The human settlement of the Darent Valley dates to more than 400,000 years ago. On the outskirts of the scheme area, the remains of the so-called ‘Swanscombe Skull’ were discovered close to Dartford. These were identified as being from a woman in her early twenties, and were dated as being some 300,000 years old. They are amongst the earliest human remains to be found in Europe. However, primitive stone axes found at Swanscombe provide evidence that a Clactonian tribe was present here even earlier and used it as an elephant butchery site (Dartford Grammar School, 2009).
Other Palaeolithic (500,000 BC to 10,000 BC) finds include a hand axe at Farningham Woods, one near Otford Mount and another near Sutton-at-Hone. Extensive remains of humans, woolly rhinoceros, wild horse and woolly mammoth were discovered at the former Redlands Pit (now the Sevenoaks Wildfowl Reserve) (Kent County Council, 2016).
With the extensive major infrastructure works of motorways and major roads, a considerable amount of evidence has been built up to demonstrate prehistoric settlement of the valley. Mesolithic (10,000 to 5,000 BC) evidence is substantial with many stone tools found along the valley. These include 16,000 worked flints at Darenth Gravel Pit, a pick near Eynsford, and multiple small flint flake finds throughout the valley (Andrew Simmonds, 2011).
The Neolithic period saw the establishment of organised farming communities in the Darent Valley and resulted in the clearance of woodlands and vegetation transforming the landscape. Numerous examples of carefully worked flint tools including scrapers, axes and arrowheads have been discovered throughout the valley including some finely worked examples close to the centre of Dartford.
Bronze Age (2,350 BC to 701 BC) activity is present with sites such as a bowl barrow at Otford Mount and a ditched prehistoric trackway at Lullingstone (Kent County Council, 2016), however, there is generally considered to be an underrepresentation of evidence for this period (Weller, 2014). The same cannot be said for the Iron Age with a plethora of sites and finds throughout the valley. Iron age pottery, agricultural implements and brooches have been found in and around the Dartford area (Dartford Grammar School, 2009), and a farmstead at Farningham Hill and two significant hill-forts from this period exist at Lullingstone Park and at Goodley Stock on the Squerryes Estate. The former is associated with the finding of the Hulbury billhook (Figure 17).
The River Darent and hence its surrounding valley was an important feature in Roman Kent. Archaeologists are already aware of at least eight Roman villas along the valley, but this is a rather incomplete picture of its occupation during Roman times. The best known and most notable example is the villa at Lullingstone which is in the ownership of English Heritage and is a popular tourist attraction within the valley.
Lullingstone Roman Villa represents a remarkable survival, both in terms of the preservation of some structural elements of the main villa-house, but also, and more significantly, with respect to the evidence for Romano-British Christianity that it produced. Built perhaps as early as the AD 80s, Lullingstone Villa reached the peak of luxury in the mid-4th century when its spectacular mosaics were laid. It is also important for its possible imperial associations, as well as the enigmatic nature of the wider site and the challenges that present to our interpretation and understanding (English Heritage, 2016).
The River Darent was an important Roman supply route, probably carrying grain downstream and possibly bringing back materials for construction and other purposes. The peak of Roman activity in the valley was probably between the 2nd and 3rd centuries when probably all the known villa sites were operating at the same time. There may have been as many as thirteen Roman sites between Dartford and Kemsing, although all may not have been villas. These include:
- Dartford – Tenter’s Field
- Horton Kirby
- Farningham – possibly three villas
- Shoreham – Preston Farm
- Otford – Otford Palace
- Otford – Church Field
Surprisingly, awareness of many of these sites is poor. Several of the excavations date back to around a century ago, and with one exception, the last excavation of a Roman site was 26 years ago. However, a new group, the Discover Roman Otford Project (DROP) was established in 2016 and is carrying out research into the Roman occupation of the Darent Valley. It was born out of the West Kent Archaeological Society (WKAS) and is working on a five-year project (started in 2015) to investigate the Churchfield and Progress villas in Otford using archaeological methodology (Fromings, 2016).
