Secrets of Kent’s churches.

Midsummer,  and the Summer Solstice has passed, ancient traditions and customs are remembered, and the countryside begins to change again, following the age old patterns of the agrarian calendar.  In Medieval times, people rose at dawn and went to bed at dusk and many of their activities during the day were linked to agricultural activity –  A time for every purpose under heaven – In spring, the sowing of the seeds for food crops through to the harvests of summer, and then ploughing, ready to start all over again.  In autumn, the pickling and salting of fish and meats, the brewing of ales and beer.  Hundreds of years before refrigeration, and the ‘ping’ of the microwave, it was necessary to plan, and work, all year round to keep the lord in his manor and the peasants in the field from starvation during the long and lean winter months.

During a year when the endless months of rain, followed by a burst of sunshine has given Kent the largest, juiciest strawberry crop for decades (and just in time for Wimbledon) I realise that, with all the technology in the world, Mother Nature still holds the trump card!

A  day out in the Kentish countryside with a little group of just 12 people from Japan certainly gave me some food for thought !- Their interest was in Romanesque architecture, but also the symbols and curiosities of our Medieval churches.

The Church of St Augustine in Brookland is one of the most attractive and interesting churches in Romney Marsh, and here we started our tour.  As the coach pulled up outside, the cameras were already clicking to capture the mysterious belfry. Many  local legends claim to account for this famous wooden belfry and why it sits, firmly, on the ground to the side of the church rather than in the more normal situation of up on the roof. Did it  fall off in shock when a confirmed old batchelor and spinster of the parish married in the church – at a time when many people just didn’t bother to ‘tie the knot’ ?.   Through the stable doors and into the Church itself where all attention was focused on the famous circular lead font. Rare and important and absolutely fascinating. Our first reminder of those links with the months of the year and the agricultural activities associated with all of the seasons. Possibly the work of Norman French or Flemish craftsmen, the message is clear. The upper arches bear the signs of
the Zodiac and beneath, the lower arches, bear the occupations associated with these months.

I first looked at Sagittarius, and, as expected found the centaur with his bow and arrow, whilst underneath, for November, we could clearly pick out a man in a hooded cloak knocking down acorns with a stick to feed the swine.  My birth sign of Capricorn (Capricornus) showed a composite creature with a horned goat’s head and a winged body and serpent’s tail!  In December, the swine was not so lucky as the picture depicts a man with an axe and the pig is about to be consigned to the winter larder!  

After enjoying the other mysteries of this delightful church, we set off through country roads to the little village of Barfrestone.  

Here we visited the little Norman Church of St Nicholas, with its world famous carvings.  There is so much to see and admire here and curiosities and symbols galore to ponder over and analyse.  The famous South Doorway is the finest jewel in the crown.  The Master-Carver chose, for his theme, ‘ Our Lord in Glory ‘ or ‘Majestas Domini’ as designated in Mediaeval days.  Here we have a surprising and exciting link with Brookland.  In much the same way that the lead font showed the labours of the months, here our carver shows us the activities of the manor house and estate.  We meet the Men at Arms, fully equipped, and the Lady of the Manor as director and bread provider.  We can pick out the Minstrel with his viol and the Cellarer drawing a flagon of liquor from a cask.  A closer look shows us the Forester with his bow and the Miller with his bag of corn.   Every aspect of these carvings link the church with the village,and the village with agriculture, and agriculture with the seasons, and the seasons with the church.  A glorious cycle.  The countryside was looking fabulous, still a few bright yellow fields with the oil-seed rape crops, but now fields of bright red poppies line the roadside.  As we wove our way back into Canterbury, we just had to stop to buy some of those superb strawberries and early Kentish cherries being sold in a layby.  Whilst the rhythms of the agricultural year and life in the county has changed beyond recognition, that first bite of an English strawberry in the summer sunshine is still a moment to treasure.

Comments are closed.