About Cranbrook

Sometimes called the Capital of the Kentish Weald, Cranbrook looks and feels much as it has done for centuries: a peaceful small town of weatherboarded houses, surrounded by orchards and farmland.

Liz Pile pays a visit.

Tilting at Windmills

The sky is grey and gloomy elsewhere, but in Cranbrook bright sunshine lights up the rows of white houses and polishes every brightly-painted front door. It is early spring and the first daffodils are out in the churchyard. Shopkeepers arrange their wares: vegetables, fruit and flowers, wooden spoons and copper saucepans, elegant clothes and unusual gifts, books and antiques. In the distance the church bell chimes the hour, and the white sails of the windmill gleam in the sun. In summary, the very picture of a small English town going about its daily life.

In spite of its small size, Cranbrook has a great deal to offer the visitor. The narrow medieval streets are lined with pretty old houses, every one different from its neighbour. There is a wide range of interesting shops, no less than six churches, several hotels, pubs and restaurants, an excellent town museum, and the wonderful Union Mill, the tallest and finest working smock mill in England. And just three miles away are the world-famous Sissinghurst Gardens, created by Vita Sackville-West and one of the most visited gardens in England.

It is also an ideal base for exploring the area. You can take a trip on the beautifully restored steam trains on the Tenterden to Bodiam line, visit Bodiam Castle or Rolvenden’s Historic Vehicles Collection, try the wines at Biddenden or Tenterden vineyards, or walk among the pine trees of Bedgebury Pinetum, England’s national collection of conifers. Thespians will love Smallhythe Place, the former home of Edwardian actress Ellen Terry. Music lovers will enjoy the jazz evenings in Cranbrook, and Finchcocks Museum of Music near Goudhurst, which includes live performances on its amazing collection of instruments. There is plenty for children to do too.

Cranbrook means ‘brook frequented by cranes or herons’. The name is first recorded as Cranebroca in the Domesday Monachorum of 1070, but as the name of a stream, not a settlement. It is only later that the Cran Brook, which runs through the town a little to the east of the High Street, became known as the River Crane. However, although the area around Cranbrook contains several early villages, it seems that Cranbrook itself was not a settlement until perhaps the 11th century. Before that time much of the Weald area was wooded, with clearings known as ‘dens’ where pigs were pastured; many of these later became towns and villages with names ending ‘den’ (such as nearby Tenterden, Rolvenden, Smarden, Benenden and Biddenden).

There was also an important iron industry in the area from Roman times onwards. Iron ore was extracted from local quarries, and in some cases the ore was also smelted locally (heated with charcoal to extract the pure metal). The iron was then transported to nearby large towns (Rochester, Canterbury) or to ports such as Lympne for export to Europe. Little Farningham Farm near Cranbrook is thought to have been an important centre for ironworking in Roman times.

Cranbrook seems to have developed as a settlement of workers involved in these occupations. A small church was established in the late 11th century, and the present sandstone church was started in the mid-13th century. It was dedicated to St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury from 960 to 988, champion of monastic reform, education, law and order, and craft skills. Early in the 13th century Cranbrook became an administrative seat with its own court. By 1290 the town was large enough to be granted a charter by Archbishop Peckham, allowing it to hold a market in the High Street. The market was held twice a week, with a fair twice a year, for nearly 600 years. However it was not until the 14th century that Cranbrook really started to generate the wealth that was responsible for its many fine houses. Edward III encouraged Flemish weavers from Louvain to move to England, in order to break the Flemish monopoly over the woollen cloth trade. Most of them settled in the Kentish Weald, in the district around Tenterden (a ‘tenter’ is a hook used in drying cloth). The area became famous for its fine, smooth woollen cloth called broadcloth, and Cranbrook became a centre for the manufacture of this cloth.

It had streams to drive mills, oak trees to build them with, and deposits of the special rock, fuller’s earth, which was used to finish the cloth. One of the most famous of the broadcloths was Cranbrook Grey. When Queen Elizabeth I visited the town in 1573 she is said to have walked along a mile-long piece of Cranbrook Grey made specially for the purpose. She was presented with a silver cup by the townspeople, and stayed at the George Hotel, which still exists today.

