Sarah Salway talks about Kent’s gardens and ‘Digging Up Paradise’


Sarah speaking at her book launch Image ©Sarah Salway

Sarah speaking at her book launch Image ©Sarah Salway

Sarah Salway didn’t intend to write a book about Kent’s public gardens, or become the Canterbury Laureate,  but when the special opportunity arose she grabbed it.

As part of her role Sarah carried out a literary tour of Kent’s public gardens, which has now been turned into a unique book featuring history, plants and poetry, and she has kindly dropped by to share some of the personal stories behind it.

Hello Sarah,

You’re well known as a journalist, novelist and poet so how did you end up writing a book about gardening?

I have always been interested in gardens – as opposed to gardening! I didn’t really have much choice as a child as my mother was a garden historian and the herb gardens at home were open to the public. When I was studying at the London College of Fashion, I went to evening classes on garden history, and kept up the interest ever since. For a writer, they are such a rich source of stories – from the plants to the gardeners to the space itself. Just think how many plots pivet on secrets told in gardens!

Peony border at Penshurst Place - Image ©Sarah Salway

Peony border at Penshurst Place – Image ©Sarah Salway

How did you decide which gardens to include?

It was so hard. They had to be open to public (even for a few days of the year) as I wanted the public engagement element. I wanted 26 so I had to lose some of the gardens I had visited and really loved, but I tried to get a selection of different gardens. I really could have made this book ten times as long for Kent alone, and I love that people are now contacting me to tell me of a lovely garden I have missed out. I hope that they will write their own poems for that garden! But seriously, it does hurt that I couldn’t include all the gardens.

Are you a lover of useful herbs and plants like your mother, the garden historian and writer Elizabeth Peplow, or are you more fond of the ornamental?

Useful, I would say. We have an allotment at Hawkenbury and some of the herbs and vegetables are just so beautiful. The colour of beetroot leaves is just stunning and some herbs like fennel are just magic. When I put flowers in a pot I will always put herbs in too BUT having watched the Big Allotment Show on television recently, I’m trying to grow more flowers to cut. And edible flowers too, of course. I love all the stories too.

So, when you look at plants do you primarily see their colour and shape or do you think of their stories, their folklore and medicinal use?

I do tend to, I read quite a lot but I’m not an expert really and so that has been one of the joys of visiting the gardens and learning so much first-hand. I visited St Johns Jerusalem and Will Gould the gardener was walking me around with me and he showed me Queen Anne’s Lace. Of course I’ve seen it lots of times but what I didn’t know was that right in the middle is a spot of red and it’s called Queen Anne’s Lace because apparently that was a drop of blood from her finger when she was making lace. I keep looking at the booklet of 18th century recipes I picked up at Quebec House and wondering if I’m brave enough to try some of them. I love the idea of making my own wines – is that medicinal?

Chartwell view - Image ©Sarah Salway

Chartwell view – Image ©Sarah Salway

You visited many public gardens and parks whilst doing your research, when you first arrived what did you do?

I always did advance reading but when I got there, I tried to rely on my own intuition as to what particularly caught my interest about the garden. With some of the gardens I went round with the gardener or owner but I always tried to walk around by myself too. At first I just walked around and tried to see what was catching my eye. It may be there were connections between them so if I particularly noticed one red plant, I might then see a tree with red bark and then I would start to look for other red things. Sometimes it would be a puzzle. Why was this tree planted here? Or if I had read about a particularly interesting personality connected with the garden, I might try to imagine the garden from their point of view.

Did you write when you were there?

Always, always. I’m a big believer in my writer’s journal so I would write as many notes as I could and I always tried to find a place to sit down that spoke to me. I remember my garden history tutor saying that if you see a bench in a garden, you should sit on it because it has been put there for a particular reason, that’s the view someone wants you to see. It’s a good tip because you are getting an idea of how the garden can be viewed. Other times I’d lie out on the grass, or sit by a wall. I also took lots of photos.

elephant topiaryOn your blog, you say that you discovered stories that surprised you and made you laugh and cry – do you have a favourite?

For another project I’ve been doing a lot of research on WW1 soldiers, so I was particularly moved by the Belgian soldiers who ended up at Quex House and Gardens. I could really understand how working in the garden must have helped their recovery, it must have felt like a green tranquil paradise after the battlefields and also perhaps a useful gap between their experiences in the war and returning home. The story of one soldier stayed with me. He didn’t say a word during the two years he was at Quex (although he seemed happy there) but started talking again the minute he set foot back on Belgian soil. But there were so many. I think my favourite discovery was the crocus circle at Canterbury Cathedral that was the exact spot where the rose window would be if the tower fell. My favourite mystery has to be whether there were elephants at lovely Chilham Castle!

The labyrinth at Tudeley - Image ©Sarah Salway

The labyrinth at Tudeley – Image ©Sarah Salway

You also said that the garden at Chilham Castle gave you goosebumps, why is that?

Garden design is normally thought to be mostly about plants, but the more I learn the more I realise it is about how it can shape our emotional responses. At Chilham, there’s an eastern avenue of sweet chestnut trees tthat were planted in alignment with the rising sun, and apparently two yew trees have been found miles away that follow this line completely. They follow the prehistoric tracks now called the Pilgrim’s Way. There’s something so satisfying about that. We try to control so much of our environment nowadays almost by fighting it, and it’s humbling to sit in a garden and realise how we have always needed nature for our spiritual needs.

Of all the gardens you visited, which one would you like to own and why?

