It is generally accepted that Cranbrook is named after the cranes that were common by the brook that runs through the Crane Valley and under St David’s Bridge. At that time pigs were steered to pastures in clearings in the thickly wooded weald known as “dens”, “hursts” and “leys”. Many towns and villages in the area bear these suffixes denoting their ancient origin and purpose.
Cranbrook blossomed thanks to the conditions that enabled the cloth industry to thrive in the 14th century. Wealthy clothiers established the character of the town where white weather-boarded weavers’ cottages and handsome timber framed houses jostle for position. The nobly proportioned St Dunstan’s Church, “The Cathedral of the Weald”, was built during this affluent era. The turbulent history of the Church during and after the Reformation saw Cranbrook embrace Puritanism and many disaffected members of the established Church emigrate to America.
The Museum on Carriers Road is an excellent place to explore the evolution of Cranbrook and the impact of the cloth industry and religious intolerance. Queen Elizabeth visited the town in 1573 and was received at The George Inn – still a popular hostelry – and at Sissinghurst where she knighted her host. While in Cranbrook she granted a charter to Blubery’s School (now Cranbrook) and paid tribute to the superiority of the locally manufactured broadcloth.
After the decline of the woollen trade agriculture became the mainstay of the economy and remains so to this day. Sissinghurst was farmed by the Parish and Vestry Hall (now the offices of the Parish Council) built with the proceeds. The magnificent windmill, the largest of its kind in England, is a splendid relic from the 19th century now restored as a Museum and well worth a visit. The 19th century also brought the railway to these parts with a station at Hartley and encouraged a newfound mobility in the population.
In the 1850’s a Colony of Artists congregated in Cranbrook producing popular romanticised images of the rustic past. One member of this colony is renowned for creating the first Christmas Card. Evidence of their tenure in the town can be seen in architectural details and interiors of houses in and around Cranbrook as well as in a room at the Museum commemorating their body of work.
During the 1930’s the diplomat and diarist, Harold Nicolson and his wife, poet, novelist and daughter of Knole, Vita Sackville West transformed the ruins of Sissinghurst into a magnificent house and garden which now belongs to the National Trust and is one of their most visited properties.