A pre-Coronavirus Spring Saunter though Kent churchyards – St Mildred’s and St John the Evangelist, Meopham, Kent

St Mildred’s Meopham
©Carole Tyrrell

The church in the field – St Mildred’s

The cawing of rooks in the bare trees kept me company as I walked towards St Mildred’s in Nurfield, just outside Meopham. It was a dark, wet, overcast day and St Mildred’s huddled surrounded by fields at the end of Church Lane. In fact, it’s known as ‘The Little Church in the Field’.

Kent has many of these picturesque churches and I hoped to discover more symbols or interesting headstones in the churchyard.  Coronavirus was snapping at my heels and I knew that all churches would soon be closed.

On the horizon of one field outside the churchyard I could see the bright yellow traces of a future rapeseed crop but the other field, alongside it, was still ploughed earth.  The bare trees tried to stretch up to the sky on the other side of it. I’ve always loved these in winter as you can really see the shape of the tree and the delicate pattern of branches and twigs.

St Mildred’s was closed but the church door was protected, or hidden, by four tall yew tree sentinels. A pot of purple pansies beside it were a splash of colour on such a grey day.

Pansies by church door of St Mildred’s, Meopham
©Carole Tyrrell

Despite the damp weather there were large patches of Spring flowers; Violets, both purple and white covered parts of the churchyard, together with smaller groups of Lesser Celandine which is one of the seven signs of Spring. Daffodils shuddered in the wind and a group of them huddled together for warmth by headstones.  But I was determined and found the symbol of a closed book on one grave to a man who had died young. The oldest headstone was now unreadable and was decorated with tiny pom-pom shapes of a lichen.  An imposing Celtic Cross was dedicated to a priest. The bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine had closed themselves up and who could blame them? Primroses kept their heads down but in one corner of the churchyard there were indications of living residents.  These were of the four legged kind who had dug deep holes and left pungent evidence…..

Nurstead was described 700 years ago as ‘a poor little parish with a church.’  St Mildred’s was originally a Saxon church and made of wood. The current flint structure dates from the 14th century and the guide leaflet says ’that together with the 14th century hall of nearby Nurstead Court it is the only surviving part of the Manor as it existed in 1349.’

Meopham town sign featuring St John the Evangelist church.
©Carole Tyrrell

Meopham is pronounced Meppham and it’s more of a hamlet than a village.  But it does possess another, larger church at the other end of it.  This is dedicated to St John the Evangelist and appears on the village green town sign. St John’s was open and I gratefully sheltered inside glad of the respite from the weather.

The church on the sign – St John the Evangelist

Inside it was peaceful and St Johns had some interesting features. There was a very decorative wooden pulpit attributed to Grinling Gibbons and dated 1632 and the colourful and beautiful tiles decorating the chancel. They were uncredited in the guidebook. There was also a window containing fragments of medieval glass which have been dated to 1346.   Curling hazel branches had been placed on windowsills and I wondered if it was in honour of Branch Sunday. Outside in the churchyard I explored and my shoes soon became soaking wet. A bonfire had been lit  in an adjoining garden and the combination of that and the gloomy weather made it feel more like November. The Millais painting, ‘Autumn Leaves’, with its melancholy atmosphere sprang to mind.  A patch of primroses cuddled up to each other in a drift of fallen leaves and the Lesser Celandine flowers had closed themselves in response to the rain. A lone dog violet stood in defiantly in the middle of them. It was time to go home.

But when I returned two days on the Saturday it was under sunny blue skies.  St Mildred’s was now open and despite the wind that made the daffodils blow this way and that I noticed that the Spring flowers seemed to have colour again.  The crisp white blossom of blackthorn foamed in one corner as did the Wild Cherry blossom on the other side of the churchyard. Late snowdrops nodded in the wind as I entered the church. The interior was very plain and simple with large ledger stones providing the nave flooring.   The bare fields now looked as if they were impatiently waiting for the forthcoming crop to burst forth. I had hoped to see a March hare but no such luck. The headstones were bathed in the golden glow of the sun and the bright flowers of Lesser Celandine lifted their heads upwards and basked.

These were dedicated to past residents, the Edmeades, of nearby Nurstead Court, and dated back to the 17th century. They are actually buried in the vaults beneath the stones. A squint could be seen in the West Tower and the slow, regular ticking of the church clock was the only sound. St Mildred and her stag featured in the window above the altar and an ancient piscina was decorated with wheat ears and grapes. A reference to a farming community?  The wind howled round the little church as it had done for centuries, as if trying one last time to blow it down, but it still stood.

In contrast St Johns was closed but the bright sunshine revealed several headstones that I had missed.  I’m not quite sure what this figure represents but he does seem to be pointing to the small skull in the corner.

This is on the headstone dedicated to

‘Hannah, wife of Joseph Munn the elder Feb 15th 1715 in either the 34 or 54 year of her age.’

Mr Munn is buried beside in a separate grave with his second wife but not with such an intriguing symbol.

Also this naive head or skull on one headstone.

A Naive skull on a headstone, St John’s, .Meopham
©Carole Tyrrell

 

The sticky buds on a venerable Horse Chestnut tree at the entrance reminded me that despite the horrible weather we’ve had over the last couple of months Mother Nature was just getting on with it as she studded and carpeted churchyards with the bright colours of Spring flowers and blossom.

Sadly, my poking about in churchyards has had to be put on hold this Spring due to the virus. However I did manage to visit two Kent churches just before the lockdown and I will blog about this on a future post. One churchyard was awash with symbols!

