THE OLD BARN TEAHOUSE, HILDENBOROUGH By Gordon Church
(This article appeared in “Bygone Kent”. In 2007 the magazine is still obtainable from shops or by subscripion to:- PO Box 201 Whitstable CT5 1WT)
It was just on 70 Years ago, in 1920, that Commander Arthur Tomlinson came to the 65-acre Stocks Green Farm, off Stocks Green Road, Hildenborough, a farm of which a prominent feature was a large barn, reputed to be nearly 500 years old. Commander Tomlinson had just left the Royal Navy (as Chief Inspector of Ordnance at Woolwich Arsenal) and his intention was for a six-month stay at the farm before retiring to the West Country. That move did not come about. Instead, a family business was set up, with the barn as its centre-piece, which rapidly became a familiar part of the Kentish countryside and which, over the years since, has been visited by customers from all over the country in addition to others from much further afield.
The Old Barn Teahouse – on which Commander Tomlinson, supported by his family, was to expend so much initiative, hard work and ideas – was set on its way, as he related in his fascinating booklet ‘Tales from a Roadhouse’, published in the 1930s, by a visit from a film company. Soon after his arrival, members of the company, who had been making an historical film at nearby Penshurst, suddenly descended upon the farm in three Daimlers, demanding a farmhouse tea and refusing to leave without it.
In the Commander’s own words: ‘Out came our cream, butter and eggs and loud were the praises of our farmhouse fare. The simple fact that a new-laid egg on the farm was worth one penny but, when boiled, fetched fourpence decided me to start the teahouse business.’
From that modest beginning the ancient barn became the Old Barn Teahouse, which steadily flourished over the years, during which additions were made, including an excellent ballroom for dances and evening functions of every description. There was a swimming pool, the water for which was provided from wells dug in the grounds – by the Commander. Even a landing strip for light aircraft was made, which provided an introduction to flying for a number of people when Sir Alan Cobham visited there in the 1930s.
Ever on the look-out for something to catch the eye and attract visitors, he decided in 1928 that the grounds would provide an excellent setting for a windmill, a familiar feature of the Kentish scene in those days. ! It spotted a smock mill (where the cap only is turned into the wind) al Sidley in Sussex. When its owner died the Commander had it dismantled and taken to Hildenborough behind a Foden steam wagon and re-erected in the grounds. The sails or sweeps were rotting and he bought some more from an old mill at Sissinghurst, while the fantail was replaced by another from a mill in another part of the County.
It continued to work as a corn mill and remained a familiar part of the Old Barn setting until it suddenly collapsed in the 1960s.
Even before acquiring the windmill Commander Tomlinson had added another period piece in the grounds – some stocks. The farm had derived it’s name from some earlier stocks. Stocks Green Road was probably a stopping place in the nineteenth century, where farmers rested their cattle while driving them to London. The farm must have been a busy place when the cattle were rested overnight. There is a pond by the roadside there today from which catle might drink and the rule is still in existence that one side of it must never be fenced – so they still could. The original stocks were probably used for the sobering-up of customers from the nearby Barleycorn pub (which was pulled down when the railway was built). It was one of the many pubs in the area used by the railway navvies in the nineteenth century. Commander Tomlinson soon had another pair of stocks placed in the same position as the old ones – a great attraction for customers, some of whom, from time to time, became trapped in them. The stocks remained there for many year until accidentally demolished by a lorry.
Another of his innovations was to establish a bakery so that the flour produced by his windmill could be turned into home-made bread for the farm fare provided al the Old Barn. Near the windmill, too, was a kiln where pottery was made, together with bricks and tiles from local clay which were used in the construction of some of the early council houses in Hildenborough.
Other attractions included the craft exhibition in the adjoining oast house on the farm. On it’s wall the Commander inscribed in large white lettering the words ‘Oceans of Cream, an inscription which has weathered the storms over the years and remains to this day.
Arthur Tomlinson was a lover of animals, and a wide variety became an attraction for visitors over the years. In addition to dogs and cats and the farm animals, which included goats and donkeys, there were at one time or another penguins and monkeys. Often, when the animals died, he had them buried in the grounds of the Old Barn, erecting tombstones for many of them with appropriate inscriptions such as this one – for a favourite cow. ‘Pause, stranger, and shed a tear for or Buttercup, one of the best cows that ever kicked the bucket.
