Clare’s Counties: Faversham, Kent

T. S Eliot had a nasty experience at Margate. I found it boring. But come back towards the Thames and things get a bit more interesting. Whitstable and Faversham are charming little towns, full of interest, and they are both vibrant places.

I’ve been to Faversham a couple of times, as Julian, who used to be the drummer in The Mockers – Check out the video – , the band I fronted back in the eighties, moved there. There are whole rows of old fashioned terraced houses. There is the beauty of Beech Court Gardens, with its collection of azaleas and rhododendrons in spring, and glorious maple trees in autumn.

Kent being the garden of England you can expect masses of stuff for the garden, including fruit trees. Brogdale is the home of the National Fruit Collections, with over 2,000 apple varieties, 500 pear varieties, 350 plum varieties, 320 cherry varieties and many bush fruits, nuts and vines.

For anyone interested, Plum Day is set for 15 August. There is also a cider festival 25-26 September, and an apple festival 23-24 october.

Of course, to someone like myself who is serious about food and drink Faversham is a rather special place. For more than 850 years beer has been brewed here. Indeed, the current brewery, Shepherd Neame, is Britain’s oldest brewery, dating back to 1698. And you can take a tour of the brewery, which includes a tasting. There’s a chance to taste natural mineral water from the brewery’s well; try some malted barley; smell locally-grown Kentish hops; visit the modern Millennium Brewhouse with its magnificent stained glass windows, see bygone delivery vehicles, and view a recreated cooper’s workshop.

Another interesting fact is that this town is almost the home of gunpowder making in the UK. It dates back to 1560. “Chart Mills is one of the very few fully restored gunpowder mills in the country and, given a suitable water supply, is fully working.

Chart Mills is an incorporating mill, the process where the ingredients, saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal, having been mixed together, are incorporated together to become an explosive mixture.

Incorporating was the most vital process as it determined the quality, power and evenness of burning of the powder; in all there were 11 processes in the whole manufacture of gunpowder.”
(The section in quotes is taken from the town’s website.)

You can chart a Thames sailing barge and cruise along the Thames estuary, taking in the old forts. There are some amazing old buildings, including Maison Dieu. A significant fragment remains of the medieval hospital and hostel for Kings, built early in the 13th century. And down by the estuary is a fascinating old building with some great patterns of Flemish brickwork, including a rather nice pattern with a circle done out in bricks. I’d have photographed it if I hadn’t mislaid my camera.

I’ll move on to Whitstable next week.

Cheap Villas in the Algarve

A few pals of mine are at present discussing a couple of deals. I’d be interested to know if any of you would be interested. I do need to know if there is going to be a market for these deals.

Two sets of plans are currently on the table. The first is to open a camping site for motor homes in Portugal. There already are a few, but they are expensive, badly run, and have crummy services. We can do better. We are planning on opening one just outside Silves in the near future. If you’d be interested in this facility email me from the Unique Property site.

The second deal relates to cheap housing. We are over-run in the Algarve with highly priced apartments. You can buy one for €200,000. That’s about twice what they are really worth. (If you think that price is reasonable, just read my book on how to value a home both in the UK and anywhere abroad, you may be shocked at the result you’d get by following my valuation method: However, we want to produce detached two/three bed villas with a starting price of £50,000.

We have a large stretch of land (over 200 hectares) with planning consent for 600 beds. That means we can build 150 villas. We would use very modern materials that are both cheap and eco-friendly. Some of the properties would be built on decking set partly over the edge of a small lake. They would be between 120 sq.m. and 150 sq.m. in size.

I think this is the way forward. Property has gotten too expensive. It doesn’t need to be that way. We can sell for just above cost. What I’d like to know is: Is there a market out there for cheap villas in the Algarve? Let me know what you think.


The English are Nuts

The English are quaintly barmy.

When I lived in the UK I didn’t notice, but of course, now I am a foreigner, and visit the place as a tourist I can see what a strange lot they are.

It isn’t just the odd things they do now and again it is the apparent attitude to life that seems to permeate everything. I have only been here a couple of weeks and I have already been involved in two duck races.

I had no idea there were such things until this year. I just missed the first about ten days ago. But, lo and behold, the following week at Blagdon is another.

You first buy a duck; a soppy little yellow thing with a number on it. The bank of a river is lined with idiots drinking beer or cider. Another idiot stands in the river in his wellies, and tips all the ducks into the water, and the current takes them downstream, followed by the marshall. Somewhere downstream is a string across the stream, and eventually one yellow duck will be the first to pass under it. Time for a cheer and another glass of ale.

The combined idiots can now pop over to the barbecue area and get some sustenance. Or they can wait for a slice of pig. One thing we specialise in is roast pig. I have eaten roast pig all over the place, but the English habit of cooking the crackling to a crisp consistency, and adding apple sauce is to my mind the tops.

I have a map in my head of eateries where you can stop off for a roll topped with a thick slice of roast pig, crackling and apple sauce. I will under no circumstances charge up the M6 past Dudley in the late morning without popping in for a fix. And the only reason I can think of for going to Rotherham is to delightfully mull over which bakery to visit for the best hunk of pig.

But I digress. Here I am getting stuck in to this rather fine porker while watching another bunch of idiots painting children’s faces in gaudy colours.

The cathedral green in Wells is suddenly filled with thousands of schoolchildren in brightly coloured clothes doing funny square dances. However, I’ve inadvertently driven down the wrong road. I keep forgetting to drive on the left, and ended up having to take a right turn to avoid hitting an oncoming car which I thought was being driven by a drunk…… sorry!

There is another pub on the left, and a small triangle of grass in front with some kind of pole sticking out of it. I stop under a tree which appears to be the end of the road. From my position sitting on the bonnet of the car I can now watch another bunch of idiots dressed mainly in white. They have white scarves tied to various parts of their bodies, and bells attached to ankles and wrists. There is a fat gentleman leaning against the old stone wall of the pub garden playing an accordian. Next to him is a very tall nervous looking boy playing a flute, and a young girl dressed in some great bouncy eighteenth century bustle of a dress playing the fiddle.

It is sad to reflect that month after month on the Unique Property Site I am advertising dozens of pubs for sale all over the country. They are the social backbone of our communities. Lose many more and we are going to be in trouble.

Now, where the heck am I, and where am I supposed to be going next?

I missed the Jack in the Green festival in Hastings back on May Day, where a whole bunch of charlies dress up in bunches of greenery to celebrate the coming of spring. However, I could nip down to Axbridge for the Elizabethan Charter, and the Lady Day Fair when everyone dresses up in Elizabethan gear. Well, actually I’ve got that wrong. Apparently about 400 locals will be dressed up in all sorts of gear to depict 2000 years of history, which means some will be prancing around in togas, showing their knees, others will be dressed in peasant smocks, civil war outfits, Viking helmets, and so on. Pure nuts! And krikey! All that work! Hmmmm…. I must go. I wonder what I can wear?

Just down the road in Radstock the kids are planting flowers in unlikely places, hoping to win the Britain in Bloom contest, while Bristol Water has won a Green Apple award for apparently saving the white-clawed crayfish. That’s good news because I am rather partial to crayfish. But….. a green apple? Pure madness.

Mind you, walking across the Somerset Levels for 24 hours in packs trying to spot wildlife takes some beating. I’m surprised the wildlife wasn’t scared off. But if that sort of thing turns you on its called Avalon 24. And I didn’t ask why.

Just a few miles from me is Stourhead, with its famous gardens. Now this really does take the biscuit. Who but some potty Englishman would create a fabulous garden half a mile down the road where you cant see it. You look out of the drawing room window onto a field of cows. If you want to see the garden you have to summon the footman who will then summon the coachman, who will turn out the horses, and bring the carriage round, so you can get in and be driven down to the garden. Henry Hoare was obviously a fruit cake in the good old English tradition.

