All posts by Leigh Hatts

Betjeman on the Pilgrims’ Way

David Meara’s book on John Betjeman appeared towards the end of last year as we faced renewed Covid restrictions.

A Passion For Places: England Through The eyes of John Betjeman is a book which makes one want to go out and ‘church crawl’ as Betjeman would have described his explorations.

In the foreword Simon Jenkins recalls walking around Southwark with Betjeman.

In what he calls an ‘extended essay’, the author David Meara endeavours to cover all the Poet Laureate’s passion for churches, places and railways.

Church crawling is how Betjeman called his days out looking at churches .

He had so many favourite ones that not all can get a mention in the 96 page paperback but it is interesting see that strong favourites include some on the Pilgrims’ Way which could be called a long church crawl.

The extraordinary St Peter & St Paul at Albury in Surrey was on the original way until 1785 when the road was closed and the village moved.

The ancient Saxon church which has a 15th-century St Christopher wall painting, a chapel remodelled by Pugin and featured in Four Weddings and A Funeral film, may be visited via the gateway at the south end of Albury Street 10am-5pm; winter 3pm.

Kemsing church in Kent associated with St Edith of Wilton was another favourite. Betjeman would have appreciated not just the 13th-century door, worn by pilgrims, but the rood figures by Nina Comper whose work he championed.

Chilham church, another Kentish church, was not only a Betjeman favourite but it is also one of the author’s who has known the building since childhood holidays. For many the village, with its castle, pub and church all in a row, is the last overnight stop before the climax of their pilgrimage.

A Passion for Places: England Through The Eyes of John Betjeman by David Meara (Amberely; £15.99).

Martyrdom of St Thomas 29 December 2021

A candle in Canterbury Cathedral indicates the location of Thomas Becket’s shrine

‘We have the added worship of the Feast of St Thomas of Canterbury on 29 December which gives a special Canterbury climax to our worship before 2022 begins,’ says Dean of Canterbury Robert Willis.

Canterbury Cathedral has announced services for the Feast of St Thomas Becket on Wednesday 29 December.

The 8am Eucharist will be celebrated at the Altar of the Swordpoint on the Martyrdom site in the north transept.

There will also be a said Eucharist at 12.30pm.

The main focus is the candlelit Evensong & procession at 3pm sung by the Lay Clerks. This service, at about the hour of Thomas Becket’s murder, includes ‘medieval chant’ and readings from TS Eliot’s Murder in The Cathedral.

Evensong will be broadcast live on the Cathedral website and YouTube.

Roman Catholic Solemn Vespers in the Cathedral Crypt is at 8pm.

Although in 1899 Hilaire Belloc insisted on walking from Winchester starting on 22 December to reach Canterbury on 29 December this winter festival day was never in Pre-Reformation years a crowded occasion.

The Twelve Days of Christmas was too cold for travel and more a time to stay at home and feast.

Estimates of visitors on each 29 December during the first 300 years following the martyrdom are sometimes as low as sixty.

The bigger day, when crowds filled Canterbury, was on the 7 July Translation in the summer.

Forgotten churches on the Pilgrims’ Way

‘In the shadow of a tall, nine-arched, red brick railway viaduct, a long, thin, green valley extends besides the River Darent in Kent,’ writes Peter Stanford in his new book If These Stones Could Talk.

He is describing the Pilgrims’ Way as it runs south from Dartford to Otford. Thomas Becket came this way in his last weeks before death and Henry VIII as a pilgrim in his earlier years.

Peter is here to find a vital church for his history of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through twenty buildings. In the Darent Valley it is not Eynsford church where the feud between archbishop and king began or even Lullingstone’s lovely ‘church on the lawn’.

It is the building disguised as Lullingstone’s Roman Villa. Appropriately the Pilgrims’ Way passes the door and you can stop to have your passport stamped.

But go deeper inside and you will find evidence of an early church which may have had worshippers in the 4th century. Here is a chapel or a purpose built house church making it the oldest known site of Christian worship in the UK.

The author takes a wider look at Canterbury Cathedral suggesting that it had important saints before Becket’s murder brought greater crowds.

But even more arresting is the chapter on St Martin’s Church at Canterbury. It said to pilgrims arriving at Santiago de Compostela that they should stay awhile to look round rather than just heading home at once.

So pilgrims arriving at Canterbury should stay to walk on for just half a mile up to St Martin’s which is Britain’s oldest church and one of huge resonance.

If These Stones Could Talk offers a sweep of history around interesting places with a handy timeline and good index.

If These Stones Could Talk: The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through Twenty Buildings by Peter Stanford (Hodder £20).

Winchester & Canterbury in Top 100

The cathedrals at the start and end of the long Pilgrims’ Way are included in the new book Europe’s 100 Best Cathedralsby Simon Jenkins.

Winchester and Canterbury are awarded four stars.

We are told that Winchester, begun by William the Conqueror, ‘was to be twice the length of the abbeys of Normandy’. The chantry chapels highlighted include Richard Fox’s which ‘was used by him for hours of daily prayer for ten years before his death in 1528’.

There is a picture of the statue by Anthony Gormley whose work is seen again when you reach Canterbury Cathedral and go down to the crypt.

