On the riverbank by the town of Sandwich in Kent is a curious little oak framed building with a clay tile roof. Alongside, moored at the quay, is an equally intriguing wooden boat with a bright green hull and high bulwarks but no wheelhouse, masts or structures on the open deck. This is a local community project with parallels to our own Waggonway Group but with an interest in a period further back in history. The Sandwich Medieval Centre was, it turns out, built as recently as 2019 for The Sandwich Medieval Trust.
I stumbled across the Centre by chance late one afternoon while visiting family nearby and was only able to peer in through the windows at a workshop full of old woodworking tools and to read the information board beside the boat. The hull was, according to the text, an old Danish trawler but it was being re-fitted as a replica medieval cob, a once common form of boat used for both trade and warfare. Work on the hull was almost complete and the next steps would be start on the deck windlass and then to set about building both fore and stern castles.
A few days later I was able to return while the Centre was open and spoke to some of the group of volunteers, who also demonstrated some of the medieval skills that had led to the formation of the group and ultimately to the Centre itself.
The Trust had formed some years before, with members each having interests in different aspects of Sandwich’s medieval past. The town was an important centre and, although the river Stour is now small, shallow and partly silted up, it was one of the Cinque Ports with prolific trading and military traffic with southern England and Europe. Initially the group members attended re-enactment events and demonstrated skills and trades ranging from calligraphy, print making, blacksmithing, carpentry and music. Their roots in Sandwich, which is probably one of England’s best preserved medieval towns, remained however and they decided to establish a fixed base in the town. This was obviously no simple task but eventually a generous benefactor obtained consent for a new timber-framed building on the quayside on the basis that it could only be used for Community purposes and a lease with the Trust was prepared.
The Centre building was constructed by a specialist oak frame company but before it was complete it emerged that there was a problem with the Trust's lease and this resulted in a substantial delay. The local Council found themselves in the awkward position of having let the building in breach of their own Planning Consent and this proved costly, as they had to buy back the mistakenly issued lease before the Group could take possession. Eventually however the matter was resolved and the group were able to move in in 2019. Inside the new medieval-inspired structure the Trust have been able to set out a number of dedicated areas, each with a focus on a different aspect of life in the 14th and 15th century. There is a porch area with a volunteer (like all of the others I met in medieval costume) to welcome visitors and give an introduction to Sandwich's medieval past. The reception space opens into the main workshop, where the land-based timber work for the boat is currently underway. Next to the workshop is another area housing the brick-built forge and, ingeniously, a beehive design bread oven sharing its chimney.
That's not all however as there is also a first floor, where the Trust have a small printing press set up, together with a display of manuscript illumination and flexible space for craft displays, demonstrations and teaching.
During my visit I was able to speak with several of the volunteers, including Bob, who is leading the boat building project and is also a member of the music group. He was able to explain the objectives in reconstructing a type of vessel that was once common on the coasts of Europe. The old hull had been bought specifically because of its close relationship to the proportions of these medieval vessels and the lack of a slipway or dry dock meant that it was not possible to build a new hull. They were however doing pretty much everything else using authentic medieval materials and techniques. As we talked another helper was boring a large hole in a baulk using a hand bit and he explained that some of the tools were also made at the Centre. True to what I was hearing, over at the forge Steve was producing a set of callipers to help with the manufacture of the ship's windlass. He stopped hammering and pumping the bellows for a few minutes to speak to me and demonstrate a range of tools, knives, swords, nails and fittings that had been produced on the forge. Steve sourced much of the metal himself, re-using steel components from trucks and agricultural equipment as suited the items being forged. This included a new anchor for the boat.
Unfortunately the bread oven had not been lit on the day I visited but upstairs I met Julia, Trust member responsible for school engagement, of which there had been little over the previous 18 months. Julia is however also an accomplished calligrapher and gave a fantastic demonstration of the art, including gilding of an illuminated script. The Sandwich Medieval Group have managed to create a wonderful Centre all on the basis of volunteer efforts and contributions. Specific projects, such as the boat reconstruction, have received significant grants but the day to day operations of the Centre are largely self supporting through donations and the sale of items made by the group themselves. The Group is also able to run full day educational workshops, including breadmaking and blacksmithing, for very reasonable costs. If you ever find yourself in Kent or are looking for a destination in southern England then Sandwich and its new Medieval Centre are absolutely worth visiting.
Thanks to Bob Martin, Julia Baxter and Steve Batchelor of The Sandwich Medieval Trust.