A spring saunter – a visit to St Mary the Virgin, Fordwich, Kent

The entrance to St Mary’s ©Carole Tyrrell

Spring may seem a distant memory now that we are in the middle of a summer heatwave but this may bring back memories of sunny but more bearable days at Easter….

When I stepped into St Mary the Virgin’s church, I knew immediately that I was in a very special place.  It held the history of a community within it:  help for the poorer parishioners over the centuries and the still to be seen traces of the medieval church.  But so much had been left untouched, it was almost like walking into a time capsule.

From the mysterious tomb, rumoured to be that of a local saint, to the remnants of the Great Rood and evidence of the charity, still in use today, instituted by two brothers who lie in the churchyard, I could see how much the little church had meant, and continues to mean to the little village (well, hamlet really) of Fordwich

Town sign ©Carole Tyrrell

Although now closed for services and managed by the Churches Conservation Trusts (CCT), it nestles in its churchyard with the River Stour running alongside the churchyard behind it.  It was photos of the headstones in the churchyard on Facebook that had attracted me here and Easter had seemed a good time to visit.   Despite the bus driver saying that she had never heard of Fordwich Road despite it being on the timetable, I spotted the sign announcing ‘Historic Church’ and, once in the village, I was directed to St Mary’s by a friendly couple and their smiling, fluffball of a dog.   Church crawling, or steeple chasing 2022, had begun!  And I had already noted another possible church to explore from the bus as we trundled through Sturry, just outside Canterbury.

Although, as Fordwich proudly boasts on its town sign, it is England’s smallest town with only 300 residents it has been connected with Canterbury for centuries. 

According to the guidebook:

‘Fordwich once served as the port for Canterbury and was part of the Cinque Port of Sandwich. It  still takes part in the annual ceremony of paying its Ship money.  In the 15th century, there are payments for the shipment of over 400 tons of stone from Sandwich to Fordwich to build the south west tower of Canterbury Cathedral.’

It may seem strange to describe an inland hamlet as a port but in Roman times, Thanet was an island and the sea came up to Canterbury and could be navigated as far as Fordwich.  However, it became silted up and by the 17th century was no longer a port.  In fact in 1830, it ceased being a port altogether with the coming of the railway.

Spreading, tall yew trees provided welcome shade, both along the path to the church door and in the churchyard.  An 1855 restoration was responsible for the shingled, splay footed tower but there were original features to be seen inside.

St Mary’s interior ©Carole Tyrrell

Box pews were still in place and these, prior to a collection plate or box going round, were once the source of a small regular income to the church.  They could be rented by individuals and families for their sole use.  A singers pew was still in place and the supports for the silver gilt Mayor’s mace were still there.  The mace now resides in a far safer place but returns to St Mary’s on Mayor’s Sunday.

The church interior is plain and peaceful and in the plaster of the main arch, the 10 Commandments are inscribed together with the coat of arms of King William II.  But this colourful addition from 1688 hides what is left of the medieval Rood.  The 14th century chancel arch was filled in with plaster but before this it would have been the focal point of the church.  A Rood contained 3 figures: Christ crucified with his Mother and St John at the foot of the Cross.  The 17th century iconoclasts and their determination to remove all idolatry from churches made their mark even here. Another reminder of St Mary’s links to Canterbury is the prominent and large alms box.  This was carved from an oak beam taken from Canterbury’s Guildhall to commemorate the 1953 Coronation.

The church almsbox ©Carole Tyrrell

St Mary’s Champing sign. ©Carole Tyrrell

But I felt that I might not be alone in St Mary’s as a sign announced  that Champers were in residence in the side chapel.  I paused but could hear no snoring.  It was good to see that Champing had returned to the church calendar and was happening at a church I might be able to get to.  Champing is an amalgam of ‘camping’ and ‘church’ and people pay to stay a night or more in a CCT church and I have been very tempted…

I began to tiptoe towards the legendary Fordwich stone which is alongside a side wall.  This stone has been traditionally known as St Augustine’s tomb. The guidebook informed me

‘is believed to have been in the form of a dummy tomb.’ 

It’s a large block of oolitic limestone, roughly 5.5. feet long and has moved several times.  In 1760, it went into the churchyard, according to the guidebook, and then onto Canterbury Cathedral before coming home to St Mary’s in 1877.  It is thought that relics of a saint may been placed beneath it.  The lovely carving on the stone dates from 1100 and

‘consists of interlaced Norman arches beneath scaly decorations’.

The mysterious tomb – possibly St Augustine’s?©Carole Tyrrell

The font has a locking device on its lid to prevent baptismal water being ‘misappropriated.’ I wondered what the guidebook meant by that….

In addition St Mary’s has some gorgeous and rare stained glass, both medieval and 20th century. I’ve only seen fragments of medieval glass in other churches so to see complete, quatre foil windows of it was a real treat.