Good question. I think it has to be St John’s Jerusalem, which – perhaps not surprisingly – is one of the smallest gardens I visited. It has a lovely wild quality that feels so serene. The moat helps, I had daydreams of having a small wooden rowing boat and going for picnics, rather like Ratty and Mole!
But most of all, I came away with such enormous respect for the hard work and generosity of all the people who owned and ran these gardens in real life. I am sure they have little time for floating around on a boat. Or indeed daydreaming. It’s a wonderful thing they are doing for all of us.

Digging Up Paradise by Sarah Salway - Image ©Sarah Salway

Digging Up Paradise by Sarah Salway – Image ©Sarah Salway

‘Digging up Paradise’ reveals your own creative responses to the gardens. Did you find other writers’ literary responses to gardens influenced you in any way?

Yes, I think so. There is some brilliant pure garden writing but it was the nature garden writers and poets that made me look much closer than I had been doing. I also think that some of the nature writing is some of the bravest writing now. We can become quite cynical and worried about talking about the spiritual side of things and when they talk about the spirit of a place , it made me realise that’s what I was interested in – what does this place, this garden, mean and, wider still, where is our place in the world. It’s a search for what matters to us.

And finally, Digging up Paradise is unique mix of history, plants and poetry – where can people find it?

You can buy it from the publisher’s website – Or of course, order it from any good bookshop.

Writers Blog Tour: Confessions of a Lurker

©Rachael Hale (History Magpie) 2014

©Rachael Hale (History Magpie) 2014

I haven’t taken part in a blog tour before and, to be completely honest, I’m far happier lurking in the background clicking other peoples ‘like’ buttons than being in the spotlight. It’s one of the reasons I love blogging so much and over the years I’ve discovered some incredible people in the virtual world. My favourites are the ones that let their personality shine through their words and give a glimpse behind the scenes.

So, thanks to Angela Buckley, aka the Victorian Supersleuth and author of The Real Sherlock Holmes, for inviting me to join this writing blog tour, I’m now revealing a little bit about my writing by answering the following four questions. Angela has also linked up with the talented author of Shellshocked Britain, Susie Grogan, who blogs over at nowrigglingoutofwriting and the questions were originally posed by Christine Findlay, Chair of Bookmark Blair in Perthshire, Scotland. The best bit about the tour for me though is that, at the end, I get to introduce you to four of my favourite bloggers.

Here goes:

What am I working on?

Kent Life Magazine

Kent Life Magazine

Well in true magpie style I can honestly say a bit of everything. I regularly write for two magazines – Kent Life and Kent Homes & Interiors who, despite first appearances, are totally unrelated to one another. So, one minute I’m snooping around someone’s lovely house asking lots of nosy questions for a ‘through the keyhole style feature’ and the next I’m happily lost in an archive or museum researching a historical event or person for my ‘history scrapbook’ series.

I’m also a volunteer writer for the Kent History Centre, hence their archives frequent appearance on my blog, and, when I can grab an extra moment, I’m either writing blog posts or working on my museum related non-fiction book.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think the greatest difference is that I’m not led by any particular historical era or theme. I love history in general and I’m usually inspired by unusual fact – the type that gets randomly dropped into a conversation when you are least expecting it -or an object, whether that be an entire home or a small personal belonging.

Shoes found in the Hopper Hospital chimney

Shoes found in the Hopper Hospital chimney

Why do I write what I do?

Because I love the quirky stuff.

How does my writing process work?

I would love to say that I’m a super organised writer who has a regular writing slot and sticks to it no matter what, but I’m not. I’m usually a writer in a rush. I have a list of feature deadlines stuck to my wall and a ‘to do’ book filled with notes, exclamation marks and ‘must do this now’ scrawled across it. As soon as I get a new commission, I set up a file for it, write a list of what I need to do for it on designated page in my ‘to do’ book and start my research. Then, as family and work life evolves, I gradually accumulate everything I need until a week before deadline when it suddenly becomes – URGENT!

DSC_0752-001As much as I dread them, deadlines are my personal red hot poker, a date not to be exceeded and I actually work better when I have them. So much so that I frequently give myself false dates in order to try and keep on top of things. I think it all goes back to my last job when I had to account for every six minute block of my working time!

As for the actual writing, I always dread starting something new. I love the editing bit but the thought of getting that painful first paragraph down on paper can have me searching for something, anything, more pressing to do and I know I have a particularly bad case of the ‘blank page blues’ when I find myself doing the housework. If this happens I have to bribe myself back into the chair and will gather everything up and head for a local café that doesn’t have internet access. I then force myself to write an outline and at least 500 words before I leave. And by the time I’ve done that I might as well crack on and finish it. The odd hot chocolate awarded at certain stages also helps.

Right, that’s me done with. Now for the interesting bit.

I’ve been asked to introduce you to some of my favourite bloggers and, being in a greedy mood, I’ve invited four of them to join in as I think you might like reading their words too.

So here they are:

If smelly vision had been invented, Midihideaways by Andreas would be perfect and I love virtually touring France through his blog. Just a quick warning though – his images and descriptions frequently leave me feeling hungry! This is what he has to say about himself:

Andreas lives in a small village in the South of France, which he found purely by chance, some 20-odd years ago. A little while ago a friend suggested that he should write a blog to show the many attractive facets of the Languedoc region to holidaymakers, and that was the start of the Midihideaways blog. New posts appear once a week, and topics are wide ranging, including food, restaurant reviews, places to visit, activities, nature and more.

Edward Mooney on the other hand has taught me the power of a good photograph and I frequently look at how he has ‘framed’ the main object in his pictures in the vague hope that his expertise will magically pass itself to me over the internet.

