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Tenterden - the Jewel of the Weald

PUBLISHED: 18:03 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:34 20 February 2013

Although you can no longer arrive on a ship, there is a very good steam train  – and not many towns

Although you can no longer arrive on a ship, there is a very good steam train – and not many towns

Tenterden used to be known for its shipbuilding. Now it is a favourite destination of shoppers and widely regarded as the Jewel of the Weald

Driving towards Tenterden, passing through Rolvenden from the south west, my eye
is caught by four dazzling shards of light in the distance. The source of those sharp reflections from the low winter sun is the imposing tower of St Mildreds Church.
I am not the first to look out for St Mildreds across the horizon. The pinnacled tower, added to the church in 1461, used to serve as a beacon for ships coming up the Rother River.
Ships? River? Well, this was a long time ago. So strategic was Tenterden and its port at nearby Smallhythe, that this was once the most important shipbuilding centre in the country.
In the 15th century, ships as large as 400 tons, carrying 250 men, were constructed here.
Back then Tenterden was part of the coastline, albeit nicely sheltered by the Isle of Oxney. To reach the Isle of Oxney you would need to get a ferry across the Rother, a river that was up to a quarter of a mile wide in parts.
The influence of the port was so pronounced that it was granted the Royal Charter of Incorporation by King Henry VI in 1449, and became a limb of the Antient Town of Rye, in return for helping Rye to fulfill her obligations to the Crown.
In other words it was now officially recognised as a Cinque Port. Rye had taken such a battering from invading fleets that the country needed to call on Tenterden to help protect the realm. The town could now virtually govern itself, and became exempt from national taxation.
Of course, the one thing a port needs is water, and unfortunately for Tenterden, the Rother decided to bid farewell. Virtually all that remains is an insignificant narrow watercourse with the added ignominy of being referred to as a sewer, although this is a translation from a dyke or a ditch rather than anything more smelly or unpleasant.
National strategic importance may have deserted the town, with the coastline eventually moving some 10 miles away, but this didnt mean the end of Tenterden. It managed to reinvent itself as a bustling market town, which now is widely known as The Jewel of the Weald.
There are no visual clues about its maritime past, aside from its coat of arms with its three-masted ship. Instead, you will find gorgeous architecture with white-painted weatherboarding,
tile-hung fascias and the unique mathematical tiles, which have the appearance of brickwork of the highest quality. The many affluent Georgian houses suggest the town did not suffer unduly from the decline of its shipbuilding.
One of the most unusual houses in Tenterden is The Tower House, now a bed and breakfast run by Mike and Pippa Carter. At first sight it looks like an ancient tower that was around during the 15th century and has had a Georgian home bolted on.
In fact, it is the other way around. The main building was built in 1750 and the tower was added in 1904. It is less a tower, more a Victorian folly.
The story goes that the owner married a French girl who suffered terribly from home sickness, so he built her a tower from which she could look across to her much-missed homeland.
Certainly there are lovely views of the Kent and Sussex Weald, but she would have to had incredible eyesight to see France! The countryside that is visible is more than enough for Mike. The Kent Sussex borders area is the best part of the county and the countryside here is just as nice as Devon, he says.
The B&B is busy with visitors from the continent, many of whom come for the lovely gardens nearby, such as Sissinghurst and Great Dixter. Mike also owns a building company, Churchview Developments, and is the President of local Chamber of Commerce, Pippa runs a company creating vintage hampers, and the pair run an annual music festival in the town under the name of Tentertainment.
The music festival was born out of the worlds most famous cycling event. In July 2007, the Tour De France took a detour across the Channel into Kent, and Tenterden was picked to host one of the sprint stages.
The town rose to the occasion, and Mike and Pippa hired a huge stage to showcase local bands, which proved so popular it has developed it into an annual event. This year, the music festival will take place on 3 and 4 July, and Mike cant wait. There is so much talent around here and the acts are so diverse including bands, students from Homewood School and even a 16-piece orchestra.
We aim to help make the town an affluent and prosperous place in which to live, and to promote the town as a destination place to come and shop, says Mike (now wearing his Chamber of Commerce hat). The range of shops is getting better all the time and you find something different here compared to most shopping centres.
The ladies fashion shops do well, and they bring people to the town who will stay to have lunch, he adds.
There are also wonderful attractions such as the vineyard, the railway and the gardens. Around120-130,000 people take a ride on the steam railway each year. People dont always realise how much of a positive impact tourism can have on a town.
One regular event that attracts visitors into the town is the Friday street market but there is another market, which I feel more accurately represents the enormous pride residents have in their town.
On the same day, the church hall adjacent to St Mildreds hosts the Tenterden Country Market (formerly the Womens Institute market), and it is just about as local as you can get. Cake stalls, jams and preserves, eggs, fruit and veg are on sale and there is a welcoming sense of community at the tea bar.
Market manager Sylvia Elsey says: We only use vegetables in season and free-range eggs for our cakes. All the produce sold is natural and local.
That word local again. Local can mean insular and unworldly, but Tenterden has vibrancy and charm that banishes any such connotation.
Although unfortunately, you can no longer arrive on a ship, there is a very good steam train service and not many towns can boast that.

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