From ancient Norman towers to pink box pews
We’ve arrived back at one of my favourite places in Kent, Romney Marsh ‘The Fifth Continent’. This beautiful and tranquil region of Kent, with its curious landscape, is stunning in its diversity.
Miles and miles of snaking waterways, fields full of bouncing spring lambs, sparse wetlands as far as the eye can see and historic remote churches with masses of tales to tell.
Romney Marsh is brimming with intriguing history from its bygone villages lost to time and tide, twisted yarns of ancient smugglers, and the remaining fourteen medieval churches. At least ten other churches have been lost to the world, fallen into disrepair, or converted for other purposes.
In part one of our tour of the fourteen Romney Marsh historic churches, we will explore seven. Part two will follow shortly, so keep your eyes peeled.
Of course, you can start this journey at any point you wish, visit a few churches at a time or, like us, plot your route and visit them all in one day. Just to let you know, some of the churches have timed openings, often from 10am. In some churches, you need to obtain the key from a local resident and one or two may be locked.
Let’s grab our map and head off on a voyage of discovery to find out the quirky and fascinating stories of these historical places of worship.
Where are the 14 Medieval churches of Romney Marsh?
All Saints, BurmarshThe lowest church on the Marsh
Our first stop was to the small and peaceful village of Burmarsh, full of fascinating history dating back to Roman settlers and one of the oldest regions of the Marsh.
Our timing was perfect as All Saints Church had just been opened by a local villager for the day.
This delightful Norman church is unique in that it is the lowest church on the Marsh and sits 13ft (4m) below sea level.
All Saints was built in the mid-12th-century and is quite a small church and consists of a Chancel, a Nave, and a Tower. The tower and nave were replaced during the 14th-century due to weakening.
When we stepped inside, I was immediately surprised at how compact it was, lined with dark wood pews and a vaulted wooden ceiling. Above the Chancel inscriptions, are written on the beams.
All Saints is still in use today, and two of its original 14th-century medieval bells are rung by the local bellringers. The original 15th-century tenor bell, which is now cracked, is dedicated to the Magdalene and stands on the floor by the entrance to the Chancel.
All Saints is a delightful little church and within its graveyard stands alone First World War gravestone to R.G.Wratten from the Middlesex Regiment.
St. Peter and St. Paul, DymchurchFrom Domesday to Dr. Syn
Our second stop is to St. Peter and St. Paul, Dymchurch, just a couple of miles from Burmarsh. Today Dymchurch is a bustling seaside village; however, its history dates back centuries and is mentioned in the Domesday Book, written in 1086.
In the middle of Dymchurch, you’ll also see one of the Martello Towers built along the coast as a defence against Napoleon and his army.
The Norman church of St. Peter and St. Paul was built in the mid-12th-century and is constructed of local Kentish Ragstone and Caen stone brought from Normandy. The church was built on an elevated clay knoll to raise it from the ground as the marshes often flooded.
The church originally consisted of just a nave and chancel, but as the congregation grew, so did St. Peter and St. Paul’s. Stepping through the 13th-century porch into the church, you’re immediately drawn to the unusual chancel arch. The arch is made of Caen stone which is the original arch and the only one to be found on Romney Marsh.
The church was enlarged in 1821, and the width increased by four metres. Additionally, a gallery was added for further seating; you can head up to the gallery, where an organ was installed in 1923. From above, you get a great view of the historic chancel below.
The churchyard at St. Peter and St. Paul is reasonably large, and as usual, I love to take a little stroll around; there are so many fascinating stories to be told.
St. Mary the Virgin, St Mary in the MarshA picturesque church with a charming tale
Weaving our way across the marshes, we arrive at the tiny village of St. Mary in the Marsh. The 3rd of our Medieval churches of Romney Marsh is the picturesque St. Mary the Virgin.
It’s a beautiful looking church. It is mainly constructed of Kentish Ragstone and built upon a high mound in the mid-12th-century to prevent it from flooding.
Like many historic Romney Marsh churches, St. Mary the Virgin was extended to accommodate the ever-growing congregations. The church originally consisted of a Norman tower, a nave, and a chancel.
The Norman tower is all that remains from the original church, and in the mid-fifteenth century, the spire was added.
What surprised me with some of the Romney Marsh churches was that they were often relatively light inside, with very few stained-glass windows; this may have been due to them being extended. The full length of the nave is an eye-catching wooden vaulted ceiling. As your stroll down the central aisle, you’ll notice that the seating is box pews. Many of these still exist across the churches of Romney Marsh.
St. Clement, Old RomneyThe arrival of Walt Disney Productions
Jumping back in the car, it’s just three miles to our next Medieval church, St Clement’s, at Old Romney.
Old Romney is another tiny village on the marsh. There used to be two other churches here, all within one kilometre of St Clement Church. It’s incredible to think how bustling these places were centuries ago when a port was here along the estuary of the River Rother.
The original Norman church built around 1150 consisted of just a nave and chancel. It wasn’t until the church was extended in about 1200.