Little is known about the siting, size and nature of Saxon settlements in the Darent Valley. Any traces of their sunken-floored huts made from timber, wattle and thatch have long-since disappeared. A few occupation sites have been identified in the local area, some of these were sited close to former Roman villa sites. Some of the largest or most interesting Saxon cemeteries in Kent have been found in and around Dartford – at Dartford, Riseley (Horton Kirby), Horton Kirby, Darenth, Farningham and Polhill.
In the absence of other archaeological evidence, cemeteries (such as the example located at Darenth Country Park) offer conclusive proof that there were people living in and around the Darent Valley in Saxon times. Grave-goods buried with the dead are an important indicator of the status, wealth, culture, beliefs and lifestyle of the population. Most of the archaeological evidence from local sites suggests that there was a significant influx of Saxon settlers into the Dartford area between the fifth and seventh centuries A.D.
Small Saxon settlements evolved into larger and more permanent villages as time progressed. The modern-day names of many of the villages around the Darent Valley contain elements characteristic of the Saxon language thus proving that they already existed before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Wilmington, Sutton-at-Hone, Horton Kirby, Farningham, Lullingstone and Eynsford were all founded in Saxon times.
Entries in the Domesday Book compiled by the Normans in 1086 demonstrate that the Saxons settlements, which evolved over a period of five hundred years or more, were well administered and organised, with an emphasis on agriculture and animal husbandry.
Probably the most significant heritage feature in the valley from this period is Eynsford Castle. This is a rare survival of an early Norman ‘enclosure castle’, which remained unaltered by later building work. Begun by William de Eynsford I in the late 1080s, the castle was later the subject of a hotly disputed inheritance, which reached a climax in 1312 when one of the claimants broke in and vandalised it. Soon afterwards the castle was abandoned, and by the 18th century many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair, being used only as stables and kennels for hunting dogs.
Another site of note is St John’s Jerusalem at Sutton-at-Hone just south of Dartford. Located on an island within a moat supplied by the River Darent, a small rectangular chapel built in the early 13th century can be found. It was originally constructed as a monastery belonging to crusading knights and was a Commandry of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. The site did once contain many buildings to house the people that lived and worked there as well as possibly a hospital. Now owned by the National Trust it is a scheduled monument.
Several mediaeval churches are also found throughout the valley and include the very attractive example of St Botolph’s Church in the grounds of Lullingstone Castle dating back to the 14th century.
In 1301, Dartford had become a small town, but its population was no more than 1,000. It was located on the (originally Roman) main road from London to the Kent coast (now the A2). This was an important pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury, and Dartford was just a single day’s walking from the capital. Despite this, a proper pedestrian bridge over the Darent was not constructed until the early 15th century, and prior to this a ford was used by carts whilst passengers needed to be ferried across. The landscape around Dartford was dominated by orchards, fields and gardens, and these reached right into the heart of the town maintaining a very rural feel. In addition, the landscape to the north of the town would have been dominated by extensive salt and freshwater marsh.
Elsewhere in the valley, most of the villages would have been well established by this period, albeit at a much smaller scale. The large number of mediaeval buildings and homes that survive are testament to this. These include notable examples such as Filston Hall and Castle Farm near Shoreham.
The period from around 1500 onwards brought about significant change to the Darent Valley. Dartford developed into a market town, benefiting from the relatively close proximity of London. The reliable source of water power from the River Darent supported the valley’s own ‘Industrial Revolution’. The first commercially successful paper mill was established just upstream of Dartford by John Spilman who was Court Jeweller to Elizabeth I and James I. The mill made good quality white paper that was considered the finest ever produced in England at that time.
