An ancient highway connects Deal with neighbouring Sandwich. With my daughter Annabelle, her husband Ben and their daughters, Lara and Poppy, I spent the afternoon of Wednesday 2nd September strolling the full length of it. The route of the Highway peregrinates more or less due north, partly on a metalled road, partly on a by-way and partly on a footpath. Passing the clubhouse of the Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club and some farm buildings on the edge of Deal’s built environment, the Ancient Highway progresses, between three consecutively overlapping golf links on its seaward side and marshy farmland on its landward, into the suburbs of the Cinque Port of Sandwich. The undemanding walk, while pleasant enough, had little in it to provoke my attention. The three championship Golf Clubs must hold interest for people who take pleasure from whacking around them but tees, fairways and greens have little about them to command my attention. Nor do flat, marshy fields, etched with streams and dykes, admit much to hold my interest.
Mary Bax’s Stone, is an exception. On a Sunday morning, 25th August 1782, twenty-three year old Mary Bax, was walking the Ancient Highway from Deal towards Sandwich near to the Chequers Inn. She was carrying a bundle. Martin Laas, a Norwegian sailor, accosted her, demanding she give him her bundle. She refused. To gain possession of the bundle, he killed her. Unbeknown to Laas, the murder was witnessed by a young lad who had been sheltering in a nearby hut. When Laas was out of sight, the lad ran to the Chequers Inn to raise the alarm. The following day, Laas was found, with Mary’s bundle beside him, asleep in a churchyard at Folkestone, twenty miles away. He was duly arrested, tried, found guilty and executed; a twenty-three year old life accounted for with one of twenty-seven years. Although it is believed that Mary was not buried there, a stele, half hidden amongst rank weeds and grasses, yet marks this woebegone place.
At Sandwich we strolled streets defined by the river on one side and on the other by high, red-brick walls behind which fine Georgian houses could be glimpsed in part through their open gateways.
Looking forward to refreshment, we made for the Bell Hotel, a large Victorian pile one side of which faces the fourteenth-century Barbican, the fifteenth-century Crispin Inn and the sixteenth-century Admiral Owen pub. An unhappy-looking young woman, standing beside a small table bestrewn with bottles of hand disinfectants and rolls of paper towels, guarded an open gate to a paved hotel courtyard.
Had we a booking? She asked, rather dourly. Not having previously booked we were condemned to sit at one of the outside benches. After a long wait, a young man appeared to take our order. We were, he told us, too late to order food. Mildly disappointed, we settled for drinks. Not unreasonably, the children complained about being hungry.
An appetising aroma wafted from a nearby fish and chip shop. Ben wandered off to investigate, returning to the table a few minutes later with two boxes of chips, one for each of his esurient daughters. The effect of his handing these innoxious-looking boxes to his children was similar to that experienced by Alladin when he rubbed his magic lamp, except that, in the yard of the Bell Hotel, rather than a benevolent genie, three Pharisaic members of staff instantly appeared to order the extrinsic boxes off the premises. The boxes, they insinuated, might possibly be infected with covid virus.
We had no regrets about leaving this over-managed establishment and repaired at once to the river bank where, untrammelled by officious covid apparatchiks, the children enjoyed eating their improbably contaminated boxes of chips.
We ended our stroll by making our way through the mediaeval alleys and streets of Sandwich to its train station, its platforms lengthened and buildings refurbished in advance of the covid cancelled 2020 British Open Golf Championship, from where we rattled the six-minute train journey back to Deal.