I was drawn to make my first church crawl post lockdown by the lure of ‘strange symbols’ at St Peter’s in Bridge, Kent. It’s in a village, well hamlet really, where the number of pubs outnumber the shops. The church is only open on one day of the week and, knowing only too well the vagaries of country bus services, I planned it like a military campaign with timetables etc.
Blackthorn blossom foamed over the hedgerows and the acid yellow of rapeseed was beginning to spread over the fields. It felt good to be outside on a sunny April day. St Peter’s church nestles at the end of the high street and I could see its distinctive ‘candle snuffer’ spire when I got off the bus. I have missed poking about inside churches although I have had a good poke about in churchyards over the last year.
St Peter’s is a really pretty and ancient church surrounded by a small churchyard. Spring flowers were dotted around the headstones and in the remembrance section by the wall. Bluebells were still in bud, there was the understated yellow of primroses, purple violets, dandelions and the leaves of Garlic Mustard gave colour around the stones There was a part of the churchyard that was overgrown and a side path led to a more modern section. But I wasn’t alone as I explored. 2 squirrels cavorted amongst the large trunks of the yew trees and from the large field beyond the churchyard wall there were many enthusiastic baaa-ings and bleats from a flock of sheep and lambs.
According to Tim Tatton-Brown from the Kent Archaeology Society,
‘there is evidence of burials in the churchyard since 1474 but there are no markers for them.
But what of the symbols? There was a sprinkling of skulls and winged souls but no ‘strange symbols’ – yet. So I assumed that, as the book which had recommended them had been published in the 80’s, they might have eroded away. So I went inside.
‘If you are here alone. Does anyone know where you are?’ announced a printed sign on the welcome table which made me feel a little spooked. Most of the pews were cordoned off and I was soon admiring the colourful and beautiful stained glass. The sun shone through the chancel windows creating little patterns on the carpet. Tom’s window, which is a recent addition from 2019, is a masterpiece of modern stained glass and is in memory to a boy who lived for 100 days. My camera couldn’t do it justice. The window was designed by Grace Dyson, a glass painter and conservator at the highly regarded Cathedral Studios based at Canterbury Cathedral.
There has been a church on this site since 1189 and it is now regarded as a chapel of ease. St Peters became a church during the 12th and 13th centuries. There are still traces of the 12th century and again, according to Tim Tatton-Brown:
‘the nave may be 11th century but there’s no proof of this. The bells in the tower may have been cast in the 14th century by William de Belyetre of Canterbury.’
Until 1850 part of the church was used as a schoolroom. St Peter’s was restored in the 19th century by the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott during 1859-60 and some say that it has been over restored. It was then that the outer walls were covered in knapped flint. However, there are still traces of the 12th century building in the nave, chancel, south aisle and tower base. I walked up to the altar and there were the strange symbols at last!
Mounted on a wall was a carved relief with biblical scenes carved on it. These were the strange symbols mentioned in Peter Haining’s Ghosts of Kent. The ones that I could recognise were of Adam and Eve by the tree of knowledge with a strange bird climbing it, Cain and Abel, and Abraham sacrificing his son. The others were too damaged to read. The figures all have little scripts issuing from their mouths – a little like a ancient century comic strip. Nobody’s sure if its 16th century or if it was originally set into a 12th century doorway. I agree with the Kent Archeological Society that it was a tympanum. According to Wikipedia:
‘a tympanum is the semi circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window…it often contains sculpture or other imagery or ornaments.
There’s more work to be done on this which will form a future post.
On the other wall of the chancel facing the sculpture were fragments of a relief memorial to another vicar of the church named Malcom Ramsey who died in 1538. He was the vicar of Patrixbourne and Bridge for 44 years. The fragments form part of an inscription.
There is a wooden effigy, split into 2 halves, on one side of the altar which is of a 15th century priest called Macobus Kasey who died in 1512. However, there was no guidebook to tell me anything more.
There is an ancient memorial set in the chancel wall on the same side as the effigy. It has a date of 1635 on it but I am not sure if it’s a headstone or a memorial. I wanted to take a photo but there was a chair in front of it which I decided to move. However, the chair weighed a ton and it felt as if someone was actually sitting in it. In the end I had to drag it across the tiles but only a little way. I took a photo of the memorial and then decided to take another one of the effigy. My camera wouldn’t focus. It had been working perfectly before I moved the chair. So I dragged the chair back into position and the camera worked again. A little strange I thought.
I walked back towards the church door and turned round to have a last look at the church interior. I could now hear loud sounds from the direction of the organ and the font but I hadn’t heard anyone come in. Coincidence – who knows? The church had grown colder as well.
But it was time to go and have a look at the field of sheep and lambs and catch a view of the church from across it.
©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated
References and further reading