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  • Ashley Cochrane

Bossenden Wood Shoot Journal - 28th December 2018

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

I have waited all holidays for the perfect weather to shoot my new project in. Fair, feather-white cloud which allows for the most satisfying photography conditions, especially for the moody shoots I enjoy undertaking. Today, I was to travel to Bossenden Wood on the outskirts of Faversham, Kent. This lonely, isolated village saw the scene of England’s last battle in 1838, after a madman named John Nichols Tom, under the guise of Sir William Courtenay raised a rebellion of farmers in protest to the Poor Laws which were beginning to choke landowners and their income. For this shoot, I intend to follow the footsteps of Sir William Courtenay in the days preceding this small battle, the routes he took prior to the murder of Nicholas Mears, the event which sparked the 45th regiment to be deployed from Canterbury and put down this brief revolution.

I began my trip, somewhat accidentally, in Sittingbourne, a good ten miles west from Bossenden Wood. Although I planned to attain my shots logically rather than chronologically, it was fitting I ended up in Sittingbourne, as it was here on the day before the battle that William and his band of fanatical followers breakfasted. Later that evening, Courtenay would murder the constable’s brother, Nicholas Mears prompting the inevitable doomed failure of Courtenay’s expedition. Not that anyone present at the meal was aware of what was about to happen, many of William’s followers were there out of curiosity rather than any devotion to him. However, William had begun to preach worrying discourses that proclaimed himself to be the second coming and the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, but still many were outwardly loyal to the so-called Knight, although his plans for rebellion were still not set on any clear motives or ideologies. I had arrived at Sittingbourne having mistakenly departed on the wrong bus, the 3X from Canterbury was a direct service which bypassed the scene of the battle completely, but fortunately there were three shots I needed at this place.

First stop was the Wheatsheaf Inn, where Courtenay and his followers had their breakfast. William did not eat; he had a single glass of Sherry. The rest feasted on bread, cheese and beer. There were no exciting shots to gather here, the problem with shoots that rely heavily on locations is that sometimes, the place you visit is relatively unchanged from the era you are documenting. The gravity of photographing historical locations comes in the vast change that can occur at these places over time. However, when it comes to houses and pubs, they are often very similar, so shooting these persuade no real interest apart from saying, ‘this is a building and here this thing happened’. This was the case for the Wheatsheaf, after scouring many old maps, this public house has been there from the 19th century and possibly earlier. Aside from the addition of an Aldi opposite the road and an empty billboard, this whole area seems like it was as it was back when Courtenay marched his men here to breakfast. I took a few uninteresting shots of the pub, and then focused on the empty billboard as this was the only remotely interesting subject at this location. But it felt good to begin my journey as Courtenay began his 180 years ago.

Next, I wandered along the road towards Faversham and towards the railway track. After Courtenay left the Wheatsheaf, he happened upon workers in a gravel pit and attempted to recruit them to his cause. No one stepped forward, and a frustrated Courtenay was reduced to insulting the workmen, primarily because he had promised his followers the day before that today many men would be recruited, and this was a torrid start. Courtenay had been a champion of the poor back in Canterbury, but after he had been sent to prison and later, the lunatic asylum, his field of influence was limited to the Canterbury and Faversham area. His magic and mysticism had no effect on others, and many workers were reluctant to listen to the ramblings of someone who was proven to be insane, especially now he spoke of himself and Jesus Christ on the same plain. This shot was a little better than the first, I had managed to find the location of the gravel pits on an old map of the area, so I was able to be very precise, but the area has been heavily built on since, any traces of a gravel pit are lost and have made way for modern developments. But I trained my camera around a tunnel that runs underneath the railway for a more thought-provoking shot.

As is the way with photography, the best shots came in the most unlikely of areas. My final stop in Sittingbourne was on the outskirts of the town, conveniently next to a bus stop. The shot I needed was not a spectacular one, nor one that was critical to the story I am trying to document. For at this location, Courtenay left Sittingbourne and spent a long day dragging his weary and demoralised followers around the Kentish countryside in a bid to recruit many people to his cause. No one joined that day. As I said, this shot was not imperative to the story, I just had a precise location for his movements that day, so I thought I’d check it out. From a photography perspective however, this was gold. A run-down farmers store at the side of the road provided a feast of subjects for the photographer’s eye. At the back lie a rusting car, skips and bins, Graffiti and a mass of old junk that had been slung into the field. The backdrop was stunning also, a hilly field with a spire in the background. The spire of a church that would be Courtenay’s first port of call on his long day’s recruiting. These were easily my best shots of the day and a very interesting location to shoot. As I needed to wait 30 minutes for my bus back to Faversham, I had plenty of time to explore the area and get the shot I needed.

A short bus ride back to Faversham, and from here I made sure I alighted the correct bus to get me back to Bossenden. By now though, I only had a couple of hours of daylight, so any possibilities of shooting were off the table. I decided to change my tactic however and decided to use the time to complete two alternative objectives. As I had never been to this place before, my understanding of the location exists based on Google Maps. From this I learnt that my most important location, Bossenden Farm, was both a public right of way and fenced off. So, my first objective was to find out if I could indeed access Bossenden Farm. My second objective was to locate the scene of the battle. I felt this was necessary to understand the context of what I was shooting. There were a few shots along this route which I could pick up however, so I got off the bus outside Bossenden Farm and headed up the track.

Bossenden Farm was not accessible. This was disheartening as there were three crucial shots involving the murder of Nicholas Mears that I needed to attain from here. But all was not lost, the access road to the public right of way was a mile North of my location, but the sky was darkening so I decided to abandon this exploration for another shooting day when I had more time. From here I left Bossenden Farm, picking up a shot of the gate as insurance and left for the woods. From my research, I had picked up two valuable sources for pinpointing the location of the battle. One from P.G Rogers’ book ‘Battle in Bossenden Wood’. This book has been vital to my inquisition into the life and movements of William Courtenay, and it has been the source of about 90% of my planned shots. Rogers provides in heavy detail many locations, and for this I was able to locate many of my shots with supreme accuracy. Rogers also provides a hand-drawn map that shows the movements within the battle and the location of the battle. However, any other sources of the battlefield are very hard to come by, the best I could find was a tourist map of nearby Blean Woods, which briefly references the battle and gives a vague location of the battle site.

I began by entering the woods, my research had given me two different locations for the battle. The map suggested it was close to the first fork in the trackways in the forest, but Rogers suggested it was further North. The only aspect both sources agreed on was that the battle happened within a ‘clearing in the forest’, but upon entering the forest, it became clear that any evidence of this clearing may be long since disappeared being nearly 200 years since this battle took place. I stopped at the first fork in the forest and took a few shots, but upon further research of both the tourist map and Rogers’ map, I decided to head further north. I approached two further forks in the paths, neither of which were close enough to be the scene of the battle. Both maps suggested that the battle site was parallel with Bossenden Farm, so I used this as my reference with Google Maps. Rogers’ map suggested that the battle was between Bossenden farm and a trackway leading from the left of the forest, the pathway that a portion of the 45th regiment used to pincer the Knight and his men. So, I strayed left at every fork in the hope of finding this trackway.

The trackway refused to present itself and I strayed too far North. I headed off the track and into the forest and began to head back South as I was close to my location, according to Rogers’ map anyway. I found a small clearing and began to shoot. I was confident that I had found the battle site, although I felt no spiritual connection to what I was shooting. Usually, when I end up at a battle site, I begin to picture the battle and based on my research the movements of the soldiers. But this never came, but I assumed this was due to the lack of good photography available in the middle of the forest. I took a few shots of the clearing, as well as several abstract shots of branches, moss and dead leaves. I spent half an hour at the site before daylight eventually succumbed to dusk. So, I made my way back and began to think of a better approach to shooting the battle. There were two crucial shooting locations to my story, and neither of which would yield to good photography, which was a disappointing end to the day.

I ended up at the Red Lion pub. I had initially intended to go in here and have a drink, this pub is famous for the story of Bossenden Wood. This would have been a great opportunity to get further research on my subject. The pub was closed however, so I sat and waited for the bus. It was at this point that I realised that the Red Lion was where the bodies of the men killed in the battle, including Courtenay, were laid to rest. A location I had not marked on my map, so I shot the pub to attain this shot, although I am unsure if it will make the final edit. It was however fitting, that my journey for the day ended as it was a sombre reminder of the reason, I was out here shooting. Although the day was disappointing in terms of photography, I felt closer to the subject I was chasing, and I had answered some important questions about the way I need to shoot in future.

The day was not done revealing secrets though. As I went to double-check the bus timetable, I noticed something. Next to the bus timetable was an information board about the Battle of Bossenden Wood. The board was somewhat consumed by an overgrown bush which made it difficult to see. I brushed back the leaves and found a map. What was different about this map, however, was that it was not a rough illustration like the tourist map or the map within Rogers’ book. It was based on a real Ordnance Survey map, which meant I could pinpoint the location of the battle with certain accuracy. I got out my book to see if it matched with Rogers’ map, and it did not. My perseverance to trust a hand-drawn map was misguided, I had missed the true location by some 200 yards. This was good news in that I could shoot the true location, but I had to be honest and concede that the shots would not be any different to the ones I shot today.

On reflection, today was a mixed day. Although I had not initially planned to get the Sittingbourne shots today, they were done and out the way. One of the shots was weak, one was excellent, and the other was not too bad, but I believe the shots to be enough to warrant not going back to Sittingbourne. None of these shots are particularly crucial to the story so it is important to pour all my efforts into the area around Bossenden Woods. Here I had mixed results again, Bossenden Farm is a no access site, but there is a slim chance that I can get close enough to attain the shots I need. Bossenden Woods was also mixed, I like the idea of using abstract shots to help strengthen my documentary, as this is something I have not yet tried. Also, it seems I have not yet visited the true battle location, so any shots I got in there besides the abstracts are all void. But it seems there may be some good shots outside of the forest looking in.

My next shoot will lead as follows; I will aim to shoot only the Battle of Bossenden Wood. I now have access to the true location; therefore, I can focus my full attention on the battle alone. If I can get this shot, then I am sure the rest will follow. I am confident that the shots around Bossenden will be enough, but without a strong ending, they will be worthless. It is important to keep my objectives refined, and not spread out like today. The stress of today came from jumping across shots and different timelines, and I got lost in the context. By just focussing on the battle, my photography will benefit from more careful and refined planning. I must remember to get on the 3B bus from Canterbury which will drop me off right outside the Woods. I must experiment more with abstract shots and landscape shots and explore the areas around the woods for more promising shots of the landscape.

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