Along the Darent Valley to a site of Roman domestic bliss
Sutton-at-Hone to Otford, Kent
I recently treated myself to annual membership of English Heritage which for the reasonable sum of £46 gives 12 months’ free access to over 400 of the country’s most fascinating historic sites (although when I signed up on a recent visit to Pevensey Castle, I took advantage of a 15-months-for-the-price-of-12 offer – which was just as well, as many of the most tantalising properties I found when leafing through the guide book seemed to shut for the winter just as I’d joined). Along with the grand honeypot sites such as Stonehenge, the site of the Battle of Hastings, Audley End House or Dover Castle, there are hundreds of lesser-known properties giving a fascinating insight into how Britons lived their daily lives, a visit to any of which brings history to life far more vividly than dull words on the pages of a history book. Lullingstone Roman Villa, in Kent, is one such site, its stunningly well-preserved remains giving a remarkable glimpse into Romano-British life over 3 centuries. Like many of English Heritage’s properties, Lullingstone is a little way from reliable public transport links, and for the car-less involves a walk from the nearest station. But what better reason could there be for heading out into the countryside on foot? Especially as the way to Lullingstone is along the very pleasant Darent Valley Path which follows the course of the Darent (or Darenth) River along a gap in the North Downs through beautiful landscape and picturesque villages.
Start: Farningham Road Station TQ556693
Finish: Eynsford Station TQ532593
Length: 9½ miles/6 hours (including 1½-2 hours to explore Lullingstone Roman Villa)
How to get there: Both stations are served regularly by trains to and from London Victoria: timetables can found on the Southeastern website.
Note: entrance to the Roman Villa costs £5.30 for adults & £3.50 for children (at the time of writing), but is free for English Heritage members. For more information go to the English Heritage website.
A few weeks before, when I had first attempted this walk but been forced into a last minute detour to Richmond Park, the skies overhead were crisp and clear and a vivid blue. Today, however, the weather is damp and drab, a misty melancholy grey. As I head east from the station, shining black privet berries and bright hawthorn fruits hang in the hedgerow, the only vibrancy in an otherwise despondent late-autumn landscape, from which the greater part of the leaves have fallen. Hereabouts, it doesn’t feel entirely rural – the factory beside the station, the road busy with noisy traffic – but certainly not suburban; a sort of hinterland between the outskirts of London and the Garden of England in deeper Kent. The motorways and trunk roads that this walk sneaks beneath unnoticed later will be a regular reminder of the proximity to the capital.But despite this being no untamed wilderness, the path along the bank of the Darent, reached by turning off the road by the looming ten-arched viaduct that takes the railway high over the river, is pleasant enough. Decaying and collapsing willow pollards to either side, the water flows slowly in the opposite direction: I’m heading upstream. A gentle golden rain of senescent twirling leaves from tall poplars drifts downwards to float away on the sluggish water. But where clumps of reeds and willowherb midstream narrow and divide the channel, the flow quickens, gently turbulent, seeking out a way through, around and between the obstructions. It feels as if the trees are exhaling, sighing deeply as a prelude to winter slumber, for what on their timescale is just the briefest of pauses, before inhaling again in spring to swell their buds and burst, full of life, into leaf and begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
The muddy riverside path narrows between dense hawthorn and sloe, the latter berried with fruits the colour of midnight, then leaves the waterside to emerge onto Westminster Field on the edge of Horton Kirby. Football teams in bright fluorescent bibs are practising, shouts of encouragement and derision in equal proportion echoing around the playing field. Beyond the field, the footpath weaves through a kissing gate and across a rough meadow to meet the river bank once more. Now the path twists beneath the crowns of sycamores, amongst scrubby corky-barked elm, surrounded by drab earthy tones: the mud beneath my feet, overlain with a veneer of fading buff fallen leaves; the grey-green lichen-coated tree trunks; the pebbledash of chalky pebbles visible beneath the gin-clear waters of the Darent; the chocolate and chestnut coats of the horses mooching in an adjacent damp field. Only the vivid pink-orange seed capsules of spindles provide any splash of colour.
