Come with me. Let me take your hand and we’ll walk together. Past the pond where the moorhens nest and the trees are so tall; past the doctor’s house and the big new house we’re really not sure about. Just a few yards along the blackberried lane and here we are at the heart of the village.
See how low the cottages sit, how tall and foolishly fancy the chimneys are. Look how proudly the year 1879 is carved on the front. Mind you, that’s not so old to boast about - at least not for round here. Hever, not so far away, has a castle with a proper drawbridge and moat. Where poor Anne Boleyn was first courted by Henry VIII all the way back in 1526.
But still these houses feel old. And quaint. The whole village feels quaint. See the old school house in golden stone with its dedication to Queen Victoria’s jubilee on the front? They say it’s haunted by the ghost of Miss Brown, the schoolmistress. Geraldine and Jamie swear things flew through the air unaided when they lived there. Lights turned themselves on and off and footsteps were heard when they were alone in the house.
Next door is Zandra’s tiny home. She moved into this little house after her husband Oscar died. Outrageous, marvellous Oscar, who, on his first day working at the Stock Exchange put half a client’s inheritance he’d been entrusted with on a single horse at Ascot. Which lost.
At the little crossroads, with the tree and the cast iron sign that my husband Paul designed for the millenium celebrations, is the pub, The Kentish Horse. Kentish, rather than ‘of Kent’, because it’s west of the river Medway and because things like that matter round here. The pub is low slung like the houses. Low and whitewashed and welcoming. An open fire in the winter and a magical view across the Weald from the willow shaded garden in summer.
What do we have next to the pub? The church of course. And here in the churchyard, arranged side by side are Mike Roberts, Robin DP and Peter Bellamy. Old friends lying together, just as they once drank together and brought their children up together in the village.
If we turn the corner, we’re in Cow Lane, tiny Cow Lane, winding its way down towards Horseshoe Green. Walking down Cow Lane always makes me feel nostalgic for some reason. Maybe it's the way the hedgerows, softened by honeysuckle and hawthorn, make the lane seem slightly misty. Or is it the way the lane slopes gently downwards towards a half hidden pond and then opens out to a glorious view across the county border into Sussex? Whatever the reason, I always feel that I'm being drawn backwards in time - a time of baskets and bonnets and East End families coming down for the hop picking.
Along Cow Lane, the vicarage is as grand as Victorian vicarages can ever be. Michael, the city trader, who lives there now with his warm-hearted wife
Jayne and their family, rises at 5am to take the train from our tiny
unmanned station up to the City. In the past, before the cuts, the
station master would often call round the wives in the village: “Mrs
Roberts? Just to let you know, the down train is delayed tonight, so
don’t come to pick up Mr Roberts until 6.15.”
Before Michael, the vicarage was home to Jane - one of many redoubtable elderly women round here who worked for the Special Operations Executive
during World War 2. Desperate to do her bit for the war effort, Ann
managed to talk her way into this secret organisation of British spies
by pretending she spoke Chinese.
Posted, aged 21, to Shanghai, her
adventures included being billeted overnight in a Chinese brothel (her
honour protected by a group of young British officers) and hiding thousands of pounds of government money in her handbag to exchange it on street corners at vastly inflated rates. This unofficial money laundering resulted in the Shanghai office of the SOE making a remarkable £77 million pounds profit - money which went to provide assistance to Allied prisoners of war.
As I continue along Cow Lane I always pause at Old Farm. To admire its crazily steep cat-slide roof, to peer through at the rich tangle of roses and clematis in the beautiful old garden but also to imagine my dear friends inside. Alexander upstairs writing - his mind soaring across centuries and oceans as he writes his stories of the founding of nations. His wife Silvia cooking in her big country kitchen or working on her beautiful food photographs.
This is the village I’ve lived in and loved for the past sixteen years. A tiny hamlet on the highest ridge of the beautiful High Weald of Kent. A hidden corner of what’s known as The Garden of England; rich in history, even richer in community. A place where we can still leave our doors unlocked and where the social life revolves around laughter-filled suppers with neighbours who have become true friends. Where Harvest Supper or the annual New Year’s Day booze-fuelled lunch are attended by almost everyone. Because they are great, joyous, heart-filling affairs.
I’ll never forget my first Parish lunch - an annual summer event held in Alexander and Silvia’s magical garden. In one corner the two hosts wrestled chickens and burgers over a bank of blazing barbecues; in the other, tables groaned with salads and puddings which had arrived in bowls and tupperware from every home in the village.
I stood at the top of the garden and looked out at the deep old-fashioned double borders, flanked by shaded lawns rolling down to a magnificent view over fields populated by lazy cattle. Around 70 people sat chatting on the lawns; beer, wine or Pimms in one hand, a filled paper plate in the other. Everyone was talking, all were sitting with friends.
And as I gazed around I realised, with a real sense of wonder, that I knew more than 60 of these people well enough to sit down and be welcomed into their group. Paul and I had lived in this tiny village for less than a year, but already we knew over 60 people - had been invited to their homes, had shared food and laughter with them and could strike up conversation with any one of them at any time.
How different from urban Croydon where we had previously lived. Please don’t get me wrong, I love Croydon, indeed I’m a town girl at heart. But a quick ‘hiya, how are you doing’ is all that is expected in terms of neighbourliness there. And the strangest thing was that, after less than a year, this tiny place with its slightly eccentric characters and its long sense of history felt more like home than anywhere I had ever lived.