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River Medway

The Gallagher Stadium is on the banks of the River Medway.

The river flows for 70 miles from the High Weald in Sussex, through Kent, to the point where it enters the Thames Estuary. It is one of the jewels in Maidstone’s crown.

During the Anglo Saxon period the river not only provided a means of transport and trade, but represented a physical and symbolic boundary. It has been suggested that the social division of Men of Kent and Kentish Men could go back as far as that time. Much of Maidstone’s commercial success was due to the river.

The upper Medway was not navigable until the mid-18th century, but the lower reaches were always accessible. It was a transport lifeline to towns of North Kent, London, East Anglia and the continent. In Roman and medieval times there were shipments of stone and in later centuries the river played its part in transporting timber, paper and beer.

The river trade at Maidstone became much more important in the 17th century. A charter allowed the Corporation to levy tolls for wharfage, anchorage and groundage on all ships coming to the town, and to charge fees for the loading and unloading of vessels. In those days navigation was a tricky undertaking. The banks of the river were broken and irregular.

There were no locks, and movements of shipping were governed by tides. An Act of Parliament gave power to deepen the river and to construct locks and towpaths, which facilitated the carriage of iron, timber, wood, corn, stone, hay, wool and leather. The upper reaches of the Medway were made navigable as far as Forest Row in Sussex and barges of 40 tons could go as far as Tonbridge.

This was a great advantage for Maidstone’s manufacturers and traders. In 1807, a company advertised that they “have fitted up a barge to carry shop goods, ironmongery and goods in general from Maidstone to Tonbridge and places in between, which will load at Maidstone every Monday.”

Until the railway came to Maidstone, the river was the chief means of trade but when the steam locomotive did arrive on the scene, the Medway was still very busy. It was recorded that about 60 working barges belonged to Maidstone wharfingers. Transport wasn’t the only great asset provided by the Medway: Its water gave power for wheels which were needed in the flourishing industries in the area. It also provided food. The Domesday Book mentions that Maidstone had two eel fisheries.

By the 18th century a successful fish market had developed and the river was a link with the north Kent coast. The Medway could never be described as crystal clear, but that didn’t stop people from swimming in it. A favourite spot was near to All Saints Church. Nowadays, swans and geese are more likely to be seen gliding by. Maidstone has owed much of its river for its prosperity and today it is a source for enjoyment.

Find out more on the Maidstone River Park website.