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Peters Village - a new era enjoying the past

Peters Village might be an all-new community, but the site comes with a fascinating history.

Much of this was unearthed by archaeologists invited in by Peters Village developer Trenport before construction work began in 2014.

These ‘time teams’ found evidence of major habitation in Neolithic times, around 4,000 years BC, and then Bronze Age (2,500-800 years BC) remains near Court Road and Church Street.

But the first significant human intervention came with the Roman invasion of 43AD, directed by the Emperor Claudius. Having lost skirmishes against the invaders in east Kent, British tribes made a stand on the west bank of the Medway. This two-day clash may have been as far south as Aylesford – just below the Peters Village site – but was probably in the Rochester area to the north, where the Britons had a significant settlement.

Despite the river, the Romans overcame the local resistance and the area around Peters Village was then settled by the invaders; the Medway was a communications asset, as even a small river vessel could carry far more than a wheeled cart or wagon.

Archaeologists found evidence of Roman field systems taking advantage of the rich alluvial flood plain beside the river and, in addition to the known Roman villa at nearby Burham, Peters Village excavations suggested more development near Bell Lane.

With little evidence of the Saxons, the human timeline then jumps to mediaeval times when pilgrims passed through the area via The Pilgrims Way, probably crossing just downstream at Cuxton, en route from Winchester to Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral – an era entertainingly marked by Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous work, 'The Canterbury Tales'.

By this time, a considerable estate had grown up, later known as Wouldham Manor in the Tudor era and then gaining 17th century Wouldham Hall as it centrepiece.

The building – demolished in 1960 – was said to have been used as a retreat by Admiral Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, when the victor at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) was based at Chatham Dockyard.

Chatham, at the mouth of the Medway, was a premier Royal Navy base for several centuries, and Nelson’s famous flagship HMS Victory was built and launched there in 1765 in an era when Britain was defended by the Royal Navy’s ‘Wooden Walls’, now wonderfully evoked by Chatham’s well preserved Historic Dockyard. 

There is a further Nelsonian connection: the cemetery at Wouldham’s lovely 11th century church is the resting place of Victory’s purser, Walter Burke, who was at Nelson’s side when he died below decks at Trafalgar. 

Burke is pictured supporting Nelson’s pillow in the famous painting ‘The Death of Nelson, 21 October 1805’ by Arthur William Devis. Burke retired to Wouldham and though he was reckoned the oldest British sailor at Trafalgar, survived another 10 years until his death in 1815 at 79.

Industry then came to the area in the mid-19th century: London and Britain generally were amidst a building boom and demand soared for lime and cement, so the chalk downs bordering the Medway at this point were soon exploited.

The Peters family set up what became Peters Lime and Cement Works in the 1850s and made their home at Wouldham Hall from around 1860.

The operation peaked in the late 1800s when it employed 1,000 people and used the convenience of the Medway to operate 80 sailing barges, believed to be the world’s largest fleet of its kind at that time. 

Not everything from the works’ quarries was chalk though: the tusk and teeth of a mammoth were found in Peters Pit in 1906. Measuring more than three metres, the tusk is displayed in Rochester Guildhall Museum.

The Peters’ works – from which Peters Village takes its name – closed in 1925/26, having become uneconomic because it lacked a rail link. It has been speculated that the works was requisitioned during World War 2 though, to repair small naval vessels.

And there was a WW2 Army presence, with the Royal Engineers using the area for training. They built a temporary Bailey Bridge river crossing, but this was taken down after the war despite residents of both banks wanting to keep it.

The old works site then became home to various light industries and businesses and even a coach firm, but Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council's Local Plan then identified the works as a brown field site ideal for housing, and approved Trenport’s proposals for a new village and bridge in 2006. Delayed then by the economic downturn, it is now due for completion in the early 2020s.

Rather than deny its industrial past as the site of a former cement works and its quarries – reforming the latter allowed the interesting elevations to the various housing phases at Peters Village – Trenport and the local community were keen to promote the site’s heritage and connections with family members who worked there.

As a result, an eye-catching public sculpture reflecting both past industry and the abundant wildlife of the area, greets visitors on the Peters Village roundabout by the new bridge, and the names of the works’ Thames Barge fleet inspired some street names.