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A Kentish scrapbook

PUBLISHED: 08:15 05 July 2014

Captain Howey

Captain Howey

Archant

From Henry II's walk of shame to a rather special picnic and one man's passion for miniature railways

ROYAL WALK OF SHAME

As Canterbury Cathedral appeared in the distance, King Henry II dismounted his horse and began walking. The blame for St. Thomas Beckett’s murder in 1170 had been laid upon him by the Christian church and, with his kingdom challenged by a rebellion instigated by his own wife and sons; he was ready to pay penance.

Dressed simply, in a raincoat, the king headed towards the tomb of the now canonised Archbishop, a man who had once been a great friend and ally, but who had withdrawn from his protection and refused to support the king’s attempt to control the church. Their arguments are recorded, as is the king’s fiery temper and the fact that the Archbishop had to flee to safety on more than one occasion. A fragile reconciliation had been made between them but the king could not refute that his infamous words had instigated his murder.

On Friday 12 July 1174, half a mile from his destination, the king bent down and removed his boots at the West Gate of St Dunstan’s. Arriving bare footed at the cathedral, the king took off his cloak and prostrated himself across the tomb dressed in nothing but his undergarments and a green smock over a hair shirt. Then, having confessed his sins before the entire cathedral, the king begged to be punished.

Gilbert Foliot took the lead and administered five strokes of the rod across the king’s back; the highest-ranking clergy members, the prelates, then administered the same, before 80 monks applied three strokes each.

The fact that the king survived must have seemed highly symbolic and after the beating the king laid four marks of pure gold and a silk pall at the tomb. He also assigned land to the convent and promised to restore every privilege the former Archbishop had claimed.

Having promised to build a monastery in honour of the Saint, the king spent the rest of the day and the following night lying on the bare ground by the tomb. Pilgrims were encouraged to view his humiliation and the following morning, having attended mass, the king hung a phial of holy water around his neck and rode back to London. Unsurprisingly, he fell sick but he regained his strength and granted a charter to the hospital at Harbledown, the village where he had begun his walk of humility.

It appears that the king’s sins were indeed absolved, as by the end of September all rebels and enemies had either been defeated or were ready to surrender. Henry II’s punishment is now recorded in a series of Victorian stained glass windows displayed within the 14th-century Chapter House built on the cathedral grounds.

A CASTLE TRADITION

At 6pm on Thursday 10 July, the doors of Walmer Castle will swing shut and a flurry of activity will begin. Within hours the castle must be ready to host the official Cinque Ports weekend, which is more fondly known as the Lord Warden’s Picnic.

The castle has been the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, an office that dates back to the 12th century, since 1708 and the tradition of the Lord Warden’s picnic was begun by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 1978.

The title of Lord Warden has many duties attached to it and the incumbent of the role is personally chosen by the reigning monarch. Previous recipients of the title have included William Pitt the Younger, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and of course, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

The ‘picnic’ is actually a formal dinner party for 14 on the Friday evening, followed by a cocktail party on the Saturday evening. The tradition has been upheld by Lord Admiral Boyce, former Chief of the Defence Staff, who took over the role in 2004. Before these events can take place, however, all the historical furniture has to be removed from the main reception rooms and replaced with items from Lord Boyce’s private apartment.

Sally Mewton-Hynds has been the castle’s property supervisor for the past 17 years and says one of the biggest challenges is the safe packing and removal of Princess Alexandra’s luncheon set, which normally adorns the dining table.

Once removed, the table is re-laid using an antique gold-coloured tablecloth which compliments the amber coloured lighting and creates the perfect ambiance for the candlelit formal dinner.

It also sets the tone for the floral arrangements in the room and this is the only occasion when fresh flowers are allowed within the castle’s display rooms. Wine coolers, planters, vases and fireplaces are filled with stunning displays inspired by the historical setting and many of the flowers are grown in the castle garden.

A large garage, originally built to house the Queen Mother’s limousine, provides the perfect spot for arranging.

Guests and officials of the Cinque Ports invited to the Saturday evening party are escorted into the castle at 6.30pm and formally greeted by Lord and Lady Boyce. The castle bastions are the perfect place to enjoy canapés overlooking the sea and the Hythe Town Brass Band plays music until 9pm when the National Anthem provides the hint for guests to leave.

When only the Lord Warden and his family remain, all the furniture is returned to its rightful place and the property’s official face is carefully restored. Once again, the castle becomes a public attraction and, when the doors re-open at 2pm on Sunday 13 July, only the abundance of beautiful arrangements will hint at the weekend’s festivities.

A LIFE IN MINATURE

When the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway officially opened on 16 July 1927 it was the culmination of Captain John. E.P. Howey’s life-long dream. Born into considerable wealth it should have been an easy ambition for the multi-millionaire to fulfil but, as for so many, the events of the First World War changed everything.

Having attended Eton, Captain Howey concentrated on his two main passions – narrow-gauge railways and motor racing. Miniature railways were very fashionable amongst the landed gentry and Captain Howey was determined to start his own.

The outbreak of war soon sidelined his plans, however, and while serving in the Royal Flying Corps, Captain Howey’s aeroplane was attacked by a German fighter. His pilot was killed but Captain Howey managed to take control and crash landed behind enemy lines.

For the next two years he remained in captivity and was treated harshly by the Germans who had discovered his wealth, until he was declared medically unfit for service.

Despite his experiences, the dream of building his own railway still flourished and, upon his return to England Captain Howey became friends with Count Louis Zborowski, an incredibly wealthy man who shared his passion for railways and was famous for racing the Chitty Bang Bang Mercedes.

The pair ordered two locomotives to be built, the Green Goddess and Northern Chief, and started travelling the country seeking the perfect spot to build their line. On 19 October 1924, the Count was killed while taking part in the Italian Grand Prix in Monza and, once again, Captain Howey saw his plans de-railed.

Eventually he succeeded in building an eight-mile double track between Hythe and New Romney. People flocked to ride on the world’s smallest public railway and in 1928 the line was extended to Dungeness giving a wonderful 13.5-mile ride.

No mention of the railway’s history can pass without mentioning Hercules, the engine who pulled the inaugural train in July 1927 and was used by the War Department during World War Two to pull the armoured train transporting fuel pipes for the Pipeline Under the Ocean (PLUTO). It was therefore fitting that when the extended line to Dungeness was re-opened by Laurel and Hardy in 1947, Hercules took centre stage.

Thirteen one-third full size engines have been run on the line, travelling at speeds of up to 25mph on rails only 15 inches apart. No number 13 has ever existed and number 14 has been renamed Captain Howey in his honour.

During term-time the engine can frequently be seen doing the school run and on Sunday 27 July a special day of talks will celebrate the Captain’s life and commemorate the centenary of the Great War.

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