Monday, 20 February 2012

Ancient Woodlands & The Hawkhurst Gang

A beautiful Robin in the snowy woodlands
The ancient woodlands of the Weald of Kent are beautiful.  I grew up in Kent and have spent most of my life living there or on the border with Sussex so have an enormous affection for the county and the Weald has wonderful walks in woods and views across the rolling countryside that capture the imagination at any time of year from the soft greens and yellows of spring and summer to the deep reds and browns of autumn and the crisp white frost and snow in winter.  There are also quintessentially English villages with thatched roofs, Tudor beams, castles and old churches that are steeped in history – not all of it pretty! 

The ancient woodlands in Kent
With the snow coming and going in recent weeks, the walks in the Weald have shown a variety of textures and moods that I think makes England a very special place to live.  Now I love climbing mountains as you know but in Kent, I love the changing scenery as you walk for miles on carpets of leaves and pine needles in woods and on grassy paths across undulating fields, through pretty villages with oast houses and windmills and through tiny hamlets next to streams.  I have spent a lot of time walking near a village called Goudhurst in recent weeks, not least because the history is fascinating!  

Goudhurst Church
The Culpeper Tomb
Goudhurst in Old English means “Battle Hill” and it commemorates a battle fought on this high ground in Saxon times (when I use the term “high” it is relative to the surrounding land not to the mountains of the Lake District!)  One of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen overlooks the village.  It has been there for a millennium and although its first recorded date is in the 1100’s, there is little doubt it existed before that.  It has been altered and restored throughout the centuries and in 1637 the tall spire was destroyed by lightning.  Inside the church there is a beautiful stained glass window and a tomb of a man and a woman.  This tomb is a memorial to two members of a famous local family, Sir Alexander and Dame Constance Culpeper of Bedgebury.  The tomb is carved in wood and brightly coloured with two dogs at their feet.  Sir Alexander Culpeper was interred in 1541.  The Culpeper family had some interesting moments in history including involvement in the battle against the Spanish Armada and Thomas Culpeper (Sir Alexander’s son) was famously the lover of Katherine Howard, the 5th wife of Henry VIII.  Thomas was executed in 1541 and Katherine in 1542 for Treason.

Stained glass window in the church
There is a more sinister part of the history of Goudhurst however that remains in evidence today with bullet holes in the gravestones.  The year 1747 saw the “Battle of Goudhurst” – a battle between the infamous “Hawkhurst Gang” and the Goudhurst Militia, which the most popular history books do not give enough credit to in my view!  The Hawkhurst Gang was a criminal organisation involved in smuggling throughout south east England.  Legend has it the gang used a network of tunnels, old cellars and remote barns for their operations.  They dominated the area by terror and the use of guns for intimidation and operated freely in the area smuggling tea, coffee, brandy and rum.  They were reported to have captured soldiers and killed individuals and several people who took too great an interest in their activities mysteriously disappeared.  

Ancient Woodlands near Goudhurst
Now this may come as a surprise but in general, gangs of smugglers were supported in local areas at this time as they provided work that was well paid (an interesting economic twist!) but the Hawkhurst Gang’s murderous brutality had turned the local population against them.  It was the village of Goudhurst that decided to take a stand and under the leadership of George Sturt (a former soldier), the Goudhurst Band of Militia was formed.  One of the lead characters in the Hawkhurst Gang, Thomas Kingsmill was enraged at this act of defiance and the battle lines were drawn and a date of attack set.  On 21 April 1747, the Hawkhurst Gang attacked Goudhurst but the militia proved a force to be reckoned with and after several smugglers had been killed, the gang withdrew.  Over time, key gang members were arrested, indicted and executed and that was the end of the Hawkhurst Gang.  

The Star & Eagle Pub, Goudhurst High Street
The Kent motto is “Invicta” which means “unconquered” or “untamed”.  I think that word sums up the spirit of the people of Goudhurst in their 1747 battle remarkably well!

I love English history and combining long walks through ancient woodlands and countryside with fascinating insights into the past is a fabulous way to spend a few hours if you are in the area.  Of course, the local hostelries are also tempting and often serve beer from the local Shepherd Neame brewery at Faversham.  My two favourite pubs in Goudhurst are the Star and Eagle and more recently, the refurbished and revamped Goudhurst Inn.  Exercise, culture and a good pub – perfect!
A snowy Wealden woodland

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