St Margaret with her spear through the dragon’s mouth.  She was a popular saint in medieval times and her prayers were sought by and for women in childbirth’ and a bearded face. ©Carole Tyrrell

The Virgin Mary with her child in her arms and the Virgin Mary with her emblem, the lily.©Carole Tyrrell

And in the main aisle was a brass – I can remember when brass rubbing was all the rage in the 1970’s – dedicated to the very fashionably dressed, by 17th century standards, Alpha Hawkins, who died aged 21 in 1605.

Brass of Alpha Hawkins. ©Carole Tyrrell

I left St Mary’s feeling curious about what it would be like to spend the night there…but the churchyard was calling and on such a lovely Spring day, I could no longer resist…..

Part 2 St Mary’s churchyard – the place of skulls and Spring flowers.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

St Mary’s Fordwich guidebook published by the Churches Conservation Trust





Symbol(s) of the Month – Hope and the Anchor

Monument to William Hayward, Brompton Cemetery ©Carole Tyrrell

‘A Life on the Ocean Wave?’  You could be forgiven for thinking this whenever you see an anchor on a headstone or monument and perhaps assume that it’s a mariner’s grave. But if it appears on a Commonwealth War Grave like this one in Brompton’s Cemetery then it will undoubtedly be on the grave of a naval man or woman.

Headstone dedicated to L J Smart, Brompton Cemetery ©Carole Tyrrell

But when it appears elsewhere then the anchor can have several other meanings.  It was a popular motif in the 19th century and appears in many cemeteries.  This example comes from the churchyard of St John the Evangelist in Southend on Sea.

Monument to Susie Kaye Sayer ©Carole Tyrrell

The definition of an anchor is that it is a heavy object made from metal and connected to a rope or chain which is then connected to a ship.  It holds the ship in place by digging into the seabed under the ship.  There is a metal shank with a ring at one end for the rope or chain and, at the other end, there are two flukes with barbs to dig into the seabed and it’s these that give the anchor its distinctive shape.

Found on Pinterest with no photographer’s name attached.

But, despite its popularity with the Victorians, the anchor symbol Is much, much older.  It was used by the ancient Christians in Rome prior to them adopting the fish symbol.  The anchor resembles a cross and so was a covert way of identifying other Christians.   It was seen as a metaphor for faith and steadfastness in that it grounds a ship and keeps it fixed in a secure place despite storms and bad weather and faith does the same thing by keeping the faithful grounded and secure during the difficult times in life.

Found online with no artist credited.

The anchor appears in the New Testament of the Bible in Acts 27:13,17, 29-30 and 40. In Hebrews 6:18:19 it says:

‘That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us;

Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil’. King James Bible.

This is where hope and anchors become entwined and there are many pubs in the UK named ‘The Hope and Anchor.’  But more of Hope later.

In these examples, you can see that the anchor is very firmly chained to the cross and so to God.  The deceased believed in eternal life.  On the one below dedicated to the Maskelyne family, there is a well carved anchor with a rope attaching it to a cross.  This has been carved to resemble wood, perhaps Christ’s cross, and with ivy winding around it as a symbol of eternity.

The Maskelyne monument, Brompton Cemetery. ©Carole Tyrrell

However, I think that the wide spread use of the anchor during the 19th century was due to an immensely popular hymn of the time which is still sung today and is one of the most well known in the English language.  It was written by a Sunday school teacher, Priscilla Jane Owen (1829-1907).

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life (We have an anchor)

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,

When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?

When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain,

Will your anchor or firm remain?

We have an anchor that keeps the soul

Steadfast and sure while the billows roll,

Fastened to the Rock which cannot move,

Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.

It is safely moored, ‘twill the storm withstand,

For ‘tis well secured by the Saviour’s hand;

And the cables passed from His heart to mine,

Can defy the blast, through strength divine.

It will firmly hold in the straits of fear,

When the breakers have told the reef is near;

Though the tempest rave and the wild winds blow

Not an angry wave shall our bark o’erflow.

It will surely hold in the floods of death,

When the waters cold chill our latest breath;

On the rising tide it can never fail,

While our hopes abide within the veil.  

Note the reference to the Rock which appears in these two monuments.

On some of the monuments that I’ve seen, the chain to the anchor is broken and it’s difficult to know if this is deliberate to indicate that the deceased’s earthly life is over or just general wear and tear.

The Forster monument, Brompton cemetery. ©Carole Tyrrell

There have been other suggestions about the anchor motif in that it might have been a tribute to St Nicholas who was the patron saint of fishermen or to St Clement of Rome who was rumoured to have become a martyr by being tied to an anchor and drowned.  But there is no firm evidence of St Clement’s watery death.

