SANDWICH -- He just has to move the electric reading lamp out of the dining room and then things will be ready to roll, says Keith Williams, 79.
Sixteen years after retiring to Sandwich, in the southern part of England, this wealthy London entrepreneur is ready to share the charms of his historic home – his pride and joy – with the public. The house, which dates back to 1590, retains many of its original features, such as the old brass lock on the entrance door and the wood paneling with a relief of Catherine of Aragon (Henry VIII's first wife) in the dining room. But its most important asset, at least from a tourism perspective, is its location – in the town that gave birth to Britain's biggest culinary contribution to the world: the sandwich.
Legend has it that the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1729-1792) was a passionate cribbage player. This First Lord of the Admiralty spent every bit of his spare time playing the card game with his aristocratic friends and was even reluctant to leave the games table for meals.
So one day, in 1762, he had a revolutionary idea: he asked his servants to put a slab of roast beef between two slices of bread so he could eat without getting his fingers greasy and thus play cribbage without interruption. Those playing with him said they'd have what Sandwich was having -- and thus was born one of the planet's most beloved snacks.
And on the weekend of May 12-13, the small town of Sandwich in the county of Kent celebrates the 250th anniversary of the golden fast-food oldie.
Among the events on the program are a big street party, a sandwich-making competition, and a concert featuring music from the era of the fourth Earl of Sandwich. In Williams's dining room, amateur actors will be staging a production that recreates the birth of the sandwich.
The patron of the festivities is the 11th Earl of Sandwich who, with his son Orlando Montagu, has been running his own sandwich business since 2004 called -- what else -- Earl of Sandwich. The brainchild of Orlando Montagu, 41, the fast-food chain now has 22 locations, mostly in the United States but also in London and in Disneyland Paris.
Montagu's intention is to make a profit out of his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather's invention: "It's irritated our family for centuries that he never patented the idea," says Montagu. A Sandwich dynasty would have made a vast fortune -- in Great Britain alone, the turnover in sandwiches per year adds up to an estimated $9 billion.
"A ham and cheese portsmouth"
If history had gone just a little bit differently, they wouldn't be called sandwiches. The first Earl of Sandwich, Edward Montagu, owed his title to English King Charles II. It was a gesture of thanks: Montague was Admiral of the fleet that brought the King back from exile in 1660. Montagu's first choice was Earl of Portsmouth -- however, that had already been awarded so, none-too-enthusiastically, he opted for Sandwich.
"Had he gotten his first choice, you would have people around the world ordering a ham and cheese portsmouth," says Orlando Montagu.
When all is said and done, however, Sandwich was not a bad choice -- it was once the country's largest port. Today, it is the best-preserved medieval town in England and its entire historic center is a national heritage site.
There is not a souvenir shop to be seen anywhere – only picturesque narrow streets, restored houses, and an intact center complete with book shops, butcher shops, bakery shops, and Mom & Pop stores. People in Sandwich like tradition, so every day at 8 p.m. the "curfew bell" still rings out from the bell tower of St. Peter's Church. But that's where observance of tradition ends. In the Middle Ages, the sound of the bell was when people threw their trash into the streets, let the pigs out, and withdrew into their houses for the night. Ringing the bell today is the work of 31 volunteers each of whom is on duty once a month.
Musts for visitors to Sandwich include the Guildhall, a half-timbered building erected in 1579 on the old market square. Today, it is largely a museum and tours are conducted by Town Sergeant Kevin Cook personally. His position – part caretaker, assistant to the mayor and town crier -- is one that has existed since the Middle Ages. Cook, 45, knows all the anecdotes about Sandwich by heart. With particular pride, he shows visitors the fine stained glass window in the oak-paneled Court Room depicting Queen Elizabeth I's reception at Sandown Gate in Sandwich in 1573.
Sandwich's original location was at the mouth of the Stour River, where it fed into the North Sea. In the 16th century, however, the sea retreated, leaving a sandy river bed in its wake. Sandwich didn't have the means to stop the process. Their last hope was the visit of Queen Elizabeth I -- the subject depicted on the window at Guildhall.
"They set up a 26-foot long buffet with 160 different dishes in the hopes that the Queen might be moved to provide funding," says Cook. The history books record that the Queen heartily enjoyed the feast. "But unfortunately, no money was forthcoming," says Cook, waxing indignant some 439 years later. The result can be seen from the city walls: no sight of the sea anywhere. What was once England's largest port is now two and a half miles in from the coast.
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Photo - Jessie Jacobson