Donald Maxwell’s

Valley of Dreams

By Paul Tritton


‘Gold-barred by the

morning’s beams’



MORE than 80 years ago, an artist who probably did more than any other to inspire his and subsequent generations to explore the Kentish landscape, and view familiar places in a new light, visited the Loose Valley to create sketches and watercolours for what are now two rare books, Unknown Kent and The Enchanted Road.

                The artist was Donald Maxwell, who died in 1936 while at the height of his creativity and whose grave is in East Farleigh churchyard, overlooking the Medway valley in which he lived for 27 years.

                Donald was born on April 14, 1877, in Clapham, where his father, Dr Frederick Charles Maxwell, was headmaster of Manor House School. His mother Lucilla (née Stanley) was a talented artist and related to Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin – names that are redolent of the traditional England that inspired Donald when he decided to become an artist.

                He first came to the public’s attention in July 1909, when The Daily Graphic national newspaper published his dramatic sketch The Battle Fleet off Southend on its front page. He thereupon embarked on a career as a naval artist and correspondent for The Daily Graphic and The Graphic, a weekly magazine.

                In the First World War he drew some of the first pictures depicting air warfare and, as an officer in the RNVR and later as an official war artist, he created an important pictorial record of naval operations. After the war he returned to The Graphic, covering such events as the Prince of Wales’s tour of India in 1921 and the Wembley Exhibition in 1924.



Donald Maxwell, war artist

He was with The Graphic for 26 years and from 1927 until he died he provided The Church Times with a weekly illustrated article. This was just one of his many freelance commitments and assignments.

                Early in his career he became fascinated with topography and one of his specialities was to seek out and draw ‘lost landscapes’ and explain how they provided clues to the lives of those who had lived there many centuries ago. One of the most popular of the 40 books he published was A Detective in Kent, comprising chapters with such intriguing titles as ‘The clue of the phantom shipyard’ and ‘The clue of the right-angled turn’. In his volume on Kent in his ‘Unknown Counties’ series, his sketches of cement works along the Medway, and stacks of paper pulp at Sittingbourne, exemplify how he saw form and beauty in objects that others might regard as commonplace or eyesores.

                In 1907 Donald married Fanny Eveline Marie Morgan and, such was his love of the sea and sailing, that their first home was a yacht, Penguin, which he built and moored on the Thames. Later, he bought and converted a tug boat but when their first child was expected they moved temporarily to a house in Rochester Cathedral Precincts and subsequently to No. 3 Borstal Villas, Borstal, where their daughter, Audrey Eveline Lucilla, was born in 1909.

                They named their house The Beacon and lived there for the next 21 years. Their second daughter, Veronica Edith Stanley, was born in 1914. In 1930 the family moved to East Farleigh House, a large detached property about half a mile from the centre of the village, on the road to West Farleigh.



East Farleigh House

                After moving to East Farleigh, Donald started publishing a series of County Prints in collaboration with Alabaster Passmore, the printing company whose works were in Tovil. The series consisted of 54 tinted pen and ink sketches, mostly of southern counties. The Southern Railway became a good customer and displayed the prints in its carriages and under the glass tabletops on its Isle of Wight ferries.

                Another joint venture with Alabaster Passmore was The New Domesday of Kent, a pictorial and topographical survey of the county, with a separate sheet for each village or town. Donald also wanted to publish a set of William Turner sketches on blue grey hand-made paper matching that used by Turner himself. After much trial and error, Donald and the printers developed a suitable paper (perhaps with the assistance of Hayle Mill, hand-made paper specialists, in the Loose Valley). However this project and The New Domesday of Kent were not completed.

                In 1934, two years before the 850th anniversary of the publication of the Domesday Book, Donald decided to make a set of decorative ceramic Domesday Tiles, depicting 350 of Kent’s villages and towns. Working with the Pembury Glazed Tile Co. he painted the tiles by hand and mastered the problem of compensating for the changes in colour caused during firing. Then, at Doulton & Co’s. pottery in Lambeth, he achieved the quality he wanted by using copper plates, similar to those made for his etchings, to print his images on to clay.

                The tiles were sold by, among others, Bridgeside Studios of The Broadway, Maidstone. Only 49 designs, measuring 6½ x 5½in, went on sale, plus five 9 x 6in.types depicting places in Eton and London as well as in Kent. Maidstone (Tile 4) and Loose (5) were included in the series, as were several villages in our locality – Yalding (1), Teston (9), Linton (24) and Hunton (43).

