Saturday, 13 November 2010

St. Mary, Chartham

     Situated south-west of Canterbury, at the foot of the North Downs on the River Stour, Chartham promises much as one approaches it down the hill from the A28, and sees the red-tiled roofs surrounding the church.  Sadly, the village doesn't live up to this early promise but, happily, the same cannot be said of this fine cruciform building that stands heroically against the press of the adjacent paper factory.  This impressive building is known to have been in the course of erection in 1294, for it is recorded that in that year Edward III remitted part of a fine to the vicar 'towards the works of a church begun by him.'

     Built of knapped flint, it has the usual arrangement of aisleless nave, chancel and north and south transepts, but with a Perpendicular-style (1350-1500) tower situated at the west end of the building and not, as is more usual, over the crossing.  With diagonal buttresses and square north turret, the tower was probably built after 1490 - when money was left for repairing the original - and houses what are claimed to be the oldest set of five bells in Kent.  According to John Newman, the stained glass in the chancel was greatly renewed in 1881, but enough remains from 1294 "to guarantee the authenticity of the whole."

     The magnet that draws most interest is its fine life-size brass to Sir Robert de Septvans, a crusader who fought with Edward I.  This celebrated brass, 6 feet 3 inches in length - the oldest in Kent and fourth oldest in England - portrays the knight with his hands clasped in prayer; cross-legged, bareheaded with finely curled side locks and wearing a surcoat over his mail armour.  He wears a massive sword and carries a shield dotted with his emblem, a winnowing fan.  He also wears ailettes - a type of early 14th century epaulet - which is a rare feature on monumental effigies.  Situated in the north transept, it originally lay in the centre of the chancel, and was probably moved during the Victorian restoration of the sanctuary in 1873-5.  Unfortunately, the key-holder was not at home when I photographed the church, so I have yet to see this brass with my own eyes - hopefully I shall do so eventually.

     Moving back to the paper factory, although the present mill was opened in 1949, papermaking has been a major industry in the village for more than six-hundred years and, the owner of an earlier mill is credited with introducing straw into papermaking technology for the first time.  In 1939, the Chartham mill was a very important site producing all the tracing paper Britain needed for use, among other things, in the design of tanks, planes and other weapons to assist the war effort.  The village therefore can justly claim to have played its part in the defence of this sceptered isle.  All-in-all, one feels that Chartham's old warrior would have approved.

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