This ‘is one of joys of Canterbury and the most extensive in England’ observes the author who suggests that upstairs Becket’s shrine should be recreated.

We are also told that the silvery towers beckon pilgrims to its bosom ‘as they have done for centuries’ and on arriving they find a close retaining ‘the ambience of a medieval enclave’.

In the London section there is sadly no room for Winchester’s daughter cathedral Southwark although it is centuries older than the featured St Paul’s .

Other Great Britain entries include such pilgrim cathedrals as St Davids and Salisbury where you find St Osmund. At Lincoln both St Hugh and the Lincoln Imp get a mention, the latter being the 21st century attraction which reaches out to the city and its football team.

The Pilgrims’ Way is just a first leg for those going on to Santiago de Compostela or Rome and both feature strongly.

Visiting the Abbey of Vezelay in France, Simon Jenkins walks up a hill and senses ‘the feet of millions who must have made this climb over the centuries before setting out on the long road to Santiago’.

He adds: ‘The memory is one of heat, sore feet and the beckoning cool of an ancient church.’ At Santiago he recalls an interior ‘as a haze of heat and incense’.

There is also space for Rouen which is today twinned with Southwark and like Southwark is part of the last days of Thomas Becket.

This book could tempt you beyond Canterbury.

Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals by Simon Jenkins (Penguin Viking; £30).

St Andrew’s Boxley

The new view of the chapel building seen from the lane.

Today Tuesday 30 November is St Andrew’s Day.

It’s special in Scotland, Greece, Barbados, Amalfi and many other places.

It was once a special day at Boxley Abbey which possessed a St Andrew relic, a finger encased in silver, which was in the freestanding St Andrew’s Chapel built in 1484 about a quarter of a mile from the abbey church.

It was at a southern entry point to the abbey but only functioned as a chapel for 53 years. The abbey was dissolved in 1537 when the community had fallen to just four monks.

The chapel, after being hidden for years, can now be seen from Boarley Lane, opposite the post box near the junction with Grange Lane.

The lost chapel has been purchased by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and careful restoration is in progress.

The plan is to eventually place it on the market to raise funds for the next project.

Should we think about purchasing it to be a pilgrim hostel so once again pilgrims can stay at Boxley Abbey? An example is Refugio Gaucelmo on the Camino in Spain run by Southwark-based Confraternity of St James. Last month it celebrated its 30th anniversary.

The higher roof is the top of the chapel which has attached clergy accommodation.

On Foot to Canterbury: Ken Haigh’s pilgrimage

Ken Haigh, resident in Canada, has written an account of his walk from Winchester to Canterbury.

Those who have walked the Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester will find this book an enjoyable account. So might those who come from London joining the converged way at Otford.

It is interesting that at Otford Ken chooses to take the lower path to Kemsing (as in the latest edition of the Cicerone guide) rather than the main road. This alternative is not only more pleasant and direct but also ancient and known to earlier pilgrims.

The author’s reading ahead is thorough and includes the Cicerone guide so his asides are mostly relevant. He highlights some connections usually forgotten such as early PW guidebook writer Julia Cartwright living on the Pilgrims’ Way and the Wetherspoons pub in Canterbury having a tenuous link with the PW.

Is there anything worrying in the book? it is maybe the number of times he finds a church locked. He was walking in summer before the pandemic.

It is important to get churches as well as pubs and b&bs open as soon as possible next year.

The book is a Hilary Weston WT Prize for Nonfiction finalist.

On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage by Ken Haigh (University of Alberta Press; $26.99/£20.99)

Rumwold the child saint at Boxley

A surviving wall of Boxley Abbey below the Pilgrims’ Way

For many 3 November is the day after All Souls’ Day or maybe Martin de Porres Day. However, in some calendars it is St Rumwold’s Day.

Alternative spellings include Rumwald, Rumbald and Rumbold. Rumwold is favoured by churches in Kent.

St Rumwold was born into the Mercian royal family in the 650s. The birth took place just south of Kings Sutton in Northamptonshire.

He lived for just three days during which he is reported to have spoken and even preached a sermon.

This remarkable claim did not impress Norman bishops who did little to promote the feast day.

However, 3 November was always a red letter day on the PW at Boxley Abbey where there was a St Rumwold statue which is said to have proved suddenly heavy if a sinner tried to lift it.

Another important date at the abbey was St Andrew’s Day at the end of month when a relic was displayed.

**Boxley Abbey remains, below the parallel vineyard path, are not open to the public although the surviving long barn can be seen from the PW.

King Alfred’s day

King Alfred in Trinity Church Square in Southwark

Alfred the Great died on 26 October 899 and the anniversary is marked annually in Common Worship.

The church calendar entry is Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons, Scholar, 899.

Alfred is buried in St Bartholomew’s churchyard at Hyde Abbey next to the Pilgrims’ Way on the edge of Winchester.

His statue dominates Winchester’s main street.

A much older statue of Alfred is found in Southwark which the King founded as a fortified place in 880.

Winchester’s King Alfred statue by Hamo Thornycroft was erected in 1901 following the millennium of his death in 1899.