I hope that you are keeping well and safe during these strange times.  Life has taken on a surreal quality for some of us as others, keyworkers, keep things going and risk their lives.  Will things return to normal  afterwards or will we not take so much for granted again? Who knows.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

https://kentarchaeology.org.uk/

Guide Leaflet, St Mildred’s church

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By a candle’s flickering flame  – a visit to Brompton catacombs July 2017

The Western catacomb which runs along the western wall of Brompton Cemetery which faces out onto the railway.
©Carole Tyrrell

Shadows move on the coffins and walls. Above you the glass orbs set into the high ceiling admit a little light into the depths but you prefer the intimate illumination of the flame.  It reflects on the brass fittings and the patterns of the nails on the coffin on the shelf beside you. Your loved one now rests eternally in Brompton catacombs as you sit by the head of the coffin in its space or lochulus.  Family news, world events: you talk to them as if they were alive with your voice the only sound in the silence. Then you open the book that you have brought with you at the bookmarked page, and then read the next chapter of what was their favourite novel.  It’s almost like having your own private mausoleum.

Finally, almost reluctantly, you close the book, after having marked next week’s chapter and pick up the candleholder.  As you walk towards the cast iron entrance gates, your footsteps echo behind you and the candle finally goes out as you open them.   The sun outside temporarily blinds you as you pull the gate closed and then lock it with your own key. The symbols of eternity and mortality on them remind you of the other world behind.  Then you ascend the flight of steps and return into Brompton Cemetery and the noisy world again.   You have been ‘communing with the dead’ as our guide, Nick, explained.

Brompton Cemetery isn’t holding an Open Day in 2017 due to the ongoing restoration project but, instead, on 15 July they held catacomb tours. These are not usually open and I haven’t visited these for some time so eagerly took up the opportunity. It was a drizzly day so it was good to be under cover. The catacombs have the most magnificent cast iron doors featuring snakes, downturned torches, an ouroboros and a winged hourglass – all symbols of mortality and eternity. You know that you are entering the realm of the dead once you step inside.

I have visited several catacombs located in large London cemeteries and what has always remained with me is the special and unique atmosphere that each one has: Kensal Green, Highgate, Brompton and the Valhalla that is West Norwood. One of Nunhead’s catacombs has now become the Anglican chapel crypt and is only open on certain days.

Catacombs never became popular in England and most of the coffin spaces available were destined to only have dust as an occupant. These are known as loculi or loculus in the singular. Even Highgate was unable to sell all theirs in the Egyptian Avenue and I would have thought that they would have been snapped up. However, there is reputed to be a cemetery in Cheshunt which is doing a roaring trade in selling them as they have an Italian and Greek community who view catacombs differently.

There is another set of catacombs under Brompton’s western colonnades with an identical set of doors on the other side of the circle but these have remained unused.  The other Western catacombs on the boundary side were never used and when reopened were crammed floor to ceiling with spoil which took a year to remove.

We were visiting the Eastern colonnade crypt and a flight of steps led to the iron doors.  As Nick said imagine six pallbearers carrying a coffin on their shoulders down them on a wet day.  The coffin would have been triple lined: wood, lead, wood so a heavy load indeed.  Brompton, unlike other catacombs, such as West Norwood or Kensal Green, didn’t have a chapel above the catacombs with a handy hydraulic catafalque to transport the coffin down into the darkness.

Nick indicated an interment in the first chamber behind the doors. This was sealed in with a plaque and epitaph dedicated to Captain Alexander Louis Ricardo of the Grenadier Guards.  For me, it was a reminder of the still unsolved Victorian Charles Bravo murder.  Captain Ricardo was Florence Bravo’s first husband who died young from alcoholism in Cologne. I noticed ferns growing from a family vault beneath him and wondered about damp as a perennial problem.

Lit candles had been placed on the coffin shelves to light our way which added to the ambience.  Victorians were fascinated with the idea of an afterlife and seances and mediums were big business. Sir William Crookes of the notorious Katie King case is also buried in Brompton.   Nick added the Victorians were a heady mix of hardheadiness and sentimentality.

 

The glass inserts that allowed some light into the catacomb have long gone and been bricked up.  Brompton’s original owners, The Westminster and West London Cemetery Company initially offered 4000 loculi for sale but of these only 700 were sold. So if you have a hankering for going underground they still have at least 3300 spaces available. Nick informed us that the last request for a catacomb space was in 1926.

 

English catacombs were based on the ones in Rome. Cremation was illegal until well into the 19th century so it was either under or over ground burial until then. Catacombs at Brompton were also called upon as a temporary mortuary when necessary. A visitor noticed that one coffin was just under the roof above four other coffins stacked on shelves and asked how the cemetery workers got it up there. Nick indicated the pulley blocks that they could have used to lift it up and manoeuvre it into place. Quite a feat.

 

Nick indicated the plumber’s diaper mark on the exposed side of one coffin which indicated that he had sealed it properly and there would be no leakages.  He also pointed out the wreaths, somewhat desiccated by now, that mourners often left by the coffins, and there was a small elegant urn containing ashes placed on a shelf next to one.

 

Our visit lasted 30 minutes and we filed out towards the light of the outside world again leaving Brompton’s catacomb’s incumbents to eternally sleep on.

 

The attractive colonnades of Brompton are above the catacombs and have plaques on their walls. These were to enable friends or other relatives without keys to pay their respects to the deceased at the plaque.  These are reputed to be affixed directly above the departed’s place within the chamber.

 

A word of caution for anyone considering visiting a catacomb for the first time: if you feel uncomfortable about seeing coffins, and a lot of people do, then don’t visit or think carefully about it first.

Please note:  Photography is not permitted in the Brompton catacombs.

©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell