The first part of an imaginary walk through the Ancient Town and Port of Hythe in 1600
Take a walk in your imagination through Hythe in at the beginning of the new century. You will not be seen. You are not a time traveller but only a silent shadow which will flicker and flit through the town on one day, Saturday, 12 July 1600. The concept of the ‘weekend’ is far in the future, and today is just another working day. The weather is fine, but not hot. This is the middle of the ‘Little Ice Age’, when frost fairs are held on the Thames and summers are short and cool.
Your approach to the town from the east may be difficult. The road has been in a bad state of repair for a long time and the residents of Cheriton and Saltwood, the adjoining parishes, have failed in their obligation to repair it. At the bottom of the hill you find yourself at the east end of Hythe’s main street. Do not linger there long. The stench from Guy Wilmot’s tanyard is truly dreadful. The tannery is situated here on the outskirts of town deliberately, and the prevailing south-westerly winds blow the stink away towards Folkestone (although in those weeks when the wind gets stuck in the north-east, the whole town suffers).
The street is busy, not just with people. There are animals everywhere. Pigs, and the occasional goat, rootle in rubbish heaps; chickens scratch around in the side alleys; horses are tethered outside shops and houses and are ridden down the middle of the street; a stray lamb bleats forlornly; cats bask in patches of sunlight or crouch under wagons; dogs haunt the butchers’ shops, and you will catch a glimpse of a rat’s tail as he disappears round a corner. And over it all the gulls screech and wheel and swoop, scavenging for food for the chicks perching on every rooftop.
Walk westward along the main street. There is a pavement along each side. The owners of the houses which line the street are each responsible for maintaining the section on their frontage, so it is of varying quality and height and you must be careful not to trip. The leavings of the various animals of the town are another good reason to watch where you put your feet, and you must be careful of the various woodpiles, barrels, fishing nets, tubs, heaps of building materials and lumber of all sorts which people leave outside their houses.
On your left is St John’s Hospital, a survivor of the Dissolution, now used by the town to house the poor and some disabled war veterans. The five people living here are the lucky ones, if being poor or maimed can ever be called lucky. They are warm and dry. A little further along on the right is the ‘George’, one of two inns in the town, and opposite that a fine double-fronted jettied house, home to one of the town’s gentlemen, but built a hundred years earlier. As you carry on along the street, you will see that many of the other houses are also quite old. Built during Hythe’s heyday, they have survived because as the harbour started to fail, the wealth of the town dried up and there was no ready cash to build new. Many are built at right-angles to the main street, with a shop of some sort opening onto the pavement. Sites in the main street are much sought after and the most valuable part of the site is its frontage to the street. This gives access to customers, and customers bring the money in. As a consequence, the plots are long and narrow. A lot of houses are thatched, because it is cheap and readily available but the fire risk is considerable and there is a slow shift towards tiled roofs. Chimneys are sprouting everywhere, too.