Kent, a earldom between London and the coast at Great Britain’s southeast end, is known as “England’s garden” because of its green countryside, preserved wildlife and many orchards. In contrast, the earldom’s northern part is highly industrialised. Kent is where the Channel Tunnel surfaces, making it the only earldom that has a “land border” with France. Indeed, the origins of its name come from cant the Breton word for “border”. Julius Caesar referred to the area as Cantium. In the High Middle Ages, the people of Kent were called Cantwara, which is the basis for the name of Canterbury, the seat of the Church of England.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kent’s wealth was based on paper mills, cement factories and coal mines, but services have gradually replaced those industries. Agriculture, especially the growing of hops, is still holding on as a major economic mainstay, although recently tourism has surpassed it.
Often mistaken with the belltower at the northeast angle of Westminster Palace, Big Ben is in fact the largest of the five bells, which have punctuated London life for 150 years. Why “Big Ben”? There are two theories to explain how the bell got its name. Some suggest that it came from the nickname of Ben Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer of the time. The second and more probable explanation is that it was named after the bulky Welshman Sir Benjamin Hall, who commissioned the bell and whose name was inscribed on it. Anyway, Big Ben has become the quintessential symbol of the United Kingdom, its trademark chime at once evoking London.
Three times destroyed by fire, the present St Paul Cathedral is the work of Christopher Wren, England’s greatest architect, who also designed Westminster Palace.
With its 1696 organ on which Mendelssohn played, the cathedral has held countless memorial and funeral services. State funerals for heroes such as Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill, as well as the Jubilees of Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II, and the wedding of Charles and Diana.
Built alongside the Thames, with an expressway and the eponymous bridge running above it, the Tower of London is by far London’s most visited monument. William the Conqueror’s fortress, later turned into a royal residence, and then a prison, is now a museum, a tribute to British history and home to the Crown Jewels.
Ancestral ceremonies still take place daily, such as the Ceremony of the Key when the Tower gate is closed every night, a tradition kept up for 700 years. Such traditions are part of British folklore, preserved by the Yeomen Warders, better known as Beefeaters, with their quaint red and gold Tudor costumes.
Tower Bridge was built to relieve congestion on London Bridge, which had been the only way across the Thames in London until the late 19th century. Tower Bridge was a true technical feat for the time, the most sophisticated bascule bridge ever built in the United Kingdom. It took 8 years to build, five construction companies and 432 workers.
This distant suburb of London is where England’s first paper mill was built.
As all rock fans surely know, Mick Jagger attended the local grammar school and legend has it he and Keith Richard met on a platform at Dartford train station, where they decided to form the Rolling Stones.
The lovely city of Greenwich, situated on the south bank of the Thames to the southeast of London, is famous throughout the world for the meridian that passes through it and long served as the basis for Universal Time, or Greenwich Mean Time. Being the origin for all meridians, Greenwich Meridian is the starting point for time zones all around the world. Greenwich Mean Time was determined according to calculations made in the Greenwich Observatory where a ball continues to drop daily at 1 P.M., though the observatory is no longer in use.
A tribute to the past, Greenwich also keeps up with modern times: it was there that was erected the controversial Millennium Dome, now renamed O2. This unique structure, the world’s largest single-roof building, is quite easy to spot from a plane. However, the architectural prowess did not impress investors. Originally destined to be an exhibition centre, it was turned into a sports arena. The 2012 Olympics Gymnastics events will take place there.
This little river harbour, for many years the major centre for Thames shipping traffic, does owe its fame to a tomb, that of Pocahontas, first American Indian to ever set foot in Europe. She became famous in 1607 for saving the life of pilgrim John Smith, who was about to be slain by her tribe. Held captive by the Pilgrims, she fell in love with one of them, John Rolfe. They got married and returned to England where Pocahontas became the object of great curiosity, to the point of being presented to Queen Ann. She died in 1611, on a boat that was taking her back to America. Her tomb and statue lie in St George Church cemetery.
Built atop a mound where a Roman fort used to stand, Rochester Castle is one of the best preserved Norman fortresses in the United Kingdom. Probably first built from wood and clay at the time of William the Conqueror, it was occupied by his half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux, whom he named the Count of Kent.
The Medway area was the setting for the short-lived Rochester Classic, British leg of the World Cup, won in 1997 by Italian Andrea Tafi.
Earldom town of Kent, Maidstone is a major business centre. Situated in Greater London, the city is quite dynamic and rapidly expanding, with a population of nearly 130,000. The paper and packaging industries remain the city’s trademark.
Lord Conway dubbed it “the world’s prettiest castle”, which can’t be that far from the truth. Located 6 km from Maidstone, here were held preliminary talks that led to the Camp David agreements between Israel and Egypt. The enchanting park includes a maze, as was the vogue in the 18th century. Home to six queens in medieval times, it was nicknamed the Ladies’ Castle.
Ever since its spring was discovered in 1606, Tunbridge Wells has been one of Great Britain’s favourite spas. The huge, 70-hectare green commons running across this peaceful haven is a delightful place for strolling, cycling or enjoying pick-up cricket games.
A typical Kent village, with its traditional high street and shops where time seems to have been frozen one century ago. Situated on a Roman route, Tenterden prospered in the 14th century as a wool manufacturing centre. Then quite close to the seaside, the town developed as a harbour until the 16th century, when the surroundings silted up, pushing back the coast. St Mildred church dates back to the 12th century.
Ashford is home to a railway station on the Eurostar line between Paris and London and the birthplace of pop singer Kate Bush.
In 1943, the French philosopher Simone Weil, suffering from tuberculosis, was admitted to the town’s sanatorium and described Ashford as “a beautiful place where to die”. And it was there she passed away.
Ashford is also the hometown of British track cyclist Jamie Staff, who won gold in Keirin in the Melbourne 2004 World Championships.
Canterbury, which means “the fortress of men from Kent”, owes its wealth and importance to the abbey which settled there in the 6th century and became first the archdiocese of Great Britain and then, following the breaking off with Rome, the seat of the Anglican Church’s primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
A medieval city, remarkably well preserved despite German raids during World War II which destroyed the eastern part of the town, Canterbury prospers chiefly through tourism, with its cathedral drawing more than a million tourists a year.
It was built on a former Roman road, the stones being used for the foundations. Over the years, it was forever being renovated and extended. The most famous Archbishop of Canterbury is undoubtedly Thomas Becket, assassinated by guardsmen of King Henry II on December 29, 1170. The zealous guards mistakenly believed that the king had wanted to be rid of Thomas. Three other Archbishops of Canterbury met a similar fate.
This great classic of English literature, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century, takes the form of a collection of stories that a group of pilgrims told on their way to visiting Thomas Becket’s tomb. A different character tells each tale in the framework of a broader historical canvas, a literary device that allowed Chaucer to narrate them in a wide variety of styles. The 26 stories shift back and forth between prose and verse, accurately and sometimes cruelly depicting the failings of human nature.
Far from living exclusively in its glorious past, Canterbury has kept up with modern times, to such an extent that the Canterbury School emerged in the late sixties, a musical style embodied by groups such as Soft Machine and Caravan. Robert Wyatt, Soft Machine’s drummer, remains one of Britain’s most respected musicians.