In this post, part of a series discussing Cold Shoulder Road in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, I want to focus on the county where most of the action takes place, namely Kent.
As we shall see, some of the places mentioned exist in our world while others do not, and some distances remain the same while others appear to be telescoped. But all these places, while principally the background to the action, are often imbued with a significance that almost makes them characters in their own right.
The discussion that follows is of course preceeded the usual warning notice. 🙂
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
The principal sites that are mentioned in the novel which exist in our real world are not that many. In short order they are Dover and the Goodwin Sands, Folkestone and the East Cliff, Shadoxhurst Forest south of Ashford, and, over to the west, Blackheath just south of Greenwich. Blackheath Edge is where Is Twite and her oldest sister Penny used to live, in a wooden barn which is burnt down by Dominic de la Twite after he’s trapped in it. Maps and illustrations in the early 19th century show Blackheath as still a wild place before residential development covered it over later in the century.
When Is and her cousin Arun travel in Dominic de la Twite’s chaise from the Kent coast, Is estimates that it took about four hours to go the sixty-odd miles to Eltham from Womenswold, travelling at 16 miles an hour. When soon after they arrive at the one-storey house where Is once lived in Blackheath, Is and Arun escape to what she calls a Cold Harbour, which she says is “a place where trampers and travellers can put up. A poor folk’s refuge.” She also tells Arun that it’s “southwards of where Penny and I lived, a matter of nine or ten miles.”
Rather more than ten miles away, and in more of a southwesterly direction, are the so-called Medway megaliths; prehistoric stones, mostly from long barrows, they’re closer to twenty miles from Blackheath, lying spread out in a group north of Aylesford. From west to east they include the Coldrum, Addington and Chestnuts chambered long barrows; then Kit’s Coty House, Lower Kit’s Coty House and the Coffin Stone; finally, on higher ground, Smythe’s Megalith and the White Horse Stones. Coldrum long barrow (named after the demolished Coldrum Lodge Farm) may have suggested the novel’s Cold Harbour, literally a cold place to shelter and a placename found all over the UK.
I want to focus on two particular megalithic monuments on the eastern side of the River Medway, midway between Rochester and Maidstone. These are the famous Kit’s Coty House and the Countless Stones, the latter also known as the Little Kit’s Coty House; they’re located just off the long distance path known as the North Downs Way.
The refuge, when they reached it, was a queer building, unlike any other. It stood in a small clearing of the wood, and consisted, principally, of four huge stones, three of them standing up like fingers, and the fourth one, which was big as a farm cart, balanced on the tops of the other three, forming a roof. Round this structure, more stones had been added later, in a rough wall, to make a kind of shelter.
“The place is called Pook’s Pantry,” Is told Arun. “It’s very old.”
Kit’s Coty, as one of the more accessible monuments, may have inspired the novel’s Cold Harbour, here called Pook’s Pantry: Pook or Puck was a nature sprite with ancient origins, so a popular association with a prehistoric monument would be unsurprising. (And of course the name is well known from the 1906 novel Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling, set in the neighbouring county of East Sussex.)
Later in the novel Pook’s Pantry is crushed by a wrecked ship which has been sent sailing through the air by a deliberate explosion. The collapsed and scattered megaliths or ‘countless stones’ of Little Kit’s Coty House may have suggested the fictional disaster for Pook’s Pantry.
However, the Medway megaliths aren’t necessarily geographical substitutes for Pook’s Pantry because Cold Shoulder Road implies that the fictional structure isn’t excessively far from Womenswold. Nowadays this latter is a small village just off the North Downs Way heading to Canterbury from Dover, but in the novel a couple of farms are near neighbours to a naval hulk which has been stranded in the branches of a tree by a force of nature, a great flood and gale which swept HMS Throstle miles inland: Is had been told by Captain Isiah Podmore about the
“tarnal great flood-wave what came a-raging down this coast last January — that drowned a many souls along the Essex and Kent shores […]; and they found one thirty-three-gun frigate a couple of miles inland at Womenswold, lodged in the crotch of a big old chestnut tree.”
Is believes Womenswold isn’t ” above six or seven miles” from the sea. It takes them a whole day, from dawn to dusk, to travel from Pook’s Pantry to Womenswold via an unlocated place called Birketland, taking a circuitous route, avoiding tracks and eventually “crossing the Roman road farther south, and then working back from a north-easterly direction.”
However, when Is, her sister Penny and the little girl called Pye later travel in the reverse direction the relative positioning of Womenswold and the megaliths becomes confused. They cross ridges, valleys and brooks, circle an open patch of heath land, and then reach the edge of “a broad expanse of bare moorland, with grassy patches, low-growing stretches of heather, and a wide bridle-way that ran across the centre, past a smooth bare rock.” From the confused directions given at the end of chapter 7 it’s hard to orientate oneself, but the upshot is that Dominic de la Twite and Admiral Fishskin are able to fly a kite so far that it comes down on the Throstle at Womenswold; and when the explosives on the kite tail detonate, the ship flies all the way from east Kent to the Medway in the west, to come crashing down on Pook’s Pantry.
It had previously been suggested that in the future vessels might eventually fly through the air with people on board; in the 1840s this appears to have come to pass.
The name of the ship is significant: a ‘throstle’ is of course another name for the song thrush, Turdus philomelos — and we’ve previously noted that Is’s sister Dido had spent many years travelling in HMS Thrush — so here is another bird name to add to the list.
There was indeed a Throstle described on Lloyd’s List of marine shipwrecks, described as having run aground in February 1809 on the Nore sands in the Thames estuary en route from Dundee to London. And in the Great Storm of November / December 1703 a ship was found fifteen miles inland on the Somerset Levels, and thousand sailors or more drowned on the Goodwin Sands. So the novel’s Throstle inland up a tree, miles from the sea after a storm and sea surge is not so unimaginable after all.
Next time we shall look at the Kent coast locations, namely Folkestone and the fictional town of Seagate somewhere east of Dover (probably close to the real settlement of Swingate).