The little town that just won’t lie down

Tiny Fordwich in Kent, still thriving after 1,400 years, faces a new invasion: London foodies

Patrick Heren

The author (right), during his term as Mayor of Fordwich, affirming allegiance in Sandwich Guildhall, 2013 (PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICK HEREN)

You have probably wondered, when reading a news article on a subject familiar to you, on which planet the author lives. The inhabitants of Fordwich, Kent, England’s smallest town, are smarting from two egregious examples of that loathsome type of metropolitan journalism, the restaurant review. In January, the Guardian and the Telegraph both arrived to sample the food at the Fordwich Arms, which had recently been taken over by an excellent chef who previously worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London.

Both reports read as if written by acolytes of Private Eye’s Glenda Slagg. The Telegraph writer’s companion started checking property prices before they had got out of the taxi from Canterbury West (and its high-speed link to St Pancras). The Guardian’s Grace Dent was also checking property prices. And she addressed us in print as “you poor Fordwich bastards”. At least she liked the food (10/10).
My fellow townspeople are incensed. To tell the truth, some of them were already disgruntled by the upscaling of the Fordwich Arms, which under the previous landlords had served large helpings of excellent home-cooked food of the kind — steak and kidney pud comes to mind — that appeals to the men and women of East Kent. But we shouldn’t complain: the food is still fabulous, just different, and that little bit more expensive.

No, what upsets us is that our gorgeous and historic town is being noticed by the ghastly metropolitan elite for the most piffling of reasons, that one of its two ancient pubs is now serving “sweetcorn panisse — thick chips hewn off a stiff, carb-a-licious corn batter that’s alive with tarragon — perched on a corn chowder with a wobbly confit duck egg yolk”.

So let me tell you about Fordwich, England’s smallest town, which lies on the right bank of the Great Stour, two miles downstream from Canterbury. With fewer than 400 inhabitants, it qualifies as a hamlet, but history and geography long ago elevated it to municipal status. Fordwich lies at the highest point of navigation on the Stour, which by default made it the port of Canterbury from Roman times until the coming of the railways in 1830. Before that all heavy cargo destined for Canterbury came up river from Sandwich and was discharged at Fordwich, which accordingly became a little place of some consequence.

The name is first recorded in 675 AD: Fordewic was simply the village by the ford. But there is a separate reference to St Mary’s Church in about 620, which places it within a generation of the arrival of St Augustine, the Roman abbot sent by Pope Gregory to bring Christianity to King Ethelbert of Kent. St Augustine succeeded triumphantly with Ethelbert, and there is a theory that the church stands by the river at Fordwich because it was the spot at which the people of Kent were baptised by mass immersion in the Stour.

In Domesday (1087), Fordwich is described as a small burgum, one of only eight boroughs, or towns, in Kent.

The most notable cargo handled by Fordwich was the Caen limestone imported by the Normans when they rebuilt Canterbury Cathedral. This was a lengthy process, which began in 1070 and continued for three centuries, punctuated by fires and an earthquake (1382). The stone was cut and dressed to order in Normandy, so that the blocks were ready to use as soon as they reached the cathedral site.

All through this period, the port of Fordwich was controlled by Canterbury’s other large ecclesiastical organisation, St Augustine’s Abbey. Cathedral and abbey had both been founded by Augustine shortly after his arrival from Rome in 597 AD. Both were houses of Benedictine monks. But when it came to business, no quarter was given, and the port dues paid to the abbey by the cathedral were a significant part of the stone’s total cost. The cathedral tried to develop its own port, 200 yards downstream, but it is recorded that in 1280 a serious brawl took place in Fordwich between the lay brothers of the abbey and the cathedral. A compromise saw St Augustine’s lowering its charges in return for the cathedral abandoning its own port. Today the only relic of this episode is a house called Monk’s Hall, built to house the cathedral’s lay brothers. 

