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Cleve Court, Nuns and Ghosts, and the Irish connection

Whilst investigating Quex Park`s London properties and road names, I came across `Cleve`.

After consulting staff, we realised that this could be added to the list of Thanet names previously mentioned in Blog No. 10, as well as Haine Rd, Chislet Rd, and Quex Mews. Further research reminded me of this local property, between Acol and Minster, very close to Quex itself, called `Cleve Court`. Local people have given the Birchington Heritage Trust much historical information about this important place, dating back to the 7th century AD, including a marital connection to Quex in 1485.

The choice of name is interesting, as `Cleve` meant `cliff`. Today it is positioned close to a chalk pit or cliff, known locally as `Smuggler`s Leap`, popularised by the Reverend Barham in his Highwayman poem. His ghost is still seen by some, with flying cape, perhaps by those who did not `watch the wall` as he rode by. Another legend tells of a bloodier time.

Cleve Court was originally part of 10,000 acres granted to Domneva, in the time of Egbert, King of Kent, in the 7th century. She was the sister of the King`s nephew, who was murdered. Egbert felt the guilt keenly. Domneva founded an abbey at Minster, which still exists. Her relation was St. Mildred, whose name in commemorated in Westgate, and whose symbol was a leaping hart. Thunor, the actual murderer, was supposedly swallowed up by the chalk pit, although we do not seem to have sightings of his ghost or the hart. This may be of some comfort to the current occupiers of the caravans and home residences in the area today. Later ghosts include the Grey lady of the house at Cleve, and the White lady at Quex. The connection between Cleve and Quex goes back at least to Tudor times, when marriages and property were inextricably linked.

In 1485, Agnes, daughter of John Quekes, married John Crispe, and their grandson was from Cleve Court, and he died in 1558. Quex is also mentioned in 1620, in `Herald`s Visitation of Kent` as the Crispes of Quekes and Cleve Court, the latter sometimes known as `Acol Court`. During the 17th and 18th centuries many alterations were made to both houses and grounds. There were other connections and disparities too. Both families had members that were High Sheriffs of Kent, at Cleve Court with Joseph Farrer, aged 23, in the late 18th century, and John Powell Powell, in 1823, from Quex. Farrer died in 1804, just before John Powell Powell demolished the old house at Quex and began building anew. However, these two people could not have been more different in personality and habits. Farrer was a profligate `big spender`, squandering a £100,000 fortune, keeping 40 horses, and reputedly a `seraglio` of women. John Powell Powell was an accomplished bell ringer, and spent six months of the year sailing around England in his beloved yachts, for which he would hand craft wooden cabinets at Quex in the winter, alongside his duties as a JP, and supervise the building of his two observation towers. Farrer perhaps redeemed himself by setting up a Thanet cricket team and beating Canterbury in 1773.

Farrer returned to France, to the Court of the Duc D` Orleans and somehow escaped the trials of the French Revolution, returning to England, where he died in 1804. Of the many tenants at Cleve the author of `The Scarlet Pimpernel`, Baroness Orczy, (1865-1945)  was  prominent.

Although the Baroness` tenancy was short, it was quite possible that she had heard of Farrer`s escapades, and his aristocratic connections, which may have informed her famous novels. Another tenant had reputedly locked up his wife, who remained, desperately, childless. It was rumoured that her ghost is the `Grey Lady` who appeared mainly to children. Her visitation to one of the later tenants, to the six year old Edward Carson, was said to have greatly disturbed him.

Edward Carson was the owner of both `Cleve Court` and `Orion`, a large bungalow near the sea, in Birchington. He is the Irish connection, for he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and a colleague of Oscar Wilde, whom he would later prosecute. As a highly regarded lawyer and politician he held many offices, Attorney General in 1913, Leader of the Opposition in 1915/16, as well as being Earl of Mayo, and a Life Peer. He entertained Winston Churchill at both his residences, with Churchill also visiting Quex Park. He was honoured with a state funeral in 1935.

During the years 1914-8 Quex became an important VAD hospital, whilst Cleve was listed as a possible military HQ. Once Manston took over from Westgate as an airport, Cleve`s trees had to be lopped, with some leaf cover left for camouflage. Additionally during the war years Cleve or `Acol Court` had tunnels dug across 8 acres of fields, as possible escape routes. Other shelters and tunnels were dug in Rossetti Road, and for several miles in the cliffs of Ramsgate. Do they still exist? Well it is possible. People are still digging in this area, for in 1994-96 18 bronzes were found, and named the `Cleve Court Hoard`, whilst road improvements were being prepared and more local housing is being planned.

Many other stories have been unearthed about ghostly sightings, and strange phenomena, in this area, as well as actual experiences of seeing the cellars at Cleve lined with Hansard, and boys riding the ponies of Lord Sanger`s circus that were stabled here in the winter, from the area now known as `Dreamland`. Not much has changed. The youngsters who tended the donkeys in the 19th century helped supply the Ice house would recognise it as it is still visible in the grounds. We can also see the chalk pit, or `Smuggler`s Leap`. Last but not least the Georgian mansion is still standing, holding more secrets than we can imagine.

Cleve Court, or `Acol Court` deserves more of a leading role in the history of East Kent, alongside its near neighbour, Quex Park, whose Museum Archives have set me on this path of discovery, alongside those of the Birchington Heritage Trust. This started from a road name in London, and has led me to uncover a wealth of stories, facts and legends, which I hope you will enjoy, at least as much as I have enjoyed writing.

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