Spotlight on: Westerham & Biggin Hill
PUBLISHED: 12:59 07 November 2015 | UPDATED: 12:59 07 November 2015
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
One was home to the most famous airbase of the Battle of Britain, while the other was home to Churchill himself. It is 75 years since they buzzed with the sound of Spitfires but Biggin Hill and Westerham are rightly proud of the part they played in history.
Two neighbouring towns perfectly placed for enjoying both the best of the Kent countryside and the bright lights of London, Westerham and Biggin Hill have earned their places in the history books.
Home to not one but two great British leaders – Sir Winston Churchill and General James Wolfe – historic Westerham is peaceful and charming, with a traditional green surrounded by shops, tea rooms and pubs.
It’s more modern neighbour, meanwhile, bustles with life only a stone’s throw from busy Bromley and still has a thriving airport.
Honouring ‘The Few’
Biggin Hill was famously one of the main fighter bases protecting London and the south east during the Battle of Britain, which had its 75th anniversary marked in September with a flypast of 30-plus wartime aircraft from Goodwood.
But while there are many reminders of the important part it played, one of the airport’s most important buildings, St George’s Royal Air Force Chapel of Remembrance, recently faced closure when the Ministry of Defence decided to withdraw funding. The chapel, with its gates guarded by full-size replicas of both a Spitfire and a Hurricane, stands as a memorial and thousands of visitors come from across the world each year to pay their respects there.
Its 17 stained glass windows depict stories from the airfield’s past and the names of the 453 aircrew who died are written either side of the altar. Thanks to a campaign earlier this year, David Cameron pledged government support and promised £1m to help preserve the chapel. Bromley Council is now working on plans to turn it into a lasting monument, creating a museum for visitors while maintaining regular worship.
The plans are at an early stage but a museum development manager has been appointed to take the project forward.
Katherine Barnett, who is manager of nearby Chartwell, has been appointed as a trustee. She said: “Plans to create the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum to keep the memory of the Battle of Britain alive, as well as preserve the chapel, are incredibly important. I am delighted to have been invited to join its team of trustees.
“Away from my role at Chartwell I will look forward to working to safeguard the legacy of Biggin Hill, and ensure that the bravery and sacrifice of ‘The Few’ is never forgotten.”
A fundraising appeal is now underway. Further details and how to donate are available from www.bromley.gov.uk/memorialmuseum
A history of brewing
Westerham’s rich brewing heritage goes right back to the 1600s, thanks mostly to the quality of the local water. The most famous brewery to have been based in the town, Black Eagle Brewery, ran from 1841 until 1965 and was, for many years, the town’s biggest employer.
Although many independent breweries suffered during the Second World War, Black Eagle continued to flourish through the hardest of times, which is thought to have been thanks to its popularity at nearby RAF Biggin Hill.
It is even said that Westerham’s fine ales were taken over to the troops after the D-Day landings, stored inside auxiliary fuel tanks on the underside of Spitfires. Of course the RAF would never have given permission for such an enterprise, so they were officially referred to as ‘Modification XXX Depth Charges’.
Sadly, Black Eagle could not survive the huge changes in the brewing industry in the 1950s, with big companies buying up the smaller, family run firms. In 1959 it was taken over by Ind Coope and closed six years later. Westerham has now been without a brewery for 50 years; even the creation of Westerham Brewery, in 2004, failed to bring it any closer than nearby Crockham Hill.
But now the company has had plans approved for a new state-of-the-art brewery on a site in Beggars Lane in Westerham itself and hopes to go ahead with construction next year.
The brewery uses local water from the Greensand Aquifer and even the same strain of yeast, Black Eagle – which had been preserved in the National Collection of Yeast Cultures.
Harking back to the ales Westerham was once famous for, the company has even revived some of the old recipes, including the popular Hop Rocket IPA (India Pale Ale).
Visit www.westerhambrewery.co.uk for more information and stockists.
Eating and shopping
Westerham has a fantastic array of shops and restaurants for such a small town, with most of them clustered around Market Square and the green. Grab a coffee and a sandwich in The Courtyard (TN16 1RA) or Deli di Luca (TN16 1AW), treat yourself to a pub lunch at Grasshopper On The Green (TN16 1AS) or The General Wolfe (TN16 1RQ) or enjoy a superb dinner at Rendezvous (01959 561408, TN16 1AR) or at popular Indian restaurant Shampan at The Spinning Wheel (01959 563071, TN16 2HX).