At Franks Lane, I turn left to cross the river, then a short distance along the puddled lane turn onto a narrow footpath between post-and-wire fences. On the left, the manicured outfield of Horton Kirby cricket club, while on the right, open parkland dotted with mature horse chestnut and collapsing ash trees, and limes, the crowns of which are festooned with mistletoe and noisy parakeets flitting between the tree tops. Somewhere beyond, over the river and obscured by the tree line, lies Franks Hall, built in 1591 by Lancelot Bathurst who frequently played host to Queen Elizabeth I here. Now Grade I listed, the Hall was used as a barn in the 1850s, before Vavasour Earle, who bought the Hall in 1883, enlarged it with the addition of a picture gallery. During the Second World war, when the home was used as a maternity home, Earle’s gallery was destroyed by incendiaries and now only the walls remain.But this site has seen human habitation for considerably longer. No trace is visible on the ground, but the map shows this to be the site of a Roman Villa, one of many that lined the Darent, their occupants being attracted by the fertile ground and fresh water of the valley, an ideal spot to settle and cultivate their crops. The grazing sheep on what is still farmland are oblivious to the history beneath their feet, just as the footballers presumably were on Westminster Field, where a Roman Villa and granary were excavated in 1972.
The increasing rumble-roar of traffic heralds a more modern aspect of human history as a towering concrete viaduct takes the M20 motorway over the river. The dwarfing monolithic piers are unsurprisingly well graffitied, most of it banal vandalism, but one pier acts as an informal shrine to a deceased loved one with spray-painted tributes, wilted flowers, bedraggled cuddly toys, a fading football shirt….
The A20 also crosses the Darent here, the riverside path tunnelling beneath. I too cross the river, by a wooden footbridge. Just beyond, the path leads into Farningham. Despite the proximity to two very busy roads, the village still retains its picturesque charm, featuring attractive brick and flint vernacular cottages, a grand bay-windowed inn – which Charles Dickens visited when fishing the Darent for trout – and a substantial white weatherboarded building, once a watermill.At the heart of the village, two structures cross the river, one of which still carries road traffic today. But the other is more confusing at first glance: it has only one parapet – constructed in well-crafted red brick with flint detailing. There is no bridge deck, and wooden palisade ‘gates’ hang on chains from wooden beams beneath its arches. Once thought to be a folly, or the remains of an earlier bridge, this ornate structure is actually a cattle screen, constructed to prevent livestock wandering downstream while they were being forded across the river. Built sometime between 1740 and 1770 by William Hanger of Farningham Manor, its grandeur presumably intended to reflect the Hanger family’s wealth and prestige, the screen was recently restored to its original yet unique splendour.
I continue along Sparepenny Lane, past the village butchers and quaint cottages, one of which has a sign affixed to the garden gate warning the postman of an ‘Unruly terrier. Please put post in postbox in alleyway. Thank you‘ – quirks like this give a place its charm. The lane rises between neatly-trimmed field boundary hedges topped with a tangle of old man’s beard onto higher ground, to overlook the valley that the river has scoured through the chalk hills of the North Downs over millenia.On the verge, a small engraved menhir marks the spot where Flying Officer James Alfred Paterson, MBE, a New Zealander serving with 92 Squadron, lost his life when his Spitfire was shot down on 27th September 1940. Aged just 20 when he died, Paterson is still remembered by those anonymous visitors who recently came here to lay poppy wreaths, and is one of The Few commemorated on the Battle of Britain Memorial on the Victoria Embankment.
The map shows the Darent Valley Path continuing along the lane, but a permissive path allows me to avoid the tarmac and follow the field edge, along the perimeter of the Woodland Trust’s Nine Hole Wood. A recently planted mixed of native species, the wood includes guelder rose and wayfaring tree, both of which are displaying a flamboyant flourish of pink and crimson autumn colour.
Across the valley, a crumbling grey edifice: the flint walls of Eynsford Castle. Another English Heritage property, I had planned to take a detour to explore the castle, but unfortunately it was closed on the date of my visit due to structural instability. Built on the site of an earlier Saxon settlement, the castle was constructed in the 1080s by William de Eynsford, and was abandoned after being vandalised in the early 14th century as a result of a feud between the Kirkeby and Criol families. Its only subsequent use was as hunting kennels in the 18th century, such that it remains a relatively undisturbed and well-preserved example of a Norman curtain-wall castle. Despite the lack of public access today – November 5th – there is plenty of activity as the villagers prepare for bonfire night. Not quite Edinburgh Castle at Hogmanay, it is nonetheless a spectacular setting for a fireworks display.Back on Sparepenny Lane, I descend into Eynsford village, but only fleetingly as my route turns away from the village centre, past long-horned shaggy Highland cattle grazing by the river. I begin a steep climb onto higher ground. Crossing the railway, the path continues to rise across windswept fields of rape, water droplets glistening diamond-like on the leaves. The elevation and openness of the countryside give rise to a spectacular but hazy view over the Darent valley, and in particular of electric trains scuttling over the nine brick arches of the impressive viaduct that crosses the river 75 feet below.
At the summit, a muffled public address system emanates from Eagle Heights Wildlife Park, where a flying display is under way. The sound echoes across the countryside as I continue along the ridge parallel to the line of a hedge abundant with scarlet rose-hips and crimson dogwood. A solitary oak marks the point where the path turns to descend between buttery field maples into denser woodland and the valley bottom once more.
The steel-clad building amongst the trees seems incongruous with its surroundings, but having shown my membership card at the entrance and passed into the vast dimly-lit space beyond, its purpose becomes apparent: to protect what is one of the most remarkable and best-preserved discoveries in this outpost of the Empire, Lullingstone Roman Villa. From beginnings in around AD100, the villa began as quite a modest building, probably four rooms linked by a north-south corridor with protruding wings at either end. By the mid 2nd century, the house had been enlarged to include a bath house to the south and further rooms to the north. Then in the 3rd century the north wing was demolished and rebuilt with five rooms, three of which featured underfloor heating.Later still in the middle of the 4th century the central core was substantially altered, the corridor being split in two mid-way along its length by the construction of an elaborate triclinium or dining room, apsidal in shape, and featuring a stunning mosaic floor. By this time, the zenith of the villa’s history, the building, now at the heart of a large farming estate, boasted three heated rooms, a kitchen, a basement ‘deep-room’, a house-church, a verandah’d main entrance, two further rooms in the south wing, the dining room and audience chamber for entertaining and an extensive bath suite comprising an apodyterium (changing room), a frigidarium (cold room), a tepidarium (warm room), a caldarium (hot room) with hot plunge bath, and a laconicum (hot dry room). Heat for the bath suite came from the praefurnium, or furnace, with its own fuel store. Surrounding the main villa complex were outbuildings: a large granary, kitchen block, possibly a tannery, an outbuilding to the south of unknown purpose and, to the west, a shrine and mausoleum.
The excavations here have contributed much to our understanding of the period, the patient archaeologist having transcribed and interpreted the minutiae of Romano-British domestic life spanning several centuries. But perhaps most fascinating is the evidence of Roman religious belief, the transition from polytheistic paganism to Christianity, which appeared to exist side-by-side. The ‘deep room’ below ground level, is thought to have been a cult room where pagan water deities may have been worshipped – evidence of this being paintings of water-nymphs on the walls. Two marble busts found in the deep room suggest that Roman ancestors may also have been venerated – the Imperial Cult – possibly at a later date. But of even greater historical importance is the ‘house-church’ and its ante-chamber above the cult room which demonstrate the supersedence of paganism by Christian worship. Wall paintings, reconstructed from plaster fragments (some of which are on display in the British Museum), depict six figures in Romano-Christian prayer, and feature Chi-Rho and alpha and omega symbols. Unique to Romano-Britain, the wall paintings of the house-church are internationally important – the closest parallels are found in Syria.
Lullingstone is by far the grandest villa along the Darent, which begs the question: who was its obviously prestigious resident? Marble busts and a ring-seal found on site have led to the recent suggestion that it may have been the country retreat, a Romano-British Chequers if you like, of Publius Helvius Pertinax. Governor of Britain from around AD185 to 187, Pertinax was later, as I discovered when I followed the line of the Roman wall of London, Roman Emperor, albeit for only 3 months in AD193, the Year of the Five Emperors.The villa was abandoned and fell into disrepair after a fire in the 5th century. Although the mausoleum remains were incorporated into the mediaeval Lullingstane [sic] Chapel, the majority of the villa edifice crumbled and disappeared into the landscape, forgotten for over a thousand years. Fragments of mosaic were found in around 1750 when post holes were being dug for a deer fence around Lullingstone Park, but it was only in 1939 when members of the Darent Valley Archaeological Research Group found roof tiles and tesserae beneath the root plate of wind-blown tree that the significance of the site was first appreciated. Interrupted by the outbreak of war, excavations began in earnest in 1949, continuing until 1961 (although research continues today) by which time numerous remains and artefacts had been discovered which paint a vivid picture of everyday life at Lullingstone.