In addition to the Old Barn he ran, for many years, a petrol filling station a short distance away, off the London Road, to which was attached the Boiling Kettle Cafe. There too he had a cemetery for departed dogs and cats _ people’s pets who had not survived the ever-increasing traffic using the busy London Road. He later sold that business, but the Boiling Kettle remained for some years after the war. Later, when the original filling-station was re-developed to the present large modem one on the site, the tombstones were retained and may be seen today with their quaint inscriptions in a garden in the forecourt.
Apart from running the Old Barn Commander Tomlinson, in his early days there, was also a coal merchant, with a fleet of petrol lorries and horse-drawn vehicles to deliver the coal. He also operated a sailing barge, called the Saucy Kipper, between Tonbridge and the mouth of the Thames.
There is a reminder of the Boiling Kettle in the Old Barn today: a massive soot-stained Copper kettle suspended over one of the stairways, one of a number of kettles in which water was kept continually on the boil for refreshments for Customers of this popular cafe, and from which it gained its name.
Among other novel features which the Commander introduced into the grounds of the Old Barn was the Tower of Babel, as he called it, a round tower about fifteen feet in diameter and with a spiral staircase, entirely made up of bottles discarded by customers. Tongue-in-cheek, he had it inscribed at the base: ‘Tower of Babel, 1934 model. Gifts, however small, gratefully accepted for the Croydon Inebriates’ Home. Some day we may help you.’ There was no inebriates’ home in Croydon. The money in the collecting box went to the local hospital.
He always considered the car park attendant had an important part to play in keeping customers happy at the Old Barn, and took pains in choosing him. Prominent among his attendants were two characters in their own right. George Lucas was an early occupant of the post. In the previous century he had spent his life working on the land, and in retirement became a familiar figure at the Old Barn. His successor, whom many still remember, was burly Ted Morley, one of the last horse-drawn cab drivers in Tonbridge. He presided over the Old Barn car park for 18 years after retiring from his cab driving, and for years there was a large painting of him prominently displayed inside the Barn-it was stolen two years ago.
During the Second World War the Old Barn was requisitioned. The oast house became a Services Canteen while the barn itself, with huts erected in the grounds became billets for troops; among the first arrivals were a number of men returning from Dunkirk. Later The Old Barn was a storage centre for army equipment.
Commander Tomlinson was called upon t. For a short time he moved up North, supervising the armament of armed trawlers, before returning to his Kentish farm. In latter part of 1940, when invasion threatened, isolated vilages in the south-east corner of England were given a stock of foodstuffs. One person in each village was put in charge and told to serve out the food the moment the invasion became a reality. In Hildenborough, Commander Tomlinson was given that job and the food was stored in his farm buildings. Part of his duties was to visit the 700 houses in the village, find out how many people lived in each and leave instructions giving the amount of food he had ready for each household to draw and how and when it should be drawn.
He carried out these duties on his bicycle. I wonder whether it was the same cycle that figured in a good turn that he did me just before the war? Returning from Edenbridge late one winter’s night my Austin Seven had a puncture just outside the Old Barn. Not wanting to deal with it then, I ‘limped’ into the Old Barn car park and, being met by Commander Tomlinson, I asked him whether I could leave it there for the night. He not only agreed but lent me his cycle to complete the remaining three miles to my home in Tonbridge and for my return in the morning. It is a good deed I recall every time I pass that cheery ‘Oceans of Cream’ sign.
Following its wartime occupation, it was a little while before the Old Barn Tearoom was back in business again, but it quickly recovered its momentum with the Commander at the helm, helped by his wife and their children Reginald and Sheila.
Shortly before his death in ]959 the Commander handed the place over to Sheila and Regina1d and they carried on with their father’s enthusiasm and zeal for the next 30 years – until Sheila’s death at the end of last year.
The surviving member of the family, Mr Reginald Tomlinson, who was born in the farmhouse four years after the family moved in there, looks back with pride and satisfaction at the success of their efforts in maintaining the reputation and popularity of the Old Barn, and at the variety of customers in the thousands who have come then:~ over the past 70 years.
“Country dancing or Scottish reels in the ballroom; a party of Dutch schoolchildren or a coach-load of ladies from a London church social club on their annual excursion for a cream tea – we have never known quite who we will be getting along next,” he says . “I hope the Old Barn continues in its varied and, I might say, world-wide appeal for in my visits abroad from time to time I have always seemed to meet someone who has visited or heard of the Old Barn Teahouse.”