How old do you have to be to think that a day out visiting churches, with lunch in a pub halfway through and ending the afternoon with tea and cakes made by local women, is one of the best ways to spend a few hours in the summer? It takes the good part of a lifetime to discover what fun this is and how interesting. The Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust members keep this way of enjoying themselves as a sort of secret but once a year they do arrange such a day.
A day out with the trust
Romney Marsh has 14 ancient, unspoilt, rather secluded, churches and a further three ruins of erstwhile churches such as the one called Hope All Saints. Along with other members of the RMHCT, I joined in such a tour recently. We visited St Nicholas, New Romney, St Augustine, Snave and St Peter and St Paul, Newchurch on that occasion. Instructing us in the history and indicating the various architectural oddities was Joan Cooper, a very able and attractive guide.
In the old days, hundreds of years ago, there was a certain competitiveness about the construction of churches. Did one have the latest columns? The latest thing was octagonal rather than merely circular. Were our arches tending to the gothic point or still in the solid roundness of the early Norman? Were we rich enough to have a second clerestory range of windows? Were we using stone from Caen rather than less impressive Kentish ragstone?
Did someone mention the Marsh?
Some of the Romney Marsh churches built between the 12th and 14th centuries would go on to subside, leaning precariously to this side or that and requiring substantial buttresses. These would spoil the once perfect line of the design but now add to the higgledy-piggledy charm of the remaining structures. Occasionally a spire would topple or be struck by lightning.
There were more hazards in those distant times. One’s congregation might die in large numbers during a pandemic like the Black Death. Thereafter the partly abandoned church could be a useful place for smugglers to store wine, brandy and fine cloth from France. Or the business of selling indulgences could be so lucrative that a large side aisle would be needed for a separate sales department. At this point might Mammon dilute Godliness? Corruption slipping in to distract from holy matters.
The heart of the community
All these tales, whether augmenting or demolishing the reputation of a parish and a clergyman from the past, do indicate the importance that these very attractive churches had in the communities of their time. Each church is delightful and abounding with idiosyncrasy. To mention one or two peculiarities from each of the three churches that we visited, the following.
St Nicholas is the first Norman church in England to have been constructed soon after the Conquest. It was begun on the orders of Bishop Odo of Bayeux. The handsome columns bear, until this day, shadows of the flooding caused by the great Storm of 1287. St Augustine, Snave, has skull and crossbones on one wall and a kingpost to the roof. In the churchyard is the memorial of a dog that might have a golden tail.
St Peter and St Paul, Newchurch, not only has a leaning tower but houses a diplomatic font. The font bears the White Rose of York, the Red Rose of Lancaster and an amalgamated Tudor Rose. This combination was a wise precaution during the time of Henry VI, not only lending weight to the doubtful legitimacy of the new king but also showing support for peace through compromise.
Evolution of style
Each church has many fascinating aspects. There are windows in shapes that grow more elaborate with the centuries. Simple narrow round topped windows, windows coming to a point, windows with simple stone dividers, windows with elaborate dividers, windows with elaborate dividers of fancy design. The carved stone dividing the sections are called tracery. This is skilled work and can be very beautiful.
There are painted royal crests and prayer boards in most of the Romney Marsh churches. One curious fact about the Ten Commandments, that feature on the painted boards in most of the churches, is that Commandment Three allows everyone a rest on the seventh day after six says of work apart from the wife and mother of the house who does not get a day off at all.
Times for refreshment
The Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust, set up 40 years ago, regularly gives grants to the churches to help with the restoration of the Romney Marsh churches. The Trust has gone from strength to strength and is a fine example of a worthwhile charity. The trustees are thinking of increasing their input to the educational side while continuing the restoration grants that have been so successful. It might be helpful for them to consider a wider diversification to bring in younger members.
The group had a tasty and substantial lunch at The Ship in Dymchurch. There is a point to be made here. Visitors to almost any of the Romney Marsh churches will find the village pub adjacent. Sometimes you can visit one church, have a coffee or a sandwich and then take a footpath and a decent walk to the next church.
Following the visit to the second church a stronger drink can be taken if needed in a second pub. Our own tour was supplied with enormous amounts of cake and strong tea in the side aisle of St Peter and St Paul at Newchurch. Those who made the cakes are justly renowned and full of original ideas … sweet potato cake anyone?