Introduction: The Historic Routes from Whitstable to Canterbury


Long before the town of Whitstable developed, several routes connected the "Seasalter to Swalecliffe section of the North Kent coast" to the inland City of Canterbury. Each was virtually the ‘Highway to Canterbury’ of the times. Each played its own part in conveying salt, marine produce, general goods and travelers to Canterbury and, not the least, shaping the future. We explore each of those and the subsequent development of the Highway we know today.

Within this article, unless accompanied by ‘town’, the name ‘Whitstable’ is used in a generic sense to identify the area between and including Seasalter and Swalecliffe. In distant times past, before even a hint of a town developing, the scene was quite different from that of today when we have one main artery supported by one subsidiary road and a few country lanes which appear to have little reason for their existence. Readers may be surprised to learn that those insignificant country lanes were the highways of yesteryear. Today’s main artery, the Whitstable-Canterbury road (A290), was non-existent. It wasn’t needed!

Fig 1: The Calf Path
  • One day, through the primeval wood,
    A calf walked home, as good calves should;
    But made a trail all bent askew,
    A crooked trail as all calves do.
    Since then six hundred years have fled,
    And, I infer, the calf is dead.
    But, still he left behind his trail,
    And thereby hangs my moral tale.
  • The trail was taken up next day
    By a lone dog that passed that way;
    And then a wise bell-wether sheep
    Pursued the trail o'vale and steep,
    And drew the flock behind him too,
    As good bell-wethers always do.
  • And from that day o'er hill and glade,
    Through those old woods a path was made;
    And many men wound in and out,
    And dodged and turned and bent about,
    And uttered words of righteous wrath
    Because 'twas such a crooked path.
    But still they followed - do not laugh - T
    he first migrations of that calf,
    And through this winding wood-way stalked,
    Because he wandered when he walked.
  • This forest path became a lane,
    That bent and turned and turned again;
    This crooked lane became a road,
    Where many a poor horse with his load
    Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
    And traveled three score miles in one.
    And thus a century and a half
    They trod the footsteps of that calf.
  • The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
    The road became a village street;
    And this, before men were aware,
    A city's crowded thoroughfare.
    And soon the crowded street was this
    Of a renowned metropolis;
    And men two centuries and a half
    Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
  • Each day a hundred thousand rout
    Follow this zig-zag calf about;
    The traffic of a continent.
    A hundred thousand men were led
    By one calf near four centuries dead.
    They followed still his crooked way,
    And lost a hundred years a day;
    For thus such reverence is lent
    To well-established precedent.
  • A moral lesson this might teach,
    Were I ordained and called to preach;
    For men are prone to go it blind
    Along the calf paths of the mind,
    And work away from sun to sun
    To do what other men have done.
  • They follow in the beaten track,
    And in and out and forth and back,
    And still their devious course pursue,
    To keep the path that others do,
    They keep the path a sacred groove,
    Along which all their lives they move.
  • But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
    Who saw that first primeval calf!
    Ah! many things this tale might teach -
    But I am not ordained to preach.

- Sam Walter Foss, 1890's

Why was that so?

Before we answer that question and start this initial investigation into local highways, roads and lanes, have you ever wondered why some seemingly wander along a tortuous path yet others are so straight? The simple tale at Figure 1 offers a lighthearted but pertinent explanation as to perhaps why so many of our roads and lanes follow the tortuous path they do.

By contrast, the Romans are well known for their straight roads, unlike the rest of the world, ignoring the meandering track of our calf. Why? Did they merely think in straight lines? The Roman armies were well known for their ability to take an enemy by surprise by traversing great distance very quickly. They learnt the advantage of a direct route, of straight roads which the rest of the developed World would not appreciate until the Industrial Revolution introduced steam power and the railway about two millennium later.

There is a reason, perhaps many, why a road or lane is so convoluted, or straight or a mixture of each and why it starts and ends where it does. Each feature tells us a tale and informs us of what was where yesteryear.

With that in mind let us return to our question: Why was that so?

There is no one simple sentence answer to explain why the main road of today, the main Whitstable/Canterbury road (A290), developed to obscure its predecessors. Indeed, there is no clear cut answer at all as we build the vague history of the Middle Ages and the more certain years of the Industrial Revolution upon an insecure base of the first Millenium to arrive at what we see today.

Maybe our zig zagging calf of the poemat Figure 1 did need to dodge a tree or two, a stream or ditch, hill or dale, no matter which, the moral of the tale to us is to look deeper into what we see today.