Edward is a Kildare based Photographer and married father of three great kids. In his rare moments of spare time, he can be found exploring ancient ruins and castles travelling around the Irish countryside in search of his next Adventure, which he fondly refers to as ‘Ruin-hunting‘. Edward concentrates on combining his passion for photography with his deep interest in History, Old Ruins, folklore & mythology. You can see more of his work at


Both Nicola Young and I juggle full time family care with a professional writing career and I’m frequently inspired by the variety of topics that Nicola covers. We also have young sons on a diary free diet so her personal experiences and family tried recipes, particularly the cakes, are much appreciated.

Nicola is a freelance copywriter and regular contributor to She Knows UK, an on-line women’s lifestyle magazine. Her blog, Nikki Young Writes, is dedicated to everything Nicola is passionate about: her family, healthy food (including making gluten and dairy free creations for her intolerant son) and her weekly fiction writing link-up. Nicola also writes stories for children and is currently working on her first novel for teens.

And finally, Hannah Griffin at Ditto. Hannah’s enthusiasm and happiness is infectious and her personality pours off her blog’s pages along with common sense advice on the business side of marketing your business. She frequently posts blogs bursting with colour and I’ve learnt a lot from her. Hannah and her team also designed the gorgeous logo sitting at the top of my blog, which gives me yet another reason to be a fan.

Hannah Griffin is a brand stylist, blogger and Creative Director of family-run branding studio, Ditto. She lives in Kent with her fiancé Dan, a graphic designer, and their two house rabbits. Hannah writes about branding, design and business at

Happy reading!

Percy Sinclair Pilcher and the Hawk

The smiling figure of a Victorian man dangles from two thin wires above the heads of visitors to the Otford Heritage Centre. It looks like he’s sitting in a flying goalpost, but he’s actually harnessed into the wooden frame of an early tri-plane. The man is Percy Sinclair Pilcher and his plane was called the Hawk. Percy Sinclair Pilcher - early English aviator

Percy Sinclair Pilcher – early English aviator

Percy was born in Bath in 1876 and from an early age was fascinated by the thought of powered flight. In 1895, he developed his first two hang-gliders, the Bat and the Beetle, but they were unstable and difficult to control. Undeterred, he moved to Eynsford in 1896 to work with another early aviation pioneer, Hiram Maxim. Maxim had a munitions company at Upper Austin Lodge Farm, just north of Otford, which is where the Maxim automatic-firing gun used throughout World War One was developed. It was also the site that Percy moved his latest project – the Hawk – to.

Percy Sinclair Pilcher flying the Hawk at Eynsford, Kent - Public Domain image

Percy Sinclair Pilcher flying the Hawk at Eynsford, Kent – Public Domain image

Mainly constructed of bamboo, the Hawk had a wingspan of 24ft 8inches and weighed just 50lbs. ‘Nainsook’, a material used to make racing sails, was stretched over the delicate wing structure and a hundred bracing wires were secured to the frame to keep it together. Evidence of Percy’s early experiences in the Royal Navy showed through the extensive use of cord lashing and a sprung undercarriage was incorporated to reduce the impact of landing. Finally, sitting amongst this carefully laced creation sat Percy, the pilot, vulnerable to all weathers and totally unprotected from any impact.

Taking to the sky

In 1896, the Hawk was ready and Percy’s first test flights took place on a nearby hill known as the Knoll. The tri-plane was attached to a thin line and pulled into the air through a combination of speed and downwards movement. The first flights were short and low, at around 30ft but Percy had achieved his aim and later on his flights covered 300-400 yards and rose to about 60ft.

The next step was to achieve powered flight and for that to happen, Percy needed financial backing. Working with Walter Wilson, Percy developed a new tri-flight aircraft based closely on the experiments of Octave Chanute in Chicago with the aim of attracting sponsors. Finally, in September 1899, Percy was ready to demonstrate how it worked.

Within the grounds of a wealthy friend’s house in Stanford Park, Percy prepared the Hawk to make a final demonstration. A new engine was being bench tested and he hoped the flight would secure the backing he needed. His first two attempts were unsuccessful as the towline snapped and Percy remarked that the damp conditions were making the nainsook heavier than usual. The third attempt was much better but as the plane rose to around 60ft there was a loud ‘snap’. The tail spar had broken and the Hawk somersaulted to the ground. Percy was left totally unprotected and suffered severe concussion and a fractured left femur. Sadly, he never regained consciousness and, at 32 years of age, he died at 3am the following morning

Percy Sinclair Pilcher - Image from public domain

Percy Sinclair Pilcher – Image from public domain

Percy Sinclair Pilcher was the first man in England to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft. His advances within the field of aviation were significant and just two years later, when the Wright Brothers became the first to achieve powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine with a pilot aboard, they acknowledged his achievements.

Percy’s story is just one of those told at the Otford Heritage Centre and I would like to thank Carol Griffiths, the Centre’s Administration Assistant, for all her help with this blog.

Go and see Percy at The Otford Heritage Centre, The School House, 21 High Street, Otford,Kent. TN14 5PG.

Admission is free but I would advise you to call 01959 522384 before traveling to confirm opening times.

You may also find the following links helpful

Otford Heritage Centre – ‘Take a journey through 4,000 years of Otford’s geology, natural history, ecology and archaeology. Features include model of Otford Palace, 56 foot timeline, Roman artefacts, historic photographs, local artwork and Otford’s unique millennium solar system model is explained. Walks leaflets and booklets available.’


When, and how, did Kent’s written history begin?

Kent’s museums and archives are bursting with thousands of fabulous objects that don’t always get the admiration they deserve. So, with the valued support of those involved, I’m going to bring some of them to you through a weekly blog post. And there is no place better to start than the Wihtred Charter that, according to a report by Gordon Ward. M.D, F.S.A. in 1948, ‘takes us back to far off times when Kings of the line of Hengist reined at Canterbury – and found their subjects far less docile that we are today.’

