Dartford, a town eighteen miles to the south east of central London, goes back a long way. Its importance arose because of its intersection of the river Darent with the main Roman road from London to Dover. Originally a market town and with some important industries it has now increasingly become a largely commuter centre for London. It’s also where the M25, London’s orbital motorway, crosses the Thames.
I found myself in Dartford last week on a very hot day (for UK standards, temperature was 28C) and wasn’t expecting too much from this town. I was, however, pleasantly surprised, even in these lockdown days. I had known Dartford from the time my wife had been conducting market research there and the only significant thing I can remember is entering a fine pub and buying a book from a charity shop. It was called ‘The Interrupter general’, the diary of an English language teacher in Italy, which inspired me to try work experience in that country– indeed, live more or less permanently there.
I travelled by train and at Dartford station I found this commemorative plaque on platform two. A promising start to my visit to the town, I thought.
I soon found myself on an attractive riverside walk (which is nineteen miles in length and leads to the Sevenoak hills) along the Darent River.
Here the river is near its outlet into the Thames and, contained between two cemented walls, is a far cry from the Darent I recollect in its idyllic pastoral setting flowing past the sweet village of Eynsford where there is a real ford I’ve traversed on my Honda Transalp motorbike.
Part of the riverside walk leads under an impressive (for the UK) vine. Unfortunately there was still no sign of any grapes on it:
The riverside walk carries on to the high street which still retains something of its former glory as a market town and has a couple of half-timbered houses.
At one end of the high street is the parish church, of Holy Trinity, originally a 9th-century Saxon structure, but with later Norman additions and Victorian restorations. all overladen with some excellently flint-knapped walls. Its site near the left bank of the Darent is quite picturesque. I was clearly unable to visit Holy Trinity’s interior so could not see the plaque commemorating Richard Trevithick, the pioneer in steam propulsion who lived and died in Dartford.
The High Street has an impressive mural depicting industries and activities that have formed present day Dartford. Some of the town’s key industries, including brewing, paper-making, flour milling and the manufacture of cement, have unfortunately declined in the twentieth century.
The purity of the river Darent’s water, filtered from its source in the chalk hills, has been very important for the paper-making industry. The name Darent (often found written ‘Darenth’ in older maps) derives from the Celtic phrase ‘stream where oak-trees (dair) grow’. I thought of how the similar quality of the water from the Lima and Serchio rivers in the Bagni di Lucca region have given rise to their own important paper-making industries.
At the other end of the High Street is the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel, a pub with an impressive galleried interior. Some years ago this watering-hole served as the temporary headquarters of my wife’s market search company.
Unfortunately, as with the church, the ‘Vic and Bull’ remained closed to the public. So both spiritual and secular solace were denied to me on this visit.
We once attended an excruciating production of ‘Jane Eyre’ at Dartford’s Orchard theatre. Hopefully it will be able to offer something superior when it reopens! There’s a ‘Mick Jagger’ cultural centre too. I wonder if the iconic star has since performed here as he did for Lucca’s summer festival in 2017.
I also remember a visit to the Dartford museum and library and seeing a fine exhibition commemorating our prehistoric Neanderthaloid ancestor Swanscombe man (actually it was a woman) whose 400,000 year old skull was uncovered in the nearby chalk pits.
There was also an urban farm we visited at Stone Lodge Farm Park with a lovely collection of animals and ancient tithe barns. Unhappily this has since closed down.
In the marshes to the north of Dartford were two large hospitals. One of them, the City of London mental hospital, housed the tragic composer and poet Ivor Gurney who was diagnosed as suffering from ‘delusional insanity’. Up to two-thirds of his musical output remains unpublished and unrecorded.
(Ivor Gurney 1890-1937)
In the mid-1970s, the future Princess of Wales did voluntary work at the hospital. The hospital buildings have since either been demolished or converted into luxury flats. Some of the buyers of these have resold as they complained about hearing strange screams and voices within the flats’ walls.
In the village of Gombereto, near Longoio, there is a family who originally lived in Dartford. When I asked the lady of the household why they moved there she replied ‘fancy bringing up kids in Dartford?’ Obviously she knew something about Dartford that I didn’t. However, I did have a very pleasant time in this Kentish town and all those I met were particularly courteous towards me.