Event Reports for 2013

Kentish Village Life in Victorian Times - 16 January 2012

Popular local historian Helen Allinson gave a talk to a large and appreciative audience.

Helen Allinson made her second visit to the Society and gave a fascinating insight into village life during the 19th and early 20th century.

Victorian England continued the system of earlier times in which village life was set in a framework of hierarchy. If seen as a pyramid the Squire was at the top along with the vicar and perhaps the doctor. Below them would be the farmers, shopkeepers and blacksmith with the bottom supported by farm workers and seasonal and itinerant workers such as hoppers and fruit pickers.

The village shops would have been a hub for social life within the village itself bearing in mind that those who lived there might only visit larger towns 3 or 4 times a year. In many cases, people never saw a larger town during their lifetime.

There were always a number of different clubs and societies in villages with pubs forming an important function over and above the drinking of ale. They were a meeting place for many village activities but were of course 'men only' establishments in those days.

Many activities revolved around either Christian festivals or agricultural cycles (seasons). Feast days were a reason for a get-together and a chance for everyone to meet and enjoy them. Life was generally very hard for those at the bottom of the pyramid so they really let their hair down whenever they could.

Rotation Sunday saw the Beating of the Bounds when the old and young members of the parish would walk around the boundary usually led by the parish priest and stopping at parish boundaries to beat the ground with birch or willow. In some cases, boys were turned upside down and bounced on the ground to make them remember where the bounds were. Read more about the Society's own "Beating".

May Day was an occasion when the girls and ladies had a chance to take centre stage with the girls choosing their May queen and all the ladies in the village helping to make garlands and other decorations. After the 1870 Education Act, the May Day celebrations started to be undertaken by schools to ensure girls got to school that day.

Schools would often close following storms or when the harvest was in to allow the children to gather firewood or go gleaning. This continued well into the twentieth century.

Each village would have a Friendship Society where villagers could save small amounts of money. The money would be kept in a chest, usually with four separate locks the keys of which were wielded by different people to prevent the chance of the funds disappearing.

Many villages had charity's set up to help the poor such as The William Barrow charity in Borden. In some cases, the local squire or wealthy family would provide help. One such was the Thomas family in Hollingbourne who provided the ingredients for a Christmas dinner for the poor of the parish. In winter they organised a soup kitchen.

Helen's talk was sprinkled with numerous anecdotes one in particular about a vicar who had to be revived during his sermon having fallen asleep. The brandy bottle found in the pulpit giving a clue to the reason.

John Jackson

Wildlife Heritage Foundation - 6 March

Illustrated presentation by the head keeper, Beccy Porter, from this important Europe-wide breeding programme for large cats - tigers, snow leopards, pallas cats (not large but have a real big-cat attitude!). This programme has a base in Smarden and Beccy explained their conservation work.

A good sized audience heard an illustrated talk given by Beccy Porter, Head Keeper at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation (WHF) that sits on our doorstep at Smarden. We were treated to a passionate and enlightening vision of how people can try to preserve endangered species even when other people are carelessly hunting them, their prey animals and destroying their habitats. However, the vision was an inspiring one rather than one of despair.

Modest and compassionate beginnings. In the 1990s, Malcolm Dudding was active in keeping and conserving rare breed dogs, including Australian Cattle Dogs at his kennels in Kent. At that time, Maidstone Council closed a circus that held neglected lions. The Council put out an appeal for a place of safety and Malcolm stepped up. The beginnings of a place of sanctuary and tranquillity for older cats that slowly grew until in the early 'noughties' there were eight compounds and Malcolm felt that he could not work alone do more to realise his ambitions for a breeding centre for endangered species on his own. His commitment to rare dog species evolved into a passion for the protection of cats - from the small and somewhat grumpy Pallas cats to the much larger predators. Today, this WHF site hosts 52 cats, a successful breeding programme and a commitment to science and conservation measures at home and overseas.

A massively important step towards achieving this success came from the ambitions of the Sampson Family to make a difference for endangered species of all kinds - through the creation of the Wildlife Heritage Foundation - a registered charity. Beginning with buying Paradise Wildlife Park, shutting it down and investing in a seriously different idea of what a 'zoo' might mean.

Today, Paradise Wildlife Park is one of only six in the UK licensed to participate in breeding the most endangered species in the world. Something that they do with national, European and global partners today. Significantly, the partnership and investment offered by the Sampson's Foundation led directly to the Smarden site becoming the flagship site for managing the big cat breeding programmes for several flag-ship species - e.g. Sumatran tigers, Amur leopards and tigers, and snow leopards - see the list.

