Last week, on an uncharacteristically sunny day in February, I came across a brown sign with a picture of a church on it. It was pointing down a dirt track that led up a hill and then disappeared into the trees. I was in Kent, looking for Oast Houses to photograph (I love an Oast House and Kent is littered with them – many converted into other things – hotels, pubs, houses…but that’s for another day) and I don’t know what led me to go pursuing brown signs depicting churches instead but clearly something did, because before I knew it, I was driving up the dirt track and into the middle of deepest darkest nowhere (in real terms: about 5 miles from Tonbridge) in search of who knew what?
I came to another sign that said ‘Norman church’. Now I was really interested. I imagined picturesque ruins and maybe a ghost or two.
And then I came upon my apparently destination. Here, on the side of a hill, stood a little church, surrounded by a very old churchyard and beyond that, a slightly newer, more gleaming one, with gravestones that were readable and obviously tended to. Beyond that was grass and mud and beyond that was a stile, which I evidently must climb in order to reach the Norman curiosity that lay beyond. I parked my trusty Nissan Micra up on a grass verge and set off. The sun was hanging low in the sky (it was about 3.30pm) and burning orange – a beautiful pre-spring, late afternoon colour. The sky was a deafening blue. A more beautiful time to find this hidden church I could not have picked.
I trudged up the hill and came alongside the church. Yew trees that had clearly seen better days were dotted all around, and wonky old gravestones that were now unreadable stood between them, partially moss covered and long neglected. I found a plaque on the wall of the church near the hulking wooden door (ajar) that declared it to be the Church of Thomas a Becket, Capel, and no longer in regular use.
The sign also told me that I could go inside and, taking this as an invitation, I pulled the door open and stepped into a foyer (a glossary of church terms tells me it should be called a narthex) that was at least 10 degrees colder than outside. I could see the chapel through the open door straight ahead of me and I could see that it was deserted. It might have been a little creepy if the sun had not have been pouring in through the windows to my right (substantially more contemporary than the windows on my left, which looked to have been carved into the stone walls very deeply and a very long time ago) but instead it was – and I know I say this a lot about various churches and churchyards so bear with me – peaceful. A tiny oasis of calm in an ocean of 21st Century hubbub that I knew lay just outside and down the road a bit. I didn’t even have 4G in here. The Universe was determined to get me off my phone and into the discovery of something historic.
And there was a lot of history here. The walls of the nave were covered with what looked like cave paintings, faded and brown, as if they had been drawn in wet clay. An information sheet on a table at the back of the church informed me that these were medieval church wall paintings, uncovered in 1927. Presumably until then, they had been hiding, just waiting to be discovered.
I tried to imagine what the church would have been like back in 1300. There was what looked like a bricked up doorway on one wall which I later learned was exactly that and had probably been part of the original architecture of the building. The church had been partially rebuilt after 1639, when it was damaged by fire, and the roof had been replaced in the 14th century, so this was a church that had seen some change. But some of the oldest parts still remain.
Back outside, I found daffodils sprouting up through the damp earth and beginning to flower. The very old and the very new, existing together. In the distance I could see Oast Houses – their pointed roofs gleaming in the setting sun, and across the valley I could hear cows mooing chickens clucking. Possibly the landscape hasn’t changed all that much in this part of the world since 1086, when this church was listed in the Domesday book (one of only five churches to have been so). Sir Thomas a Becket himself was thought to have preached here once upon a very long ago – perhaps not in the church but instead nearby, under a yew tree.
An enchanting accidental find on a rare good day in February.