Michael McNay ("Red Guide to Kent") asks: "Is this the loveliest town in England?" I wouldn't know, but it certainly rates as one of the most historic, so much so that you can almost taste it! Sandwich was the most important of the Cinque Ports in the Middle Ages, being England's most powerful naval base and chief port for the export of wool. Its three parish churches confirmed its prosperity, but St. Clement is the only one still in use as a place of worship, and which still retains its original tower. By the 16th century the harbour had silted up and the town faced financial ruin, but the Protestant cloth-workers from Holland and France returned it to affluence after settling here in the late 1500's The Dutch influence can still be seen here today, and in much of the county's architecture.
In keeping with such an historical heritage, one would expect St. Clement to possess a comparable persona, and it certainly doesn't disappoint, being considered one of the most impressive churches in Kent. It has an Early English chancel with north and south chapels; a 15th century nave; a two-storeyed porch protecting a door that dates to 1655; 15th century choir stalls with poppeyheads; and an elaborately carved octagonal font (c.1400-06), showing the Tudor Rose with the Arms of the Cinque Ports and of England and France. Keeping the best till last, the tower is a pure delight and is all that remains of the original cruciform church. It is a central tower of Mid-Norman construction, with richly ornamented arcading all around in three tiers, a circular north-west stair turret and battlemented top, and has been described by Pratt-Boorman as "one of the most valuable Norman towers in all England." Becket landed here in 1170 when returning from exile, determined to assert his authority as head of a Church independent of State control. No doubt he would have stopped at St. Clement's - passing through the Fishergate - to give thanks for a safe journey, before moving on to Canterbury and martyrdom.
A few years ago I was visiting the church with my wife and youngest daughter, Ria, who asked us what a church was. We replied, I suspect somewhat patronisingly, "It's Jesus' house." While we were looking around, she spent most of the time chatting to an old lady who - it being close to Evensong - was handing out hymn books inside the door. On leaving, Ria suddenly ran back into the church and, re-emerging shortly after, we asked her why she had done this. She replied with a smile, "I went to say goodbye to Jesus' nanny!" Over the years I have spent many pleasant hours in Sandwich, with my family, having picnics by the river and soaking up its timeless flavour, but I think it's this memory as much as any other that cements its place in my affections.