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

Ancient stones and new beginnings – a Spring saunter through St Nicholas churchyard, Sevenoaks

 

 

Another view of St Nicholas with a war memorial in the foreground.
©Carole Tyrrell

On my previous spring saunters I’ve wandered through two of London’s large, sprawling cemeteries; Kensal Green and West Norwood but this year I thought I’d stay nearer to home.    St Nicholas is my local church and within walking distance of my home.  It’s in a prominent position in the town as it’s at the top of the hill and  opposite the entrance to Knole Park, another local landmark.   One of its most famous Rectors was the preacher and poet, John Donne, who was in post from 1616 until 1631 and is commemorated with a metal plate on the pavement outside. Every time I visit its churchyard I find something new and at a time when Nature is beginning to awaken again what better excuse did I need?

The present building’s shape dates from the 13th century and in fact the present nave dates from 1270.  It replaces an earlier church.  The north aisle was added in 1320 and the chancel south aisle and tower around 1450.  There have been many later alterations but the basic 15th century structure and style remains.  In 1995 excavations took place to create more meeting rooms in what may have been the crypt.  The interior of the church has some monuments dedicated to prominent local families.

But it’s the churchyard that fascinated me.  Intertwined with plain Victorian headstones are some wonderful examples of 18th century tombstones adorned with memento mori.  A couple are naively executed but others are finely carved with the wonderful 18th century calligraphy accompanying them.

The Spring sunlight illuminated the thick patches of moss and lichens that had carefully draped itself over the monuments and memorials.  It made the subtle hues and shades really stand out; the combination of green and gold or browns seemed to gleam amongst more subtle hints.

Some of the lichens looked as if someone had taken a paintbrush loaded with colour and then dabbed it onto the stones.  Moss has the effect of softening the edges of stones and letters and, where it replaces letters completely, gives a more organic feel to the epitaph.

A spreading horse chestnut tree was laden with sticky buds already beginning to burst into leaf. ‘How many years has it stood near the church door marking the seasons and years?’ I thought.

The spreading horse chestnut is now into full leaf burst.
©Carole Tyrrell

A chaffinch called loudly for its mate from the closed part of the churchyard.  I had explored this in October and seen its large carpet of prickly sweet chestnuts as a fox had turned tail and run back to where it had come from.  There has been a piece of bone abandoned on top of a flat headstone and I hoped that the fox had brought it in from a nearby butchers rubbish bin…….now alas this part of the churchyard is closed due to Health and Safety as it’s so overgrown.  On this visit I disturbed a fluffy ginger and white cat who soon fled in the same direction as the fox.

The closed part of the churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

Three large patches of snowdrops clustered protectively around the base of a tree, their pristine heads nodding in the breeze as if deep in conversation.  Primroses had begun to stud the grass and I saw my first ever cowslip amid headstones.

The tiny bright blue flowers of Speedwell blossomed beside a small tombstone and a red-tailed bee, one of the first signs of Spring, buzzed along the top of the grass.    Dog violets, a much underrated flowers in my opinion, frothed plentifully beside the iron entrance gate.

 

Nearby, was not so much a carpet of Spring flowers, but more of a small rug of them.  More Primroses, the bright yellow of Lesser Celandine, another harbinger of Spring, and more dog violets all combined to make a wonderful collection of green, yellow and purple.

There are some remarkable epitaphs in St Nicholas churchyard and this one which has now been incorporated into the fabric of the church caught my attention.

The epitaph reads:

To the Memory

of John Braithwaite Chief Coachman

to his Grace Lionel Duke of Dorset

He died by an unfortunate fall from

Ye coach near Riverhead in this parish.

His loss was greatly lamented

and by none more than

by his Lord and Master

to whom he was a most just and faithful servant

This sad accident happened

on the first day of July in

the year of our Lord 1723

 

 

 

With the Caring for God’s Acre project which is linked with the bio diversity recording site, irecord, biodiversity within cemeteries is being examined more closely. They are real havens for wildlife especially in big cities as they are an invaluable green space that’s accessible to everyone.  I’ve always enjoyed exploring cemeteries partly for this reason whether it be standing waist high in wild flowers on a hot July day in the meadow at Kensal Green cemetery or counting butterflies along the side paths leading to the Courtoy Mausoleum in Brompton Cemetery.

Sadly the Spring sunshine was replaced by April showers but Mother Nature ignored this and kept bursting forth regardless.  I’m already looking forward to my summer saunter within St Nicholas.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

References and further reading

https://www.sevenoakssociety.co.uk/upper-high-street-west/255-st-nicholas-church

https://www.stnicholas-sevenoaks.org/

Wildlife in Cemeteries No 8 – the dark side of the Snowdrop

Snowdrops in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

Imagine yourself in a gloomy medieval church on the festival of Candlemass. You, and your fellow parishioners, have each brought your candles to be blessed by the priest and, after the procession which will fill the church with light, they will all be placed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.   Candlemass marked the end of winter and the beginning of Spring and the blessing is to ward off evil spirits.  It traditionally falls on February 2 and is shared with the Celtic festival of Imbolc.  And in the churchyard outside you can see green shoots forcing their way up through the hard winter earth.  The snowdrop’s milk-white flowers show that spring is on its way as they begin to emerge into the light.