The WHF supports a successful breeding programme, educational projects at home and overseas. All this in Smarden - who would have known? Beccy and her colleagues (including her wildlife photographer husband - Andy) work tirelessly in a small team with the aid of many volunteers drawn from local enthusiasts and visitors.

Moving forward. From small beginnings, today, the Smarden site is a magnificent facility and the whole team works hard to obtain funds. Their August 2012 Open Day drew more than 7,000 visitors and helped generate significant funds. Throughout the year, the team and volunteers offer a varied programme of "visitor experiences" - always with a firm focus on the well-being and protection of the cats in their care. Visitors can enjoy one-to-one photographic workshops, group photography days, feeding experiences, donations, adoptions and 'keeper for a day' experiences. A new partnership means that people can book nights in a log cabin on the site, with opportunities to learn more about the cats - they hope to launch that experience in April. Visitors who book experiences directly with the WHF (and tick the Gift Aid box) know that every penny of money generated goes back into the programme - rather than being diluted by booking through third parties.

What are the successes? The Pallas cats bred 4 kittens in 2010, an impressive feat for a breed that is very vulnerable to parasites outside their natural environment; Amur leopards were bred successfully in 2008 and 2010; Amur tigers bred most recently in 2012. With the rarest cats, like the Amur leopards, the wild population is reduced to 40 cats. In response, WHF is working collectively with other European centres of expertise to create a breeding pool in Europe of 200 cats. The count today is about 100, so more effort is needed. The science involved includes reliance on a "breed book" to ensure as much genetic diversity as possible ahead of returning leopards to the wild when the full agreement is achieved with the Russian authorities.

Beccy painted a complex picture for all release projects in which local pressures (fear of predator cats) and development of local resources can often prevent releases of these precious cats. Poachers offer a two-edged threat to successful release - killing the cats and killing their food prey. Protection measures have to be in place, with the commitment of local communities (e.g. who may engage in ecotourism, innovate around features that prevent cats from killing farm stock, and understand how coexistence can be made to work). But all this depends on state authority and protection measures that are not always easily obtained. In spite of those political and social hurdles, the WHF and other similar organisations are determined to continue their work so that when conditions are right, they can release cats to their natural habitat.

When asked if lynx might return to the UK, there are all the same hurdles to be negotiated. There are successful colonies elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Italy and Russia) that may receive lynx first. There is always a 'hearts and minds' challenge ahead of re-introductions. Often there is a sentimental desire for reintroduction but this is counterbalanced by a feeling that it should happen but not in 'my back yard'.

What about eco-tourism? An audience question about "artificial baiting" by hanging meat on trees to bring cats closer to visiting crowds. In the discussion, the picture emerged as a complex one. On the one hand, 'affordable' safaris are widely variable in their performance. Organisations that offer a more eco-touristic experience (where groups are smaller and less intrusive - perhaps less certain that sighting will be so frequent; contributions to local projects may benefit more directly). As a general guide, tourists might research the views and partnerships of big cat charities to find the more eco-friendly providers - 'headline offers' may appear similar but the costs and impact of visitors on the environment could be very different - e.g. £2,000 on the one hand and £6,000 on the other. Pay your money, make your choice!

Sittingbourne History, 1890 to 2012 - 17 April

A photo-animation projected by Colin Harvey that captured historical images from the Sittingbourne. Telling the story of Sittingbourne from a small coaching and Market Town, to the world's largest paper producer. Report due to be posted.

Guided Walk at Oare Marshes - 11 May

With bird-expert Bob Gomes (RSPB) to visit this important Kent Wildlife Trust bird sanctuary and migration 'stop over'. The freshwater scrapes were alive with a wide variety of aquatic and reed-living birds. The tide was on the turn and brought waders closer in-shore, giving every opportunity to spot and identify wetland and foreshore birds, including warblers. The weather was dry enough to make the walk very easy. We met up at the small Harty Ferry Reserve car-park.

Following early heavy showers on Saturday 11th May 2013, 10 Lynsted with Kingsdown Society members met at Kent Wildlife Trust's Oare Marsh reserve. Bird expert Bob Gomes arrived to take us on a walk around a good part of the 81-hectare reserve. Bob told us a little about the reserve and pointed out the presence of the Artesian well which provides drinking water to those who take the trouble to collect it. Then armed with binoculars and wrapped up against the rather unseasonal but thankfully dry weather we set off to spend a couple of hours finding out from Bob about the various birds that may be seen there at this time of the year. We weren't disappointed.

