In celebration of National Storytelling Week

Remembering Sandling Farmhouse with Bob Corner

1st February marks the beginning of National Storytelling Week and as this year sees us celebrating our 35th anniversary, it presents a wonderful opportunity to re-tell some of the stories of Sandling Farm from yesteryear.  So, we caught up with Bob Corner, one of the oldest surviving members of our incredible volunteer group, the Friends of Kent Life.

Childhood days

Bob grew up on the Cobtree Manor Estate, having been born here back in 1930.  He spent all of his working life as an agricultural engineer, tending the Sandling Farm and continued to work here when Maidstone Council took over the running of the Estate in the 1970s.  When the Museum of Kent Life, as it was then called, first opened its doors in 1985, Bob and his wife June attended the first meeting of the Friends of Kent Life, a volunteer group.  The volunteers would bring their experience and expertise to the development of the attraction and its seasonal events. Despite turning ninety this year, Bob is still a regular visitor at Kent Life.

He takes us right back to the days of Farmer George Brundle, the last occupant of Sandling Farmhouse (sited next to the former dairy, which is now the farmyard).  George Brundle was Bob’s boss and he remembers him as “a hard worker, who expected a lot but was a good boss to work for.”  In 1925, Brundle’s father had enabled him to take on the tenancy of the farm at the tender age of 22 but only on the condition that Bob’s father, who was an experienced bailiff, came to supervise and help him, as he was relatively inexperienced.  He had to make it work.

The entire Sandling Farm estate was between 160 and 200 acres.  Bob’s father chose The Keeper’s Cottage as his home, which is where Bob was born in 1930.  Bob recalls that “it had no running water, electricity or gas but it did offer six acres of orchards to use as he wanted”.  Bob’s mum bred pigs and chickens, which had the run of the orchard.

Bob remembers his father telling him that rabbits were a big problem and that he had to get help from a local policeman and the neighbouring farm’s rabbit poacher.  They sent in ferrets and managed to catch more than 100 rabbits.  This was how Bob’s father became friendly with Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake.  Sir Garrard was the last owner of the Cobtree Manor Estate and set up the Cobtree charity trust, leaving the estate to be leased to the people of Maidstone for recreational purposes.   Bob’s father had access to the whole estate because he was responsible for managing the rabbit population.

As a child growing up on the farm, Bob was surrounded by animals.  In addition to the farm animals – and the rabbits – there were a host of more exotic species.  Bob explains that Sir Garrard had set up the Maidstone Zoo, which housed lions, tigers and elephants, among others and he was privileged to have the zoo as his playground.  The Zoo opened in 1934 and closed more than 60 years ago in 1957.

Farm days

It was decided that Bob was to follow in his father’s footsteps and go into farming. So, his father took some advice from Sir Garrard, who suggested training on the mechanical side as this was the future of farming.  Bob completed an apprenticeship at Drake & Fletchers in agricultural engineering and started work on the Sandling farm in 1949.  He remained until it was finally closed in 1980.

Bob met his wife during his apprenticeship and gamely suggested that “if he could get a house on the farm, then they had better get married”. Soon after, Tyland Barn, which is now a nature reserve, became available and George Brundle offered it to him. Despite his subsequent cold feet regarding his marriage proposal, both his mother and June were urging him to make up his mind, so Bob remained true to his word and, as they say, the rest is history.  Bob and June were married after the harvest was finished on 22 September 1951 and lived in the barn until 1997.

The farm itself was relatively behind the times, as they were still ploughing with horses and only owned one old tractor. In 1940, George Brundle bought a new tractor for £170 to update the farm and in 1947, he had a milking machine installed.  Bob was part of the dairy team that started at 6am every morning.  George Brundle was the first one to start the boiler, then Bob arrived with the van and assembled the six units on the milking machine, followed by the cowman to sort the cows out.  Bob did the carrying of the milk churns, which had to be cooled and labelled and set out on the brick platform (built by Bob), ready to be collected by 8.15am.  All of this took place in the farm’s dairy which is now home to Kent Life’s farm animals and you can still see the platform where the churns were placed outside the reconstruction of Ma’ Larkin’s kitchen.  The last milk churns were collected in the mid-Seventies.

Breakfast was around 8.30am and then Bob would start ploughing and cultivating the land.  Midday was dinner at the pub – either The Pottery Arms or The Lower Bell – where George Brundle insisted that Bob park the van in the road, as he was never ashamed to be in the pub having a pint.  Bob insists that they were back to work at 1pm without fail!

Towards the end of its life as a working farm, after Sir Garrard died in 1964, it took almost another decade to thrash out the details of his will in the high courts.    George Brundle ordered a combine harvester to be delivered in 1960, which was used up until 1980.  Bob recalls that from 1973 every year was going to be their last year.  The M20 motorway and A229 were now coming through the estate, so it had become uneconomical to run the farm.

Kent Life today

Bob points out buildings such as the Oast House and the shop, which were rebuilt in the early 1980s as they had been badly damaged following a fire in 1951, Sandling Farmhouse, the Dairy (now the farmyard), and Dotty’s Tearoom – which were all part of the original farm.  The rest of the buildings that make up the Vintage Village have been added since by bringing traditional examples of Kentish rural buildings and reconstructing them on-site.

Bob was involved in the building of the wooden hopper huts from Marden and remembers the opening of them.  However, the hop pickers said they weren’t up to scratch as they were not authentic enough so, in addition, they made some tin and brick hoppers.  According to Bob, the hop pickers were still very critical of them as they didn’t look lived in.  With a reputation for moaning and stirring up trouble, they developed this culture as workers as they often went on strike to take a break!

The hop garden is also a relatively recent addition in the 1980s, as George Brundle never grew hops.  It was formerly an orchard growing mainly cherries and Bob recalls that you needed a very tall 60 stave ladder to harvest the fruit because the trees were so tall.

So, what does Bob think of Kent Life today?  He says is pleased that the farm aspect has been preserved and is happy to see so many visitors enjoying the attraction and all of the seasonal events throughout the year.