I spent my week away from Spitalfields Life working on the Cries of London book but – before summer ends – I decided to take advantage of the sunny weather yesterday with a trip to Sandwich
“There’s always something going on in Sandwich,” I was reliably informed by the guide who welcomed me to an old stone church, and the evidence was all around us in this ancient borough which has acquired so many layers of history over the last thousand years.
If you prefer your architecture irregular in form and mellow with age, this is your place – for Sandwich is one of England’s least-altered medieval towns. Yet the appeal lies not in how it has been preserved but in how it has changed, since every building has been melded over time to suit the evolving needs of its occupants, and the charismatic blend of timber with stonework and stonework with brickwork is sublime.
As I wandered through the quiet streets, I thought about the paradoxical nature of the guide’s comment since Sandwich unquestionably defines the notion of ‘sleepy town,’ even if that afternoon there was a concert in the grounds of the Lutyens house by the river and a fete at the quay. Yet in a more profound sense this has been a location of ceaseless activity since Roman times.
Contrary to popular opinion, ‘Sandwich’ means ‘a settlement built on the sand.’ First recorded in the seventh century, a thriving port and fishing industry grew up here on a sandbank in the days when the river was wider than it is today and the sea came right up to the town. A defensive wall with gates was built around this wealthy trading post and storm tides sometimes surrounded Sandwich, isolating it from the land. One of the pre-eminent ‘Cinque Ports,’ the fleet here offered nautical military service to the Crown in return for trading without taxation. Thus merchants from Venice brought their goods direct to Sandwich and even the King came to buy exotic luxury imports.
“You can easily get lost in Sandwich,” I was cautioned unexpectedly by the attendant at the Museum as I bought my copy of the Civic guide to study the history. It was an unlikely observation that the attendant uttered, since Sandwich is a tiny place, but let me confirm that you can quickly lose your sense of direction, strolling in the maze of small streets and lanes with names like Holy Ghost Alley, Three Kings Yard and Love Lane. An afternoon can fly away once you begin to study the glorious detail and rich idiosyncrasy of eight hundred years of vernacular architecture that is manifest to behold in Sandwich.
If your imagination is set on fire by winding streets of crooked old houses and ancient worn churches paved with medieval tiles and roofed with spectacular wooden vaults, then Sandwich is the destination for you. You really can lose yourself in it and there is always something going on.
St Peter’s Church
The King’s Lodging
Demon of 1592 on the corner of the Kings Arms
St Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church
Tower of St Mary’s Church
Mermaid at the corner of Delf St
The Delf stream was channelled to bring freshwater to Sandwich in the thirteenth century
Horse Pond Sluice
St Clement’s Church has an eleventh century Norman tower
In St Clement’s Church
Fisher Gate with the old Customs House on the right
Fourteenth century Fisher Gate
You may like to read about my previous trips beyond Spitalfields at this time of year