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A Tour of Westerham

‘Westerham’, observed George Bevan in his 1876 Handbook to the County of Kent, is ‘a pretty little town, dependent more on the scenery around than on any intrinsic interest.’ While Bevan, a compiler of numerous individual English county handbooks for travelers, has many insightful gems of information to share about late 19th century Kent, his description of the historic market town of Westerham sorely needs updating.

Once home to a variety of world-famous residents ranging from John Frith, the 16th century reformer burned at the stake as a heretic in Smithfield, and Major-General James Wolfe victorious over the French in Quebec, Canada, to Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s most eminent 20th century Prime Minister. Westerham today holds much of genuine interest for visitors. The town’s proximity to Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s historic home; Downe House, where Charles Darwin lived with his family and wrote On the Origin of the Species (1859); and with London (22 miles); and junctions 5 and 6 of the M25, makes Westerham and its picturesque, wooded surrounds an ideal day or weekend trip for travelers. With its relatively straightforward layout and small, welcoming size, the town is especially well suited for walking tours.

Naturally, Westerham boasts openly of its links to famous luminaries particularly Wolfe and Churchill—there are large statues of both men in the village green—and makes as much of these associations as possible. Yet the town has more to offer than simply connections to great men.

Many of Westerham’s homes and structures are historic, dating as far back as the 12th century. Stroll across the village green to the medieval parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, in which many well-known persons have been baptised down the centuries; tour the old houses, inns, and almshouses such as Darenth, Red Cow House, Copthill and the Old Vicarage off the square, on the opposite side of Vicarage Hill, for an interesting sample of 15th century buildings. Visit Pitts Cottage, originally constructed in the 16th century, for a glimpse of the home once lived in by William Pitt while his primary residence in Keston underwent repair. Drawn to the unusual? Don’t miss the ruined, romantic 18th century Folly Tower on Tower Wood, off Hosey Hill, allegedly built on a whim by an ancestor of the Warde family to amuse his children and provide an unbroken view of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

One of Westerham’s finest homes, Squerryes Court, a well-preserved 17th century manor house with formal gardens in a parkland setting, home to the Warde family since 1731, should be instantly recognisable to television viewers. Interior and exterior shots of this stately house appeared in the 2009 BBC Jane Austen mini-series Emma, with Squerryes posing as Emma Woodhouse’s beloved home, Hartfield.

Originally a lesser manor of the manor of Westerham, Squerryes dates back to the reign of Henry III (1216-72), when a family named de Squerrie reportedly lived at the site. The current owner still retains the title of Lord of the Manor of Westerham. Since its medieval inception, the house has changed hands, and facades, several times. When the diarist John Evelyn visited Squerryes in 1658, shortly before it was demolished and beautifully rebuilt by Sir Nicholas Crisp, he characterised it as ‘a pretty, finely wooded, well watered seate, the stables good, the house old but convenient’. Evelyn’s description, though no longer quite fitting, is suggestive of Squerryes’s charms and ongoing capacity to attract scores of visitors to Westerham.

Westerham is a late Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘the Western estate’ or ‘westerly homestead’. Archaeological evidence, including fourteen gold coins discovered in a flint receptacle believed to be of Celtic origin as well as remnants of Roman roads and forts, indicates that settlers inhabited the area around the town of Westerham long before the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century. Earl Godwin and later his son, Harold, the last Saxon King of England, ruled Westerham prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066. Shortly thereafter Eustace II of Boulogne became the first Norman lord of Westerham, and in 1086, the town appeared in the Domesday Book, in a Norman form, as ‘Oistreham’.

In 1227, Henry III, granted Westerham a market charter, enabling the towns’ tradesmen to emerge as key participants in the Kentish livestock trade during the middle ages. At the time, cattle provided the bulk of the meat consumed in medieval cities, and livestock production in Westerham helped make meat more widely available in London markets.

