Cranbrook and Hawkhurst
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Known as the ‘Capital of the Weald’, Cranbrook has always been a fiercely independent, interesting town that’s thrived throughout the centuries, while smaller Hawkhurst, to the south, is a charismatic village that’s full of life.
Cranbrook is the smallest town in Kent, while Hawkhurst is the largest village in our county, and is sometimes called ‘The Crossroads of the Weald’. Cranbrook is full of historic white weather-boarded and tiled buildings, and has a sensational old church, wonderful surrounding countryside, and a lovely old restored smock mill, plus interesting individual shops, fine restaurants, historic pubs and an excellent school (comedian Harry Hill was educated in the town).
At the centre of the Wealden iron industry from Roman times, Hawkhurst was famous for being home to the Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers, who terrorised the area between 1735 and 1749, and were feared throughout southern England. William Rootes, the founder of the Rootes car empire, set up shop as a cycle trader in the village and Hawkhurst was the home of Sir John Herschel, the famous astronomer.
There are three convenient (free) car parks in Cranbrook town centre, which consists of a very long, wide and shop-packed High Street that ends in a T-junction, with Stone Street to the right and Carriers Road to the left, with the useful Weald Information Centre at the junction. To the left you’ll find St Dustan’s church, and, beyond that, the museum and library. Stone Street, to the right, is thronged with interesting businesses, then becomes St David’s Bridge, and finally the very steep-but-scenic The Hill.
Hawkhurst is made up of two districts: ‘The Moor’, the original village with old tile-hung and Kent weather-boarded cottages surrounding a triangular green beside the parish church of St Laurence, and ‘Highgate’, centred around the crossroads between the Highgate Hill and the A268, with the long white ‘Colonnade’ building housing some splendid shops. Nearby is Sir Thomas Dunk’s Hall (1723), a grand sprawling building with attached almshouses (now converted to flats), and an incongruous naval cannon on the front lawn.
• Weald Information Centre (01580 715686), an excellent resource with friendly staff in the historic building of the Old Fire Station and Vestry Hall.
• St Dunstan’s Church, referred to as the ‘Cathedral of the Weald’, a magnificent golden-stone building with a peaceful and beautiful churchyard.
• Union Windmill (01580 712256) The tallest smock mill and finest example of its type in England, built in 1814, and restored to full working order by the volunteers of Cranbrook Windmill Association.
• Cranbrook Museum (01580 712516) Sensational 15th-century building. See Roman artefacts, historic agricultural and rope-making equipment and the Boyd Alexander collection of Victorian stuffed birds, plus a room devoted to the Cranbrook Colony of artists.
• The Colonnade. A unique row of shops housed in a classically-inspired covered arcade, with a white-weather-boarded upper storey supported by a series of fluted oak columns in front of the charming and individual shops. Built in 1831 and recently restored to its former glory.
• Victoria Hall. Originally built as a lecture hall, it now functions as a digital cinema and café bar.
• St Laurence’s church, mostly dating from 1450, with the Great East Window being described as ‘One of the finest pieces of architecture in the country’.
• Collingwood House, once the home of famous astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792 - 1871), when it was known as Moor House – now a private residence.
• The Hawkhurst Village Society (www.visithawkhurst.org.uk) arranges guided local walks.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Two Cranbrook restaurants were included in the Good Food guide: Apicius (01580 714666), in a 1400s building, offers modern European cuisine and has won a Michelin star award and three AA rosettes, while The George Hotel and Brassiere (01580 713348), an ancient inn, serves wonderful English food and has been awarded an AA rosette. The White Horse Inn (01580 712615) in Cranbrook offers a fine range of wines and good food. The Great House (01580 753119) in Hawkhurst is a beautiful 16th-century freehouse that offers an informal Brassiere menu and fine cuisine. The Oak and Ivy (01580 753293) has a good range of ales, offers food and has a beer garden and was the favourite ‘local’ for the Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers.
WHERE TO SHOP
Cranbrook’s excellent shops along the High Street and Stone Street are all independents, and there are no chain stores. There’s an emphasis on home design and renovation (Bell House Fabrics, Butler House carpets, Crane China and Butler’s lamps), antiques, excellent gift shops as well as ladies’ fashions (Swans, The Millstone and Country Stile). There’s a Cranbrook Farmers’ Market at Vestry Hall on the fourth Saturday morning of every month. The key shopping parade in Hawkhurst is The Colonnade at Highgate, offering ladies fashions (see Traders Talking), a greengrocer’s, florist, drapery retailer and café amongst many other chic outlets.
Has an extremely attractive high street with a number of lovely old weather-boarded cottages and Trinity church. Famous for Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, created in 1930s by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson, these gardens are presented as a series of ‘rooms’, each with a different theme.
Sandhurst is built on a low ridge, and the village has moved form its original site, around St Nicholas’s church. There are a number of ancient houses and great views across the valley towards Newenden – don’t miss the unusual clocktower (1889) that dominates the village green. The village is home to Sandhurst Vineyards, who produce award-wining English wines.
St George’s church, the memorial hall, the Bull pub and the village green form the heart of Benenden, whose name derives from ‘Bynna’s wooded pasture’. This parish also includes Iden Green, East End, Standen Street and Dingleden. Most well known for its girls’ public school, which Princess Ann attended, to the north of the village.
