The second of November this year was a glorious day; warm and sunny, blue Sky dotted with puffs of pristine white cloud. The day owed more to summer than to autumn; a perfect day for a stroll from Wye to ‘The Crown’, an earthwork etched into the chalk of the Downs.
We, daughter, grand daughter and myself, left Wye village along Olantigh Road, named after its manor, first recorded as being held, in the late thirteenth century, by a Ralph Kempe. Passing by the abandoned, presently unoccupied, fine Edwardian red-brick buildings which, until recently, were the main campus buildings of Wye College, an internationally renowned agricultural research centre; the college was established in 1894. I felt sadness for the buildings, for the village and for future would-be students who could now never be. The history of Wye college, correctly, ‘The College of St. Gregory and St. Martin at Wye, began in 1447 when John Kempe, Archbishop of York at the time, founded the college for, ‘the training of Priests’. Why, in 2004, the by then owners of Wye College, Imperial College London, choose to destroy the asset they held in trust for the whole nation, and cast over a hundred years worth of dedicated research and discovery to the winds, is a mystery to me; perhaps the hundred million pounds they expected to make by developing the land and buildings may have influenced their decision; if so, may they choke on their Bitcoin feasts!
There are documented reports of doubtful doings between Ashford Council, Kent County Council and a firm of developers, concerning negotiations, behind closed doors, in advance of a planning application, concerning the building of 10,000 new homes on land belonging to the college, land registered as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Fortunately, some informed and alert villagers rumbled these corrupt and nefarious deceits and mounted huge opposition to nail any such scheme, opposition which was ultimately successful enough to scupper, for the time being at least, the appropriately named Imperial College’s mercenary ambitions.
When Olantigh Road ran out of the village, into surrounding farmland, we turned onto a wide track on our right, onto the path that would lead us up to The Crown. The track first passes by a fine modern building, completed only twenty yeas ago. The ‘Kempe’ building was purpose built to house the college library. Presently, the building is presently home to a new school, the Wye Free School. Beyond the school the track passes through an avenue of trees half-hidden behind which rows of lately field laboratories in which Wye College students worked to serve a global community. These buildings are presently on death row, shortly be demolished to accommodate new buildings for the expanding Free School. Many of the buildings are still occupied. Squatters or short term tenants? It does not matter; useful buildings are being saved from pointlessly wasteful dereliction. The commissars of both Ashford Borough and Kent County County Councils were against the opening of a Free School, state funded but managed by a board independent of local authorities; I doubt then that the planning departments of those councils will be in any hurry to approve plans for new school buildings. The occupiers of the ex-Wye College outbuildings could be secure for quite a while.
The broad track narrowed to a single path, a white line of bare chalk beside an established hedge at the base of which we noticed a rat, fearlessly padding his way past us to satisfy whatever ambition had inspired his journey. I plodded, on my rising path, struggling a little now to keep up. Beyond the hedge on our left, a large ex-Wye College field had been planted by Ripple Farm Organics with vegetable crops. Ripple farm have a lease on the land, presently into the 2020s, from Imperial College. Eventually the path, becoming yet steeper, entered a wood, to bring some respite from the midday sun which, through the thinning canopy of the wood, shafted columns of bright light illuminating dancing dust motes and spheres of diaphanous insects. Perspiring and panting, I emerged from the wood onto a sheep-cropped, grassy meadow. Following an imagined contour line, a little below the summit of the ridge of the North Downs which stretches from here to the White Cliffs of Dover in the East, and West to Farnham, Surrey; a hundred miles or so in all.
The ‘Wye Crown’ is an excavation of the chalk escarpment filled with white-painted flints. The effect is an image of a dazzling white crown set into the face of the hill.
The crown was originally created, by students from Wye College working under the guidance of the college Vice Principal, in 1902 to mark the coronation of Edward VII. On the night of the coronation the crown was lit with 1,500 fairy lights and similarly illuminated in 1935 to celebrate George V’s silver jubilee. To mark the Millennium a stone pillar was sited above the crown on the top of which are arrows pointing to several historically interesting sites from Winchester in the West to Richborough in the East.
Hitherto the crown has been maintained by Wye College students. Now there are none, I do not know on whom the responsibility for The Crown’s maintenance will fall. Imperial College perhaps?
From the Crown we took a diagonal path across the grassy slope to the point at which we had entered the wood earlier. From there we picked up our previously trodden route past the Free School and along Olantigh Road into the village where we enjoyed an excellent pub lunch at the ‘King’s Head’.