My daughter and I just returned from a twelve-day trip to England to visit my mother, who has lived in the UK for about thirty years. Usually the trip involves tours of local attractions. This year we went to the town of Sandwich, located near the English Channel between Margate and Dover. At one time Sandwich was one of the greatest ports in England and is still one of the five Cinque Ports designated by the Crown to protect the coast.
Sandwich is renowned for containing some of the most complete sections of medieval town. Tourism to view the antiquities began in the 1700s and has not abated. We stayed at the King’s Arms, an inn built in 1580 on Strand Street. At that time the street fronted the Stour River. Since then so much silting-in of the waterway has occurred that there are houses with large backyards on the river side of the street. The inn was originally called the Queen’s Arms and named for Elizabeth I who visited Sandwich. The name was changed in 1687, during the reign of James II.
The inn is a charming and largely original structure. Features such as the cheerful common room with its giant fireplace, huge exposed wooden beams throughout, narrow, steep staircases, and door clearances under six feet high are all proof of this house’s nearly 450 year history. Our room was number three and our window was the middle one with the orange glow above the parked car on the right side of the first photo. The elderly single glazed window was quite drafty. Luckily the weather was warm during our stay. We had a large, comfortable room with a fireplace that has been closed up. The included full English breakfast was very good. The psychic in me is certain residuals of long-gone lives still remain in our room and in the entire building.
Many of the streets in Sandwich are like the one above. It is single lane, yet accommodates two-way traffic. Medieval buildings crowd close, their jetties overhanging the sidewalks. The lane above, Church Street, runs between the King’s Arms and St. Mary’s Church to intersect with Strand Street. Walking along the streets can be challenging as the traffic is sometimes heavy and the sidewalks are narrow or non-existent. Many are roughly paved with cobbles.
Sandwich has a long history. It began as a small settlement on an island in a large, deep harbor. In AD 43 the Romans established Rutupiae (Richborough) on this harbor. The population of the area rapidly expanded as the army used Rutupiae for their base in the conquest of Britain. Sandwich, once known as Lundenwic, stood near the harbor entrance to the wide, deep, important Wantsum shipping channel that ran all the way to London from the sea. Massive storms with tidal wave surges deposited so much silt with major flooding that the harbor was partially filled in, leaving Richborough high and dry and making Lundenwic the new port town. After the Romans left, and the Saxons were invaded by Danes, the name was changed to Sandwic, meaning sandy town. Over time the name morphed into Sandwich.
In the 900s, the town moved to higher ground as continued silting formed a peninsula from the original island. The channel remained deep enough for large ships. By the eleventh century Sandwich had become a major English port with a large population and great wealth. In the middle of that century it was designated a Cinqueport with obligations to provided armed sailing vessels and fighting men for the king in times of war. In return Sandwich received money from surrounding towns to help with the arming of vessels and men, and privileged trade with the continent free from customs and tolls.
Ever at odds with England, France staged several raids on Sandwich. In 1217, they burned much of the town. A toll ferry carried traffic across to Thanet until a bridge was built. A version of it stands today. The structure was originally a drawbridge but was rebuilt as the current single lane swing bridge. Traffic approaches the bridge through the Barbican or David’s (Davis) Gate (photo above.) The town had been granted the right to have its own municipal court as a cinqueport privilege. A Guild Hall with a court room was constructed in 1359 that still stands today. The town had a mayor and all the eligible men of voting age participated in town business including serving on juries.
The Great Storm of 1287 brought a devastating tidal wave storm surge carrying so much silt that the harbor was filled in. The river remained deep enough for good sized ships to navigate so Sandwich continued as a port two miles inland from the sea. A wide place in the river called Sandwich Haven provided safe docking for trade ships. The French attacked several more times including in 1457 when the mayor was killed. Since that time all the mayors of Sandwich wear black robes of office to signify mourning. In the 1450s the king became so concerned about attacks by the French that he ordered the town better fortified. More and higher walls were built and stronger gates.
The end of Sandwich’s days as a port city occurred in the late 1550s when Pope Paul IV lost a large ship. It sank right at the mouth of Sandwich Haven. Soon silt and sand built up around the wreck effectively stopping up the entrance to Sandwich for large trading vessels. Attempts to cut a deeper passage failed.
In the 1560s, craftspeople escaping religious persecution in Flanders and France came to England. Queen Elizabeth granted the refugees licenses to set up shops and manufacture in different parts of England. Several groups of Dutch weavers moved to Sandwich and began manufacturing broadcloth using wool produced in Kent. They employed small vessels to carry their goods out to markets. This created a boom for the Sandwich area. The photo above is of the Sandwich Weavers building where the Dutch sheltered when they arrived in the area. Over time many of these weavers became wealthy.
The Dutch influence in Sandwich can also be seen in architecture, ditches, drainage works and farm fields. Because the area was once part of the sea, it is low, flat and damp. The Dutch had experience with such conditions. They drained fields to create farmland and grew crops such as grains, carrots and celery in the sandy soil. A ditch called the Delf (Old English for ditch) and connected sluices were added in an attempt to bring better water to the town. It was notorious for unhealthful conditions due to fouled drinking water. Today the sluices can still be seen, stagnant water filled with duck weed and looking like tiny canals standing below street level in front of homes. The Delf did not improve conditions as people continued to foul the open waterways and contract illnesses. An attempt to pump in clean water failed in the 1620s. The town didn’t have reliable clean drinking water until the late 1800s.
Prosperity brought by the Dutch began to fade in the early 1600s when King James I set up a company of merchants and granted them sole rights to trade in Europe. With its commercial life strangled, Sandwich faded as a port for anything but the superior crops produced in the area, including its famed carrots. Poverty became a problem for the locals until tourism began to restore some employment. The town drew visitors to its quaint, narrow streets and blocks of antique houses.
The fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montague (1718-1792) is fabled to have eaten meals made of slices of meat between pieces of bread while gambling in the Guild Hall around 1762. The sandwich is named for him. In 1759 Thomas Paine lived for about a year on New Street in a small brick house. He had settled in Sandwich after marrying. His wife died a year after the marriage. He later departed for the American colonies and found fame there as a patriot.
Today Sandwich has much to offer visitors. Experience the adventure of staying in a medieval inn, take a leisurely stroll on the walkways by the Quay, enjoy a meal in one of the many fine establishments, amble through the ancient streets or hike along a segment of the well kept Coast Path which passes through town on its way around the entire southeastern seaboard. Sandwich has something for everyone.