However, Spilman’s Mill was not the only one present on the Darent. Some 38 mills are considered to have operated along the Darent and its tributaries and included other paper mills, corn and flour mills, gunpowder mills, iron slitting and brass mills, breweries and a cotton mill. These all provided local employment, expanding the villages and in turn enabled the exploitation of natural resources. The result was that the River Darent itself was manipulated and its course much changed to provide the heads of water to supply the mills. It also enabled the land beside the river to be used in new ways and consequently shaped the valley’s landscape. However, quality of the Darent’s waters remained extremely good and warranted a mention in Edmund Spenser’s second book of The Faerie Queen in 1596:
“The Still Darent, in whose waters cleare
Ten Thousand fishes play and decke his pleasant stream”
The valley’s population remained largely an agricultural community during this period, but saw the establishment of notable buildings. Foremost amongst these was Otford Palace, established in 1514 by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, William Warham. An earlier building existed on the site from the 11th century, but it was the Tudor building (of which only a tower and gallery remains) was the most impressive. Similar in style to Hampton Court Palace, it rivalled and possibly exceeded it in both size and grandeur. The palace was visited by Henry VIII and his entourage on his journey to France and was so coverted by him that Archbishop Cranmer was forced to transfer ownership to him in 1537. Its remains are now a scheduled monument.
Other important buildings from this period include Lullingstone Castle. The present building was started in 1497 and is said to have provided inspiration for Otford Palace. Both Henry VIII and Queen Anne were regular visitors, and the silk farm that was later established here provided silk for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation gown. The house was associated with an extensive parkland estate on the western side of the valley, established on a mediaeval deer park.
Similarly, other large estates were formed at this time and played a significant role in shaping the landscape. These included the 17th century Squerryes Court manor house and its surrounding parkland at Westerham; Combe Bank near Sundridge built in 1721 along with surrounding 60 ha parkland; Chevening House built in 1620 and its 280 ha parkland within a 1,400 ha estate; and Frank’s Hall near Farningham built in 1591 and its associated parkland. All of these sites are on Historic England’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.
The importance of the valley at this time as a transport route, and the prosperity provided by its natural resources is summed up by Daniel Defoe (Defoe, 1724):
“From hence, crossing still the roads leading from London into Sussex, keeping on east we come to Westerham, the first market town in Kent on that side. This is a neat handsome well-built market-town, and is full of gentry, and consequently of good company. All this part of the country is very agreeably pleasant, wholesome and fruitful…and is accordingly overspread with good towns, gentlemen’s houses, populous villages, abundance of fruit, with hop grounds and cherry orchards, and the lands well cultivated…”
The Darent Valley remained an idyllic rural setting well into the early 19th century as illustrated by Samuel Palmer’s paintings of the time. The villages would have been recognisable as the settlements we see today, and the landscape would have looked very familiar. However, during this period the towns of Dartford and Sevenoaks began to grow, the former particularly in relation to the advent of the Industrial Revolution. London also began to exert a greater influence on the valley.
The valley remained a popular area for the rich and wealthy to set up home, due not only to the attractiveness of the landscape, but also due to its proximity to London. William Pitt the Younger lived temporarily in Westerham, and later Sir Winston Churchill set up residence at Chartwell just beyond the valley. It was also during this period that the parkland sites in the valley would have dominated the landscape and added to the grandeur of the setting.
However, with the introduction of the Enclosure Acts and the arrival of the Industrial Revolution a substantial change began to appear in the countryside of the Darent Valley. Mechanisation led to increased poverty for rural workers due to an over-supply of labour. During his time in Shoreham, Samuel Palmer was increasingly concerned about the plight of these workers, and his paintings demonstrated his support for them. He was also sympathetic towards the Swing Riots that broke out in Kent during 1830. It was during this time that the landscape we see in the valley today was shaped.
The opening of the Swanley to Sevenoaks Bat & Ball railway line in 1862 through the valley transformed access to and from London for both passengers and goods. This led to significant structures in the landscape such as the viaducts at Eynsford (built in 1859) and Horton Kirby (built in 1858). Additionally, the Westerham Valley Branch line (now subsumed under the M25) was constructed in 1881 and ran from the Bat & Ball station.