                Sadly, it appears that no examples of the six aforenamed tiles have survived in any buildings or in collections accessible to the public, and if any come up for sale they should be snapped up! At Kemsing there are two Domesday Tiles (21 and 22), set into a wall in the parish church, and tiles depicting Allington (Tile 50), Kemsing and Westerham (2) are in the Royal Collection. There are also several tiles in the ownership of some of Donald’s relatives.

                A copy of an article entitled Kent Domesday that Donald wrote for the April 1934 issue of the Kent County Journal is in the Loose Area History Society’s archives. What has not been traced is a copy of the May 1934 issue of Popular Motoring magazine. This featured his article The Remarkable Village of Loose, illustrated with seven sketches; so any copies offered at collectors’ fairs and other sources should be snapped up!       Donald died suddenly in 1936 at the age of 59. His painting Medway Country, a view of Teston Bridge, had been accepted for the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition and soon after this event opened he went to Guildford to make what was to be his last sketch, of the site of the new cathedral. It was a wet day, he caught a chill that developed into septicaemia, and he died on July 25 at Goddington, a house on the North Downs near Harrietsham.

The Maxwells had only recently moved to Harrietsham and he was buried at St Mary’s, East Farleigh, on July 28. Canon Everett conducted the service, assisted by the Rev. Rowland Maxwell and the Rev. Percival Stanley, respectively Donald’s nephew and cousin. The grave can be found to the west of the cedar tree in the extension to the churchyard. The original inscription on the grave’s kerbstone is almost illegible but a new plaque identifies the grave as his. Mrs Maxwell, who died in 1954, is buried with him. She spent the last years of her life in Nottinghamshire and London. Unknown Nottinghamshire was another of Donald’s unfinished projects: he had been collecting material for this during holidays that he and his wife spent in Lowdham with their daughter Veronica and son-in-law Robin.

                Although complete sets of all the Domesday Tiles that were issued may no longer survive, and examples of individual ones are rare, many of his sketches and watercolours can be traced to private or public collections. Maidstone Museum has a drawing of Bluebell Hill and a watercolour of Crisbrook Mill. The Imperial War Museum in London has many examples of his First World War illustrations.

                Donald’s books are occasionally advertised for sale or found in second-hand bookshops, and most of them can be borrowed from Maidstone Public Library or the Central Lending Library at Springfield. Copies of Unknown Kent and The Enchanted Road are in the Loose Area History Society’s archives. In 1995 Michael Ffinch published a painstakingly researched and copiously illustrated biography of his grandfather, Donald Maxwell: 1877 – 1936, which can be borrowed from the Central Lending Library or consulted at the Centre for Kentish Studies at County Hall.

                Unknown Kent, published in 1921, contains a chapter on The Quest for the Mills of Maidstone, in which Donald describes how after travelling on ‘a tram labelled Loose’ he wandered up and down the valley, noting and sketching several old mills. Near Loose Viaduct he noticed ‘a skeleton or ghost of a mill. The mill had gone but sluices, walls and stonework foundations showed clearly where it had been’. He was at Gurney’s Mill, which became the subject of his watercolour The Vanished Mill of Loose. The miller’s house, now called Old Millhouse, is in the background.



Maxwell’s watercolour The Vanished Mill of Loose


In Salts Lane, beyond Upper Mill, he took ‘the delightful path clinging to the deep valley side’ to Boughton Quarries. Here he drew what is probably the only surviving sketch of one of our local ragstone quarries in the days when it was still working or had only recently closed, and noted, ‘the stone from these hills was used in the building of Westminster Abbey and, by Royal Command, it was decreed that no Kentish stone should be carted to London for any other purpose’.



The view from ‘the delightful path’ to Boughton Quarries


‘Loose is a pleasant place of old mill-pools and green cottage gardens reflected in the still surface’, wrote Donald. ‘The stream is said to be the reappearance of a lost stream from higher up the valley. Hence according to some authorities the derivation of Loose – the water loses itself’.

                In 1927 he completed The Enchanted Road, which contains two chapters about the Loose Valley – The Lost Waters of Langley and The Valley of Dreams.

                In The Lost Waters of Langley Donald tells how he was inspired by a man he met at East Hall Farm, near Boughton Monchelsea, to investigate a ‘freak of geology’ that he had not heard of before. He discovered more by visiting the Hon. Henry Hannen at Rock House, Boughton, to read a description of the mysterious waters in a manuscript copy of Lambarde’s Perambulation of Kent, written in 1576.

