Cranbrook Tourist Guide
Come and stay in this historic Kent town - one which reflects so well the changing fortunes of this county.
Cranbrook lies some 15 miles south of Maidstone, the county town of Kent, to the east of the main road to the former fishing harbour of Hastings, Sussex. It is sited near the junction of the A262 (Lamberhurst - Biddenden) and the A229 (Rochester – Hawkhurst). Cranbrook has Tunbridge Wells Sand in its higher parts and Wadhurst Clay in the valleys. The sand and sandstone has historically provided materials as well as good soil for orchards, hops and sheep. The clay has been used for the making of pottery, tiles and bricks but is also suitable for grazing.
The Romans had been attracted by Wealden iron. Their capable charcoal furnaces greatly increased the output for both military and domestic use.
One Roman road passing by Cranbrook enabled iron transportation northwards to Rochester and southwards to the ports. Another road branched eastwards from it and led to both Canterbury and Lympne.
After the Romans left in 410AD the new Jutish invaders of Kent made little or no use of Roman Roads or iron workings. Instead the Weald was used each autumn for a few weeks' swine passage. Herds were driven into the forest from settlements to the north and east. Swine pasturage or ‘dens’ became regularly used and homesteads began to be set up within the Kentish King's forest. Charters from the 9th century show how kings granted most of the dens to monastic foundations or individual owners who took over the dues and services. Settlement and clearing of its many dens led to the Cranbrook community and church being established by the early 11th century.
The place name Cranbrook derives from Old English ‘cran broc’, meaning Crane Marsh - marshy ground frequented by cranes. The place name has evolved over the centuries from Cranebroca (c1100), by 1226 it is recorded as Cranebroc, then Cranebrok, by 1610 the name had become Cranbrooke, which evolved into the current spelling. A settlement was listed in the Domesday Book (1086) as Cranebroca being the name of the stream which ran through it. By the mid-13th century a sandstone church had been built dedicated to the great archbishop-statesman St Dunstan who died in 988. Successive extensions to the church were carried out and the "Cathedral of the Weald" was substantially completed by 1560.
Cranbrook's great broadcloth industry originated in the 14th century and reached its height towards the end of the Tudor period. The English wool exporting industry was comparatively unprofitable so Edward III (1327-1377) wished to break the monopoly in broadcloth manufacture then enjoyed by the Netherlands. He offered incentives and protection to Flemish weavers, fullers and dyers from Flanders. Cranbrook, with its waterpower, timber and available cottage labour became a centre for the production of broadcloth. The industry brought prosperity to the town whose population approached 3000 by the end of the 16th century. The Town's prosperity lasted thus for about 200 years until, by an Act of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) the export of cloth for dyeing and finishing in Flanders was prohibited. Thereafter the industry declined and was replaced by agriculture. Cranbrook's cloth industry declined and population fell. Cranbrook then became an important market town serving the area surrounding it. A range of industries developed as the present street signs show: ‘The Tanyard’, ‘Rope Walk’, ‘Carriers Road’.
The coming of the railways and Staplehurst Station, in 1842, and the consequences of the Industrial Revolution made transport easier and cheaper goods more readily available. Cranbrook's function as a market town declined and ceased. Hop and fruit growing increased but local manufacturing dropped sharply.
Today the Parish of Cranbrook has a population approaching 6000. The town still has its crowded mediaeval layout of streets and alleys, with a number of buildings of great interest dating from the 15th to the 19th century. These display all the elements of Wealden building: timber frames, weatherboard, stucco and the rarer and more local mathematical weathering which imitates brickwork. The two main streets contain numerous charming and individual shops, far removed from the uniform stores found in most towns. There are specialists in art materials, antiques and cheeses. Galleries vie with unusual gift shops, an old-style ironmonger rubs shoulders with kitchen experts and a maker of bespoke lampshades. Travel agents, banks, accountants, solicitors and estate agents all contribute to the commercial life of Cranbrook.