Westerham’s closeness to the Weald of Kent and ‘very pleasant’ situation, in the words of 19th century handbook writer Richard King, at the foot of the North Downs along the river Darent, have continued to attract new residents and nature-loving visitors to the town and its surrounds over the centuries. For nature admirers, no visit to Westerham would be complete without an outing to the National Trust’s Toys Hill estate, located 1 mile east of Westerham via French Street. Covering over 200 acres of woodland, Toys Hill is situated on the highest point on the Greensand Ridge in Kent with a view over the four counties of Kent, Surrey, East Sussex and West Sussex.

Also, certainly worth a visit are the lovely Charts Edge Gardens on B2026, only 0.6 mile south of Westerham off the A25 and open to the public from mid-April through mid-September. Charts Edge features a rock garden, a Victorian folly and water cascade, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias and many rare plants, with exceptional views over the North Downs.

Popular Attractions in Westerham

Quebec House

Located at the eastern entrance to Westerham in Quebec Square, this low-ceilinged, appealing 17th century house is a living monument to Major-General James Wolfe, who lived there as a child. Born in Westerham in 1726, Wolfe achieved international fame as the British military commander who led the siege and capture of Quebec from French forces in September 1759 during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). Memorabilia relating to his life, career and family are on display inside the paneled rooms; outside the red brick house, in the Tudor stable block, is an exhibition about Wolfe’s leadership and demise at the Battle of Quebec. ‘Here he singly, and alone in opinion, formed that great, hazardous, but necessary plan of operation, which drew out the French to their defeat, and ensured the conquest of Canada’.

Squerryes Court

Situated to the south of central Westerham, off Westerham Road, are the house and gardens of Squerryes Court, long owned by the Warde family. In one form or another, a house has stood on this site for 800 years. Built in the late 17th century, the current house features elegant rooms, furniture, porcelain, tapestries and oil paintings acquired and used by the Wardes since the 18th century. An Emma exhibition is also on display at the moment, showcasing the costumes used in the 2009 BBC production of Emma and highlighting Jane Austen’s connections to West Kent. The gardens, recently restored based on 18th century plans, offer spring bulbs, roses and herbaceous borders.

Church of St Mary the Virgin

The parish church of St Mary’s stands directly on the edge of the village green, and dates back over 800 years. Built of Kentish ragstone, St Mary’s exhibits a 12th century tower, walls from the 13th and 14th centuries, and 16th century small brasses with 17th and 18th century memorial tables. Additional changes to the primary structure were made in the 15th and 19th centuries. Of special interest is the 14th century font, which has witnessed the baptism of many illustrious persons including General Wolfe, John Frith, who assisted William Tyndale to translate the Bible before his untimely execution in 1533, and Winston Churchill’s grandson.

The Village Green

This is an ideal starting point for a walking tour of Westerham, the west end of the pretty village green holds a statue of General Wolfe, erected in 1911 and designed by Derwent Wood ARA. On the east end, past old shops and the 16th century Grasshopper Inn and towards St Mary’s, sits a modern bronze casting of Sir Winston Churchill, sculpted by Oscar Nemon after the Second World War.

The Tower

Roofless and crumbling, with round arched windows, this whimsical two-storey 18th century tower, offers an excellent example of extravagant follies of the period. Built by the wealthy as playthings and odes to the classical ruined structures often seen by well-to-do gentlemen on The Grand Tour in the 17th century, follies became a regular feature of English garden and landscape design in the 18th century. Mock ancient temples, fake gothic ruins, and faux medieval towers dotted the landscape of many grand English houses before the decline of follies in the 19th century.

The George and Dragon Inn

Originally built in the 16th century as a stopover for travelers on their way to London, this Grade II, timber-framed coaching house has served the likes of such famous personalities as General Wolfe, William Pitt (the Younger), and Sir Winston Churchill. In addition to enjoying the traditional ambience and ales and home-cooked food on offer by the present owners, look for the plaque commemorating General Wolfe’s last stay at the Inn in December 1758.

*Seasonal opening times and admission prices should be checked before making a special trip to Westerham.

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