In our earlier article, Origins of Whitstable - Name & Place, a number of settlements were shown to have existed encircling the area eventually defined as ‘Whitstable’. Some of those settlements were minor and transient as the shoreline changed. Some further inland became more structured with a church although such an edifice was no guarantee of permanency. Little is known of the area until the Romans came and left some record of their presence and what was where.

Some of those settlements fed inland Canterbury and the surrounding countryside with fish or salt or landed sea freight. All necessitating a transport route to that City.

The following Map 1 forms a base for our ‘Highways’ exploration and illustrates those settlements against a shoreline as it would have appeared after the 1287 inundation, conveniently midway between Roman times and the present. For ease of reference, modern names are used here to identify those settlements. Several present day features, churches etc, are included to orientate the reader.

Map 1: Whitstable settlements and the shoreline of 1287

In early days of purely pedestrian or horse drawn traffic, the more stable settlements served Canterbury by their own individual route. On the one hand it would have been impractical and time wasting to travel from one towards another simply to use a common thoroughfare. On the other hand the sea, with its changing coastline along with the eventual Gorrell Delta, prevented any such link being conveniently direct.

The Swale Estuary has had a profound effect on development of the area as we saw in ‘The History of Whitstable’s Shoreline from 1287’. Not until 14th century sea defences established a coastal link from Seasalter to today’s Tower Hill area could one walk directly along the coast from the western settlement, Seasalter, to the eastern settlement, Swalecliffe. But even then, it was not as direct as is possible today although there is still no modern thoroughfare direct from Seasalter following along the shore to Whitstable let alone on to Swalecliffe.

To travel from one to the other meant a diversion inland of the Lower and Upper Islands to journey via Church Street hamlet, another settlement on high ground further inland. Two of those three above named settlements developed their own link to Canterbury which, combined with a third ancient link, formed our early ‘Highways to Canterbury’. ‘Highways’ is used in a relative sense as transport development has changed over the years especially since the Industrial Revolution. In the times of Roman, Saxon and Danish occupation of Britain, the two major settlements of those early clusters were Seasalter and the Church Street area.

Where Were Those Old "Highways"?

The four routes to be discussed initially are, in present day terms:

  1. The Salt Way from the shore between Seasalter and Swalecliffe to Canterbury

    (Note: A pedestrian track or pathway remains in a few places)

  2. Swalecliffe to Canterbury

    (Note: Partly exists today)

  3. Seasalter to Canterbury

    (Note: Mostly exists today. As we will see, route 3 will lead us into discussing the route which ultimately replaced our three old highways as the main route to Canterbury, ie "route 4" below )

  4. The Turnpike Road

    (Note: This exists as today’s A290 - the "Whitstable - Canterbury" road via Blean )

Exploring Those Routes

To start our journey of exploring Whitstable's old 'Highways', we look again at our map showing the various clusters of dwellings and settlements, but this time as Map 2 including the general line of those three routes where their track is known just inland of today's shoreline. Each route is shown on land in red, the projected line of each route offshore in black. Several present day features are named in black text to orientate the reader.

Map 2: Whitstable settelements and three highway routes

If we project the general line of the coastal section of each of those routes (black line) it is easy to accept that they link up with the 'offshore' clusters of dwellings or sites of habitation discussed in 'Origins of Whitstable - Name & Place". We must remember those routes were established by pedestrian traffic, human or pack animal, which naturally followed the easiest path around hills, across dale, over streams, around trees and other obstacles and therefore meander towards their destination just as our primeval calf did. However the pre inundation terrain of the tidal flats of today's shallows was obviously quite easy on the pedestrians who could tramp a relatively straight route to their destination over this area and therefore point us along a reasonably true path.

While history shows Seasalter to have been the most established of the three settlements with early pre-eminence over Church Street and Swalecliffe, there is evidence of pre historic habitation about the higher level of today's Swalecliffe coastal fringe.

While it is accepted that the Romans landed goods at Seasalter and transported those goods with locally collected salt inland to Canterbury, there does not appear to be the same weight of evidence supporting such a route from Swalecliffe to Canterbury in pre Roman or pre-historic times. There is evidence of a later route which we will explore.

The southern bank of the river Swale and its estuary, today's deep water mark, is considered to have been the shoreline until at least Roman times. We know that the Romans enjoyed the fruits of both the local salt and oyster industries. Indications are that both were being harvested when the Romans arrived. Exactly when and where those industries started as such is not precisely known.

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