Wihtred CharterOn the 6th day of the Ides of April in the year 699 A.D, King Wihtred of Kent held a ‘witenagemot’ – a great council – at Cilling near Faversham. His kingdom was in turmoil and he was eager to implement a scheme to placate his people.

Numerous attempts by Mull, a Wessex King, to claim the Kentish throne had resulted in the people of Canterbury venting their anger by burning him in his palace, but an air of unrest remained. The ‘new’ Christian faith was challenging pagan customs and King Wihtred sought to save ‘the future of his soul’ by reuniting his people and regaining their loyalty. And what better way to unite a diverse group than by putting money in their pocket?

Having gathered together the highest clerics, abbots and abbesses in the land, King Wihtred proposed a charter granting the churches and monasteries certain freedoms and privileges in return for a more obvious show of ‘Kingly support.’ At that time Kent contained four nunneries (Minster in Thanet, Folkestone, Lyminge and Minster in Sheppey) two non-monastic churches (Christ Church, Canterbury and St. Andrew in Rochester) and two male convents at Canterbury and Reculver. It was a cunning plan that aimed to please both the religious community and reassure the King’s subjects.

According to Gordon Ward’s report, the King’s sincerity should not be doubted, however, as the care taken to ensure the corroboration of Abbot Adrian, the North African Abbot of St Augustine’s, and Beorhtweald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of Kent’s most prominent Abbesses goes much further than adding mere formality to the charter. King Wihtred was publicly declaring his Christian belief before the council and dedicating himself to church reform. His peaceful intentions were clear and, as a descendent of the royal line of Hengist, he was known to be a man of his word.

The charter was bought at auction in November 1946 by Sir Albert Stern, a former High Sheriff of Kent, who subsequently presented it to Kent County Council. The parchment is now held at the Kent History and Library Centre and is the only original record of the privileges King Wihtred bestowed in a move he hoped would secure him the ‘honour and obedience’ his predecessors had enjoyed.

Omitting the names of the witnesses, an English translation, as given by Gordon Ward, reads as follows:

In the name of the Lord God our Saviour Jesus Christ.
I, Wihtred, King of Kent, considering the future of my soul, have been careful to make this provision because of various calamities threatening the churches of God and the monasteries which exist in this (kingdom of ) Kent, with the consent of my chief men whose names are to be written below.

That they may be free, from the present day and time, from all demand for public taxation and charge or vexation. They are to show to me and my posterity such honour and obedience as they used to show to my royal ancestors, under whom justice and liberty were secured to them. And I decree that both I and my posterity shall hold fast in this pious determination: nor are those things which have been rightly allowed by us and our predecessors to be brought to nought by any chicanery whatsoever, but, as is now said at this time, they are to be preserved with the Lord’s guidance from henceforth and for ever. In full confirmation whereof I have with my own hand portrayed the sign of the Holy Cross and have called upon the most reverend Beorhtweald, the archbishop, to subscribe, together with the most holy bishop Gemmund, as well as venerable presbyters and religious abbots, in the presence of the renowned abbesses ,that is, Hirminhilda, Irminburga, Aeaba and Nerienda.

Done on the sixth day of the Ides of April in the eight year of our reign, in the twelvth indiction, in the place named Cilling.


I just love the mention of chicanery in a legal document and hope you have enjoyed this first instalment as much as I loved researching it. If there is any particular topic or era you would like featured, please do let me know and make sure you don’t miss any treasures by signing up to have new posts delivered directly to your inbox!

Thanks for stopping by.


Many thanks to the staff of the Kent History & Library Centre for their ongoing support and for allowing me to display images of the charter here.





New History Talk Programme (May 2014 – March 2015) at Kent History & Library Centre, Maidstone

???????????????????????????????The Kent History & Library Centre in Maidstone is a hub for historical expertise and this  newly released series of talks is bound to prove popular.  All talks are on a Thursday and will start at 6.30pm. Entry is £3.00 and you can book your seat by calling 03000 413131 or emailing

Hope to see you there!

8 May 2014- ‘The Curious Rural Revolt’: Kentish tithe wars in the 1930′s -John Bulaitis from Canterbury Christ Church University

Kent was a leading player in this important episode of 20th century history which is incredibly now almost forgotten.

12 June 2014 – The wedding journey of Charles 1 and Henrietta Maria through Kent: a diplomatic rumpus – Sara Wolfson – Canterbury Christ Church University

In June 1625, the newly weds made their way from Dover to London, feted by the crowds. But this was one royal procession that didn’t go like clockwork.

17 July 2014 – George Austen’s Tonbridge – Mark Ballard – Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Tonbridge was the home town of the Rev. George Austen (1731-1805), father of Jane Austen the famous novelist. This talk draws on the archives held at the Kent History & Library Centre to describe how the family came to live there, and the buildings that George knew, several of which are still standing.

7 August – The British & Belgian shared experience of World War 1 – Andrew Morgan – Dover Transport Museum; The Shornecliffe Trust

Andrew acted as historical advisor on the film The First and the Last, a commission by the Belgian tourist board that is a must-see in this centenary year of the invasion of their country.

21 August – The Thompson brothers: a story of the First World War – Liz Finn – Kent History & Library Centre

Liz traces the extraordinary story of the three brothers, immortalised in a stunning photograph from the Essenhigh Corke collection.

11 September – The Great War and Great Chart – Emma Hanna – University of Greenwich

Emma, an academic historian, reports her research on the letters sent by soldiers and sailors in response to letters and parcels sent to them from Great Chart. This is one of the most important archives held at the Kent History & Library Centre.

25 September – Union and Workhouse Records – Deborah Collins – Independent Researcher

Deborah, the author of a very useful website on the subject, will describe the wealth of documentation existing in the Kent archives and explain its value to family historians.

9 October – Surviving the Western Front: Regimental identity and officer-man relations in the Buffs, 1914-1918 – Mark Connelly – University of Kent.

You will be enthused and inspired, as well as informed, in this talk by the Professor of Modern British Military History.

23 October – Literacy and Book Ownership in Seventeenth Century Faversham – Linda Taylor – Independent Researcher

Linda, an alumnus of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent, explains book ownership, literacy and education in East Kent 350 years ago using will inventories and other archives from the Kent History & Library Centre.

20 November 2014 – ‘It it a pity what bad men could be turned inside out sometimes’: Victorian Scandal on the Kent coast – Carolyn Oulton – International Centre for Victorian Women Writers

Carolyn’s talk will draw on and sum up the exhibition “Victorian Women at the Seaside”, due to tour some Kent seaside libraries in the summer and autumn of this year’

5 March 2015 – Why does Faversham have its Magna Carta? – Peter Tann – Kent Archaeological Society

An examination of one of Kent’s most important documents set in the context of Faversham’s surviving medieval charters.

Many thanks to the Kent History & Library Centre for allowing me to reproduce their programme here and don’t forget you can book your tickets in advance by calling 03000 413131 or by emailing





Somerset Maugham – Whitstable’s controversial author inspires new ‘WhitLit’ literary festival

Author Somerset Maugham

Author Somerset Maugham © Carl Van Vechten

It doesn’t matter where you live, you’re sure to know a ‘character’. A person whose life seems to be full of drama and scandal and who naturally draws attention. For Whitstable during the 20th Century that character was the author Somerset Maugham whose exploits as a war spy and entanglements with a gay lover kept the gossips busy. Revelations following his death have left his reputation in tatters, however, and Victoria Falconer, the director of Whitstable’s new literary festival Whitlit, says it’s time to put the record straight.

In the following guest post, Victoria explains why Whitstable should be proud rather than embarrassed by its former resident and reveals her plan to put his name back on the literary circuit.

Over to you Victoria….

Somerset Maugham was the biggest selling novelist of the 1930s. His books sold in their millions and his plays performed all over the world, but since his death in 1969, his personal and professional reputation has suffered a sharp decline and he remains today a distinctly unfashionable literary figure.

Even in Whitstable, the town where he grew up and made famous (as ‘Blackstable’) in two of his most famous books, Cakes and Ale and Of Human Bondage, the locals feel distinctly ambivalent towards Maugham. When questioned, the few residents who have heard of him comment “Well he hated Whitstable didn’t he?” There are no Maugham plaques or memorials in the town, and his childhood home was knocked down over 50 years ago.

As the Founder and Director of WhitLit, I wanted to make sure Maugham was at the heart of the festival. I first read Maugham as a student having known of the Whitstable connection and enjoyed his books. I particularly remember reading Of Human Bondage in a two day marathon during a holiday to Greece. I’ve always found it sad that Whitstable hasn’t celebrated Maugham more and thinks he hated the town. It’s true Maugham had an unhappy and lonely childhood here, but that was because he was orphaned and sent to live with unaffectionate relatives who he’d never met before. But his recollections of Whitstable in Cakes and Ale are very fond. In later life he became alienated from his family by his private secretary and sadly, his personal life has cast a shadow over the rest of his work. But his books and short stories are still as relevant and entertaining today as they were when they were written. I think it’s a travesty that Maugham is rarely taught in schools or even degree courses and he’s overlooked in favour of more fashionable British 20th century authors like Greene, Waugh and Woolf.

All Saints Church - Victoria Falconer

All Saints Church – © Victoria Falconer

W.Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), was born in Paris but spent his formative years in Whitstable, after being orphaned at an early age. He lived with his uncle who was Vicar of All Saints Church, and had a difficult and lonely childhood. He attended the King’s School Canterbury, and studied in Germany before moving to London to train as a doctor. The success of his second book, Liza of Lambeth, enabled him to become a full- time author and playwright.

He penned over one hundred short stories and twenty one novels, and there are over thirty film adaptations of his work. His influence as a writer has been extensive, his detective Ashenden was said to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond whilst George Orwell said he was “the modern writer who has influenced me the most”. Outwardly his life was richly rewarding, but Maugham expertly concealed a turbulent private life. Predominantly homosexual, he made a disastrous marriage to Syrie Wellcome, but also suffered anguish from an unrequited love affair and a shocking final betrayal. He retired to the South of France, but his ashes were scattered at the King’s School, Canterbury. His uncle, the Reverend Henry Maugham, is buried in All Saints Churchyard.

Cover of Cakes and Ales © Vintage

Cover of Cakes and Ales © Vintage

Through a series of Maugham related events, WhitLit will spotlight the writer. The acclaimed one man play Mr Maugham at Home starring Anthony Smee will be performed at the Playhouse theatre, there will be a walking tour of Maugham’s Whitstable taking in the landscapes and landmarks featured in his books, All Saints church where Maugham’s uncle was a vicar will be holding an Ales and Tales event, and courtesy of Vintage Random House 200 copies of Cakes and Ale will be distributed free for local book clubs to read. A debate on the book will take place during the festival chaired by Val Hennessy, literary critic at the Daily Mail.