There are plenty of pretty shops to peruse here too. Annie’s Attic (TN16 1AX) and the Vintage Home Company (TN16 1AS) are full of lovely homewares, while shoe store Manuka (TN16 1RA) and designer fashion store Judy French (TN16 1AS) are just a couple of the fine boutiques.
Recent additions include ladies fashion shop Zebra Zebra (TN16 1AW) and bicycle store and café Westerham Cyclery (TN16 1AX).
Biggin Hill has several takeaways, pubs and shops along its Main Road, including the ever popular Spitfire Café (TN16 3BA).
Westerham’s ‘other leader’
When we think of Westerham, we generally think of Churchill and his former home, Chartwell. But the National Trust owns another property in the town.
We speak to Kirsty Haslam, manager of Quebec House, about the other great leader who called Westerham home.
What is Quebec House?
Quebec House is most famous as the childhood home of General James Wolfe. However, the original house is Tudor and much of the interior woodwork dates from the 17th century.
Tell us a bit about James Wolfe
He was born in Westerham in 1727 and lived at Quebec House for the first eleven years of his life. He volunteered for the army at 13, rising quickly through the ranks to become a Commander-in-Chief at only 32.
His most famous, and last, victory was the battle to take the city of Quebec from the French in 1759. Wolfe was killed at the battle and countless paintings depicting his death, most notably by Benjamin West, helped to popularise him in the eighteenth century as a figurehead of the expanding British Empire.
What makes it special?
Quebec House admittedly isn’t particularly grand and isn’t particularly large. However, in many ways it is this which makes the house special. It is a home, presented as Wolfe’s parents, who were very much of the 18th century ‘middling sort’, would have known it.
This helps to make it feel very relatable and so many of our visitors comment that it’s a house which they could imagine living in. We also have lots of opportunities to interact, to pick up a musket, to play the piano, to try eighteenth century cooking, which I also think makes the house particularly special.
What do most visitors come for?
Quebec House is wonderful because we can use it to tell two very interesting stories to our visitors. We obviously look at the Battle of Quebec and military life in the 18th century but, as this was James’ childhood home, we also look at everyday life for a Georgian family.
We therefore get visitors who are interested in either, or both, military and social history. However, one of my and our visitors’ favourite things about the house is our 18th century cooking demonstrations which we do every Sunday.
These involve our cooks making up some of Mrs Wolfe’s recipes from her cookbook - although we do tend to avoid some of her more interesting medicines which include ingredients like ground cow dung and freshly picked slugs and snails!
What is it like to work there?
I’ve been duty house and gardens manager since the end of April this year. My job requires me to be very much a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ and there is little that happens in the house that I don’t get to be involved with.
It is a fascinating place to work for no two days are the same – you can find me doing anything from serving tea to winding the clocks. I also get to work with the most amazing team of staff and volunteers who are constantly teaching me new things about the house and about the eighteenth century in general.
Is it a good place to visit over the winter?
Throughout December we will decorate the house for a Georgian Christmas with log fires, a Christmas feast and lots and lots of greenery.
It should be incredibly atmospheric, particularly with all the beautiful oak panelling throughout the house, and a wonderful way to learn about how Christmas was celebrated in the 18th century.
We are open Wednesday to Sunday until the end of October, then weekends only in November and December and are then closed in January and February.
See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/quebec-house for upcoming events.
Property in such a small and desirable town as Westerham comes at a premium, with few properties on the market. A one-bedroom apartment is priced at around £250,000, with two-bed cottages at around £300,000 and three-bed homes between £325,000 and £550,000. There are several large country properties available within Westerham, costing anything up to £3,500,000.
Biggin Hill has more modern housing stock and is more affordable, with three-bed homes averaging at around £350,000.
How to get there
Westerham is on the A25, between Brasted and Oxted, and is very close to the M25. Nearby Biggin Hill is on the A233 towards Bromley. The nearest train station to Westerham is Oxted, while the closest to Biggin Hill is Hayes. Sat nav for Westerham: TN16 1RB and for Biggin Hill: TN16 3BB.