Sedge and Reed Warblers chattered away in the reed beds to our right as we tried to differentiate between their songs and learnt how we might identify them should they appear. A Reed Bunting flitted around quite close to the car park. The loud and clear trill of the Cetti's warbler sounded amongst the reeds but we were told not to expect to see this particular warbler even though it is now rather more common than it was 30 years ago. Over on the Swale, numerous Shelduck could be seen, showing off their white and coloured spring plumage. We were told that Shelduck are unusual in that they nest in holes in the ground, these ones probably on the Isle of Sheppey, and so visit the Marshes to feed. The striking Oyster Catcher with its bright orange bill and legs was also seen on the mud, as well as on the grass and on islands in the open water scrape. Birds of prey could just be seen high up in the direction of the RSPB Capel Fleet Raptor Watchpoint over to the north on Sheppey.

Numerous Swifts, Swallows, House and Sand Martins entertained us and tested our identification skills as they flew around and above the reserve. At least one Skylark sang way above us. Blue Tits and Starlings made up the numbers. After a visit to the Hide which looks out to sea where sometimes seals may be seen 'lounging' on the sandbanks, we came out to hear the 'pinging' sound of the Bearded Tit. Luckily this small, secretive blue/grey and brown bird (properly a Reedling and not of the tit family) decided to give us a rather special sighting as he moved around clinging to various swaying reeds.

With the creek on our left, we carried on around the reserve where we saw a number of Greylag geese and their goslings sitting amongst the grass. A Common Tern flew over as did a Grey Heron and some black-headed gulls. A pair of Avocets displaying their elegant patterned white with black plumage landed near enough for Bob to point out their unusual upturned bills working from side to side in the water. A pure white Little Egret, now a reasonably common sight in the marsh environment, paddled around in the water while a Marsh Harrier gave us a display in the distance. Ducks on the scrape included the black and white Tufted Duck, a Pochard with its rusty coloured head and the not so familiar Gadwall (a greyish duck slightly smaller than a Mallard, with a black rear end). Cormorants stood tall and black on the islands where Lapwing flew and settled. Several Dunlin, a small wader, ran around in the shallows. There were plenty of Black-tailed Godwits to see, showing off their long beaks as they probed around for food in the shallow water. Over in the bushes on the south side and in the sunshine a singing Whitethroat was identified as he flew from branch to branch. A flock of Linnets set off overhead for what looked like a day out. This brought us to near the end of the walk and back to the road where the roadside viewing point gave us another opportunity to look across at the birds on the water.

With Bob's guidance, many of us were both surprised and delighted that such an abundance of both bird and plant life is gathered together on this reserve so very close to where we live. We all made a note to make regular visits and perhaps to start a bird list! Our thanks go to Bob Gomes for showing us around this special place.

Birds of Prey - 22 May

Presentation by Leigh Holmes on raptors and hawking given by the Hawking Centre (who operate from Doddington Place). We enjoyed the company and flight of an owl and vulture (6-foot wingspan!)!

Leigh told us how he fell in love with a barn owl aged 12 and never looked back. He helped a fellow birder at first but by 14 was hand rearing his own barn owl. After that school never really got a look in and by 19 he had his own bird of prey centre at Farming World. Via moves to Leeds Castle and now Doddington Place and Eastwell Manor his collection of birds has steadily grown. As well as displays and experience days with the birds they also undertake an active programme of school visits and pest control duties notably at Westminster Cathedral. It is always a true pleasure to hear a real enthusiast talk engagingly about something which clearly inspires him and Leigh did not disappoint!

We were then introduced to Oscar the Barn Owl. Oscar is very tame and a real character. He treated us to a spectacular flying display inside the hall. There was not a sound from his feathers as he flew from Leigh to the gauntlet of a volunteer. We were able to stroke him and feel how soft his feathers are. To see such a magnificent bird close too was a real experience.

We were then treated to a performance by Maggie a Hooded Vulture ----- yes that's right a vulture. Rather a brutal looker after Oscar and rather more likely to nip, her flying in such a confined space with a 5-foot wingspan was even more spectacular. It did culminate in a crash with the projector screen but fortunately, there was no damage to either party. After this, she was very red-faced, apparently a sign of excitement.
We finished with a well-deserved round of applause. The lecture fee is to be donated to an orphanage in Cambodia that Leigh and his wife are involved with.