The placing of the lit candles in front of the Virgin Mary’s statue gave the snowdrop one of its many other names – Mary’s Tapers.  But there are many others such: Dingle Dangle, Candlemas Bells, Fair Maids of February, Snow Piercer, Death’s Flower and Corpse Flower.

Snowdrops, Brompton Cemetery, January 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

 

The snowdrop’s appearance has also inspired many comments . According to the Scottish Wildlife Trusts website they have been described as resembling 3 drops of milk hanging from a stem and they are also associated with the ear drop which is an old fashioned ear ring.  Anyone who has seen a group of snowdrops nodding in the wind will understand what they mean.   The snowdrop’s colour is associated with purity and they have been described as a shy flower with their drooping flowers.  However, the eco enchantments website reveals that the flower is designed in this way due:

‘to the necessity of their dusty pollen being kept dry and sweet in order to attract the few insects flying in winter.’

Snowdrops have been known since ancient times and, in 1597, appeared in Geralde’s ‘Great Herbal where they were called by the less than catchy name of ‘Timely Flowers Bulbous Violets’.  Its Latin name is Galanthus nivalis.  Galanthus means milk white flowers and the nivalis element translates as snowy according to the great botanist, Linnaeus in 1753.   In the language of flowers they’re associated with ‘Hope’ and the coming of spring and life reawakening.

However, yet despite all these positive associations, the elegant snowdrop has a much darker side. Monks were reputed to have brought them to the UK but it was the ever enthusiastic Victorians who copiously planted them in graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries which then linked them with death.  Hence the nickname name ‘Death’s Flower.’

They were described by Margaret Baker in the 1903 ‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult of the World’ as:

‘so much like a corpse in a shroud that in some counties  the people will not have it in the house, lest they bring in death.‘

Snowdrops, St George’s Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

So that’s where the ‘Corpse Flower’ nickname came from.

Snowdrops are also seen as Death’s Tokens and there are several regional folk traditions of connecting death with them. For example in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was considered very unlucky to bring the flower into the house from outside as it was felt that a death would soon occur.  The most unlucky snowdrop was that with a single bloom on its stem.    Other folk traditions were described in a 1913 folklore handbook which claims that if a snowdrop was brought indoors it will make the cows milk watery and affect the colour of the butter.  Even as late as 1969 in ‘The Folklore of Plants’  it was stated that having a snowdrop indoors could affect the number of eggs that a sitting chicken might hatch.  A very powerful plant if these are all to be believed – you have been warned!

It’s amazing that this little flower has so many associations and legends connected with it but I always see it as a harbinger of spring, rebirth and an indication of warmer days to come.

But the snowdrop also has a surprise.  This came courtesy of the Urban Countryman page on Facebook – not all social media is time wasting!  If you very gently turn over a snowdrop bloom you will find that the underside is even prettier and they also vary depending on the snowdrop variety.

Here is a small selection from my local churchyard and one from Kensal Green cemetery.

So don’t underestimate the snowdrop – it’s a plant associated with life and death but watch out for your hens and the colour of your butter if you do decide to tempt fate…..

 

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated

References:

http://www.plantlore.com

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/naturestudies/bright-in-winters-depths-why-the-flawless-flower-of-candlemas-is-ajoy-forever-8483967

http://www.flowermeaning.com/snowdrop-flower-meaning

http://www.ecoenchantments.co.uk/mysnowdropmagicpage.html

https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/2014/03/natures-death-tokens/

 

 

 

 

Wildlife in Cemeteries No 4- Life and Death – springtime flowers

 

An April day in my local churchyard, St George’s and a profusion of Spring flowers on one grave.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Now that the spring equinox has arrived and winter seems to be coming to an end this is a good time to be visiting cemeteries.  The vegetation will have died back and you can often find little gems which would normally be covered by undergrowth.

But cemeteries also attract many spring flowers as I discovered when I went to photograph Dr James Barry’s tombstone  in Kensal Green cemetery recently.  It was a March day and was initially overcast. But eventually the sun decided to make an appearance despite the slight nip in the air.

As I walked up the main avenue to the Anglican Chapel I noticed that in some areas the large swathes of flowers almost flowed like a colourful carpet between the graves and memorials.  The   backdrop of grey granite, pensive angels, crosses, Turkish men and many others emphasised their bright colours.  Yellows, pinks, blues, whites and purples:  they were all reminders that life goes on.   Some graves were an absolute riot of nodding flower heads as the breeze made them move.

Snowdrops are often seen in churchyards. They are traditionally associated with Candlemas Day on February 2 and are often known as ‘the passing of sorrow.’ They are also called corpse flowers as the unopened bloom has been said to resemble a lifeless body in a shroud.

Here are some of the flowers that I saw, both in Kensal Green and also in my local churchyard:

:

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell