By Bob Ogley email@example.com
I have just returned from a two-week holiday in Ireland. By day I explored the wild Atlantic coast of Connemara and later the rugged Wicklow mountains. At times the wind was strong and the rain lashed down in torrents. It was quite an adventure.
By night, however, I returned home to the villages I know so well — Eynsford, Otford, Shoreham, Brasted, Sundridge and Westerham. How did I do that? For company on those rainy evenings I read Rod Shelton’s recently published book Darent — brilliantly researched, illustrated and printed. It is truly sublime.
I live less than two miles from the spot where the infant Darent meanders through Brasted. I have walked the footpath alongside the river from Dartford to Westerham and I have written extensively about the characters who have worked and lived in the Darenth villages. But this excellent book, sub titled The History and Stories of a River and its Communities, told me much that I didn’t know.
One was the story of the Darent Mummers, a group of men in costumes, armed with sword and scimintar who burst into the bars of local pubs and perform their centuries old mumming play. To roars of laughter from drinkers they pass around their collection pot and then disappear as rapidly as they came. Who were they? and what is a mumming play? The book gives all the answers.
Another was the Ferrers’ curse, the story of the last man to be hanged at Tyburn for cruelty to his wife.. Before he died the Earl of Ferrers predicted an even worst death to the woman who survived him. She remarried Lord Frederick Campbell and came to live at Combe Bank, Sundridge. One night she fell into her dressing room fire in one of the towers in the house. Only a single bone, her toe, was recovered from the rubble. It was duly buried in St Mary’s Church.
Every page of this remarkable book is packed with pictures, stories and anecdotes. We learn about the Anglo-Saxon warriors, the ancient Britons’ last humiliating stand, the Viking invasions, the early Christians and the introduction of ‘gravelkind’ — the custom of dividing land equally between surviving sons, and unique to Kent.
There are 13 ancient villages and three towns located along the River Darent. Rod Shelton tells us about the homes with a history, the churches, palaces, bridges and those remarkable people who have earned a lasting place in English history. There are so many to choose from.
Samuel Palmer, the artist who immortalised his Valley of Vision. Percy Pilcher and his glider, very nearly the first man to fly a powered machine. John Frith, son of the landlord of the Grasshopper on the Green at Westerham, a young Protestant martyr who was burned at the stake at Smithfield. Thomas Cromwell who took the 60-year lease on Filston Farm, Shoreham. Peter Warlock and Philip Heseltine, the composers who lived at Eysford.
The book follows the course of the river from its source in the Greensand hills, 1½ miles south of Westerham and its journey towards Sevenoaks and on through the Darenth Valley which forms part of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Darent was once heralded as the greatest trout stream in southern England and its waters once powered 30 mills.
Yet, a few years ago, its flow almost ceased entirely.
The forward by Nick Johannsen, director of Kent Downs AONB, congratulates Rod Shelton on his individual and passionate approach which covers such a broad canvas. “Visit and enjoy this wonderful landscape”, he urges readers. “Walk, cycle, use the trains and please engage in the conservation and enhancement of the Darenth Valley.”
The book has been designed and produced by Philip Clucas, whose work is already well known among those who have read the books he has produced with Ed Thompson. He has made use of hundreds of photographs, some covering two page spreads in brilliant colours.