Donald then set off to Langley, to find the source of what he later learned was the Loose stream, which rises about 200 yards east of Langley church. His account of his walk from there to Langley Park, Langley Ponds, and Brishing Farm, where the stream disappears underground, is illustrated with several delightful sketches, one of which – Langley Ponds – depicts a watercourse that is named ‘Langley Loch’ on current Ordnance Survey maps and must surely be Kent’s only loch!

Langley Ponds by Donald Maxwell

                At one time there was some doubt over whether the stream that disappears at Brishing and the one that emerges at Boughton Quarries are one and the same watercourse. On his walk, Donald met an eye-witness to an experiment that had been conducted many years earlier, when paraffin was poured into the stream at the point where it disappears. For some time afterwards the oil contaminated the stream at the quarries – ‘much to the indignation of people who used this as their water supply and objected strongly to experiments made in the interests of topographical science’.

                ‘The valley’, he wrote, ‘stands apart from this work-a-day world. It is a valley where time stands still. I do not tell you the whereabouts of the Valley of Dreams, not because I am selfish or misanthropic but because I fear to write down in a book the position of this haunt, lest it may be opened to the prying of the vulgar and the attentions of the rich’.

                Well, those who had thought for a moment about the last lines of his poem A Riddle of Kent in The Valley of Dreams, and had read The Quest for the Mills of Maidstone in Unknown Kent, soon deduced that Donald was following the Loose stream from Boughton Quarries westwards. Furthermore, he sprinkled his text with a number of clues and marked them on a map, so we soon know that the first one, ‘The clue of the steps to the spring,’ can be found at the foot of Bottlescrew Hill. From here, Donald peered over a ragstone wall and saw, down in the hollow, ‘a little round basin and a stone-edged conduit running through gardens’.


                This is where the Loose stream emerges into the daylight after running underground for about a half a mile from Brishing. The steps have now collapsed into the undergrowth but the views across the gardens, and of the houses under what he called ‘The Great Roofs’, can still be enjoyed.


                Walking downstream Donald came to the enigmatic ‘Field of Seven Wells’, thus named, according to an old man Donald met, because seven springs rise here. We know the area as Banky Meadow. Springs ain’t what they used to be and few of them are evident today. Opposite the field, Donald walked through what he was told were the ‘Switzerland Hills’ and came across a hydraulic ram pumping water to a house on the hill. He had reached the site of Upper Mill; the house was on the Foster Clark Estate at Boughton Mount.

                Further on, Donald admired the ‘quaint riverside cottages, each with a little bridge across the stream … there are little brooks gushing out of the hillside and hurrying merrily to join the main stream’. He had arrived in Loose and was at The Brooks and Bridge Street.

He concluded his narrative with the words, ‘Below the village the valley turns and again there is silence under the hill. I have stood here by starlight, with just a light or two of the last cottage still showing at the bend. It is indeed a valley of dreams’.

                His walk had ended at Kirkdale, or maybe a little further down the valley at Brickfield Cottage. We can imagine Donald retracing his steps from here to The Brooks, climbing Old Loose Hill, boarding a tram labelled Maidstone, and catching a late bus home to Borstal.


A brief history of the Maxwell family


The Maxwells’ first daughter, Audrey, married Leonard Edwards, a colonel in the Royal Marines. They had two children: Shirley (now Shirley Parker) and Richard. Veronica married Robert (‘Robin’) Ffinch, who joined the Prison Service from the Merchant Navy and was at one time Governor of Maidstone Prison. Robin’s uncle, Arthur Ffinch, was the vicar of Borstal; Donald Maxwell was churchwarden there and gave the church seven sanctuary lamps from Damascus whose fascinating provenance is the subject of one of his illustrated stories.

                Robin and Veronica had two sons, Michael and Simon, and a daughter, Susan (now Susan Robotham). Michael and his wife Patricia (née Major) lived at The Old Rectory, Linton, in the 1960s. Their first child, Simon, was born in Maidstone and baptised at St Nicholas, Linton, so through one of Donald’s great grandchildren we have a direct link with the man who lent enchantment to our Valley of Dreams.

                Michael died in 1999, having lived at Kendal, in the Lake District, for the last years of his life. Audrey and Veronica died in 1987 and 2001 respectively. There are currently at least 10 living descendants of Donald and Eveline Maxwell (she was always known thus, though her first name was Fanny).

Michael Ffinch

                Sue Robotham was born after Donald died but remembers visiting Michael at Linton, where she admired the beautiful view of the Weald of Kent from his garden – a view like so many of those that captivated Donald while he explored Kent.


With thanks to Lucy Kent, Michael Passmore, Mary Price, Sian Price, Molly Richford, Sue Robotham and Veronica Tonge (Maidstone Museum).