Headlining the Maugham events will be the screening of the recent documentary Revealing Mr Maugham, introduced by the director Michael House who will be flying in from Paris for the occasion. This will be followed by a debate on Maugham with House, his acclaimed biographer Selina Hastings, and his grandchildren Camilla Chandon and Nic Paravicini.

Camilla Chandon says of her grandfather: “I am very proud to be WSM’s granddaughter and would like to point out that spending much of my time in Spain and being married to a French husband, I am delighted to find that he is still extremely well known abroad and his books are recommended reading for post graduate students studying English in both these countries. He is still highly regarded in the States where people are always very interested in meeting one of his descendants. I have also noticed that hardly a week goes by without a mention or a quote from him in the many literary magazines to which I subscribe. “

Jane Austen, DH Lawrence and Daphne Du Maurier all have literary festivals dedicated to them and I feel it’s right that Maugham is put on the literary map and celebrated in the town. It’s a real coup to be able to bring together Selina Hastings, Michael House and Maugham’s family, who have never appeared in public before to talk about their grandfather. They are delighted about WhitLit’s plans and we hope that the festival gets the town and wider area reading his books again. It’s about time Maugham got credit for his contribution to literature.

Thanks for sharing your inspiration Victoria, WhitLit sounds fantastic and I can’t wait to visit. 

WhitLit will be taking place in Whitstable from 8-11 May. For the full programme and ticket information visit

Appearing authors: Selina Hastings, Lynn Barber John Gordon Sinclair, Anthony Browne, Jenny Boyd, Ben Moor, Margaret Pemberton, Sarah Harrison, Andy Miller, Nick Russell Pavier, Stephen Cooper, Mary Hamer, Linda M James, Aggie MacKenzie, Pen Farthing, Janetta Harvey, DE Meredith, Essie Fox, Lloyd Shepherd, Andrew McGuinness, Christopher Fowler, Barry Forshaw, Andrew Lycett, Peter Clark, Tom Hodgkinson, Gavin Pretor Pinney, Danny Rhodes, Emma Thomson, Paul Fraser Collard, Angus Donald,

Cover of May's Kent Life Magazine

Cover of May’s Kent Life Magazine

If you fancy a different kind of behind the scenes peek at Whitlit (and two of Kent’s other leading literary festivals) then please read my piece ‘Speaking out’ in the May issue of Kent Life magazine.


News from the Magpies Nest

Ok, I have a confession to make. As well as being a history nut, I’m a bit of a house anorak.  I can’t give you directions to a friend’s house or local tourist attraction but I can tell you about the cat slide roof, twisted set of chimneys or the gorgeous Georgian house I saw on the way.  Whenever I visit an old building, it’s the little things that capture my attention.  Although beautiful, ornate gilding is quickly passed over in favour of a stone staircase that’s been worn away by a thousand feet or a bleached and scrubbed servants table. For me, a house is far more than the shell we live in. Each room is a backdrop to parties, squabbles, kisses and dreams, and through their structure and furnishings, every house can tell a story.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be commissioned by the new Kent Homes & Interiors magazine to go into some of Kent’s privately owned houses  in order to write ‘through the keyhole’ style features.  Not only do I get to poke around and ask lots of nosy questions but I get to learn a little bit about the history of the building and the area it sits in. Perfect!

'The House that Grew' - featured in Spring Issue of Kent Homes & Interiors Magazine

‘The House that Grew’ – featured in Spring Issue of Kent Homes & Interiors Magazine

For instance, the first house I visited in Hildenborough was a 19th century farmworkers cottage.  Its changed considerably since its humble beginnings and as the owner started telling me about how it had been extended over time, I realised it had grown sideways.  The whole row of cottages were added to, one room at a time, in order to accommodate the arrival of new farm labourers and their families.  This resulted in a series of flying freeholds – where one room sits above another belonging to an adjoining building – that continue throughout the series of cottages. It’s bizarre!  You obviously can’t see this from the outside but now, every time I drive past it, I imagine lots of little families huddled together inside the overlapping rooms.

'A Tudor Revival' featured in the Spring Issue of Kent Homes & Interiors Magazine

‘A Tudor Revival’ featured in the Spring Issue of Kent Homes & Interiors Magazine

And then I visited this gorgeous house in Goudhurst, there is no other word for it, as even after viewing it in the rain, I was left with a serious case of house envy.

The fact that its core dates back to Tudor times, when King Henry VIII was roaming the Kentish countryside, was exciting enough and I loved seeing its history revealed through the extraordinary amount of fireplaces, undulating floors, concealed passageways and irregular windows. It’s believed to have begun life as a medieval hall-house and, when the owner kindly lent me her house historian’s report, it allowed me to identify exactly which parts of the building had been built when and what the markings on the beams actually reveal.  Fascinating. I also learnt that in November 1830 over 500 men were involved in a riot with local landowners due to the combined effects of the Corn Laws, Tithe laws and bad harvests. Which gives me the perfect excuse to go back to the village to learn more.  Well, if someone has to do it…


PS. I took lots of photos too, so if you would like to see inside these lovely homes please pick up the Spring Issue of Kent Homes and Interiors magazine – I’d love to know what you think.

The summer issue is due out in July and you can keep up with all the news on Twitter – @KentHomesmag


Kent’s school children design new WWI commemorative statue for Tonbridge

sculpture web

One of the final eighteen designs










Imagine trying to take everything you have learnt about the soldiers who died in the First World War and turn it into a design for a new commemorative statue. All the facts and figures, the personal stories, bravery and death – how do you put it down on one sheet of paper? Where would you even begin? That’s the challenge that Pam Mills, Youth Worker for the Royal British Legion, set pupils from six secondary schools.

