A Short History of Bekesbourne

First published 2000 as a brass plaque mounted on the east wall of Bekebourne village hall. Original text by David Millyard. Update 2016 by Jill Thomas

The Parish of Bekesbourne extends about two miles in a northwest to southeast direction across the valley of the Nailbourne river. On the southwest side the parish boundary runs along Hode Lane, down the middle of Patrixbourne village street, the line of the ancient Pilgrims Way. On the northeast side the parish was enlarged in the 20th century to take in the former “precinct” of Well and the hamlet of Lackenden.

The Parish is mentioned in Domesday Book, 1086, with the name Burnes, after the river. It then became known as Livingsbourne after Levine the Anglo-Saxon lord of the manor. The village became known as Bekesbourne only in the 13th century when the manor came into the hands of the Beke family.

The present Church, dedicated to St Peter, dates from the 12th century with later additions. It retains its Norman north doorway and two chancel windows and has an unusual pair of 13th century lancets in the east wall. The tower was in ruins early in the 19th century, being rebuilt in 1841. The whole church was completely restored in the 1880s. The tower was then raised by two feet to contain a ring of 6 bells.

Cobham Court on the hillside below the church is probably on the site of the original Anglo-Saxon settlement. The house dates from the 15th century with additions in the 16th and 19th centuries. In the Tudor and Elizabethan period it was owned by the Earls of Cobham – hence the name – one of whom was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and held the Cinque Ports Court of Shepway here. Later Cobham Court passed to the Howletts estate until that was broken up in the early 20th century. It then became a working dairy farm until the end of the second world war. Since then it has been a private house.

On the other bank of the river is the site of the medieval manor of Livingsbourne. This was acquired by the Beke family of Hastings in the 12th century and thereby Bekesbourne became a limb of the Cinque Port of Hastings, and had to find a ship for the Hastings fleet. In return it shared all the privileges of the Cinque Ports, including freedom from most taxes and exemption from the jurisdiction of the hundred and shire. A leading citizen of the parish would go to Hastings each year to be sworn in as Deputy Mayor and to exercise Hastings’ jurisdiction in the village. This continued until early in the 19th century.

In the 15th century, the manor came into the possession of the Canterbury Cathedral Priory. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the manor was acquired by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who built a new palace on the site. This was mostly demolished in the Commonwealth period after the civil war in the mid-17th century. What remained, the palace gateway, domestic offices, porters lodge and stables, was later converted into a private residence, now known as the Old Palace. It has changed hands a number of times in the intervening centuries. It was owned in the 1850s by Dr Charles Tilstone Beke, the noted explorer of the African Continent, particularly Ethiopia, and in the 1950s by Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond stories. Dr Beke, who is buried in the churchyard here, believed he was descended from the original Bekes of the 12th/13th century. He also tried, without success, to renew the association with Hastings.

Howletts was another medieval manor in the parish. Successive owners from the Elizabethan period acquired most of the land in Bekesbourne. For nearly 300 years until early in the 20th century the owner of Howletts was the principal landowner in the parish. The present mansion dates from the late 18th century, replacing a much earlier house which had fallen into decay. Now the parkland round the house is the Howletts Wild Animal Park, noted for its conservation work with tigers, gorillas and African elephants.

The railway came to Bekesbourne in 1861, with a station on the main line from Canterbury to Dover. It is carried on a massive embankment across the valley and had an immense visual impact on the countryside previously open down the valley. However it provided an amenity from which local people still benefit with an hourly train service in each direction.

At the top of the hill on the Adisham Road is Aerodrome Road. This, together with a plaque unveiled in 1999 and a few other road and house names, is all that survives of the Air Force station built in the 1914-18 war. Closed at the end of that war, it became the home of the Kent Flying Club in the 1930s. It had a final moment of glory when it was reopened as an RAF station for a few weeks in the summer of 1940, around the time of the evacuation from Dunkirk.

The economy of the parish still mostly depends on farming: fruit, arable and stock, although some farm buildings are being used to diversify away from traditional farming activities   Hops are now grown only for sale on the bine for ornamental use. The population has expanded from its 19th and early 20th century average of about 350 to around 600 – one third of whom live on the old aerodrome site. Few people now work on the land: some work at Howletts, most commute to local towns or London.

Chalkpit Farm has been developed as a retail centre and now has a café, a deli, a florist, a picture framer and Bourne Veterinary Practice. There is also a café and a fruit tree nursery at Woolton Farm. Both the village pubs, The Prince of Wales by the station and The Unicorn on Bekesbourne Hill, have  closed and become private dwellings.

A detailed history of the village was published in 2013.

Bekesbourne: A Little Village with a Big History by David Gilmour and David Millyard

The book is now out of print but there are plans to produce a pdf version for download. Contact the village archivist Jill Thomas on s.thomas@which.net .