On Wednesday I completed my ‘Four Corners of England’ tour by driving to my old home region in the South East. My show was in the town of Ashford in north Kent but before that I had a very important place to visit.
The day was beautiful as I left Oxford, with a clear blue sky and a watery, winter sun demanding sunglasses in the car. However as I drove further south so the clouds rolled in and the rain began to fall. By the time I reached the county of Kent visibility was down to nothing and the windscreen were working overtime to give me any sort of view of the road ahead.
I left the M25 and headed down the A21 passed my childhood town of Tunbridge Wells and on towards Lamberhurst. At the Blue Boys roundabout there is a petrol station and as the gauge was again showing empty I peeled off to fill the tank. I had another reason for stopping and when I drove away again I had a dozen red roses on the passenger seat. After a mile or two I left the main road and headed towards the Wealden town of Staplehurst.
Those who have been following my blog posts throughout the year will know that I have been researching the circumstances of the rail crash of 1865 which took place just outside Staplehurst and I couldn’t resist the opportunity of visiting the scene and paying my respects to the victims.
I have visited the site before so knew the road to take, and soon I was parked by a bridge crossing the dead straight stretch of railway line.
There was no footpath nearby so the only way to get to the scene of the accident was to trespass.
I put on wellington boots, brought for the purpose, and climbed over a small padlocked gate (dad would have been so proud!) I found myself in a very muddy field with a few curious sheep who watched me as I walked around the perimeter, close to the railway line. The other side of the field was bordered by the River Beult which meanders back and forth across the countryside. As I walked a beautiful rainbow arced across the grey sky as if giving me affirmation for my mission.
A little copse of trees cut into the field and as I rounded them I found that I had reached the point where the River Beult passes beneath the railway line. I had reached the very spot at which the 12.15 tidal train from Folkestone to London Bridge plunged from the rails into the river below on June 9th 1865.
Well, not quite the point, for I was still a few feet from the river, surely I could edge a little closer. I put my foot in a puddle, feeling for the ground beneath but there was none. My foot went down and instantly I realised that the water was going to gush over the top of my boot, which would be annoying, Just as the water started seeping in I felt solid ground beneath it. That was a relief. I put more weight down and then felt the muddy ground give way and before I knew it I was slipping further and further into the water until I was in up to my waist. Suddenly my connection with those who had been plunged into the River Beult 154 years before was rather more intense than I had planned for. I managed to keep my head above the water but my feet kept slipping in the mud and for a moment I couldn’t get any purchase at all. Eventually I managed to scrabble back to dry (well, drier) land but muddy water cascaded off me. My boots were full and squelched loudly as I walked away from the flood.
Somehow I had managed to keep the flowers above water, so I made my way to where the edge of the field formed a bank up to the railway track and laid 10 red roses there in honour of the individuals who lost their lives that day but whose identities are forgotten because Charles Dickens happened to be on the same train.
The flowers were for:
Amelia Raynor aged 37
Annie Bodenham aged 28
Lydia Whitby aged 28
Caroline White aged 45
Emma Beaumont aged 24
Hannah Condliffe aged 36
Charlotte Faithful age unknown
Adam Hampson aged 41
James Dunn aged 36
Hyppolite Mercier aged 33.
Having laid the flowers and spent a moment reflecting I splashed back to the copse of trees and sat down on a mossy trunk to finally removed my boots and pour the muddy water out. As I sat I remembered the letter that Dickens had written describing the awful scene and that he had ‘…stumbled over a lady lying on her back against a little pollard tree, with the blood streaming over her face (which was lead colour) in a number of distinct little streams from the head.’ Could this be the same tree? It was a fanciful thought but certainly possible.
My trousers were heavy with water as was my coat and I needed to get back to the car, so I took my leave of the area where the shattered carriages had once lain and splashed my way back to the sheep field where a farmer was waiting to see me. Nothing for it but to brazen it out.
‘Hello, I am sorry, but I wanted to visit the site of the train crash that happened here in 1865…’
‘Ah, Charles Dickens!’
It was time to play the famous relative card: ‘Yes I am his great great grandson and am writing a book about the crash. Do you own the land, for I was hoping to arrange a proper visit next year sometime to view the site.’
This was all rather impressive, considering that my trousers were sodden and muddy and I felt very bedraggled. The farmer explained that he owned the sheep but the land was owned by another and he took out his phone to kindly give me the landowner’s name and telephone number. He wished me a cheery, if rather confused good bye and I made my slow way to my car, where I changed my socks, shirt and jumper then sat on a towel in the drivers seat and set the satnav for the nearest superstore where I could buy some new (dry) clothes.
I have no idea what people thought about me as I stood politely in the queue for the till – perhaps I had a major incontinence problem (it would have to be a VERY major one), but everyone kept themselves to themselves and smiled politely.
Fortunately my hotel was only a few minutes from the shop and having checked in I was delighted to discover that my room had a bath in it, so I removed all the wet clothes and plunged into hot water to prevent a chill spreading.
My evening performance was at the Revelation Arts Centre which is based in The St Mary the Virgin Church in the heart of Ashford and it is a venue I know well, in fact I am an official Ambassador for the centre. Eight years ago a group was formed to create a vibrant music and theatre venue in the town and Revelation was the result, it is a truly impressive space with the stage being dominated by a huge stone arch.
I reversed car up the tiny lane by the churchyard and unloaded my furniture and was greeted as an old friend by all of the staff and volunteers including the manager of the centre Debra. We had to set up early as there was due to be a reception for various sponsors and supporters before the main audience arrived, so I liaised with John in the technical box to make sure that he was happy with the lighting and sound cues and then went to my dressing room ( actually the vestry, through a magnificent gothic door), to change.
The reception involved drinks, canapes and lots of speeches. I circulated with a glass of water in hand and shook hands with various council members and dignitaries, before returning to my dressing room at 7pm when the main doors were opened.
It was another impressive audience and the old church was filled with laughter and conversation as the 7.45 start time approached. When given the nod that all was ready I made my way up some rickety stairs to the balcony and then back down to the foyer so I could be ready to walk slowly to the stage from the back of the auditorium.
The slogan for Revelation is ‘up close and personal’ and there is certainly a very close connection to the audience, especially a full house such as I had. It was a wonderful. John provided perfect lighting and the sound cues worked very well. I was once again performing the 2 act version and the applause that accompanied me off the stage was very loud.
The second act was just as intense and exciting and when I came to take my bows I received a long and loud standing ovation, which felt so good.
I spent some time chatting and posing for photographs, before returning to the vestry to pack my things away ready to load into the car beneath the magnificent floodlit tower.
I returned to the hotel where I ate some sandwiches and watched television before letting sleep come over me. It had been an unexpectedly memorable day!
And that was the end of my British tour for on Friday I return to the USA to perform in New England, Pennsylvania and Virginia and of course I shall keep you posted of my adventures, which hopefully will not involve any more impromptu swimming sessions.