Although the village only consists of a handful of houses, the golf clubhouse and a manor house it has it's own church.

The church is located in the amusingly named Tinker Pot Lane. Next door to the church is a hall which was the location for the final Check Point.

Check Point four. Distance covered 17.71 miles (28.5 km).

For the return leg to Kemsing the route took us back onto the North Downs Way.

A welcome sight as by now my knees were very sore!

The weather stayed kind and the views from the top of the Downs were stunning.

I came across this friendly cow munching on the grass minding her own business. One of her bovine friends on the other hand decided to go on a mini adventure....

Somehow she managed to find a gap in the fence and wandered off deep into the woods.

A little further on I could hear her owners trying to chase her out of the woods and back into the field. The language was quite ripe!

I got back to the church at Kemsing where sandwiches had been laid on. Total distance covered 20.3 miles (32.73 km). Total time taken including breaks for refreshments - 8 hours 27 minutes.

An enjoyable day despite the sore knees. Maybe I'll do it all again next year.

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