Wild Flowers, Ghosts and Neolithic Man in East Sussex - 3rd June

This was the third guided visit to see a rare, unspoilt chalk meadowland. Our lead guide was the highly expert Keith Datchler who knows the habitat in great detail.

A group of 22 of us visited the wildflower meadows on the Beech Estate near Battle in Sussex. The walk was led by the Beech estate manager, Keith Datchler, OBE. We all brought a picnic which we ate in bright sunshine in a beautiful spot outside a renovated Sussex barn, overlooking a peaceful wooded valley. The next stunning sight was Neil and Fiona getting out their elaborate picnic hamper!

In the early afternoon, we started our meadow walk. A few wildflowers were out including orchids, but because of the late spring, most were still to come. The land was farmed for many years by two brothers who had a small dairy farm and grazed the cows close to the farm and cut outlying fields for hay this allowed the wildflowers to develop into the unique acid meadows they are today. Keith told us how he had discovered the flora in the meadows when the farm had been taken back by the estate when the two elderly brothers had retired and knew it had to be preserved at all cost. He also told how he managed to spread the wildflowers to the other meadows that had been grazed rather than cut for hay.

As we passed the old farmhouse, Keith told us how the two elderly brothers only lived in part of it as it was haunted!

As we reached the highest point overlooking the valley Keith showed us an archaeological dig where Neolithic man had camped At the end of the last ice age this would have been the perfect vantage point for the hunters to watch what would then have been a river valley with a few stunted trees, very different from how it is today.

As we made our way through the meadows Keith told us that the last meadow we saw had been adopted as the Coronation meadow for Sussex. This is an initiative instigated by Prince Charles to help protect 60 existing meadows and to create 60 new meadows as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

We then meandered our way through the remains of post-medieval ironworks back to our cars and everyone agreed it had been a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, we will be organising another trip next year so- watch this space.

Neil Anderson

Chairman's Wildlife & Farm Open Day - 8th June

Neil Anderson hosted a series of speakers including experts on birds, flowers, and mammals (including dormice). There were opportunities for gentle guided walks to enjoy the many varied aspects of mixed farmland and woodland. A great family day out was enjoyed by around fifty Members and Guests.

Godmersham Park opened for the Society - 15th July

Several Members and friends brought picnics and enjoyed walks in the grounds. The guides were disappointing. No report.

Visit to Dargate "Cheesemakers of Canterbury" - 11 September

In the evening (when production is closed) we were met by Jane, the master-cheesemaker, and split into two groups to learn about the making of "Ashmore" Cheeses. These are prize-winning cheeses - for example, Winners of the 2012 Taste of Kent Award for their "Canterbury Cobbler" cheese. We enjoyed a walk through the manufacturing process and the cheese store. After our walk-through, followed by many questions, we tasted several kinds of cheese and were able to buy dairy and goat cheeses to suit!

This successful small company employs just 8 people in the business - each having to turn their hand to the job of making cheeses or selling them! In an average year, the cheesemakers turn 180,000 litres of milk to make 18,000 cheeses or roughly 1.8 tonnes. To retain their status as "artisan" producers, this scale of production is about as much as they aim to make. Production takes place five days a week or more as Christmas production ramps up.

The business was set up 6.5 years ago after the owner sold their dairy business and then took up the reins of this business.

This site focuses on the unpasteurised cheeses, which and are quicker to produce than pasteurised cheeses (half a day from end to end to produce the soft unpasteurised cheeses). Their milk supplier was chosen as they could deliver the milk still warms (30 centigrade) rather than chilled (and certainly without pasteurisation). We were shown into the production room where we saw the three small vats in which production starts. We were also surrounded by presses and stands - each having their own place in production. Once the milk is delivered (through a hole in the wall), all cheeses rely on the inclusion of cultures that looked like fine-grained Redibrek that smells of bread! If cheese is to be 'cheddared' - harder finish - the process takes up to a full day. This cheesemaker uses vegetable rennet to coagulate the curds in production.

It is important that mixing is thorough and this is still done using wooden paddles that are later steam cleaned in the vats at the end of the early mixing process. It took a while for the use of wooden paddles to be approved by regulators! Tradition won out in the end! After stirring together, while the chemistry works, the cheese is left alone to set to a blancmange texture.

