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Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - South East: Monday February 7, 2005


The Ebbsfleet memorial cross
Landmarks like the Ebbsfleet cross could be in the wrong place

If history was never your favourite subject at school, find out why what we believe to be fact may turn out to be fiction.

Join Inside Out South East as we uncover the historical half truths which may have changed the course of local history.

History is defined as 'a chronological record of events', but how do we know that these records are accurate?

Over hundreds of years these hand-me-down stories have been taken as fact, but how can we be sure that they really happened?

Inside Out investigates the historical bloopers littered across the region, and reveals the truth behind the stories.

Fact or fiction?

Our journey begins in Ebbsfleet, at a 15-foot cross erected by the local people to mark the spot where Saint Augustine was supposed to have landed from France in the year 597.

Legend has it that Saint Augustine was on a pilgrimage to spread the word of Christianity.

And now, centuries later, schoolchildren are still taught that Ebbsfleet was the site of his landing in England.

The memorial cross is now a local landmark and tourist hot spot - but all may not be as it seems.

Dr Alan Kay
Dr Alan Kay believes that history is not always correct

Historian Dr Alan Kay has used geological maps to shed some light on the matter - and his findings are very revealing.

It seems that St Augustine would have had to sail over dry land to step ashore at the site where the cross now stands.

Alan explains, "The only coast that could be available in the 6th Century was an area between Stonar and Sandwich.

"At that time Ebbsfleet was a mile and a half from the sea.

"I see people taking photographs of the cross and all over the world they're saying, 'this is where St Augustine and his monks landed' - of course the geological facts disprove it."

And the real explanation for the cross is very different to the history books.

It turns out that an over zealous Victorian aristocrat was the man behind the mistake, having concocted the story to try and draw the crowds to his newly-opened tea rooms.

Alan says, "The Earl of Granville owned some lavender fields at Ebbsfleet and had a tea room there.

"In 1884 he wanted to publicise his tea gardens and this was just a publicity stunt."

Hundreds of years later the cross is now a blot on the landscape for one disgruntled local - the Captain of St Augustine's Golf Club, which features the memorial landmark in its vicinity.

John Williams explains, "It's general knowledge here that it's in the wrong place.

"We'd like to send it up to where it belongs - in Stonar.

"It would make life easier if we didn't have an ancient monument right on our doorstep."

A load of hot air

Marcial Boo on the old Canterbury line
Marcial Boo is trying to make people aware of the old Canterbury line

So with one mystery solved, it's on to historical half truth number two - the story of how Kent may have been cheated out of its railway history.

Picture the scene - it's the 19th Century, the golden age of steam and mid-way in the race to launch the first passenger railway.

In 1825 the race was won by renowned engineer Robert Stevenson.

He opened the Stockton and Darlington Railroad and transported the first railway locomotive in September the same year.

What the history books fail to mention is that Kent was the real winner of the race.

The Canterbury to Whitstable line had been up and running months before Stevenson's locomotive set off for the first time.

Rail historian Brian Hart explains, "It was the first railway in Southern England and the first steam passenger railway in the UK, if not the world.

"But it's been overshadowed and largely forgotten about - so we need to start blowing our trumpet down here."

The remains of the railway are now covered by undergrowth in the grounds of the Archbishop School, where a group of enthusiasts are hoping to restore the line as a public cycle path.

Marcial Boo, Chairman of the Crab and Winkle Line Trust, says, "At the moment we've only got about two or three miles of the route open and it's a six mile route all together.

"Hopefully the local people here in the South East will come to appreciate this line - not as a railway but as a very pleasant off road way."

Journey through time

Tina Pullinger in front of the Tudor House
Tina Pullinger is adamant that the Tudor House is authentic

Having solved the mysteries of the misplaced cross and the misjudged rail race, our journey takes us to Margate, a place littered with historical lies.

Take the Tudor House, for example. Having been restored, or as some would say, rebuilt, after the second world war, the house's authenticity is the subject of much debate.

The house is a popular tourist attraction, thanks to its reputation as a fine example of period architecture, but it may not be as impressive as it seems.

Dr Kay explains, "It is a Tudor site but in no way does it correspond with the house that we see today.

"I was reading a book on Tudor architecture and Margate's Tudor house never featured in it."

Dr Kay's analysis has angered the local tourist board, as Tina Pullinger, from Margate Town Partnership explains:

"It's not a fraud, it is not a rebuild, it's a caring restoration and it's worth seeing.

"It was done very sympathetically and I get annoyed when people such as Dr Alan Kay say it is a rebuild."

And now it's not only the Tudor House's reputation that is under question - we've discovered that Dr Kay himself has been responsible for some of the region's historical bloopers.

As a former history teacher, Dr Kay is also guilty of creating his own historical half-truth in order to add excitement to lessons.

Dr Kay told his students that Traphams Lane was so-called because it was where unlucky locals were trapped by passing navy men looking to enlist new sailors.

Wrong. Traphams Lane was actually named after a man named William Trapham, a wealthy farmer and landowner who owned the land on which the lane was eventually built.

So despite inaccurate records, it's the historians past and present who are responsible for distorting the course of local history.

Digging deep

Sarah Vickery in the shell grotto
Sarah Vickery thinks her shell grotto has spiritual origins

Now, in the last phase of our journey, we have to travel deep underground to a mysterious shell grotto rumoured to be over 2,000 years old.

The shell grotto is another of Margate's popular tourist spots, but its origins are the subject of much disagreement.

Its owner, Sarah Vickery, bought the grotto after falling in love with its spiritual atmosphere, and believes that it was built and used for holy purposes.

But many people believe those cheeky Victorians have been up to their old tricks, suggesting that the grotto, which is made up of over five million shells, was sheer folly.

Sarah says, "It was found by accident underneath a farmer's field in 1835 and we're pretty sure of that."

"It's difficult to imagine a farmer being down here building his great folly - he would have been upstairs making his living!"

Mick Twyman of Margate Historical Society agrees. He believes that the grotto has pagan roots, and dates back to around 300 B.C.

And he's putting his money where his mouth is, by contacting archaeologists and trying to obtain recognition for the site. He explains:

"We are making approaches to try and overcome the damage that's been done by the shout of 'fake', for so many years."

Mick Twyman
"If this proves to be what we think it is, it could be as important in the country's history as Stonehenge."
Mick Twyman

But Dr Kay thinks it could be a wild goose chase.

He explains, "It is a very attractive shell cave and well worth seeing but no national antiquarian or historical people would touch it - there's not enough evidence.

"The present owner of the shell grotto is very fair, in that she regards it as a lovely example of shell work and gives the two theories so you can make your choice."

While Sarah may appear objective, she still believes that her grotto has a mystical history.

She says, "I've tried to let the argument rage around me, to be honest.

"The thing I love about it is that nobody really knows how old it is, people can make arguments for either side.

"The only thing I don't believe is that it's folly - I think it was built for some sort of devotional purpose."

Whatever the explanation, there's no doubting that the historical half-truths in the South East make for an interesting path through local history.

See also ...

On the rest of Inside Out
The forgotten underground war
The last of the railway keepers

BBC History
BBC - History Trail - Local History

On the rest of the web
The Crab and Winkle Line Trust

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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