A beautiful village with a fascinating history, referred to as ‘Jewel of the High Weald’, and originally a centre for the Wealden iron industry, and later for hop growing. It now has the busiest village shop in the area and two fine restaurants/pubs. Available now is a beautifully illustrated new book from www.authorsonline.co.uk: ‘Lamberhurst Jewel of the High Weald, a History’, by Roger Pitchfork.
In 2003 this village won the Kent Village of The Year competition. The most attractive part of Staplehurst is the highest point, around the 12th-century All Saints church, which is surrounded by black-and-white timber-framed houses, and affords a wonderful view of the hills. Plenty of local facilities, including four churches, a library and a supermarket.
Built on the slope of a steep hill, its name is derived from ‘Gutha’s wooded hill’. Has an attractive High Street lined with weather-boarded and tile-hung houses, and the 1400s parish church of St Mary’s with its memorable clock. There are marvellous views, ancient buildings, oast houses and a duckpond; from St Mary’s church tower you can see over 50 churches.
Bob Searle runs Maison Meublay (01580 755611), a large furniture emporium on the Rye Road, that sells and makes-to-order handmade and painted furniture. Bob also sells lamps, gifts, accessories and chandeliers. “I’ve been here six months, now, and the shop’s taking off well, I’m pleased,” says Bob, who lives in Tenterden. “I like the area, the people are very nice. There’s a good mix of folk and no problems in town. I’ve been told that the junction here is the busiest one in Kent, which is great for me, as passing traffic can see our showroom, making it a fine advert – there’s plenty of passing trade.”
Zoe Calcutt owns and runs Cordelia James (01580 752118), and this stylish and welcoming shop offers an eclectic collection of beautiful clothes, accessories, jewellery, gifts and cards in the historic Colonnade block of stores. “We’ve been trading here for two years, but my family and I have lived in the area for over 15 years,” she says. “I think it’s a very beautiful, self-contained village. I live and work here and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Me and many of my friends and colleagues in the Colonnade are concerned about the proposal to build a new Tesco store. The Colonnade is a historic listed building, and we had it rebuilt last year, to save it from falling down, and now it’s looking absolutely lovely, our shops are full and we want to keep them that way. This is the heart of Hawkhurst.”
CONSIDERING A MOVE
There are some very good schools in the area, but neither Cranbrook nor Hawkhurst has a station, and both are a long way from motorways. Property prices vary surprisingly, with one- and two-bedroom flats being around £139,000 and £156,000 respectively in Cranbrook, in comparison with Hawkhurst homes costing £170,000 and £204,000 for the same thing. While for a three-bedroom semi in both places the price would be around the same, approximately £323,000, a four-bedroom detached house in Hawkhurst costs around £489,000, and in Cranbrook £525,000.
Cranbrook is on the A229, approximately 15 miles south of Maidstone. There’s no station, the nearest being at Staplehurst, five miles to the north, and buses link the town to the rest of Kent. Satnav postcode for Cranbrook town centre is TN17 3HF. Hawkhurst is on the intersection of the A229 and the A268, about four miles south of Cranbrook, its nearest station being Etchingham, and there are good bus links. Call Traveline, 0871 200 2233 for public transport details. Satnav postcode for Hawkhurst town centre is TN18 4EY.
Helen Travers lives in Hawkhurst, and her father Lewis Waghorn, who died in 2001, was a keen local historian. She is the sixth generation of her family who have lived in the area.
Has your father written any publications about Hawkhurst?
Yes, he wrote three illustrated magazine books about the village – he knew so many of the old village people who appeared in his collection of postcards. Two of his books are available from the Wealden Advertiser (01580 753322).
Did he work in Hawkhurst?
Yes. As a boy he delivered his father’s bread early every morning before going to school at Dunk’s Hall. After this he had a grocer’s shop in Rye, and then later in Hastings and Bexhill.
Are you curious about the history of the village?
Certainly I am, mainly because of my father’s interest.
Do you have anything to say about Cranbrook?
It’s a pretty market town with good facilities but my husband and I don’t visit it too often.
Any comments about The Colonnade?
It is the most distinctive feature of Hawkhurst – it’s a listed historic structure and has recently been renovated with much success.
What do you like about Hawkhurst?
Our digital cinema, Cordelia James – a wonderful clothes shop (see Traders’ Talking) – and a more-than-adequate range of other local shops.
What would you change about the village if you could?
The crossroads and traffic lights, which make life very difficult, because of the heavy congestion.
Do you have a favourite view or walk?
The view from the rear of our house, from Conghurst Lane towards the village is very nice. We enjoy walking through the orchards which surround our cottage.
Do you have a favourite place in or near the village?
I like Sissinghurst, but I also love Great Dixter in Northiam, for its wonderful atmosphere.
And a restaurant you’d recommend?
The Great House (see Where to Eat and Drink).
Are there any events coming up?
Our annual film and photographic festival is in May, and in June there’s the centenary of Rootes Motors.
Can you sum up the town in a sentence?
You couldn’t choose anywhere nicer to live, for friendly faces, plenty to do and great walks, with marvellous views of the Weald.