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Southeast England - An Introduction

by WSB


The term Southeast England is not well defined and is often taken to include London all the Home Counties surrounding it and sometimes Hampshire. This Travel Note covers a more limited area: simply the part of England lying to the south and south-east of London comprising the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

It is a region with a long history. Although it is much affected by its proximity to London, it contains some of England’s loveliest countryside ... rolling hills, trim hedges and cosy cottages. One attractive feature is the great variety of styles and materials used for traditional houses … bricks, sandstone, flint, timber-framing, wooden weatherboarding, tile-hanging … all natural materials which blend well with the landscape.

Houses in the street at Ightham, Kent

Houses in the street at Ightham, Kent

The Land

Geology: It’s always good to know a bit about the geological underpinning of the regions one visits. Millions of years ago this area was covered by a blanket of chalk (a white form of limestone) lying on top of a sandwich of several layers of clay interspersed with sandstone. Over the aeons geological pressures forced these rocks into a dome, the top of which was then eroded away leaving substantial chalk hills at the edges (the North and South Downs, with the Hampshire Downs to the west) and in the area between the Downs ridges of sandstone hills alternating with clay lowlands (see diagram).

Landscape: The resulting landscape is not dramatic but is full of character. The most prominent features include the extensive heathland in the western part of Surrey and in Ashdown Forest in Sussex, sandstone outcrops like the High Rocks near Tunbridge Wells and, most notably, the long chains of the North and South Downs. Where these meet the sea, the chalk falls away vertically at the White Cliffs of Dover (North Downs, Kent) and the spectacular Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters (South Downs, Sussex). Otherwise, it is mostly a land of woodland, hedgerows and fields.

Weald: The land between the North and South Downs was heavily wooded, poorly drained, and therefore almost impenetrable except by river in ancient times. The traditional name for this area, Saxon “Weald”, is related to the German word “Wald” (forest). Where the land rises above the often waterlogged clay the sandstone ridges are generally relatively infertile. Consequently, the whole area between the two chains of Downs was cleared and settled much later and remained relatively poor until quite recently. As a result, many of the towns and villages were small throughout most of their history and there are, for instance, few grand churches.

Iron: It is hard to believe now but 400 years ago the Weald was one of the most industrialised parts of Britain; the presence of iron ore in the sandstone in proximity to ample supplies of wood as fuel for the furnaces meant that most British iron was manufactured here until coal took over as the prime fuel and the industry moved closer to the coal mines elsewhere. A curious relic of the iron industry is the presence in some churches of iron grave-stones. Otherwise, there is little to see other than the pretty “hammer ponds” which nestle in the little valleys of the sandstone hills in the centre of the Weald.

Moments in Time

Prehistory: Because the chalk Downs were well-drained and reasonably fertile they were the first areas to be settled by humans and one can see remains of a number of prehistoric settlements, such as Cissbury Ring and Chanctonbury Ring in Sussex, as well as funeral mounds (“barrows”), and flint mines (where flints were extracted from the chalk for use as tools and weapons).

The Long Man of Wilmington carved into the chalk of the South Downs

The Long Man of Wilmington carved into the chalk of the South Downs

The Romans: first landed in Kent (being the closest part of England to Gaul); first Julius Caesar came for a short stay in 55BC, then about 100 years later Claudius’s army came on a Slow Travel visit lasting over 350 years. A significant Roman palace has been discovered at Fishbourne near Chichester (which was a prominent Roman town, as its name suggests). There are also noted Roman villas at Bignor and Lullingstone, both have mosaics and at the latter early Christian wall paintings were found.

Christianity: also arrived in Kent when St Augustine was sent by the pope in 593 to convert the English. He established his cathedral at Canterbury; this is arguably Britain’s finest cathedral and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the Church of England. A second cathedral was established at Rochester, and Kent remained the only English county with two ancient cathedrals. In later centuries the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas à Becket and his subsequent canonisation made Canterbury the main pilgrimage destination in England.

Normans: The Bayeux tapestry shows Harold (soon to be King) leaving Bosham in Sussex in 1064 to visit Duke William of Normandy. When the invasion came two years later, the Normans landed in Sussex because it was close to Normandy. They landed at Hastings and there are ruins of a castle there, but the Battle of Hastings was fought a few miles away where the present-day village of Battle stands with the remains of the Abbey, which was built to commemorate the event.

Stockbroker belt: Centuries later, with the arrival of railways rich men from London set up homes in the country, often in houses that mimicked traditional cottages in style if not in smallness. Hence many substantial houses sprung up near towns and villages in a ring about 30 or 40 miles (an hour or so by train) from the capital bringing greater prosperity to these rural places.

Commuterland: The financiers were followed by a multitude of more ordinary people, mainly office workers, leading to a huge and continuing growth in population and a transformation of the atmosphere of most towns and villages in the area around London. Those lying along the railway lines have been particularly affected. The development of Gatwick Airport has continued the trend.


Castles: The Normans and their successors built many castles to consolidate their conquest, but most have disappeared or have left only vestigial remains. Two of the finest early-medieval castles which do remain are at Dover and Rochester and there are very picturesque later-medieval castles at Bodiam and Herstmonceux. Other castles live on, heavily restored and sometimes much modified, as stately homes at, for example, Arundel, Hever and Leeds.

Herstmonceux Castle, now an outpost of Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario

Herstmonceux Castle, now an outpost of Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario

Country Houses: The proximity to London favoured the establishment of several great houses and the region has as high a concentration of fine mansions as anywhere in Britain.

Seaside: The “seaside” was invented in Sussex. Before the late 18th century no-one dreamed of visiting the coast except to go fishing or to travel by sea, and no-one built a house facing the sea for pleasure. However, in the mid-1700s a Sussex doctor started promoting sea bathing as a medical cure. Within a century, helped by the Prince of Wales’s patronage of Brighton and the building of the Royal Pavilion, visiting the sea had become hugely popular not just to bathe, but also to relax on the beaches and the piers. The trains brought hordes of day-trippers from London and people came to live in great numbers in extensive terraces of sea-facing houses in many “resorts” along the south coast.

Garden of England: As another consequence of the proximity to London, large parts of Kent were devoted to fruit orchards and the county came to be known as the “garden of England”; although many orchards have been uprooted in recent decades the blossom makes a fine site in the spring. Another feature of the landscape of Kent and East Sussex is the presence of many oast houses.


Bluebells: One of the sights of England in the spring (roughly mid-April to mid-May) is a wood carpeted with bluebell flowers. There are many throughout this region. Wherever you happen to be just ask for directions to the best local bluebell wood. If you are lucky enough to visit late on a sunny afternoon when the sun is low in the sky you’ll never forget the experience.


Southeast England Vacation Rental Reviews

Southeast England Hotel Reviews

Southeast England Restaurant Reviews


ST Google Map - Southeast England: Interactive, annotated map of southeast England. Satellite views available.


Photos of Southeast England

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