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.


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!

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 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.


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


Russian old country houses – an interesting aspect of Russian aristocrats’ lives

Thinking about the historical past of my motherland (from the architectural  point of view) I found an interesting trend: in 17-18 centuries very rich Russian aristocrats used to build their great summer estates not for living there but just for entertainment.

Can you imagine that? They spent enormous amount of money, invited famous architects, planted fabulous Versailles-style parks  and decorated them with various follies, filled all this with precious art and sculptures, kept an enormous staff for maintaining them – AND THEY NEVER ACTUALLY LIVED THERE! From time to time they held balls and carnivals there, gave dinners and receptions , theatrical performances, brought hundreds of guests- and then just returned home – to even more luxuriant palaces, I presume.

Here are some of such great summer country estates of the Russian nobility I’ve seen.

Kuskovo  was the summer country house and estate of the Sheremetev family. Built in the mid-18th century on over 300 (!) hectares. The twenty-six rooms of the palace were designed for entertaining and impressing guests on state occasions – and that’s all! No bedrooms, no homely living rooms, but absolutely everything is lavishly decorated. The surrounding park is full of other “little” palaces, some were used for storing paintings, some for dining, some for having a little rest while promenading around the park. There were two huge orangeries as well. Count Sheremetev entertained in a grand style; his outdoor entertainments in the park attracted as many 25000 guests. Entertainments included his famous theater and orchestra with serf actors.




Ostankino Palace is another former  private opera theatre of Sheremetev family built in 1792-1798 . The palace is built of wood but you would never guess it. It is masterfully plastered and painted inside and outside to look like stone and marble – amazing! The park, only partly survived, contains several garden buildings such as Egyptian and Italian pavilions.  Again, the Count Sheremetev didn’t LIVE there, he just brought his friends to listen to the opera. But he had to keep and support the actors (serfs) and orchestra, commission stage sets and costumes plus maintain the buildings themselves.





the stage

the stage

Arkhangelskoye Palace (18th-19th centuries) belonged to the Golitsyn and the Yusupovs families. When Prince Yusupov acquired it in 1810 he wanted it just for his vast art collection. He never lived there.



And the last one but not the least – the Petroff Palace. Built in 1776—1780s it was a travel palace on the road from St Petersburg to Moscow. The Tsars and their court used to stop there just before entering Moscow in order to have a rest and to spruce themselves up a little and then to proceed to the Kremlin Palace where they actually stayed.

petrovsky palace2

petrovsky palace1

I wonder if such “entertainment” palaces on the grand scale existed in other countries? Or was it the particular whim of the immensely rich Russian nobility?




London Wonders – All Hallows Church, the last story

I would like to write one more story about that wonderful church I visited recently – the All Hallows by the Tower, which is in the City of London.

My wonderful guy stopped near this effigy in the middle part of the church.


Judging by the dates on the effigy this man died recently so it’s not all that “historical”,- I thought to myself –  but obviously  this man was so important for the church that his tomb is so proudly displayed here. Who was he?

This man was called The Reverend Philip Thomas Byard Clayton (known as “Tubby Clayton”). He was an Anglican clergyman, the vicar of this church for 40 years and the founder of Toc H.

Philip 'Tubby' Clayton in the "Talbout House", Poperinge, Belgium, where the Toc H started

Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton in the “Talbout House”, Poperinge, Belgium, where the Toc H started

Erm… what is Toc H then? My kind guide was as helpful as ever.

The story goes that when Tubby Clayton was an army chaplain in Belgium during WW1 he opened a soldiers’ rest and recreation centre named Talbot House (named in memory of Gilbert Talbot, son of  Bishop of Winchester, who had been killed at Hooge in July 1915).

Talbot House was styled as an “Every Man’s Club”, where all soldiers were welcome, regardless of their rank. It was “an alternative for the ‘debauched’ recreational life of the town”. Instead of going off to taverns and pubs, getting drunk and engaging in brawls, the soldiers or officers could come into this house and have some quality rest, write letters home and have any help they needed.

Tubby ensured the house was open to men and officers alike. He created a library where soldiers could check-out a book by leaving their cap behind as a ticket. Tubby was a shrewd man and knew that no soldier would dare report for duty without a cap so he always got his books back. There was a large kitchen where much tea was consumed, a beautiful walled garden where men could sit and forget about the war for a while.

It was a unique rest house – simply because there was nothing like it before. For most of the Great War Talbot House offered an oasis of sanity to the men passing through Poperinge

The soldiers called it Toc H’ in signaler’s jargon

This followed the foundation of a new Toc H House in Kensington in 1919, followed by others in London, Manchester, and Southampton. The Toc H movement continued to grow in numbers and established, also, a women’s league.

Branches of Toc H were established in many countries around the world.

