Kent’s beautiful flint, ragstone and timber buildings
PUBLISHED: 09:23 05 November 2020 | UPDATED: 17:47 05 November 2020
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
Flint, ragstone and timber – these are the materials that built Kent and gave it its distinctive face. Here we explore some fine local examples
The Garden of England wouldn’t be the same without its wonderful architecture and hundreds of listed properties.
These include cathedrals, castles, churches, grand houses, small cottages, a mausoleum, chapels, Long Barrows, hop pickers’ huts – even a Grade I-listed dog kennel, which can be seen in the courtyard at National Trust property Ightham Mote. It was made in 1891 for Dido, a very large St Bernard.
Recent excavations at White Horse Stone near Maidstone uncovered a substantial wooden structure that historians believe was built 5,500 years ago, an early example of timber being used as a building material in the county.
Kent has served as the gateway to the continent and a major doorway to London for centuries and this is reflected in its diverse architecture. Before the existence of modern transport, local availability was a vital factor in deciding what materials should be used in building construction – the main reason regional variations are so strongly represented throughout Britain.
Kent, which used to be heavily forested, had an abundance of timber, which is why virtually every city, town and village has so many timber-framed properties.
Full of character and invariably attractive, the fact that a fair number are in use as hotels, pubs and restaurants helps to bring history to life in an everyday way.
Wealden hall houses, dating from the medieval period, are well preserved and huge numbers of them have been carefully adapted to the needs of modern family life. The majority of historic timber-framed properties are listed, but this doesn’t reduce their popularity and most house agents have many buyers who cite ‘character’ and ‘heritage’ among their top priorities.
Timber-framed properties often have jetties which overhang lower stories; some have an ‘upper jetty’ overhanging another jetty on a lower floor. This style of building began as a tax dodge. Property tax being based on the size of the plot of land on which the house was built, the overhangs increased the living area without increasing the tax levied. Jetties have a modern-day practical use; they shelter pedestrians from rain showers.
Evidence of another tax dodge can also be seen in Kent; a Window Tax was introduced in 1696. Described by protestors as a ‘tax on light and air’ and ‘a tax on health’, it was repealed in 1851 but it is the reason so many properties incorporate a bricked-up window.
Ragstone (sometimes called a ‘young limestone’) was quarried for centuries in the Maidstone area (Offham, Allington, Boughton Monchelsea) and also around Westerham and Folkestone.
The Romans used ragstone to build the first walls around Canterbury between 270 and 290AD and they also used ‘Kentish rag’ to build the walls around London. Later the county’s ragstone was used to construct many famous buildings in the capital, including Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Many of Kent’s heritage properties are made from ragstone: the National Trust’s Knole House in Sevenoaks, the keep of Dover Castle (English Heritage), Ightham Mote (National Trust), Maidstone Prison (including its 20ft- high surrounding wall), the Archbishop’s Palace in Maidstone, Rochester Castle (English Heritage), Leeds Castle and Nettlestead Place.
Literally hundreds of parish churches and private houses were built entirely or in part from ragstone and there are excellent examples throughout the county.
Take a walk on the Downs and you may kick a piece of loose flint, while riders here frequently complain of flint bruising the soles of their horse’s feet.
The first material to be mined in Britain, the caves at Chislehurst were actually dug as mines by our ancestors around 6000BC when they were searching for flint to be used to make weapons such as spear or dart points and arrowheads as well as knives, blades and scrapers.
Thousands of flint weapons and tools are still being found in Kent, some of which are very early examples. The Chislehurst mines were extended in the Roman and Saxon periods and the passages are now more than 20 miles in length.
Flint knapping is said to be the oldest form of technology; it began as the ‘modification’ of the rocks by the removal of flakes of flint in order to produce sharp edges for cutting different materials. Some historians consider this early skill to be even more important than the invention of fire on the basis of ‘no tools, no progress’.
Flints were used in many buildings in Birchington, Broadstairs and nearby coastal towns. The Tartar Frigate public house in Broadstairs is one of the most photographed buildings in the county. Flint is also used in almost all the villages along the North Downs Way. The low wall of the Ford at Eynsford is another photographer’s favourite and, when the river Darent is not high, many motorists enjoy driving through it rather than using the small hump-back bridge.
A few metres along the village high street the remains of Eynsford Castle, dating from the 11th century, include thick flint walls. When exploring that area don’t miss the flints used in the construction of Grade I-listed, 900-year-old St Martin’s Church.
But flint has been used in simple ways too; knapped and un-knapped, it decorated gardens and divided beds and borders for hundreds of years, a practice that continues today.
These days ‘natural’ materials are back in favour in the construction industry, something that is very much in evidence in Kent. Architects are increasingly designing ‘eco-friendly’ buildings and wood – being natural, recyclable and sustainable – fulfils a lot of their criteria.
The county is fortunate to be very well served with companies specialising in the restoration of heritage buildings and the construction of new timber-framed buildings. At the current time the majority of construction involving timber is confined to low-rise properties for the residential sector, but some architects are suggesting that timber could be used (instead of steel and concrete) for future high-rise buildings.
The Gallagher Group operates the only ragstone quarry remaining in the county (it’s on the outskirts of Maidstone) and find that, generally speaking, the use of the stone in modern construction is predominately as a thin cladding to load-bearing structures and for flooring and paving. Kent ragstone has had huge influence on construction throughout the south of England, thus there is constant demand for this instantly recognisable stone for renovation, restoration and conservation projects.
Some modern-day substitutes do not weather as well as the natural stone and, long-term, the aesthetic properties can be disappointing. Thus it is not unusual for planning consents, especially in locations of historic interest, to require the use of ‘real’ ragstone as opposed to any of the modern alternatives.
The popularity of flint as a material in the construction industry has been pretty constant, but today it is largely used as a decorative material to produce an aesthetically pleasing finish to buildings, walls and other structures. The availability of traditional flint-knapping skills are in short supply but fortunately they haven’t totally disappeared.
Flint knapping is often included in modern-day survival courses and a number of books such as Flint Knapping – a guide to making your own Stone Age tool set by Robert Turner throws interesting light on the subject.
Architectural styles have resulted in love/hate situations for hundreds of years and that certainly continues today.
Kent mixes ‘heritage’, ‘historic’, ‘old’ and ‘new’ pretty impressively and it’s good to know that the county’s traditional building materials are still being used in a diversity of ways today.