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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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