I’ve been reading Pevsner’s West Kent and the Weald, the first half of a pair of books in the celebrated Buildings of England series. This impressive volume will no doubt transform how we see the buildings that make Kent so distinctive. The series itself was founded by the German art historian Nikolaus Pevsner (which is why the guides are usually simply called ‘Pevsner guides’), and over the years it’s become the indispensable series of handbooks to the architecture of the whole of Britain. The new, updated versions contain all the scholarship and knowledge of the original editions, but in even greater detail. I love them.
Pevsner guides first came to prominence in the 1960s when Nikolaus Pevsner and a selection of architecture students would set off by car, replete with sandwiches and thermos flasks, to tour the counties of England and record every single building of architectural merit – a simply monumental task. In those pre-motorway days they would often have to travel along every B-road and country lane in their search for the gems of our built environment. By Pevsner’s death in 1983 the series covered all England’s 39 historic counties, with each settlement examined alphabetically, place by place. Any sizeable town was given an introduction, then a run-through of churches, then other public buildings, then private buildings of merit and distinction, and finally a suggested ‘perambulation’ around the most interesting parts. The new, updated volumes wisely keep to this format. Moreover, a glossary of architectural terms is also provided, so when one reads that St Augustine, Brookland, has “lancets in the chancel, a fragment of thirteenth century string course in the south aisle wall and a decorated east window with cusped intersecting tracery” working out what all this means isn’t quite as daunting as it might have been!
The area I’ve been reading about includes everything from the borders of London, Surrey and Sussex as far east as the Medway towns and Maidstone. From Maidstone everything west of the A20 as far as Hythe is also covered. This vast swathe of land gives us a myriad of diverse landscapes: the classic bluebell woods of the chalk escarpment of the North Downs, the creeks and marshlands of the Medway estuary, the woodlands and orchards of the Weald and the fertile farmland acres of Romney Marsh. The introduction to the guide explains how the underlying geology of this area has given us building materials which have contributed to the distinctive architectural styles of Kent. From Kentish Ragstone to chalk and flint, the role of each stone is explained. The wonderful tradition of Kentish brickwork is covered (a superlative example being the Tudor bricks of Sissinghurst Castle), as is Kentish tile-hanging, timber-framing and weatherboarding. An overview of the development of Kentish architecture, from pre-Roman times right through the middle ages to the present, is also helpfully provided. All this even before the vast compendium of towns and villages from A-Z (or in the case of Kent, from Addington to Yalding) has begun.
So what stands out in this overview? Obviously, some of the great country houses and castles, and the eminent persons with whom they are associated, are immediate highlights. Sissinghurst Castle with its ‘soaring brick tower’ which ‘rises improbably above the wooded hillocks of the Weald’ will be always associated with the genius of Vita Sackville-West and her garden designs. Chartwell, with its arch-headed windows and plaster-vaulted bedrooms, is a shrine to the memory of Churchill. But some of Kent’s iconic locations are the handiwork of nowadays less famous names. Leeds Castle, with its barbican, Maiden’s Tower and Heraldry Room was the work of Hugh de Crevecoeur in the early twelfth century. Kent, guarding the capital from the continent, has always been rich in forts and castles, the earliest masonry one being Rochester Castle which guards the point at which Watling Street meets the Medway. Only with Pevsner’s learned entry to hand though will the visitor realise that the Great Tower, at 125ft, is the tallest surviving twelfth century fortification in Europe, or that it occupies the site of an earlier mound capped with a wooden fort. Once you’ve read this volume you’ll realise that it really is indispensable for exploring the buildings of Kent – or, indeed, anywhere else.
Penshurst Place, which moved poet Ben Jonson to raptures, has a substantial entry, as does Ightham Mote, ‘the most complete small medieval manor house in the county’. But the entries for many of the smaller towns and villages are also wonderfully interesting. Appledore, with its mix of ‘red brick, tile-hanging, timber framing and plaster’, contains the curiosity of Horne’s Place, a medieval timber farm with a domestic chapel licensed for divine worship in 1366. This chapel has ‘details of the utmost refinement, far above the level of the parish churches round about.’ It survived assault by Wat Tyler’s rebels in 1381 and is now a curio in the care of English Heritage. At Chiddingstone the castle is, amazingly, a picturesque rebuilding of a mansion which once stood in the village High Street. At Penshurst timber-framed cottages form the delightful ensemble of Leicester Square, named after Elizabeth I’s court favourite. But it isn’t only chocolate box villages which receive attention. Benenden Hospital’s 1930s glass and steel curves are celebrated as ‘an outstanding piece of interwar modernism’ while the 1980s neo-Egyptian piece of postmodernism which is United House at Swanley rightly gets substantial coverage. Literally everything of architectural merit is grist to the mill in a Pevsner guide. Kent might mean oast houses and hopyards to many people but, as this guide demonstrates, it is much more besides.
‘Kent: West Kent and the Weald’ by Nikolaus Pevsner and John Newman is published by Yale University Press.
Images copyright Yale UP