I found the village hidden deep in downland hills, quiet in its solitude. By virtue of its geography, remote from Watling Street to the north, the village was little grown, with only a few recent cul-de-sacs and closes tacked on to those that had been standing for centuries and not much more than recorded at Domesday. The Carpenters Arms was old red brick with its name pragmatically applied in paint and all the more welcome for it. An older manor house looked self conscious in its manicured but fine timber-frame. Lesser houses surrounded the large green. Above, a small church, half-hidden by dark green yews, anchored the assortment. The village was understated and well to do; proud but not Surrey smart. Most Kent villages would have looked this way before the railway lines were laid from London to the coast.
St Mary’s Eastling.
Walking the footpath from the church, in the distance a tall flint folly, with single small round window, half-hidden by tall parkland trees. This was Belmont Estate land.
The estate had new signs and pheasant feeders everywhere. Shot-guns and pigeon scarers sounded loud and unwelcome through the valleys. I stuck to the footpaths for fear of gamekeepers. The woodlands were neatly coppiced and the whole looked well cared for.
Freshly coppiced hazel with oak standards.
The north wind of the past few days had faded and the sky was clearing from the west. The ground was warm and kind. It was the best day of the year. Birds were noisy and plentiful, perhaps because their predators were trapped and shot. Great tits and robins were singing their territory, coal tits and goldcrests pitched and pirouetted in the yews. Treecreepers sissed and nuthatches yaffled. Marsh tits, like naughty children, were heard but not seen. A pair of hawfinch sat upright, high on the top of an old and magnificent beech decked in decaying mast but quickly flew to disappear in the yews. These handsome birds with their huge stone-cracking bill are now rare and much sought after, like prized antiques, when once they were common as cutlery in the cherry orchards of North Kent. I was pleased to see them. I walked the path through the valley along a sunny south facing wood, with spurge laurel looking bright under dun brown beech and thin strands of etiolated privet. And then along the minor roads where I diverted into the woods and chased in vain another marsh tit; with a start, a woodcock clattered off, noisy as a fat pheasant. On up through a Roadside Nature Reserve, a sanctuary for some summer orchid I guessed, and up to Belmont House surrounded by old wood pasture.
No Lord today to doff to, just tea and garden tours. The house was built on money earned by the son of a Brasted curate who made good in India having had it tough in the American War of Independence. General Harris led East India Company victories in Mysore, especially the siege of Srirangapatna that finished the fighting for the spoils around the turn of the 18th Century. I pondered with a smile, if it came to pass that this pile with its fine orangery was now bought by an IT guru from down the road in Bangalore.
A robin sang in the bright sun and a fly sat atop of a bunch of open snowdrops. The hedgerow facing south was Mediterranean warm, siesta perfect but for the passing cars. I set off back and passed an ancient farm with corrugated iron-roofed barn and then further down the tiny lane at the bottom of the vale, a woodman’s house with long sheds filled with oak, trammelled mud and little sun. Hedgerow birds made nervous high-pitched calls and a small, male sparrowhawk dashed across in the afternoon sun.
Old farm near Eastling.
I walked back through, now quieter, woods to Eastling, hopped the stile and meandered the churchyard. I stared at the most massive yew by the porch; its girth was half a cricket pitch and twisted like a tornado. I found a gravestone appearing nearly new of Mr. Norrington (d. 1916) etched with ivy and passion flower from friends in the St John’s Ambulance. A chaffinch, handsome in his new blue, sang his familiar spring song and then a loud staccato, song thrush joined. The children just out from primary school shouted and ran, and Eastling was alive.
Eastling’s ancient twisted yew.