In the Lady Chapel in the church is the so called Croke Altar on which the casket containing the Toc H lamp, given to the movement in 1922 by Edward, Prince of Wales is still standing


Tubby Clayton always had a dog called Chippie. When the dog died he was given another one of the same breed and he called it the same name. So the dog laying at his feet on the effigy is Chippie III. And I know it because…

When my guide was telling us the story (and by that time we had a group of followers) suddenly one of the ladies from the crowd said: “I knew Tubby and his dog! This is Chippie!”

Of, my God! What?! Really?!

“Yes, – she continued – my husband and I used to know the vicar and we worked with him in Toc H”.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. You hear a story, you think it was all the deeds of days gone by – and all of a sudden it becomes so real because here is the witness and the participant of the history itself  standing in front of you!


Ant with this wonderful story I am concluding my visit of the All Hallows by the Tower church, the wonder of all wonders in London.

London Wonders – All Hallows Church, part 3

In my previous post we were moving around the main body of the All Hallows by the Tower Church which is in the City of London.

Presently my kind guide took me to the Mariners Chapel.

Probably because the place where the church is situated is so close to the Thames, there are a lot of memorials, taverns, pubs, offices, building associated with the sailors. The All Hallows is no exception.

Mariners Chapel

Mariners Chapel

The Mariners Chapel is a small one tucked in the corner of the church, to the right of the main altar. The stained glass windows  contain the coats of arms of various shipping companies associated with the church.

In the center of the wooden screen is the crucifix, it’s wood comes from the Cutty Sark, and the ivory figure of Christ  is said to come from the Captain’s cabin of the flagship of the Spanish Armada.


I noticed a huge book in In a wooden case near the wall – it was a Memorial Book which lists the names of those who have died at sea and for whom there is no known grave.

There was also a big bell mounted in the wall:


And tablets like this one on the walls:



All in all, the atmosphere in this corner of the church was quite solemn and also made you feel very sad and very proud for all these young – or not very young – men who were all heroes…


There is one more unbelievably interesting  story to come about this wonderful church – watch this space!

London Wonders – All Hallows Church, part 2

In my previous post I spent some unforgettable time in the crypt of the All Hallows by the Tower church in London.

Now we are going upstairs.

What treasures can we find here? Oh, God, where do I start?

There are several very old brasses on the floor, some dating from 16th century

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Also there are three outstanding wooden statues of saints dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Hard to believe they are centuries old!

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In a small  cell I found an exquisite Baptismal font cover which was carved in 1682 by Grinling Gibbons, the most famous 17-18th century Royal sculptor and wood carver  who’s work you can see in St Paul Cathedral, Blenheim  Palace and Hampton Court Palace. It was bought for ₤12 –  I wonder, how much would it be in today’s money? Not cheap, I bet. Unfortunately, you can’t see all the details very well as it is behind a glass wall but still you realise that it is as one of the finest pieces of carving in London.


The original font, in which William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, was christened is now in America. The present font is carved by a Sicilian prisoner of war (how strange…)


Can you believe all this is carved out of wood?! Stunning!

My wonderful guide told me that because of the close proximity of the Tower of London and the Tower Hill scaffold site, the beheaded victims of the executions often were sent for temporary burial or just for three days before burial at All Hallows. Among them – William Loud (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1645), Thomas More (statesman, philosopher, writer,  1535), John Fisher (Archbishop of Rochester, 1535). Oh, hello! John Fisher – he was the archbishop in  Rochester, where I live!

Near the altar there was an interesting Flemish panel painted around 1500. Beautifully preserved!  In the 16th century the painting disappeared (??) until the present panels were found in the 18th century – one is still missing. My guide hinted that it had been stolen and had been in some private collection.

Sorry, not a very good photo but, again, it was behind the glass.

Sorry, not a very good photo but, again, it was behind the glass.

This is it for now. More to follow!

The Wonders of London – the main wonder of the day

This was the main goal of my travel that day – All Hallows by the Tower, the oldest church in the City of London.



It stands virtually several steps away from the magestic Tower, the Norman castle-fortress-palace, famous all over the world. But this small church is no less fascinating.

It was founded actually 300 years before the Tower of London (1066)  by the Abbey of Barking in 675AD.


The Bell Tower was badly damaged by an explosion in 1650 caused when some barrels of gunpowder being stored in the churchyard (illegally!) exploded; some 50 nearby houses were destroyed as well, and there were many fatalities. The tower was rebuilt in 1658, the only example of work carried out on a church during the Commonwealth era of 1649-1660. It only narrowly survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and owes its survival to Admiral William Penn who had his men from a nearby naval yard demolish the surrounding buildings to create firebreaks. During the Great Fire, Samuel Pepys climbed the church’s spire to watch the progress of the blaze and what he described as “the saddest sight of desolation”.

