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The Most Historic Mile of Road in Britain

by B. R. Billings
(from Kent County Journal)


The A2 road across Barham Downs between Canterbury and Dover has witnessed more episodes in English history than any other.


Trenches cut in the chalk on Barham Downs during the Great War very near the Roman earthworks of BC54.
Original photos - B. R. Billings, Folkestone

A challenging title this, "the most historic mile in England", - and yet I am prepared to support it until I learn of a more worthy claimant.

I was squatting one day on a milestone on the Barham Downs and I began meditating.   I think my thoughts went: - Poor little ragged and hungry David Copperfield tramped over this road on his way to Dover...   David Copperfield... Milestones...   "There's milestones on the Dover Road", said Mr F's aunt in Little Dorrit.   There is; or more grammatically and emphatically, there are, and I thought that even they could not tell all the history of that dreary-looking, straight stretch along the heights between the tenth and eleventh milestones from Dover to Canterbury.

The beginning
"Dreary-looking" I thought; but I knew that could stones speak, some of these could keep me entertained for a very long time and if I knew all the history of Barham Downs I should know a great deal of the history of England.   For instance, I asked myself, how did this road actually come into being?   It must have been long before history began to be recorded that pre-historic traders used the route over the bleak hills stretching above the marshy swamps and dense forests below, probably sighting their progress from stage to stage by distant objects as they tramped to and from the coast with their wares.

By the time that the Romans came (and I have skipped over a few centuries even here!) the track had become well-marked and Julius Csar must have known the importance of it because after he had landed at Deal on 7th July BC54, he marched overnight to these same Downs, there to give battle next morning to the resisting Britons assembled over a three mile front extending from Barham - Bekesbourne - Kingston.   At a site in what is now Bourne Park, the heroic defenders made their last stand and as I gazed among the beautiful park trees I thought tradition must have been some truth behind it for naming the place "Old England's Hole".

On the opposite side of the road, which was eventually paved by the Romans, and so started their Watling Street, are Roman earthworks, remnants of Csar's entrenched position, a few hundred yards nearer Dover, with those thrown up during the Great War and those which I remembered seeing our Home Counties Division digging... two thousand years after Csar's.

Kings and Armies
This plateau seems to have been a favourite camping place for great armies.   I pictured King John mobilising his soldiers here, ready to repel Philip, King of France, should the latter succeed in his threatened invasion of 1211, and how John received the Papal legate,, and how, having accepted terms he never intended to keep, conducted the ambassador back to Dover and bowed him politely out of the kingdom.   My thoughts drifted on into the next reign, when Simon de Montfort arrayed a great host here against King Henry III prior to the Battle of Lewes.

Not only for war-time camps are the Downs famed, but for peacetime pageantry and ceremonial occasions were the Downs used, many of our Sovereigns meeting their affianced consorts here.   John in 1201 met Isabella of Angouleme, conducting her to Canterbury, there to have a double Coronation in the Cathedral.

Nearly every King, Queen, Prince, Princess and Noble, spiritual or temporal, has passed over this ground and every episode that associates England with Europe through all history has Barham Downs for at least part of its mise en scne.   I conjured up some of the conditions of travel, pictured some of the pageantry, imagined some of the emotions of those shaping the destinies of England.

Royal Romances
Can you see Edward, the Black Prince, returning victorious from Crecy and Poitiers, riding at the head of a train of thousands of dejected French prisoners, among them Le Roi Jean? or Henry V on his victorious return from Agincourt? or, in later and more pompous days, Henry VIII meeting Charles V of Germany in 1522?   Can you imagine even greater magnificence, when, eighteen years after, he met yet one more bride - Anne of Cleves?   And is there not real romance here in 1623 when we see two magnificently arrayed horsemen journeying by stages to Dover; in their being apprehended when they could not satisfactorily produce their credentials; and in their being allowed to proceed only after it transpired that they were Prince Charles (later the First) and Charles Villiers (afterwards Duke of Buckingham) as his squire, travelling incognito. the former to woo, if possible, the Infanta of Spain?

Two years laterKing Charles met Henrietta Maria of France on these Downs and what a magnificent cavalcade that must have been which wended its way back to Canterbury Cathedral to take part in the Royal Marriage ceremony there!

Across the Centuries
Then my thoughts drifted to an event on this road with more pathos in it.   I could see a hunch-backed beggar woman tramping along every weary mile on foot from London to Dover, carrying a tiny girl with her.   Such was the disguise assumed by the Countess of Dalkieth in 1646 when she successfully smuggled the royal princess Henrietta over to her mother Queen Henrietta, already escaped to France, in those terrible days of the Civil War.

Again skipping over those centuries during which the Hanoverians frequented this road; (they loved their Germany still and were often there as here) till I pictured poor sea-sick Prince Albert of Saxe Coberg Gotha landing at Dover on February 6th 1840, to journey by road to London, there to meet Queen Victoria, bored by too numerous loyal addresses of welcome, not a word of which he could understand!

And then my reverie ceased.   What do Barham Downs see today?   Only a stream of motor-cars hustling by.   But who knows?   Perhaps they too are making history.