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.
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 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.
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:
Guide Leaflet, St Mildred’s church