There is an unwritten law that, when arriving at Dartford train station, you must have Wild Horses coursing through your headphones. It is here on platform 2 — claims a circular plaque — that a wrinkleless Keef and Mick met, soon after forming the Rolling Stones. The proudly-embossed anecdote is hotly contested by those who credit the long-drowned Brian Jones with forming the band, but that's not an argument we're having right now.
Another shard of Dartford lore tells of a local stallion called George, who was once so impatient for his daily pint of beer to be bought for him by his owner at the Royal Oak, the dipsomaniac animal clattered into the boozer himself, instantly crashing through the floorboards. Wild horses indeed.
Now, is it our imagination — and bear with us here — or does Dartford have an unlikely of Jaggeresque swagger to it? Far from Tin Pan Alley and the Hammersmith Apollo, it may be. But could this in fact be the most rock 'n' roll town England has to offer? Wearing our finest moleskin bell-bottoms and ruffle-trim shirt, we've caught the Thameslink and headed somewhere we'd never usually dream of going: Kent.
The Stones would approve
Mick, Keith and George the horse aren't the only rock 'n' roll stars to have graced Dartford. In 1947 Thomas Walter Jennings, established Vox, a brand that would later build amplifiers to power rock bands like the Beatles, Kinks — and indeed the Stones.
In more nods to Dartford's ongoing fling with hedonistic music, billboards for ersatz Beatles acts and Rat Packs are slathered over the Orchard Theatre. It's like the buzz of London's West End is playfully lapping at Kent's feet. (We ignore the poster for Wham! lest it undermines the point we're trying to make here.)
In the local museum we swot up to find that Dartford was historically an industry of clay smoking pipes, fireworks and beer (namely, CN Kidd & Son): three things that the Stones would approve of. As if they can hear our inner musings, Mick and Keef materialise on a leaflet for local walking tour. Alive they may be, but this pair are already haunting us.
In fact, the brewery was left to the Dartford locals by the heirless Kidd — and is today Central Park (take THAT NYC). We soon find the bandstand — a font of music which still spills over with music on clement Sunday afternoons.
Dartford's swagger isn't purely musical. A marvellous mural by Gary Drostle — hovering above a Paddy Power in the town centre — bristles with former locals, behind inventions good bad and ugly: freeze dried blood, bouncing bombs and skin lightening cream.
Just down the high street, another pub, the Wat Tyler, celebrates the man who smashed in the brains of a tax collector, led a revolt against Richard II, tried to stab a mayor, had his head lopped off, then had it plonked on a spike on London Bridge (how's that for a farewell tour). The pub itself might be a middle finger to the history books: even the locals admit Wat Tyler quite possibly didn't come from Dartford.
The tale of Tesco
By now, we're satisfied that Dartford's been a black sheep/horse in the past — but what about today's town? Isn't it now little more than something synonymous with a river crossing that only scores 2.5 on TripAdvisor?
"The only limit in art is your imagination," says Chris Knight, as we look down on a strange, Radioheadesque, image rolled out on the floor, brought to him by a customer who wants it deframed and rolled up, to send it to his daughter in Geneva.
Knight is the Friday Man at What If...? Gallery in the centre of town. The gallery's owner clocked an unemployed Knight staring into gallery window, and beckoned him in. He's now been a volunteer for 12 years.
"We try to bring culture to the people of Dartford," says Knight, explaining that the gallery offers an economical way for local artists to display and sell their works.
Knight also enlightens us about a recent episode in Dartford history — a modern-day David and Goliath tale, which locals whisper about, as if something to be told in front of roaring fire late at night.
"Tesco pretty much brought the whole town... the lot," says Knight. They were going to knock this parade of shops down and build a road through the park to connect old Dartford with new Dartford — the latter being this massive great store they were going to build".
As the monster brand eventually skulked away from Dartford in 2015, tail between its legs, the news was met with a mixed response. Though many were glad to see Tesco's back, 11 years of its shadow looming over the town had scared other potential developers away. Who would want to invest in Dartford now?
"Here I am 100 years later doing the same thing"
Life for Dartford may not have been a bed of roses lately lately, but on a Friday afternoon in May, the market is incandescent with flowers — and there's a palpable glimmer of positivity in the air, not purely down to the decent weather.
Sandra Woodfall is probably one of the reasons for this upbeat vibe: 10 years ago she set up a farmers' market here, and despite numerous setbacks, it has flourished into a delightful congregation of jams and chutneys, pies and cakes, patter and smiles.
Living in Maidstone now, Dartford is very much a part of Woodfall's life: she used to be a radio DJ at the old West Hill hospital. "Only yesterday, they had bagpipes here," says Woodfall, "There are bagpipe players based in the Dartford area. Years and years ago we morris danced at the Wat Tyler pub, and you heard the bagpipes from about 10 minutes before you saw them. They paraded down the road, and came and joined us."
You really can't escape the music in Dartford.
Woodfall — who also works for the local council — is keen to point out that since Tesco left, a new £75m makeover is in the offing. Things are looking up.
Next door, Kaye Kerwin — who runs a stall selling homemade fudge and lemonade — gives us a personal insight into the Dartford locals: "They like their chocolate fudge. My husband likes spreadsheet and he records whatever we sell. And we always know to pack chocolate fudge when we come to Dartford."
"Come back here in five years"
Happy as we are to see Dartford in a sprightly mood, geraniums and homemade fudge hardly scream rock 'n' roll. It's only on our way back to the train station that we come across what is easily the town's coolest shop. Although it's not immediately clear that it's a shop at all...
"The thing about Dartford is... come back here in five years." That's what James Cobley tells us. He runs the comic book and candy shop, Newsstand, which is nestled beneath a garish 1980s clocktower. Up in the roof, says Cobley, there are figures of Hansel and Gretel, which once popped out from beneath the clock as it chimed. You could also see the feet of the Witch wriggle away, as she burned away in the oven — a deliciously grim touch.
To be clear, Cobley isn't ordering us off his patch. He staunchly believes Dartford is on the up — just last night, he's been to a meeting about the town redevelopment proposals, and, like Woodfall, feels upbeat about them. He's just saying that in five years, the place will be even better. "They only add things, never take them away," he says.
"When they changed the timetables recently, a guy said to me 'they've got rid of the trains to Victoria!' I said 'you're looking at the bank holidays.'"
He shows us around his cavern of wonders — the Mr. Meeseeks figurines, Pokemon cards, N64 games, the sweet potato, and wasabi-flavoured Kit Kats that he brings back from Japan. Peckham doesn't have anything as hip as this.
While Cobley admits that he loves the good connections into London (he regularly attends conventions there), and the taste of the West End afforded by the Orchard Theatre, with Newsstand, he is bringing a taste of London — hip, exciting, unpredictable — into Dartford.
In Cobley, we have found our spokesperson for Dartford: proud of its history, aware of its shortcomings, but outspoken about all the things it has, and will, become — active in making it happen, too.
And you know what — we will come back in five years. But for now it's time to find out how much we've been charged for venturing into zone 9.