He persuaded his mate the Dean of Bristol to give him the obelisk that used to stand at the junction of Broad Street, Wine Street, and Corn Street. It now stands overlooking the lake and gardens of Stourhead.

Up the hill Henry H built a folly. Now that does clinch this whole business of the pottiness of the English. They will keep building follies. One lovable old rogue called Mad Jack built a spire in a field to win a bet that you could see the spire of the neighbouring church from his bedroom window. He is buried in Brightling churchyard underneath a pyramid.

Henry H built a three sided tower to celebrate King Alfred’s victory over the Danes in 870. It’s an odd structure, with quite a spectacular view from the top. In autumn there are some rather fine magic mushrooms growing on the grass leading up to the tower. There used to be a great dent in one side of it, which has now been repaired, but only relatively recently. Apparently an aircraft crashed into it back in the forties. How potty can you get? There is nothing to crash into except the tower, so how come someone managed it? Actually I believe the pilot was American. Perhaps he was descended from one of the Plymouth Brethren.

Now what can I do next? Geophysics in the Vale of Winscombe. “Resistivity and magnetometer” it says in brackets. “On a typical morning we walk two miles taking a reading every metre!” — Mad as hatters!

At Harptree I could visit a cold war underground bunker. Later I could go to Shute Shelve, wherever the heck that is, and get involved in “hangings, ghosts, railways, bull baiting, rabbit farming, mysterious stones, and a possible henge monument”. Just the job for a summer’s day.

On the other hand, this sounds much more like it: “Stone age survival skills demonstrations by our hunter gatherers. Stone age face painting……” Or how about the bone cave at Banwell?

Next week it’s Wookey Hole Caves and Papermill. That brings me solidly back to boring reality. Back in the sixties Annabel and I used to collect paper from the local villages and take it down to the papermill for recycling. Most people thought we were cranks. I spent two years arguing with various government departments to try and get them to sponsor the collection of paper and glass for recycling. I finally managed to get them to run a pilot scheme, which was so successful that we now have paper and glass collections right the way across Europe.

Well folks, I know that’s rather boring, but it was hard work persuading the idiots in local government that there was money in recycling. Now it’s taken for granted. Maybe one day someone will give me a gong for starting it all off, although somehow I doubt it. But if anyone is listening, next year will be the fortieth anniversary of the first collection.

Two years spent arguing with government officials over collecting last week’s newspapers. I must be nuts. Oh well, I suppose I am 25% English.

A Yard of Ale

Real beer; tasty cheddar cheese; scrumpy; cream teas in the churchyard; the charming little country lanes that wind through the hills and valleys of Buckinghamshire; Yorkshire pudding; bell-ringing practice on monday nights. England in the summer-time. How nice it can be.

It’s sunday lunchtime. We drive out through the tiny valleys between Amersham and Berkhamstead. There is a holding for sale: a small cottage with 23 acres of pasture and woodland. A tiny stream barely a yard wide rattles over the stones and under the road. The water-cress is bunched thick on the side of the bank. Further up the hill is a pub. We pull in under the trees, but the food is just too expensive. £6 for a sandwich! Yikes!

Berkhamstead is not a place I remember. Long ago I led our athletics team against the school there. We won, of course; we always won. For three years I captained Hale’s cross-country team and the athletics team, and we never lost a single match. Now, I’m hobbling back to the car, stiff as a biscuit because I spent all day yesterday up a ladder fixing gutters.

Berkhamstead goes back some way. There was a settlement here back in the bronze age, and you can still see remnants of Grim’s Ditch, or Devil’s Dyke. Grim was not some ancient yokel from way back then, after all, bronze age is pre-history. The word is apparently a corruption of the latin “gruma” for boundary. Or at least, that’s what the guide book says. After all, I’ve forgotten all my latin. In any case studying the Georgics and Livy isn’t something that one tends to carry on into adult life.