Over the years the church suffered many destructions, the worst during the Blitz when the bombs fell on it twice. So, part of it was completely destroyed and various other parts are of different eras. The man in the church who kindly took me on tour, showed me the photo of the bombed church – I was surprised that it was still there!!! There had been hardly anything left of it! Luckily for us it was carefully restored.


This is the main entrance lavishly decorated with carvings.

Funnily enough, the bombing exposed something that had been screened by a later wall for centuries – an arch from the Saxon church. 7th century! This is the OLDEST piece of church material in the whole of London!


The Saxon arch

As I said, I was so lucky to have the nicest possible guy to guide me through many treasures of the church, and we started from the crypt. And the first thing I saw there was – Oh, my God! – the real Roman pavement! Seriously! It is one of the most perfectly preserved Roman pavements and in was laid in – hold it! – SECOND CENTURY! And it is still there, in front of our eyes.


Roman pavement, discovered in 1926, evidence of city life on this site for nearly two thousand years.




Another relic of the crypt is this lead box (they call it the Cistern) which was only discovered in 1923. It was hidden for 200 years by a vicar (unknown) who became so worried about the church records’ safety that he decided to hide all the Parish registers to prevent their loss or destruction by warring parties of the time. So he placed them all in this Cistern and put it in the church tower… This is how all the precious registers starting from Elizabethan time were preserved for posterity and are now such a wonderful source of information about life in the old times.



Off we go, past the old registers where you can see the fascinating entries of the baptism of one William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania (he was educated in the old schoolroom too).


William Penn

In another register there is a marriage entry of the US President John Q Adams who married Louisa Johnson, who was English by birth and insisted to be married in London. And so they did. Louisa was the only First Lady born outside of the US.

John Q Adams

John Q Adams

Louisa Adams

Louisa Adams












At the end of the corridor I saw this unusual altar:



It was brought back from Palestine by the Knights Templar during the Crusades. They say that the Templar Cross still could be seen carved on the altar, but it was too far away and the light was too dim for me to see. Later, when the Knights Templar were persecuted all over Europe, a lot of them came to England. Here they were also put to trials but not so atrociously. Some of the trials took place here, in this church. My guide told me that the Order still exists (!) and it’s members still prefer this very church to all the others and conduct their rituals here and that a couple of months ago he saw them in full gear during their initiation ceremony! Wow!

Couple more interesting  things from the Crypt:



This misshapen piece of lead is left as a reminder of the destruction during WW2. The heat from the bombings was so intense that the roofing lead melted and ran down the walls.

Can you see how magnificent this church is? How full of HISTORY? Various ages, different events all left their mark here and this is why it is such a treasure.

But wait! We finished the tour of the “downstairs”, we will explore the “upstairs” next.

PS: Sorry for loads of capitals and exclamation marks in my text but it was so full of wonders that I couldn’t contain myself 🙂

The Wonders of London. Part 3

So, there I was, in the very centre of the great capital, near the Tower of London.

While strolling around a small place called the Trinity Square I stumble upon this little memorial on the ground, just a cobbled square, really, with some shrubbery around and several plaques.


I came closer. Blimay! I happened upon the Tower Hill scaffold site!



It looked very peaceful and even serene, but this place is where a permanent scaffold was located for many years. This permanent scaffold was erected in 1485 for public executions (before that the scaffolding had  been temporary? – because the first deaths indicated on the tablets at the memorial was dated earlier  the that – 1381)


It  looks like at those times even the executions could be either private or public (don’t know how they allocated the status). High profile people such as Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Jane Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey all had their heads chopped off within the Tower walls, but  others – perhaps not so much privileged? – met their end here.

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There were several plaques with the names of famous people executed here – Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Cromwell, Edward Seymour, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger, Thomas Howard (4th Duke of Norfolk)…  A Lord Lovat was the last man to be beheaded in England in 1747 on this very spot.

Hmmm… Who was this Lord Lovatt anyway and why was he beheaded?

Ok, I looked him up.

lord lovat

He was born Simon Fraser and was not really entitled to this title (ha!) by birth, but rather got it by an unusual way. He kidnapped and married the widow of the previous Lord Lovat, but her poweful family , angered obviously, prosecuted him. He had to flee the country.  Fraser was convicted in absentia, attained  and sentenced to death. But later he was pardoned for some service to the crown.He still wasn’t the Lord Lovat though!

Now, he kind of applied for the confirmation of this title (?!) and got it! Wow! Was he good or what?

But our restless Simon didn’t enjoy his newly obtained title for long. In 15 years he took part in some Scottish uprising against the Crown and was sentenced to death. He met his end here on this very spot. He was 80 years old.

By the way, his titles were forfeit.

Anyway, there were over 100 people beheaded on this spot, but now it is just a little cobbled square in the Trinity gardens and try as you might you won’t see all the blood that was streaming under these cobbles so many years ago,

Sobering thought…