During this time the church of St Dunstan was considerably expanded and embellished. Its exterior is mainly 15th-century Perpendicular. Above the 14th-century porch is a small ‘parvise’ or priest’s room, which was used as a prison during the religious persecutions of Mary Tudor’s reign. The church is also unusual inside: there is a wide nave with columns of clustered shafts rising to the roof; large, high clerestory windows; and there is a curious ‘baptistry’, a large stone tank accessed by steps, built in 1710 for the Anabaptists sect which requires adult baptism with full immersion.

The interior also contains several fine works including a monument to the artist Thomas Webster by the famous Victorian sculptor Hamo Thorneycroft. Outside on the tower is a carved figure of Father Time local legend relates that he comes down every night and scythes the churchyard grass to keep it neat and tidy.

The building housing the Cranbrook Museum also dates from this time: at its core is a 15th-century manor house, originally the farmhouse for Rectory Farm, which belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The museum houses some fine displays explaining the history of the area, broadcloth manufacture and other local industries, and daily life in Cranbrook centuries ago. Cranbrook School is also close to the church it started as a grammar school in a house bequeathed by John Blubery in the reign of Henry VIII, received a Royal Charter from Elizabeth I in 1574, and is still going strong today.

Cranbrook is generally a very healthy location, with many nonagenarians attributed by some to the high level of iron in the water. However, in the late 16th century a plague struck the town, killing 180 people. By the end of that century the population was 3,000. Sadly, Elizabeth I’s Parliament prohibited the export of cloth to Europe for finishing and dyeing. This was intended to strengthen the position of the English cloth industry, by encouraging a home-grown finishing trade, but in fact it had the effect of securing its decline over the next century. Gradually a new role emerged, as a market town and commercial centre for the surrounding villages and farms, with many new trades including rope-making, leather-making and transport.

Persecutions reappeared in the 17th century, when five Cranbrook women Anne Ashby, Ann Martyn, Mary Brown, Mildred Wright and Ann Wilson were tried at Maidstone for witchcraft, found guilty and hanged in 1652. Three years later George Fox, founder of the Quaker religion, visited the town and converted several people, but further persecutions followed after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, and a leading Quaker died while languishing in Maidstone gaol accused of holding seditious meetings. Nevertheless the many non-conformist groups in Cranbrook continued to flourish.

Another kind of non-conformity is seen in the person of Daniel Defoe, who after antagonising the King with his outspoken pen lived secretly in a cottage near Cranbrook for a while and is said to have written Robinson Crusoe there.

In the 18th century gangs of smugglers gained a mafia-like hold on the area, especially the notorious Hawkhurst Gang. One famous smuggler was Thomas Munn, born of a well-do-do family at Cranbrook, whose brother was one of the town’s leading Baptists. However, gradually the law recovered its authority and the Hawkhurst Gang was finally destroyed in 1749.

In 1814 the fine smock windmill, the second tallest in the country, was built by James Humphrey on the hill north of the town. A smock mill is one where only the top part of the building (the cap) rotates to catch the wind. Today it is still working and visitors can climb up to the platform at the top and gain wonderful views of the town and surrounding countryside.

At about the same date the unusual Providence Chapel was erected the main building was bought in London for £300 and moved to Cranbrook piece by piece in wagons; the circular front was added in 1828.

By the early 19th century the network of roads was improved and travelling made much safer, allowing the development of shops and leisure pursuits. In 1842 the railways arrived with a new station at nearby Staplehurst. Fifty years later Cranbrook gained its own station, with a line from Paddock Wood, though this was relatively short-lived and closed in the 1960s as part of the Beeching reforms.

Meanwhile Cranbrook had become not just a market town but an artistic centre as well. From 1855 to 1900 a group of artists lived and worked in the area and became known as the Cranbrook Colony. They included Thomas Webster R.A., the brothers George and Frederick Hardy, J.C.Horsley R.A. (drawing master to Queen Victoria’s children and designer of the very first Christmas card in 1843), G.B. O’Neill and Augustus Mulready and their work was mainly genre painting (paintings of everyday life) in the Dutch 17th century tradition.

Today Cranbrook’s population is around 6,000, small for a town but enough to support a full range of community facilities, a fascinating and eclectic mix of shops, bars and restaurants, and an enormous assortment of social activities, clubs, sporting events, classes and other entertainments.

The main road has long since bypassed the town, so only local traffic encumbers its narrow winding medieval streets. Stepping into Cranbrook is like stepping into a world apart, one touching both the past and the present. You will not want to leave.

Copyright and reproduced with the kind permission of Kent Life

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