Saturday, 5 March 2011

GODMERSHAM, St. Lawrence the Martyr

     This simple flint building is perhaps one of the most attractively situated churches to be found anywhere in Kent, sitting above the River Stour, framed by trees, with its churchyard - often occupied by sheep - running down to the river bank.  When driving past I always find it something of a struggle to take my eyes off it and concentrate on the road.  It is not by chance, therefore, that I have chosen St. Lawrence to bring this personal 'literary milestone' to a close as, for me, its uniqueness and setting represents all that I find so charismatic in the country churches of this beautiful county.

     The nave and western half of the chancel is Saxon in origin, but no architectural details survive from this period today.  Early in the 12th century a north tower was added to the north of the nave, and here we have the feature that is of such antiquarian interest, for here alone, is a Norman tower with an east apsidal chapel.  Originally it opened by way of a wide arch to the nave, but there was also a north doorway to make it independent of the church.  Apparently, tower-naves were a Saxon speciality, possibly the tower-chapel is a later version of this arrangement.  Of the same period is the remarkable stone carving of an archbishop, possibly Archbishop Theobold (d.1162) or Becket (d.1170).  John Betjeman favours the latter.  Now displayed in the chancel it was, until 1935, attached to the now demolished 14th century Court Lodge.  The church was nicely restored during the 1860's with the inclusion of a rather fine rood screen, the Devonshire marble font, and the east window.  Fine Minton tiles were laid in the sanctuary, and their medieval predecessors carefully removed and preserved by placement on the window-sill.  It occurs to me that I am ending, as I began, with a church that is connected to the great Jane Austen, for memorialised in the church is her brother, Edward Knight (d.1852), a former vicar of Godmersham and owner of Godmersham Park (he changed his name to Knight when he inherited the property from Thomas Knight in 1794).

     Jane was a frequent visitor to the mansion, which is situated behind the church on the slope of the Downs.  It was here, amid this absorbing scenery, that she studied many of the characters who would later appear in her writings.  In fact, the mansion was the setting for 'Rosings Park' and Godmersham vicarage the model for the parsonage in 'Pride and Prejudice' - much of which was written here and which, as I write, has just undergone a highly acclaimed television dramatisation.  It is no wonder to me that she found the inspiration here to create what was probably her most famous work, indeed, Richard Church ('The Little Kingdom') aptly described this stretch of countryside as "...still magical with a quality and character wholly English.."  On reflection, he might have been describing Jane Austen and her wonderfully witty novels.

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