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‘THE GREEN’ by Mike Umbers

Newcomers to Hythe may well be surprised at the affectionate place held in the town’s collective psyche by that stony patch of land near Portland Road, known simply as The Green, and may well wonder why it has its own very active Protection Society.

‘The question of making a better use of The Green has been agitating the minds of several members of the Hythe Town Council lately.’ So began a press report of a Council debate in 1893. It goes on: ‘Unfortunately no permanent buildings can be erected on it. If such could be done what a golden opportunity there would be for the Corporation to build some proper dwellings for the working classes’.

Note that ‘unfortunately’. Who would dare write that today? It is an article of faith in Hythe that the Green MAY NOT BE BUILT ON, and it is equally believed that the Council – any and every Council – would if it could! After all, they advertised the Recreation Ground in South Road for building in 1884 (fortunately no-one was interested, and in 1904 the Mayor openly admitted ‘The time may come when we might divert a portion of the Green for building purposes....’ Then in 1914 they proposed an estate of ‘workers’ cottages’ but again private funding failed. It is not surprising that a Society for the Preservation of the Green was set up to publicise the danger, and under the .leadership and reporting skills of the redoubtable Denise Rayner it became a most effective pressure group.

To be fair to councillors, when the Colonel Commandant of the School of Musketry applied to put up a mere shed on The Green in 1919 they were quick to reply that they could not agree ‘inasmuch as this land is vested in the Council on condition that no building is ever erected thereon’. The Devil can quote scripture to his purposes, and councillors can quote the law! You might have thought they would stick to this line when the Commandant’s successor in 1939 applied to put up accommodation and instructional huts for 400 NCOs and 20 Officers attending expanding training courses at the School of Musketry, but the General Purposes Committee recommended approval – it was a time of national emergency.

Then stepped forward Mr Horton, whose family had given the land in the first place. He was not moved by war-time panic and even stood firm against an appeal ‘on patriotic grounds’ from the War Office. The Town Clerk was sure public opinion would be against him, but he was wrong: public opinion strongly supported Mr Horton.

So the gallant Colonel, whose student accommodation in the 19th Century Barracks in Military Road (today the site of Sainsbury’s) was full to bursting, had to look elsewhere, and incredibly chose the area on the North side of the London Road where the old Turnpike Gate had once stood, surely the least convenient and most expensive site in Hythe for building! The steps and concrete buttresses made necessary by that steep hillside now support Spanton Crescent and Britten Close. Why ever did they not build their new camp on Reachfields which the War Office already owned? Perhaps Turnpike Camp was seen as a Trade Test for Military Engineers.

Aerial Photograph showing Turnpike Camp, 1949. by Skyfotos Ltd.

What is The Green, and what is it for? Dog-walking and boot fairs are the immediate and obvious answers but historically for a lot more than that: it is speculated that Hythe’s first 16th Century Bowling Green was here, and that the cattle brought in to market in nearby Market [Red Lion] Square rested and grazed here overnight. The relief of Mafeking was celebrated here with a mighty bonfire, and in the days before elfnsafety killed off such joyous events, the annual 5th November bonfire and fireworks took place here. The Hythe Festival, Empire Day, Wakefield Day, Fetes Fairs and Circuses, Parachute and Bungee Jumps, Coronation displays... we are lucky to have such a large space for such events within the town area. It lacks only convenient public conveniences. (There were once adjacent conveniences in Red Lion Square but councillors without imagination or bladders sold them off.)

For short term events the Green is ideal: users book, hold their event, clear up (you hope), and depart. The threat to the open space came from proposals for more permanent structures. And apart from fending off the military (though a WW2 barrage balloon anchorage was permitted), and a railway station (a spur from Sandgate had been mooted), it has been considered even within the last forty or so years as a site for a Community Centre, a Skate Board Park, a Millennium Garden, a car park .... But despite all plans, projects and devious plots it remains open space. It is protected by two Covenants, which, lawyers will be disappointed to hear, say the same thing:

This Land is reserved for

Public Recreation

And no part of it is to be

Applied for Building Purposes

This wording (from the Deed signed in 1862) can be seen on the Notice mounted on the North Wall (see image below). The first Covenant was dated 1853, and the Preservation Society ensured the 150th Anniversary did not go unnoticed and mounted an Exhibition to ‘tell The Green’s story’ in the Library.

Image courtesy of the Green Preservation Society

The 1862 Deed was signed by Joseph Horton, and it was his grandson, Fred, who defended The Green from the proposal to build a Barracks on it at the outbreak of WW2. When he died in 1964, Fred left over £20,000 to the Town for ‘the upkeep, maintenance, improvement, re-building, and/or for any other purposes in connection with a Museum or Art Gallery or Public Library, or any other similar service or amenity administered by the Town Council’. Does anyone remember how this munificent gift was used? Is there any public record of it today – a plaque lurking somewhere? In the History Room or Library (built in the 1960s) perhaps? This would make an interesting subject for research. It would be sad if there is no sign to commemorate Fred Horton’s generous legacy – so we remembered him in the Newsletter of the Hythe Civic Society, and we now remember him here.

POSTSCRIPT The most recent visible project affecting the Green has been the planting of a hundred trees near the West side. This was achieved without controversy and despite warnings they would not survive their environment; the sceptics have been proved wrong – but it has been only with much energy intensive watering by the dedicated Preservationists. And the most recent invisible change has been the registration of The Green in Hythe, Kent, with ‘Fields in Trust’ – the ultimate protection against any future threat.

Mike Umbers 2023

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