Cranbrook is an ideal centre for exploring Kent and Sussex and a fascinating place to bring guests. Visitors are served by 3 free car parks, tucked beside one of which is a supermarket.
Visit the beautiful, timber-framed building of Cranbrook Museum and a take a thorough look at the varied collections housed there. The museum is run as a non-profit organisation by the Cranbrook & District Local History Society. It is situated in Carriers Road and is a very short walk from Cranbrook High Street. There is a free public car park opposite the museum.
The Union Windmill was built in 1814 and stands at the highest point overlooking the town of Cranbrook. It is the second tallest surviving windmill in the British Isles, measuring 72 feet to the top of the cap. It is the tallest surviving smock mill, with an eight-sided three-storey brick base and a four-storey, fixed wooden tower above that, clad in white painted weather-board. It has four sails (called sweeps in the Southeast) with patent shutters and a fantail which keeps the sweeps facing into the wind at all times. The mill has recently undergone major renovations and is in excellent working order. Wind permitting, wheat is ground and visitors can purchase wholemeal flour in the shop.
St Dunstan’s Church stands on a site believed to have been occupied by two earlier churches, Saxon and Norman. The present building of local sandstone was begun in the middle of the 14th century and completed approximately 1560. Because of its size it has been referred to as the ‘Cathedral of the Weald’. This beautiful church owes its splendour to the material prosperity of Cranbrook during the 15th and 16th centuries as a centre of the cloth industry. A stone staircase leads to a room over the porch which was originally a repositary for church valuables. The room is reputed to have been used later, in Queen Mary's reign, for the confinement of Protestant martyrs. Next to the staircase is a total immersion font. The clock mechanism was the model for Big Ben. There is a splendid set of 8 bells which were founded at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The organ is part of an instrument demonstrated at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The Romany Life Heart of Kent Centre for Culture and Education offers people the opportunity to learn all about the gypsy (Romany) way of life. It is located at 3 Oaks Nursery in Whitewell Lane. Tel: 01580 715825
A dominating feature of the town is Cranbrook School which is a voluntary aided non-denominational boarding and day co-educational grammar school catering for pupils in the top 25% of the ability range aged from 13 to 18. Today, Cranbrook School is well known in the South East, with its population of some 720 pupils aged between 13 and 18 (Years 9 to 13 in the National Curriculum). It is fully co-educational (400 boys, 320 girls) and has 240 boarding places for boys and girls. It was founded in 1518, during the reign of King Henry VIII, as a result of the will of John Blubery. Blubery was a King's armourer under Henry VII, apparently a native of the small town, who worked first in the armoury at Greenwich and then at the armoury in the Tower of London. In 1573, the town visited by Queen Elizabeth I who was touring the cloth-weaving district. She was petitioned to grant letters patent to the school under which a proper board of trustees or ‘Governors’ would be established. The Patent of Incorporation (which the school refers to as its charter) arrived in 1574. It gave the school its full, official title - ‘The Free and Perpetual Grammar School of Queen Elizabeth in Cranbrook’ and ordained that the Vicar of Cranbrook should always have a seat on the Board of Governors, a clause which has remained binding to this day.
Sissinghurst Castle Garden, near Cranbrook, is one of the world's most celebrated gardens, the creation of Vita Sackville-West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson. The gardens are set in the grounds of an Elizabethan mansion and are romantic little compartments filled with colourful floral displays. The lakeside and woodland walks are open all year and take people through the beautiful unspoilt Wealden countryside.
The nearest station is Staplehurst (via bus from Cranbrook) to London via Marden, Paddock Wood, Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and to Dover via Ashford International (Eurostar terminal for Paris/Lille/Brussels) and Canterbury.
Disclaimer: The information in this Tourist Guide has been researched from a variety of sources including books, articles and online information. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information the reader should check any specific facts for themselves before making any decisions based upon the said information.
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015