Off the beaten track: Halstead
By Bob Ogley
Halstead is a village in the commuter belt north of Sevenoaks, high on the North Downs surrounded by orchards and trees and farmland yet less than 20 miles from London.
I spent a cold winter’s afternoon walking round the village and noticed that all the old houses were made of flint and the newer well-to-do villas, built for the railway age, are made of Kentish brick with small trim gardens.
The railway age:
Knockholt railway station is actually in Halstead. When it was opened in the 1860s it was called Halstead but everyone confused it with Halstead in Essex so they renamed the station Knockholt, which is actually some five miles away.
While on the subject of railways, Halstead’s most famous resident wrote a book, a best seller, about them – The Railway Children. The author was Edith Nesbit who lived at Halstead Hall for three years during the 1870s when she was a child. She liked to sit on the banks of the line and watch the miners dig the long, long tunnel under the North Downs. She sat there on her own, sometimes with friends and when she grew older never forgot the frenzied activity of railway mania.
The great mansion Halstead Hall was once owned by a chap called Harry Stoe Man who became rather angry with villagers drawing water from his pond. This was in the early 19th century. The pond, lined with clay puddling, was the main supply of water and never ever dry but old Harry annexed the pond, built a fence around it and caused great distress in Halstead.
The people hated him and that hatred increased when he opposed an application by the parish vestry for the poorest people to be excluded from paying rates. What an unpleasant man. They took him to court, prosecuted him for causing a nuisance, obstructing the pond and eventually won the day. When Halstead parish council was formed in 1897 the pond again was the main supply of water.
The Rose & Crown
Halstead was a poor village and a rough one. There were many fruit farms so the gipsies descended on the village in great numbers and crowded the bars at the two village pubs The Rose and Crown and The Cock.
Apparently it was not uncommon to see drunken fruit pickers lying in the hedgerows completely plastered.
Halstead is derived from the Old English Hald, which means refuge, shelter and Stede, which is site of place. So Halstead means safe place, or place of refuge.
St Margaret's church
St Margaret's was built in 1881 to serve the first wave of development and escape from London. It’s a long low flint building with a single bell turret and was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. But this was not the original church. The original one was built in the grounds of the Manor House known as Halstead Place just across the road.
Very little remains of the manor house and the old church was pulled down. But a stained glass window made by Casolini, a red marble grave stone dated 1621, a solitary bell which is rung at every service and many plaques were rescued from the old church.
In 1892 a protective ring of fortresses was built around London to keep out any would-be invaders. The idea was that they should be manned by volunteers in the event of a crisis and one of them was built at Halstead, high on the downs.
It was never really used until the take-over many years ago by the Government who placed its Ministry of Supply there and then it became the headquarters of the Royal Armament and Research Development.
They have employed thousands of people over the years, who have had to sign the official secrets act, but it’s no secret now that Britain’s first atom bomb was developed at Fort Halstead under the directorship of Williams Penny. The bomb was conveyed in a frigate to Australia and successfully exploded in the Montebello Islands.
In 1955 when we were all concerned about a nuclear attack, the local council came to the conclusion that Fort Halstead could be a Soviet target, so many strenuous efforts were made to protect citizens before it was too late. They spoke about bunkers and slit trenches and places safe from radioactive fall-out but by the time the debates were finished the scare was over.
Fort Halstead has been vital to the defence of our country. So I recommend you raise a glass, if you have one, to this famous village, its connection to Edith Nesbit, Halstead Hall, Halstead Place and, especially the delightful church of St Margaret's.
last updated: 20/05/2008 at 10:16