Although the abbey owned the manor of Fordwich, it did not control the townspeople, who, unlike the cathedral, managed to run their own port operations alongside the abbey’s. Numerous privileges accumulated during the early medieval period, and Fordwich became known as a Liberty, that is, a place which had a large measure of autonomy within its boundaries. It had a town council and a mayor, elected every St Andrew’s Day, supported by 11 “jurats”, or councillors. The use of the term resulted from Fordwich’s affiliation as a limb, or dependency of Sandwich in the Cinque Ports — the group of south-eastern ports which, in return for providing men and ships for the Crown, enjoyed freedom from taxes and duties.

The connection was natural, as Sandwich stood at the mouth of the Stour, and all cargo passed through it en route to Fordwich. The link goes back to Saxon times, but was formalised about 1218, when Fordwich adopted a “custumal” based in many respects on similar documents at Sandwich and the other Cinque Ports but with some features unique to Fordwich. In particular, Chapter 1 is a copy of the Merchant Gild Charter granted by King Henry II in 1184:

Wherefore, we will strictly command for us and our heirs that the aforesaid men of Fordwich and their heirs for ever have all the liberties before written as is aforesaid and all the laws and customs which they more fully had of the Kings Edward, William the First, the Second and King Henry our grandfather.

Henry II intended here, as he did in many other places, to tidy up the clutter of ancient customs that marked local government in England. The Gild Charter confirmed the power of the mayor and jurats to regulate the monopoly of trade enjoyed by the town, and strengthened its hand in disputes with St Augustine’s Abbey, and its local port manager, the Abbot’s Bailiff. The procedures for electing the mayor and jurats are carefully set out, as is the extensive legal authority enjoyed by the town within the bounds of the liberty.

This included capital punishment, for which drowning in the river at a deep point known as “Thefeswell” was prescribed. Lesser punishments included being drummed through the town with a board round her neck, reserved for “scolds” — in most cases women who had annoyed men with their chatter.

The dissolution of St Augustine’s Abbey in 1538 strengthened the town council’s grip on the Liberty of Fordwich. The new town hall was built in 1544 by the river, with a crane house that embodied the council’s control of river trade. The council chamber — still in use today — was also the criminal court room, and featured a bar at which prisoners were forced to plead. On the ground floor there was a prison cell, last used in the 1850s to punish a couple of men caught poaching fish in the river.

Fishing is another important part of the Fordwich story. St Augustine’s controlled the fishing for seven miles downstream, but as the centuries passed, the rights fell to the mayor and jurats, which naturally encouraged poaching. The Stour has always teemed with fish, achieving wide fame in 1653 when, in chapter four of the Compleat Angler, Isaac Walton wrote:

There is also in Kent, near Canterbury, a Trout called there a Fordidge Trout, a Trout that bears the name of the town where it is usually caught, that is accounted the rarest of fish, many of them near the bigness of a Salmon.

Walton’s spelling of the town’s name reflects the historic pronunciation, but since universal education arrived in the late 19th century, people have tended to pronounce the “w”. The Fordidge Trout was probably a sea trout, which still occasionally spawn in the river. And the trout features in the town’s arms.

The port of Fordwich carried people as well as cargo. We tend to forget how important water transport was before the coming of the railways: 400 years ago, for instance, a journey on foot from London to Canterbury would have taken at least three days over muddy roads vulnerable to footpads. How much easier it would have been to take ship in the Pool of London and, with the right tides, arrive at Fordwich in less than 24 hours.

William Shakespeare and his company, the King’s Men, would have travelled from London to Canterbury via water, disembarking at Fordwich. We can be sure of this because the council’s accounts record numerous instances of payment to the King’s Men and other theatre companies to play in the town. These payments usually coincided with well-documented visits by the same players to Canterbury. This was during the first golden age of English theatre, between about 1560 and the beginning of the civil war in 1640. Amusingly, from about 1610, an increasingly puritanical Canterbury city council began paying the actors to go away, which merely gave Fordwich an opportunity to cash in. After all, it was only half an hour’s walk for any Canterbury resident keen to see the latest plays from London. The plays were probably put on in St Mary’s church, which in those days would not have had pews.

