Friday, 4 March 2011

TENTERDEN, St. Mildred

     My family and I have often visited this lively town deep in the Kentish Weald, and never fail to appreciate its quality.  H.E. Bates (of 'Darling Buds of May' fame) described it perfectly in 'The Country Heart' when he wrote:  "Of Tenterden it is enough to say that it could sit with grace in the front row of any prize-winning selection of English country towns.  That charming High Street of black-and-white and tile-hung houses of warm terra-cotta, widening to a sort of tree-lined boulevard at one end, is hardly surpassed in England."

     At one end of the High Street is the William Caxton pub, bearing testimony to the claim that the pioneer of printing was born here - a claim which historians give little credence to these days.  Off the High Street, at the bottom of Station Road, is the railway station, which once linked up with the main line to Headcorn.  In earlier days it was a great hop-pickers line, but it closed in the 1950's.  Now restored and called the Kent and East Sussex Railway, it has become a major attraction for enthusiasts and the 'uninitiated' alike, running trips to Northiam just across the East Sussex border.

     In Saxon times, Tenterden belonged to Minster-in-Thanet, which almost certainly explains the rare dedication of this church to St. Mildred.  Hemmed in by dwellings around the churchyard, the embattled south front dates from the 13th century, and the north aisle was a 14th century addition.  The Bethersden marble tower, added later in the 15th century and considered by John Betjeman as being "the best parochial tower in Kent," dominates the end of the town, and is clear evidence of Tenterden's past prosperity as a wool town and port.  With its four miniature turrets it makes a fine contrast to the ironstone and sandstone used for the rest of the building, and proved its value during the 16th century when flames from the beacon on top warned of the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  St. Mildred's is clearly a building of some singularity, for the nave ceiling is considered to be a rare example of 15th century workmanship, and two blocked 13th century windows, unusually situated above the chancel arch, are uncommon in a Kent church.

     Although there are no historically important monuments to be found here, there is one link which endears it to me immensely.  Those who know me well, are aware of the great esteem in which I hold Horatio Nelson - the most enduring of all my boyhood heroes (the subsequent knowledge that he was a somewhat flawed hero has done nothing to diminish this one jot).  It was, therefore, with much delight that I learned that a former vicar's wife was none other than Horatia Ward, the beloved daughter of the great man and Lady Hamilton, and the church pamphlet carries a reproduction of an embroidered picture of the church done by her own fair hands.  It is, for me, little touches like this that makes the study of this subject so fascinating and worthwhile, and it is so typical that they are often stumbled upon in the most unexpected places.

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