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…
And today it happened at last: we stopped at the side of the road and got out and entered a wonderful past.
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.
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.
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.
Near the entrance I notices six heavily-worn benches, these are possibly the original furniture dating back – again! – to the 14th century .
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!
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.
And the tiny 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!
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!
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!