Industry grew rapidly. The mustard factory of Saunders and Harrison opened in 1842 and was described as “perhaps the largest in the kingdom”. This was followed by the Dartford Paper Mills in 1862. Elsewhere along the valley, the various water-powered mills became more sophisticated and increasingly efficient at harnessing hydro-power. The Horton Kirby Paper Mill was built in 1820, today leaving the legacy of its 70m high brick chimney. The gunpowder mill, just south of Dartford on Powdermill Lane and powered by the Darent operated from 1732 through to the early 20th century, when the powder magazines at Dartford became the most extensive in the country.
To aid navigation and drainage, the channels of the Darent and Cray through Dartford and Crayford Marshes were straightened and ‘improved’ significantly, reducing flood events and making the area more suitable for grazing and other uses.
The 20th Century
Whilst the effect of the Industrial Revolution was profound, substantial change continued into the twentieth century. London continued to grow and its impact on the communities, industry and landscape was significant. Dartford and the lower reaches of Dartford were enveloped by the Capital’s expansion, and brought urbanisation to the very edge of the rest of the valley. Flooding was a major issue, particularly for Dartford, Darenth, Farningham and Eynsford when in 1900 snow melt further up the valley caused a ‘great flood’. These continued right up to 1968.
The small pox epidemic towards the end of the 19th century also had an impact on the landscape of the Darent Valley into the following century. Converted ships were moored in the Thames at Long Reach off the Dartford Marshes. As these neared the end of their life, Joyce Green Hospital was built (in 1903) and the establishment of a tramway from the Long Reach pier to the hospital was constructed (Figure 23). This enabled small pox victims brought out of London on ambulance ships to be transported safely to the hospital. A cemetery was established at what is now Temple Hill just to the south-east of the hospital, where 1029 bodies were buried in 292 graves… 80% of which occurred in just one year in 1902 due to a severe small pox epidemic in London (Payne, 2016). The hospital and its associated Orchard Hospital were significant features in the landscape until the 1980s. Since then, they have been subsumed by the new ‘Bridge’ development.
This period was also significant for aviation history in the Darent Valley. In 1896, Percy Sinclair Pilcher experimented with flying his ‘Gull’ and ‘Hawk’ gliders from a location known as the ‘knob’ at Upper Austin Lodge near Eynsford (Figure 24). The open downland landscape and steep slopes provided perfect conditions for the test flights. These flights involved successful glides of up to 300 yards and occurred seven years before the Wright Brothers achieved manned powered flight in 1903 (Littledyke, 2010).
Just over a decade later Messrs Vickers Ltd became more active in the new field of aviation. The Vickers airfield was located at Dartford Marshes just east of Joyce Green Hospital and was used for testing prototype aeroplanes. However, Vickers did not construct a proper runway, preferring to board over the numerous drainage ditches across the marsh (Beard, 2006).
The two world wars had a major impact on the valley. The First World War for the first time brought the threat of aerial bombardment from enemy airships and planes. This was particularly the case for Dartford, but also subsequently left its mark in the Darent Valley villages. The hillside above Shoreham is marked with a white memorial cross dug in 1920 to remember the local men killed in action.
However, it was the Second World War that had the most profound impact on the landscape of the Darent Valley. Bombing raids killed 150 and injured 700 people, leaving 13,000 homes damaged in Dartford alone. With the valley en-route to and from London, it was subject to stray bombs as well as those jettisoned as the enemy planes retreated towards the Channel. These have left a legacy of pockmarks across the valley landscape.
Consequently, the skies above the Darent Valley were a major battleground during the Battle of Britain. On 15 September 1940, a force of about 100 German bombers approaching London was challenged by nine RAF squadrons over Shoreham. A series of individual ‘dogfights’ resulted and a Dornier Do 17Z was shot down and made an emergency landing at Castle Farm. Parts of the plane are held at the Shoreham Aircraft Museum and the event has been brought to life by local ‘aviartist’ Geoff Nutkins.