Saturday, 30 October 2010

St. Mary, Betteshanger

     When my wife and I set out to photograph St. Mary's, I did so with a large measure of suspicion.  Having read that it was a 19th century attempt to rival peerless Barfrestone, I have to confess to harbouring a preconceived feeling, bordering on contempt, for a building - described by Syms as a "Victorian extravaganza" - with such lofty aspirations.  We found the church at the end of a narrow lane past a large paddock full of grazing livestock, and I have to say that on receiving my first view, I was totally captivated by what stood before me.  This is, without exception, the most attractive Victorian church that I have ever seen.

     It is situated in a delightful spot bordering the easternmost extremity of Betteshanger House - I would have used the term 'idyllic' had it not been for the rather ugly modern buildings that were under construction by the side of the churchyard.  Commissioned by Lord Northbourne, it was built by Anthony Salvin in 1853 on the site of an earlier 12th century church, and consists solely of a chancel and nave with a north tower.  The north entrance is genuinely Norman incorporated from the earlier building (the one feature that qualifies it for club membership in this modest work), and the elaborately carved neo-Norman south doorway is protected by a large Byzantine-like portico.  Inside, a couple of features remain from the earlier church.  A 13th century piscina - the carved receptacle for water where the priest washed his fingers before Mass; and the Royal Arms of William III.  The churchyard boasts three Yew trees of some note.  One, beside the south door, and unfortunately damaged during the Great Storm of October 1987, is three-hundred-and-fifty years old; and two, situated in the north-west corner were planted in 1854.  One, by Viscount Hardinge, Commander of the British Army after Wellington, and the other by William Gladstone - then leader of the Liberal Party and personal friend of Lord Northbourne.

     When in the process of writing this account one describes its various features, it seems an unusual mix yet, to the eye, this singular little building exudes immense charm, and although its pedigree doesn't equal Barfrestone - it never could - it need make no apology for its existence.  Rupert Brooke, the poet-soldier of the First World War, penned what is probably his most enduring poem "The Soldier" while encamped at Betteshanger, before his young life came to an end on the way to the Dardanelles in April 1915.  One cannot escape the sentimental notion that perhaps he had Betteshanger's little church in mind when he wrote the opening lines:

'If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England'

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