Much later William the Conqueror was supposed to have been offered the English crown at Berkhamstead castle, although I always thought he fought Harold for it at a place coincidentally called Battle, down near the south coast.

During the first world war they used Berkhamstead Common as a training ground, and dug a whole series of trenches for the troops to practise in. The practising didn’t do at least 2000 of them much good, as they ended up in different trenches in some foreign field.

Whenever I go past some ancient village green, no matter where it is, I cant help counting the number of names on the local war memorial. The first world war ripped a great hole through the communities of this country. There were only four parishes in the whole of the country that did not lose someone in all those pointless battles.

I am currently working in a small village just south of Harlow. Even today the population cant be above a thousand, yet there are over 20 names on the memorial stone at the end of the lane where I am working.

We finally find a pub, and I end up eating a Yorkshire pudding (unfortunately without the onions). But the sausages were rather nice. Two different real ales, the sun shining down through the trees, a small girl cycling backwards and forwards through the edges of the water sprinkler, families out for the day, kids mucking about, everyone happy. Summer in the UK.

Back to the tiny country lanes, and over the hills towards Great Missenden. Above are a couple of gliders, presumably floating around from their base at Dunstable. We drive down through the gently sloping churchyard where Roald Dalh is buried, and park by the church. Down in the village high street is a small museum devoted to the life and works of the famous story-teller.

The church is packed. At the back, one of the side rooms has been converted to a small kitchen. And there are tables set out heaped with goodies that any Roald Dahl fan would adore.

I have scones and cream and home made jam, a massive slice of coffee and walnut cake, and a strawberry scented tissane. Up in the choir stalls is a serious young lady playing scottish music on her guitar. She is so serious she appears to be playing for herself as we can hardly hear the notes.

Outside, to our back is thick woodland covering old grave stones from 150 years ago and more. To the south is the sun, the village, and the wooded crown of the next hill.

We wind our way back towards Chesham, getting hopelessly lost in a maze of narrow roads hidden between high hedgerows. To the right is Lee, advertising more cream teas. Then there is another signpost: Great Pednor is one way, Little Pednor is the other. Where the heck are we?

There is another chalk stream by the side of the road. There is another pub, this time sporting a beer festival. Hey, this is more like it. There are ten ales to choose from, some from Fullers in Hammersmith, and some from the local Tring brewery. But the really interesting thing is the drinking contest.

Let’s start this thing from the beginning. The Tour de Pednor is an annual charity bike ride organised from The Queens Head in Chesham Old Town. Apparently the charity is in aid of two people with cerebral palsy, one guy who is wheelchair bound, and a small child who is unable to walk. So a lot of fun is had by all over the weekend trying to raise some money for the poor folks, and to try and help them with their disabilities. Last year they raised over £3,000.

This is organised by the pub, so the main activity is a beer and cider festival. Saturday starts with some serious tasting, and ends up with a music quiz.

Sunday starts with the cycle ride, and moves on to a Thai barbecue. Then we get a magician, and, oh god, I dont believe it (and I missed it) a duck race.

We got there just as the drinking contest started. It is the first time I have seen a yard of ale, or anyone actually drink (most of) it. The glass looks like a giant decanter, with a smallish bowl at one end and a long neck, so that the receptacle measures a yard from end to end. Drinking the whole lot in one go is well-nigh impossible for most of us, but even taking gasps of air now and again, it is still quite a feat. Rather a lot of the drink goes down the shirt-front, and onto the ground. This is not a sport to be taken lightly, or with clean shirt and trousers.

Apparently Don managed to down it in 58 seconds, which is pretty pathetic considering his record is just over 20 seconds.

The day ends with a live band and more drinking. We drove home. Hey, it’s just another sunday in quaint little old England. I could get to like this place after all.