Charles’s Churches Part 2 – the naughty nuns of Higham – a visit to St Mary’s Higham, Kent

St Mary’s Higham ©Carole Tyrrell

St Mary’s church in Higham is another one that is associated with Charles Dickens.  I am beginning to think that if he even so much as sniffed in the direction of a building or local place, then it is forever part of ‘Dickens country’.

The church was his parish church when, in 1859, he moved into Gad’s Hill Place on the Gravesend-Rochester road.  Katey, his daughter, was married there, and in the same year, he began Great Expectations.  The abandoned gun emplacement where the convict, Magwitch, hides has been suggested as being that of Shornewood Fort.

I set off to visit St Mary’s church which, like St James in Cooling, is also in a remote place in a rural area roughly 2 miles outside Higham (which is pronounced Hi-am and means ‘high village’).  It was never anything but sparsely populated and in the 1860’s most of the population moved inland, away from the marshes, towards Upper Higham.  There isn’t much to Higham I have to say. The pubs have gone, the shops have gone, all now converted into accommodation. The houses and streets soon gave way to a straggle of terraced houses, an orchard and then open fields.  Above me the sky was azure blue with only chem trails from planes crossing it.

It was a long road with little traffic and I enjoyed being out in the open air again with the sun shining down on me.  The church came into sight at last and it was as pretty a country church as I could have wished for.  Grade 1 listed St Mary’s has striped walls of flints and Kentish ragstone which were roughly set in horizontal bands and it nestled within its churchyard.  (I revisited it over the Platinum Jubilee weekend and the wooden spire has been repaired)

l

St Mary’s Wooden spire repaired – June 2022 ©Carole Tyrrell

The church is now under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust as it is closed. There was a very small street or ‘street-ette’ along one side of the churchyard which had 2 houses with thatched roofs, one of which was the clerk’s house.  

I paused for a moment to drink it all in.  The lychgate, dedicated in 1918, had scenic views from both side; on one side was the church and on the other was fields. Inside the church, originally Norman, much of the 14th century features still remained despite an enthusiastic remodelling in 1863.  The 16th century iconoclasts don’t seem to have troubled this corner of Kent as the Cooling church had also retained most of its ancient artifacts 

Sadly, there is no longer any medieval glass at St Mary’s and, instead, it all dates from the 19th century.  But the 14th century chancel screen, the beautifully carved wooden entrance door, the font and the pulpit still remain.  The church door is a superb example of medieval carving in that it resembles a four light window and contains flower designs, animals and a small Green Man (on my second visit I found him!).

St Mary’s church door. ©Carole Tyrrell

Green Man from church door?©Carole Tyrrell
Horned man on church door. ©Carole Tyrrell

St Mary’s lychgate and view. ©Carole Tyrrell

St Mary’s also has 2 naves and 2 chancels. One of the chancels contains a tomb niche with a wide cinque foil arch decorated with corbel heads which was originally contained the tomb of Abbess Joan de Hadloe who died in 1328.  Every time I think I’ve seen the earliest memorial, monument or tomb, I promptly come across an earlier one!   At last, I hear you say, a naughty nun?  Not yet.   There was also a memorial to Ann Cordewell who died in 1642.   It has an epitaph verse on its wall.  Nearby is a plaque dedicated to Ann’s barrister grandson, Samuel Levinge, who died in 1748.  To be in St Mary’s was to be in the middle of a community’s history as another memorial recorded a woman who had died in 1615.

Tomb niche to Joan de Hadloe. ©Carole Tyrrell

Epitaph to Ann Cordewell. ©Carole Tyrrell

Memorial to Samuel Levinge. ©Carole Tyrrell

Interior of St Mary’s. ©Carole Tyrrell

As I admired the rare surviving Tortoise stoves, a 19th century form of heating and their proud statement ‘Slow but sure combustion’, two middle aged ladies bustled in presumably from the side road and began regaling me with tales of the medieval ‘naughty nuns’ who offered travellers more than bed and breakfast…..or perhaps they thought I might attempt to run off with the font in my bag..

A ‘Tortoise’ heater. ©Carole Tyrrell
The top of the Tortoise heater. ©Carole Tyrrell

Prior to the Dissolution, there was a medieval priory at Higham near the church and the village is reputedly built on it.   It was a substantial place which had a fishery and other buildings and the nuns would ferry people across the river.   Travellers could also stay at the priory and perhaps received more than bed and breakfast…..

There was a mother church at Saint Sulpice La Florentine which still exists and is in Brittany.  It was a Benedictine order and the prior existed from 1151-1521.  But according to the records, by 1504, only 5 nuns were still living there.  The arrival of a new priest, Edward Steroper, may be what created the image of the ‘naughty nuns’ as he is reputed to have made 2 of them pregnant.  Apparently, according to the guidebook the ‘notorious’ conduct of the Higham nuns was common knowledge in the district’ Oo-er!  Looking at this now, almost lonely, spot it’s hard to believe that it was once a thriving community, with the nuns clearly making their own entertainment.  The priory had an early dissolution and the buildings and land were transferred to St John’s Cambridge.   The tomb recess to Abbess Joan de Hadloe is all that remains of the priory and the nuns.

The churchyard that nestles around the church appeared to mostly 19th century memorials with a sprinkling of now unreadable 18th century ones.   

The two friendly ladies suggested that I visit the side road where there were some ancient houses.  It was very pretty and it emerged out into an empty farm.  2 large blue Emperor dragonflies flitted above the small pond as the marshes stretched on into the distance. A notice revealed that 6 houses were to be built here in the not too distant future and the locals didn’t seem happy about it. The views over the Kent marshes are towards Stanhope-le-Hope, the oil refineries and Shell Haven and Langdon Hills in Essex.

The Clerk’s House Higham. ©Carole Tyrrell

Detail of the Clerk’s House (someone’s got a sense of humour!) ©Carole Tyrrell

The Kent marshes stretching on into the distance. ©Carole Tyrrell

Back view of St Mary’s September 2021. ©Carole Tyrrell

I walked back to the station along the empty road and, as I sat waiting for the train, a bat flew above me.  I wondered how many other churches there were in Kent that were, even vaguely, associated with Charles Dickens and if I had the stamina to visit them all. 

Text and photographs ©Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

http://www.stmaryschurchhigham.com/

https://www.visitchurches.org.uk/visit/church-listing/st-mary-higham.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mary%27s_Church,_Higham

http://www.stmaryschurchhigham.com/higham-priory/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.