In 1943, Fordwich featured prominently in A Canterbury Tale, the remarkable and mysterious Powell and Pressburger film. Starring Sheila Sim, Eric Portman and a genuine US Army sergeant, John Sweet, it explores the nature of wartime England, with a romantic emphasis on both continuity and social change. Michael Powell was born three miles away at Howlett’s Farm (now one of the Aspinall zoos), and schooled at King’s Canterbury. In the film, Fordwich was renamed Chillingbourne, but the Town Hall and other buildings are instantly recognisable. Powell had set significant scenes inside the Town Hall, but the size of the film cameras then in use, as well as the danger of fire from the arc lights, meant that the interior had to be faithfully recreated at Denham Studios.
Notable inhabitants of Fordwich include Sir John Finch, later 1st Baron Finch of Fordwich. A lawyer by training, Sir John was MP for Canterbury before becoming Recorder for the city. In 1625 he made the loyal speech to King Charles I during his visit to Canterbury, was knighted and made speaker of the House of Commons. There in 1629 he fell foul of the House by trying to leave to discover the King’s wishes during a dispute over the Crown’s right to levy duties, and was held down in his chair (an episode jocularly re-enacted today at the election of a new speaker).

The brothers John and Gregory Blaxland, probably the earliest non-convict English settlers of Australia, were born and raised in the Manor House, since renamed Watergate House. Encouraged by Sir Joseph Banks and the future Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, they set off in 1806 for Botany Bay with their families, servants and farm animals. In 1813, Gregory, the younger brother, found the route over the Blue Mountains which allowed the British colonists to expand into the outback. He was rewarded with a grant of 1000 acres that he named Fordwich Farm, and is credited with planting Australia’s first wine grapes.

Today the population of Fordwich is little larger than in its heyday as a medieval port. The only significant growth has come with the construction of two small housing estates on what used to be water meadows across the river from the core of the old town. St Mary’s Church, while still consecrated, is cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. It has become England’s most popular “champing” site. Champing, for those who have not tried it, is the practice of sleeping in an old church overnight, for which one is rewarded with a cooked breakfast in the morning. Fordwich Farm, mentioned in Domesday, gave up agriculture in 2001, and, with all its farm buildings, has become private housing.

But the biggest change is the road traffic. There is only one road in and out of Fordwich, and it is used as a rat run by Canterbury commuters and much illegal lorry traffic. There are plans to build a relief road closer to Canterbury, but, as we all know, Britain generally does infrastructure too little and too late.

Fordwich, however, is determined to move with the times. The court room of the Town Hall is accessed by a steep staircase, which makes it impossible for most disabled or elderly people to reach it. After some years of wrangling, English Heritage reluctantly approved a plan to attach a lift to the outside wall of the building: to its credit it was “particularly influenced by the degree to which continuity of the existing use contributes to the building’s significance and the desirability therefore of securing the continuation of that use for the future”.

Continuity can also be seen in the town’s relations with its “head port” of Sandwich. The mayor of Fordwich (from 2011-2016, your correspondent) has a secondary role as mayor deputy to the mayor of Sandwich, and every July affirms his allegiance at the Sandwich Guildhall in resounding Elizabethan language. He also pays over three shillings and four pence as “ship money” to help defray Sandwich’s maritime obligations. As befits old friends, the town sergeant of Sandwich slips the money back to the mayor deputy for use the following year.

After nearly a thousand years, the Town Council still meets monthly and debates matters of importance to the citizens: traffic, parking, fishing rights, litter and planning. Although legally recognised as the council of a “small town”, it is effectively a parish council with attitude. Unlike its medieval forerunner, it has little if any real power, and can only advise Canterbury City Council and Kent County Council of its wishes. There are times when we would like to lock inconsiderate drivers into our small and slightly noisome jail cell, at least for an hour or two, or even dip them in the river on the ducking stool still lovingly preserved in the town hall. But these are kinder, if more toothless, times.

A town that has preserved its identity for 1,400 years (it is older than Liverpool or Leeds), has hosted Shakespeare, sent explorers to the other side of the world and starred in one of the great British films, has nothing to fear from an invasion of metropolitan gourmets. We ask only that they arrive by boat or train, and leave their Teslas in Islington.

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