The competition began last year and is being co-run by the Royal British Legion and the Tonbridge Memorial Garden Trust. Having come up with the idea of creating a statue, however, Pam says she had no idea how the project would be received by the schools. Mascalls, Hill View, Judd, Hayesbrook, Weald and Hugh Christie were all incredibly supportive, however, and Pam subsequently gave a talk at each school. She prompted pupils to explore the theme of remembrance and asked them if they would submit a drawing for consideration. It was purely voluntary and the work was to be completed in their own time. Over 200 designs were submitted and the Head Teachers from each school were asked to choose their top three to go forward to the next stage of the competition. All the designs were then sent to the Tonbridge Memorial Garden Trust Committee for approval and the pupils of the final eighteen designs then started to work with Pam and renowned local sculptor, Guy Portelli. Under his guidance the pupils honed their designs and turned them into the 3D marquette’s (mini sculptures) that are now on display at the new Portelli Gallery in Tonbridge.

The project has been fuelled by the pictures, life stories and in some cases the personal possessions of the men remembered on the Tonbridge memorial wall and all the information has been collected by Pam, Lyn Hams and a research analyst, Dave Strawbrick. Pam’s also being going into the older schools in the area to read their logs and diaries and has found out that local children made socks and mittens to send to the front line. Slade School dug up their playing field and turned it into one huge vegetable patch and Judd carried out collections for the Kent Prisoner of War fund.

Sadly Judd was also the first school to be directly affected by the death of an ex-school boy. Noel Baker from Penshurst was just 17 when he died. He joined up in May and died in August. Pam says that being able to use the town’s history when she talks to the children makes it hit home. To be able to say ‘the youngest man to die from Tonbridge was seventeen, that’s two years older than you, how do you feel about that? It gets a reaction.’ ‘Every time I go into the schools I like to ask the kids lots of questions about why they designed what they did and what key facts about the war they know. One of the girls at Hugh Christie was making her sculpture out of wire so we made it into barbed wire and spoke about no man’s land so she learnt about that. It has been a huge learning process for these kids, not just about art but about history.’

Following a fantastic launch exhibition held at the Tonbridge Castle Chambers last week, the top eighteen marquettes are now on display at the Portelli Gallery in Tonbridge and it is now down to members of the public to choose their favourite design. Voting slips are available at the exhibition and the winning sculpture will be turned into a bronze commemorative memorial for the Tonbridge Memorial Garden by Guy Portelli.
All of this has been made possible by Pam’s incredible efforts to raise money. There has been no cost to the schools whatsoever and all the materials have been paid for by local donations and a joint busking event that Pam organised in Tonbridge last year called ‘Busking for the British Legion’. The proceeds were split between the Legion and the Tonbridge Memorial Garden Trust and the funds for the entire Tonbridge WWI commemorative project now stands at £9,500 but it’s not enough and Pam is still seeking sponsors and donations to carry the project forward. (For further details please email her at

Pam, Lyn and Dave’s research has also unearthed several men whose names have been missed off the town’s memorial wall and Pam has been seeking permission to have those names added. The joint project doesn’t finish with the statue, however, and Pam hopes to raise enough funds to make all the town’s social and military history available through a comprehensive free-to-view website linked to the Memorial Garden Trust. She also hopes to present the information in book format to the local churches and library.

Pam is obviously thrilled with the outcome of the project so far and says ‘the kids that I am working with have been absolutely phenomenal and their art work is exceptional. They have clearly thought about what they are doing and they have put a lot of respect into what they are doing and you can see it in the end results.’

Many thanks to Pam Mills for taking the time to chat to me about the project. Her enthusiasm and dedication is infectious and I can’t wait to see which statue is chosen.  For news updates please follow Pam on Twitter

The exhibition is running until 30 April 2014 and you can see it at the newly opened Portelli Gallery run by Teresa Seamer at Unit 6, The Pavilion Shopping Centre, Tonbridge, Kent. TN9 1EL. (It’s above Gorgeous George and you can also view other local artists such as Trisha Wood, Mike Flight, Scudder, Matty Bray and Danial McGowan.)


WWI Objects with Meaning – From Peter Anderson’s Private Collection

Since the age of ten, Peter Anderson has been fascinated by the events of the First World War. His interest was sparked by his father, a career soldier, and Peter’s memory is now full of remarkable facts and poignant stories. As a published historian with a knack of finding missing war graves, Peter now lives in Folkestone, a town famous for its war history, and holds one of the largest collections of WWI memorabilia in private hands.

Peter kindly agreed to talk to me about his collection, which boasts approximately 150 objects and several hundred newspapers, and he came armed with a few of his favourite treasures -


Brass Pocket Watch - Peter Anderson Private Collection ©Rachael Hale (HM) 2014

Brass Pocket Watch – Peter Anderson Private Collection ©Rachael Hale (HM) 2014

Brass Pocket Watch circa 1916

‘This pocket watch was found at the Somme by an American friend of mine. I have no idea if it’s British, German or French, nor any idea who owned it, but it is very symbolic of the times. One of the big social changes of the First World War was that men went from wearing pocket watches on the whole to wearing wrist watches. And the reason is very simple. If you have a pocket watch and it’s in your pocket, it takes time to take it out, look at it and put it back but if you have a wrist watch you just turn your wrist and that’s it.’

On the front line, timing was everything and being able to check the time without significantly moving your position was a momentous development.