At that stage the curd is 'cut' and this helps separates curds from the whey. The harder the cheese, the finer the cutting into 'cubes' so to release more liquid. After that, there follows a 50-minute arduous hand-stirring process. Then the vat is left for 50 minutes to permit separation of curd and whey - the whey being drained off and sent to piggeries - nothing is wasted.

When cut into 'bricks', the cheeses can be stacked (cheddared) to remove even more whey. At this point, it is important to maintain the right level of acidity. Salt is added as a final process before stacking in stores after which the skin-mould begins to form after a week or so. We were shown the storeroom in which we saw the various stages of growth in the mould/rind and we were surrounded by the most delightful aroma.
Most of us left with carrier-bags full of the wonderful produce of Dargate Cheesemakers - goat, cows, soft and hard. Well worth a visit to the shop to top up on these delicious local products.

Nigel Heriz-Smith

UK Overseas Aid Presentation - 13th November

POSTPONED AT THE LAST MINUTE DUE TO URGENT BRIEFING CALL on the tragedy hitting the Philippines.
We hope to reinstate this Presentation early in 2014.
We look forward to Society Member, Dylan Winder, giving us an illustrated talk on "a job on the world's front line". He has significant experience in delivering UK Overseas Aid under the most difficult conditions. In particular, in leading the UK's emergency humanitarian disaster responses.

Our 10th AGM was followed by a talk on local Archaeology - 23rd October

Talk was given by Archaeologist, Paul Wilkinson, who gave a stimulating and revealing presentation on local (and historically important sites nearby).

Following the quick proceedings of the Society's AGM, the talk by Dr Wilkinson raised our energy levels!

Paul runs the Kent Archaeology Field School-based just outside Faversham. He has a background in marine archaeology but started his time in Swale by spending 4 years walking every field in the area as an initial survey. This revealed a number of sites worthy of further study and Paul treated us to a tour of these local remains and the results of his digs, as well as some sites in other parts of Kent.

Watling Street is the axis along which much of Swale's history is aligned. Digs show that the road is much older than the Roman road and dates back 4000 years with field systems pre-dating the Romans. There are then dense deposits until the 5th century and the end of Roman occupation when a long hiatus develops. The later history, of course, has extensive written records to back up the physical evidence of digs, but it has to be treated with caution as much depends on who wrote it!

One of Paul's early digs was at Bax Farm just north of Lower Road between Teynham and Bapchild. Here a large and opulent building was excavated, standing slightly elevated and easily seen from Watling Street. It was octagonal and proved to be a bathhouse with a central pool and hot and cold rooms surrounding it, all with underfloor heating. Paul believes this is one of only 3 baptisteries in Britain, dating from the reign of Constantine, though there are many of similar design on the continent. Although his photos of the dig revealed the usual collection of small walls his eloquent descriptions brought to life the beauty and elegance of the building in its heyday. At the end of the Roman period, as with so much of the Roman heritage, the building and its materials were recycled and reused.

Paul then told us about a ditch that runs across our Parish through Claxfield. He hopes to dig a transect across it but is certain it is Roman in origin as it runs arrow straight for 23 kilometres and only the Romans could have achieved such a feat of engineering. Its purpose might have been to act as a border between the Romans and new settlers like the Jutes invading from Northern Europe. Interestingly he told us that the name of Greenstreet may well be because the old Watling Street would have tended to turn green in the winter as the stones were overgrown by weeds and mosses. North of Watling Street, around Deerton Street, the old Roman field margins still, survive many to their original sizes of 20 Actus.

Another nearby site is at School Farm just north of Whitstable Road in Faversham. His excavations have revealed a large theatre complex here with 19 buildings. There was an elevated stage with a back wall just like a modern theatre, and mosaic remains show it was elaborately decorated. It is set into a bowl in the ground and is the only such theatre known in Britain. The site can be seen from The Swale Heritage Trail.
Paul talked about several other sites in Kent and concluded an interesting and enjoyable talk with a short Q&A session followed by wine and nibbles and good conversation.

Alistair Taylor

Christmas Party

Our thanks go to Julie and Kevin for allowing us to hold our party in their home where 58 of us enjoyed the company, renewal of acquaintance, singing, punches and nibbles. Also thanks to Jo Sidney for helping us along with her piano playing. Another highly successful evening.

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