Slices of history in Sandwich
I decide to do a daytrip to Sandwich on the Kent coast simply so I can send a postcard to my father, who would be mildly amused that his eldest daughter, who has always loved her cheese and tomato toasties, was visiting such a place and no doubt tucking into the local fare in honour of its creation.
On the bus from Broadstairs I get a cheap day ticket and off we go through Ramsgate and its outlying villages on the Isle of Thanet, where the Romans first arrived in England in 43CE. To get to Sandwich proper, the bus motors through a huge business park and trundles over the River Stour and its quay, where pleasure boats line the banks.
History suggests that the idea for the sandwich as a snack that didn’t require all the ceremony of dining protocol was first thought of in 1762 by Lord Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, when he couldn’t be stirred from a feverish game of cards upon which there was a sizeable wager. Somehow this easily digestible food captured the imagination of others who wanted nourishment that was portable, quick to make and tasty, with roast beef slapped between two slices of bread. Soon, all the leading men in polite society were eating sandwiches. Edward Gibbon wrote of this new gastronomic sensation in one of his diary entries a few months later.
But Sandwich, the town, has a history with much more heft than that of culinary creation. It was one of the original Cinque Ports, along with Romney, Dover, Hythe and Hastings, that formed an ancient medieval confeder- ation of harbours grouped together for defence purposes and which were obligated to supply the crown with ships and men once a year for 15 days, and if a war were on.
Sandwich was the English port of pre-eminent strategic and commercial importance between the 11th and 13th centuries, but the coastline has changed dramatically due to erosion and silting and the town is just over 3km inland. It was sacked by the French in 1457 and to this day the mayor wears a black robe in mourning. Henry V set sail from Sandwich for Agincourt and Thomas Becket stopped here on his way to Canterbury before his murder in the cathedral. A recent discovery of an early edition of the Magna Carta found in a Victorian scrapbook in the local government archives has delighted the locals. Although about a third of its content is missing, it has brought to seven the number of surviving originals issued by Edward 1 in 1300.
I walk through the original Barbican toll gate and pass 16th-century Dutch weavers’ cottages with their top rooms leaning into the street, forming the longest stretch of unbroken timber-framed buildings in England. I stop for coffee in No Name Street near the Guildhall, wonder about the spectres haunting Holy Ghost Alley, and visit a church that doubles as a local arts centre. I amble happily next to the Butts stream where, on this flat land, longbow archers trained during the medieval period. It is a picturesque English scene, with its trees drooping and draping prettily and ducklings treading water.
For a time the Puritan Thomas Paine ran a corsetry shop in Sandwich, before he migrated first to France and then to the New World, where he famously coined the phrase the United States of America. The famished fourth earl also sponsored the voyages of a certain Captain James Cook RN, who named the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) after his patron, who was also the First Lord of the Admiralty. His Cook’s tour of the South Pacific ended abruptly here in 1789 when he was speared by the locals in Hawaii after an altercation.
The harbourside town of Sandwich in Kent