The Great Stour series: beginnings

PUBLISHED: 09:42 10 January 2017

The mill pond at Bowley Mill, between Lenham and Egerton

The mill pond at Bowley Mill, between Lenham and Egerton

Archant

In this new series, the Kentish Stour is the thread that will lead us on a journey through Kent’s iconic landscapes. Words by: Peter Vujakovic. Pictures by: Manu Palomeque

“I’ll admit it’s no Mississippi!” confesses Sergeant Peter Gibbs (actor Dennis Price), speaking of the Great Stour in Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale. Sgts Gibbs and Bob Johnson (actor John Sweet), of the British and US Army respectively, stand on the North Downs gazing at Canterbury and the Stour valley. The contrast between the modest Stour, when compared to America’s monumental landscapes, forms the basis of friendly banter between the two men.

Maybe not a Mississippi, but the Stour does form an important strand running throughout this evocative film, including an epic mock-battle between two groups of boys at the site of one of the Stour’s many watermills.

During 2016 Kent Life celebrated International Map Year with a series of articles focusing on the maps of the landscape surrounding Lenham at the ‘Heart of Kent’.

In this series, we take Lenham as our starting point, as it occupies the ridge that forms the watershed of two of our county’s important rivers, the Great Stour and the Len, a tributary of the Medway. Over the coming months we will follow the course of the Great Stour; from its origins on the spring line at the base of the North Downs, through the Holmesdale and Chartlands, the Downs and marshes, to its eventual outfall at Pegwell Bay.

The Great Stour’s origins are far from prepossessing. Hidden among a mass of trees and shrubbery, it would almost go unnoticed if it were not for the warning ‘Beware Deep Water.’ The sign, posted by Lenham Parish Council, gives the only real clue to the fact that Glebe Pond – at the site of one of three springs that feed the Stour – exists, overshadowed as it is by ash, oak and willow.

From these unassuming beginnings the waterway soon becomes a more significant feature. From Lenham the river runs south, crosses the narrow strip of exposed Gault Clay that forms the Holmesdale, before turning south-eastward towards Little Chart, twisting through the sandy limestone and calcareous sands of the Lower Greensand of the Chartland. R. H. Goodsall, in his book The Kentish Stour, associates the word ‘chart’ with the Germanic ‘hart’ as signifying forest, while (more plausibly) Alan Everitt, in his work on the evolution of Kentish settlement, associates it with the stony quality of the landscape.

Everitt regards ‘chart’ as related to ‘kartr’, the Nordic word for ‘rough, sterile ground’, although he notes that the region does include some rich and fertile countryside and was one of the earliest settled parts of our county.

Almost from the start, the stream feeds a series of millponds, glittering pearls along the whole course of the river. These ponds and their mills were an important part of the county’s economy for centuries and still provide both landscape and architectural interest. Sadly, the first, Bone Mill and its pond no longer exists. As its name suggested, it ground bone, rather than grain, for fertiliser.

Thankfully, the pond at Bowley Mill, between Lenham and Egerton, remains a beautiful example, accessible to the public.

To visit it you leave the 21st century behind and follow a narrow, winding single track road, through rolling countryside, hedged, and dotted with ancient stag-head oaks. The pond itself is over looked by an oast house made of the local Kentish Rag and roofed with red tiles. This building, like the nearby mill, is another reminder of Kent’s grand agricultural past, now transformed into accommodation. At its peak, according to the Museum of Kent Life, Kent had more than 30,000 hectares devoted to hops, and a massive area of coppice chestnut woodland required to supply the tall poles for hop gardens during the mid-late 1800s.

From Bowley a series of other mills with evocative names, Burnt Mill, Field Mill and Swallow Mill, dot the river, fed by further springs at Charing Heath, Charing and Little Chart.

This brings us to the end of this section of the river at Ford Mill, a papermill that at one time produced beer mats. At Little Chart the river once again flows on the impervious clays of the Sandgate Beds that are instrumental in creating the atmospheric landscapes of the Hothfield area, which we will explore next month.

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