I discovered a wonderful little gem – a Medieval English church!!!

We drove past this church so many times! We love to go for a drive in the countryside every now and again and when we were driving past this church in the village of Cooling (in Kent) it always intrigued me. It stands so quietly and nobly at the side of the road and you can see at once that is is very old…

church 2

 

And today it happened at last: we stopped at the side of the road and got out and entered a wonderful past.

church

This is St James church. It is very, very old and dates from the 13th century. Can you comprehend it? It is 700 years old. Seven hundred years ago some people built it, then went there for services all those years, babies were baptized there, funeral services were held… And it is still standing! This is what always amazes me with  historic buildings.

Anyway, this church is redundant now. But it is open as a historic church and is looked after by the local enthusiasts. It was open, nobody was there, you could just enter it and have a good look around. And this is what we did.

Although the church itself dates back to the 13th century, its tower was completed to the height at which it now stands by about 1400. At the base of the tower wall you can see the flint banding  which is a common decorative feature in this part of Kent. Flint and ragstone are both Kentish materials.

flint

When we entered the church I noticed straight away how simple, light and spacious it was, how gentle and dignified – these words are probably not very suitable for a church description but there you are.

nave

Halfway between the north and south door stands the 13th-century font, perhaps – as it said in the plaque on the wall –  the oldest unaltered feature of the church.

font

Near the entrance I notices six heavily-worn benches, these are possibly the original furniture dating back – again! –  to the 14th century .

pew

Right in front of us was a huge wooden door, but when I looked behind it I found that there was just a wall! The north doorway (which was the main church doorway for much of its history) was bricked up at some point but the 500-year-old door is still on its hinges!

door

 

St James’ Church seems to have been little altered until the 19th century, when there was a burst of activity in and around the church.  The vestry was built onto the south wall, and the porch took on its present appearance.  There was also a new pine reading desk, banners for the altar, carpets for the chancel, pulpit stairs and altar kneelers.  I suppose the stained glass window behind the altar appeared then as well.

window

 

And the tiny organ:

organ

Then I had I surprise! There was a little room at the side of the church ( the 19th century vestry as I found out later) and when I entered it I couldn’t believe my eyes!

shell wall 3

The interior walls of the vestry were decorated from floor to ceiling in the most unusual way – they were lined with hundreds of cockle shells!

shell wall

 

shell wall 2

I’ve never seen anything like this in my life, especially not in a church!  But there was an explanation for it, of course – this shell was worn as an emblem by pilgrims to one of the most renowned holy sites in Western Europe, the shrine at Santiago de Compostela of St James – the patron saint of Cooling church.

 

To the side of the altar there was a simple small wooden table with a HUGE book on it, really enormous. And you could see it was very old. I didn’t want to disturb it, so just opened the front cover:

book

 
book 2

book 3

Having finished with the wonderful church we went out into the churchyard. To the left we saw a really big yew tree but when we came closer we saw that it was the most unusual tree. It was growing inside the trunk of its dead ancestor! Apparently, the yew trees were common in the medieval churchyards as symbols of everlasting life (how appropriate!) The berries are pre was a smalloisonous and yews were also planted to make sure farmers didn’t graze their cattle in the churchyard.

yew tree 2

yew tree

There was a small cemetery around the church, of course. I absolutely love old cemeteries and this one was very special. First, I saw a huge 18th century table tomb. Nothing unusual in itself, until I found out that Charles Dickens who lived in the nearby village of Higham often had a picnic during his walks ON this very tomb! Those Victorians were very peculiar people, I am telling you.

tomb

Dickens often visited this church and is thought to have set the opening to Great Expectations in its churchyard.

And then I saw another very strange burial:

pips grave

These are the children’s tombstones that belonged to two local families and mark the resting place to 13 children who died,aged between 1 month and about a year and a half, between 1767 and 1854.

pis grave 2

 

They are now inevitably referred to as Pip’s graves as the ever-present Dickens described them as  ‘….five little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row … and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine….’ 

This visit to the wonderful  medieval little church of St James in Cooling made my day. So many surprises, discoveries, curiosities – all were there, on my doorstep and, boy, am I glad that I saw them at last!

church 3

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2 thoughts on “I discovered a wonderful little gem – a Medieval English church!!!

  1. That is extremely cool – and it always amazes me how much deep history can be found in the UK and Europe, often in places still in everyday use. We have nothing that old in New Zealand – humans didn’t even get here until late in the 13th century and our most historic European-style buildings are still less than 200 years old.

    • Yes, there is often this weird feeling of almost touching the time itself. This particular church was wonderful also because it was so remote, so deserted and yet so warm and intimate…
      By the way, 200 years is also a long time 🙂

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