Original Brodie Brodie Helmet - Peter Anderson Private Collection©Rachael Hale (HM) 2014

Original Brodie Brodie Helmet – Peter Anderson Private Collection©Rachael Hale (HM) 2014

Brodie Helmet

Helmets were another essential piece of equipment and this original Brodie was found abandoned on the Somme battlefields. Peter say’s ‘a friend of mine found it and I persuaded him it would be better in my collection that his! You can still see some of the chalk from the Somme underneath. It’s very medieval in design and it’s heavy. It

Brodie Helmet - Underside - Peter Anderson Collection

Brodie Helmet – Underside – Peter Anderson Collection  ©Rachael Hale (HM) 2014

would have had a coat of paint, khaki maybe, and a strap. Sometimes they had divisional markings on them but that was basically it.’






Dead Man's Penny - Peter Anderson Collection

Dead Man’s Penny – Peter Anderson Collection ©Rachael Hale (HM) 2014

A Dead Man’s Penny

For far too many soldiers, the battlefields were where they spent their final moments. Their sacrifice was honoured by the making of a memorial plaque more commonly known as a Dead Man’s Penny and if you follow Peter on twitter (@flanders1914) you may recognise this image as his avatar.

Reverse of Dead Man's Penny - Peter Anderson Collection ©Rachael Hale (HM) 2014

Reverse of Dead Man’s Penny – Peter Anderson Collection ©Rachael Hale (HM) 2014

In an eerie echo from the past, this plaque was made for a Private Peter Anderson who was killed in action on 9 July 1915. For obvious reasons Peter says he had to have it, even though he was no relation. Private Anderson held the acting rank of Corporal when he died and a white sticky label on the reverse of the plaque states that he was born in Forfar, the county town of Angus in Scotland made famous by its ‘Bridies’, a meat pastry snack.

A faint circular stamp containing a ‘w’ on the reverse of the plaque shows that ‘it was made at Woolwich Arsenal, where the majority of workers were female. There’s also a number on it and there is some debate about what that number actually means. I think it was the number of the worker who made it and it’s known that some women actually made their own husbands plaques which must have been horrifying. The memorials were originally made at Acton by an American company and there were nearly a million made for soldiers serving in the British Forces.’

Many thanks Peter, I really enjoyed talking to you and greatly appreciate your permission to take and use images of your collection.

Peter is currently unemployed but has a real talent for bringing the past alive and if you would like him to take you on a WWI walking tour around Folkestone please email him at You can also read his series of ‘WWI in three minutes’ on his blog ‘Scarce Heard Amongst the Guns’.

Why is the porcupine part of the Sidney family crest? Penshurst, Kent

Sidney Coat of Arms - image supplied by the Penshurst Place Estate

Arms of Viscount De L’Isle- image kindly supplied by the Penshurst Place Estate

Visitors to Penshurst Place can’t fail to notice the Sidney family’s connection to the porcupine. After all, the new café carries the name of ‘The Porcupine Pantry’, there’s a large metal sculpture in the garden and this little chap sits outside the private entrance to the Sidney family chapel but the reason behind the connection is more obscure.

Sidney porcupine outside family chapel - ©Rachael Hale (History Magpie) 2014

Sidney porcupine outside family chapel – ©Rachael Hale (History Magpie) 2014


Long before they became the owners of Penshurst Place, the Sidney family were closely connected to royalty and it was the second William Sidney who claimed the porcupine emblem for his family crest.



Having distinguished himself both as a naval Captain and the Commander of the right wing of the British Army at the battle of Flodden, Sir William gained the favourable attention of the King Henry VIII. The elevated status brought by his knighthood in March 1514, gave him the privileges and responsibility of a courtier and when Princess Mary, King Henry VIII’s sister, travelled to marry Louis XII of France, Sir William was sent with the royal party. In the trusted position of ‘jousting ambassador’, Sir William travelled alongside his cousin, Charles Brandon, whose future would shortly be changed forever, and Sir Henry Guildford.

The Sidney Porcupine designed and created by Robert Rattray - The Sidney Porcupine designed and created by Robert Rattray

The Sidney Porcupine designed and created by Robert Rattray – ©Rachael Hale (History Magpie) 2014


Less than three months after the wedding, while the jousting team were still in France, King Louis XII died at the age of fifty two and the widowed Princess Mary married Charles Brandon in secret. King Henry VIII was furious but despite Sir William’s close proximity to the events surrounding the new royal couple, he remained in favour and was later sent back to France to officially announce Princess Mary’s second marriage. It can’t have been an easy task and the Sidney family believe it was following the first eventful trip that Sir William added King Louis XII’s personal emblem – the porcupine – to the family crest.

But why would he have wanted to? The porcupine isn’t exactly a large intimidating beast is it? It’s a vegetarian, tree climbing, nest builder and not, one would assume, a first choice of emblem. Look a little closer into its traits, however, and you discover that, when under attack, this unusual animal reverses into its enemy in an attempt to impale it with its long, detachable quills. So, despite first impressions, the porcupine is actually a  formidable foe which shows courage and tenacity in times of adversity. Now that is something to admire.

I am extremely grateful to Philip Sidney, 2nd Viscount De L’Isle MBE and Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Kent for granting me permission to reproduce his family crest within this post and for clarifying the source of the emblem’s addition.

I would also like to thank Abbie Voice, the estate’s Marketing Executive, and Lord De L’Isle’s personal secretary for their assistance with this blog.

Image of Penshurst Place South view of house  (c) Peter Smith Jigsaw

Image of Penshurst Place South view of house (c) Peter Smith Jigsaw

Penshurst Place in Kent has been described as “the grandest and most perfectly preserved example of a fortified manor house in all England” and is well worth a visit.

Young families are well catered for with a variety of events, great children’s playground and lots of space to let off steam. Some parts of the garden are wheelchair and buggy friendly in all weathers and I can personally vouch for the cakes.

For further visitor information please visit their website at