by B. R. Billings
(from Kent County Journal)
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.
"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 Cæsar 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 Cæsar'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 Cæsar'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 scéne. 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.
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