Now let’s return to Hope.  She appears in cemeteries as the statue of a woman dressed in vaguely classical robes and holding an anchor in one hand.  This one is on a monument to Louisa Mutton in Brompton Cemetery.  Hope is one of the Seven Virtues of the Christian religion, and she is with Faith and Charity.  Note that her right arm is raised with the index finger pointing to Heaven and symbolising the pathway to Heaven.  The other example is from the Blondin monument in Kensal Green cemetery in which Hope does not have a raised arm but, instead, is looking heavenwards. So, Hope was the deceased’s way of telling those left behind that they were entering into eternal life.  According to Wikipedia, the earliest Hope statue was in Dublin in the 18th century.  But there has also been a suggestion that Hope was influenced by the Statue of Liberty.

Statue of Hope from the Blondin monument, Kensal Green. ©Carole Tyrrell

Hope together with Faith and Charity, the Mutton monument, Brompton Cemetery ©Carole Tyrrell

So, the Hope and Anchor have become entwined as examples of faith, steadfastness and a hope for an eternal life – a comforting message perhaps for both the deceased and those left behind.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:









A medieval stonemason’s selfie!

©Michael Garlick licenced under Creative Commons Licence. https://www.geograph.org.uk/stufflist.php?label=Norman+Font&gridref=ny1133

So far, during my explorations of churchyards and cemeteries, I have not yet found the name or initials of the stonemasons that created some of these beautiful carvings and symbols. In All Saints, Maidstone, however, there are two headstones dedicated to two stonemasons but they date from the 19th century.

However, the image above came from the Twitter account of Andrew Ziminski who is a stonemason by profession and he said:

‘The font at Bridekirk, Cumbria with its Anglo/Norse runes read something like “Rikarth he made me and brought me to this splendour”. So not only do we know the name of the mason/carver but also what he looked like from his ‘selfie’ where he is busy with mallet & (huge) chisel. (Andrew Ziminski @natchjourneyman.)

The church in question is St Bridget’s in Bridekirk and this is what its website has to say about it:

 ‘An unusual feature is the font, possibly from the earlier church.(this may have been the one built in 1130).  It is 12th century and is described as ‘perhaps the most finished and perfect remains of Northern culture in the Kingdom.’ It was carved by Richard of Durham and shows how old Nordic influences continued after the Nordic conquest.  One side depicts Richard at work with his hammer and chisel carving a flower and leaf.  It has an inscription which read, ‘Richard he me wrought and to this beauty me brought.’ The decoration is runic.  It depicts the baptism of Christ, Adam and Eve as well as strange beasts.’

It is a beautiful piece of carving and still looks reasonably crisp after all these centuries.  These two photos of the font in situ give an idea of its size.   The font has 4 sides: east, west, north and south.   It’s the East side that has the Runic script which is a Germanic script form.  Runic script tends towards vertical symbols which enabled masons to carve into the grain of wood or stone.    Note the size of the mallet and chisel that Richard holds.

©Michael Garlick licenced under Creative Commons Licence. https://www.geograph.org.uk/stufflist.php?label=Norman+Font&gridref=ny1133

©Michael Garlick licenced under Creative Commons Licence. https://www.geograph.org.uk/stufflist.php?label=Norman+Font&gridref=ny1133

South face top panel:  This is a Greek cross with acanthus leaf decoration.  Again, the church guidebook suggests that ‘it may be derived from the Easter rite in which a plain cross was taken into the church  to be replaced by one with jewels and leaves to represent ‘Christ arisen.’

South face: lower panel: This features 2 types of griffin flanking a large floral roundel

These are some of the other images on the font:

©Michael Garlick licenced under Creative Commons Licence. https://www.geograph.org.uk/stufflist.php?label=Norman+Font&gridref=ny1133

West face upper panel: This has a headless centaur who has hold of the foreleg of another beat and on his right, an eagle is attacking him.

©Michael Garlick licenced under Creative Commons Licence. https://www.geograph.org.uk/stufflist.php?label=Norman+Font&gridref=ny1133

West face lower panel:  according to the guidebook, ‘this shows Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden by an angry God wielding a sword. Eve is at the foot of the tree but there is no serpent.’

Amongst other images on the other faces of the font is a monster with 2 serpent like heads with the left hand one biting the creature’s own body.
On North face lower panel: According to the church guidebook, ‘John the Baptist immerses a rather miffed looking Christ while the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove touches his head.  They are surrounded by vines and leaves.’


©Oliver Dixon shared under Creative Commons Licence via Geograph.

And here is the font in all its glory with its lid although it’s obviously not the original.

This is an amazing survivor although Bridekirk is a little out of the way and maybe the 16th century iconoclasts didn’t get up that far. A beautiful font and I will be looking at them more closely in future to see if I can identify another self-promoting medieval stone mason.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

Reference and further reading: