Tenterden stands on the peninsula of high land between the Rother Levels to the south and the River Beult valley. In the later years of the Roman occupation of Britain, roads were built through the dense forest of the Weald to carry iron ore from the Sussex mines to East Kent. One of these roads passed along the ridge of high ground north of Tenterden, but there is no evidence of any permanent settlement in the area until the coming of the Saxons and Jutes in the 8th century.
The new settlers began to claim areas in the Wealden forest for pasturing their pigs and one of these areas was cleared by the men of Thanet, The Tenet-ware, who gave Tenterden its name, Tenet-ware-den, the 'den' or pig pasture of the men of Thanet.
With the gradual clearance of the forest and the creation of rich grasslands by the reclamation of much of Romney Marsh, pigs gave way to sheep as the major source of wealth, and in the 13th century Tenterden began to play an active part in the new wool and cloth trade - an industry which flourished for the next 350 years.
Wool from marshland sheep accounted for much of Tenterden's increasing prosperity, but unlike the other Wealden communities, Tenterden also had access to the sea. The ports of Smallhythe and Reading Street, both in the Hundred of Tenterden, were initially established to ship timber out of the Wealden forest, but both began to make use of the timber for building ships. When the Cinque Port of Rye found itself unable to fulfil its obligations as a Cinque Port to supply its quota of ships and men for the Crown's use, it turned to Tenterden for help. In 1449 King Henry Vl granted to the Town and Hundred of Tenterden its charter of incorporation as a limb or member of Rye in the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. The 550th anniversary of the Charter was celebrated in 1999.
Membership of the Confederation brought many benefits and the town enjoyed all the ancient customs and privileges of the Cinque Ports, such as virtual self-government, exemption from national taxation and Honours at Court - the right to be present at the monarch's coronation, an honour held to this day. The new Corporation was given the right to elect a Bailiff every year, and in 1600 Queen Elizabeth granted the town a new charter under which the title of Bailiff was changed to that of Mayor.
In the 15th and 16th centuries the Romney Marsh harbours silted up and Tenterden slowly lost its maritime trade, bringing about a decline in the influence of both Tenterden and the Cinque Ports. In the 18th century, access to the rich grazing lands of the Marsh and the cultivation of fruit and hops on the higher land continued to bring wealth to the landowners of Tenterden, which developed into an important market and service centre for the surrounding district. The coming of the railway to Ashford and Headcorn in 1842 brought London goods to the Tenterden shops and encouraged its growth as a shopping centre. Under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 the Mayor and Jurats were replaced by a reformed Borough Council of Mayor, Aldermen and Councillors and in 1974 the Town and Hundred of Tenterden became a "Successor Parish", with a Town Mayor and Councillors.
Opposite the Town Hall is the Lemon Tree, a superb example of a 15th century Wealden Hall House. It retains much of its original character, but many other mediaeval buildings in the High Street have been given 18th and 19th century facades.
A good example of this is Cafe Rouge (was the Eight Bells pub) with its street frontage partly clad with mathematical tiles (tiles shaped to look like bricks) whose original timber frame is still visible from the side lane.
Further west, the old library building (now White Stuff) occupies part of the Pebbles, a handsome 18th century wood-framed house, next to which is the White Lion Hotel, clad with white mathematical tiles which disguise its true age of more than 400 years. Beyond are the wide High Street greens, the site of centuries of sheep and cattle fairs, along both sides of which trees were planted in 1871. The greens were also used for entertainment, and major events such as coronations and royal marriages were celebrated there. In October 1990, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, performed the official opening of the Tenterden Leisure Centre in Recreation Ground Road.
Dominating the town centre is St Mildred's Church, which has experienced many alterations and additions since it was first built. The main portion of the existing structure, comprising the Chancel and the Nave, was built in the late 12th century. An aisle, porch and chantry chapel were added on the south side in the 13th century and the 14th century saw the addition of a north aisle. A chapel to the north of the Chancel and the superb perpendicular tower were erected in the 15th century. The tower housed one of the country's many fire beacons which served to warn London of the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Adjacent to St Mildred's is the 15th century Woolpack Inn which is a reminder of the former importance of the cloth trade and next door to the Inn is the Town Hall which was built in 1792 to replace the original Court Hall destroyed by fire in 1661. The Town Hall includes an Assembly Room recently restored to something like its 18th century appearance and displayed there is a board listing the names of all the Bailiffs and Mayors of Tenterden since 1449, and the Arms of the 14 members of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. Today's Mayor's Parlour was originally the Woolpack's card room and the Town Hall has recently been registered as a venue for wedding ceremonies.
View the My Tenterden website for more information about the history and heritage of the town and further details on Tenterden as it is today.
Tenterden Folk Festival - the first weekend in October
Tentertainment Music Festival - the first weekend in July