The tower and conical spire were added in the late 13th-century and are unusual because it was built in the southwest corner rather than centrally located.
I love these historic churches of Romney Marsh, especially for their unique box pews. Although you may be very surprised when you step inside St Clement’s as the box pews are pink, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Another rare aspect of St Clement’s is the 18th-century minstrels’ gallery. From here, the local choir would sing, and where the church band would play.
Now returning to the pink interior, I mentioned that the novelist and actor Russell Thorndike was buried at Dymchurch and famed for his “Doctor Syn” books. Well, St Clements was used in the movie “Dr Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh”.
St. Clement Church was severely damaged during World War II and fell into disrepair; it was partially renovated; however, the funding ran out. At this time, Walt Disney Productions were looking for a location for its church scenes. They completed the renovations and painted the interior pink.
While strolling around St. Clement’s churchyard, ensure you search out the gravestone for the film director Derek Jarman, who lived locally in Dungeness.
Where to stay on Romney Marsh
- Romney Bay House Hotel – This charming hotel is located along a private stretch of the Romney Marsh coastline. Offering sea views, free parking and an on-site restaurant.
Where to stay in Hythe
St. Nicholas, New RomneyAncient seaport lost to mother nature
Now we’re off to St. Nicholas in New Romney, the largest town in Romney Marsh. The lovely Cinque Port town of New Romney was once a seaport, and unbelievably the harbour was adjacent to the church. Today New Romney is more than a mile from the sea.
The Great Storm of 1287 changed the landscape around Romney Marsh forever. Silt and sand engulfed the countryside, and the bustling ports were lost.
The medieval Norman church of St. Nicholas was built in the mid-12th-century, and the four other medieval churches in the ancient town no longer survive.
Due to the shingle and sludge deposited from the storm, the church’s West Door is several feet below ground level.
The Norman tower, which stretches 100 feet high into the sky, has been used as a lookout point across the English Channel for centuries.
Caen stone is used through St. Nicholas’s interior and Kentish Ragstone. The French stone would have been pre-carved in Normandy and shipped to New Romney port.
The Normans certainly left their mark in this region of the UK.
If you're intrigued by Kent's weird and wonderful history, or all unusual stories around the county, then take a peek at "Kent's Strangest Tales".
You won't be able to put it down, you can pick it up for your Kindle or in good old paperback.
All Saints, LyddThe Cathedral of the Marsh
We’re now off to Lydd to explore All Saints Church, known locally as the Cathedral of the Marsh.
Lydd is the most southerly town in Kent and is a member of the Cinque Ports as a “limb” of New Romney. Lydd town is full of character and charm and feels remarkably untouched, although it astounds me that Lydd has such a vast church.
All Saints, Lydd
Even though All Saints was originally erected as a Norman church, there appears to be little or no evidence; it was rebuilt in the early 13th-century. Although a place of worship has stood continuously on this land for over 1,000 years.
Lydd and particularly All Saints suffered severely during World War II, and extensive damage was caused to the east end of the chancel. The direct hit happened on the 15th of October 1940. Funds were raised to painstakingly rebuild the church, and it re-opened again in January 1953.
You enter the church through double doors; only two other churches in England have this feature other than Cathedrals.
It’s incredible; as you step inside, it feels pretty grand, especially with the unravelling vaulted wooden ceiling and the symmetrical pillars. Once again, it’s very light inside, so often, churches are dark.
Map, guides and more
If you fancy discovering the surrounding footpaths and bridleways around Romney Marsh, head to the Ordnance Survey website. The local OS Map covering the region is no. 125, ‘Romney Marsh, Rye and Winchelsea’.
Alternatively, why not purchase and download the OS Maps App, which covers all of Great Britain.
St. Mary, East GuldefordThe one and only from Sussex
The final church we will visit in part one of our 14 Medieval Churches of Romney Marsh is St. Mary Church, East Guldeford, which was consecrated on 20th September 1505.
This unusual looking medieval marsh church is actually in Sussex and is just a short hop away from the picturesque town of Rye. St. Mary Church falls under the Diocese of Chichester, whereas the other 13 historic churches of Romney Marsh fall under the Diocese of Canterbury.
St. Mary Church is unlike any other Romney Marsh church from the outside. It is very distinctive and built entirely of brick, the walls three feet thick; it really is incredible. Huge buttresses have been built around the outside of the church, preventing it from sinking into the marshland.
We were equally surprised when we stepped inside as the interior was very simple. Box pews line either side of the nave, and there is no distinction between the nave and the Chancel, and a double-decker pulpit stands at the end.
In the 17th-century box, pews were introduced to highlight the social divisions within the local community. The wealthy would be seated close to the front nearer the chancel, and the poor would be seated at the rear of the church.
Surrounding the Chancel windows and, by contrast to other parts of the church, is a stunning Angel painted frieze. The frieze was painted in the late 19th or early 20th-century, illustrating the Six Days of Creation.
St. Mary in East Guldeford is one of the most unusual churches I’ve visited.
Well, that’s it for Part One of our Romney Marsh Historic Churches; keep an eye out for Part Two.
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