A mezzanine level around the perimeter of the cover building allows a full appreciation of the floor plan of the villa, most of whose flint and mortar foundation walls still remain to a height of a couple of feet or more. A huge number of finds are on show in display cases – from decorative beads and jewellery to more mundane finds: pottery, tools, nails, padlocks, gaming counters, household goods, geese skeletons (possibly sacrificed). And roof tiles, many of which were imprinted with foot prints of animals – dogs, cats, geese, oxen – as they lay in the sun to dry. For me, the roof tiles give perhaps the most vivid indication of what life around the villa may have been like: somewhat hectic, with animals roaming at will around a busy farmyard, geese flapping, dogs barking… And just as we gain an insight into life at Lullingstone, we also glimpse death: two skeletons are on show, one of an adult male found with grave goods in a lead casket decorated with scallop-shell detail, the other, more chillingly, that of a baby.
But of course, it is the magnificent mosaic to the floor of the triclinium and entertaining chamber which are the centrepiece. Beautifully crafted and surrounded by decorative borders, one panel depicts Bellepheron, Prince of Corinth, slaying the fire-breathing Chimera from the saddle of Pegasus, the winged horse – the triumph of good over evil. Surrounding this scene are roundels featuring the four seasons, one in each corner, although sadly Autumn has largely been destroyed. In the other panel, we see Jupiter, disguised as a bull, kidnapping the princess Europa, while two cupids look on, one grasping onto Jupiter’s tail. Above this scene is a couplet in Latin:
INVIDA SI TA[URI] VIDISSET IUNO NATATUS
IUSTIUS AEOLIAS ISSET AD USQUE DOMOS
Translated, this reads ‘If jealous Juno had seen the swimming of the bull, she would with greater justice gone to the halls of Aeolius’ and alludes to Virgil’s Aeneid in which Juno (Jupiter’s wife) demands that Aeolius, god of the wind, drowns Aeneas’ fleet at sea; here though it is used to refer to Jupiter’s abduction of Europa in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Regardless of interpretations of the mosaic’s meaning, it was clearly designed to demonstrate that the villa’s owner was a man not only of immense wealth but also highly cultured and well-read. His guests, reclining on couches around the apse of the dining room, feasting on the finest delicacies, could not fail to be impressed.
After such a whistle-stop tour, and with so much fascinating history to absorb, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. I spend a few minutes sitting on the terrace below the shrine and mausoleum on the hill side, downing a bottle of appropriately-named Gladiator spelt beer (hang on, Gladiator is spelt G-l-a-d-i-a-t-o-r, not B-e-….oh, that sort of spelt) from the visitor centre shop.Then, along a farm track, to Lullingstone Castle. Originally built in the 15th century by Sir John Peche, Sheriff of Kent, it has remained in the hands of the same family ever since – quite a remarkable achievement given the centuries of often bloody and violent history that have passed since. The imposing gatehouse – thought to be the first structure of its kind to be built entirely in brick – retains the most original features: enormous wooden gates, mullioned windows, loopholes, and crenelations along the parapet. Two octagonal castellated towers support an arch through which the palatial manor house itself is visible, but its appearance is quite different to that of the gatehouse. Substantially altered, the building doesn’t seem deserving of the epithet ‘castle’, but could be described more accurately as being in the Queen Anne style – rather aptly in this case as the Queen herself was a frequent visitor to Lullingstone during her reign.
Aside from the many splendid rooms in the manor house itself, the grounds contain Queen Anne’s bathhouse, the church of St Botolph (the stained glass windows of which are reputedly the oldest in Britain), and a walled garden, recently restored as a ‘World Garden of Plants’. All of which would be worthwhile exploring further – but Lullingstone’s season ended in September, and on this gloomy grey November day, save for a few walkers following the river, it is deserted.
The Darent flows southwards beneath ash, sycamore and alder, their canopies reflected, shimmering, in the faintly rippled surface of the barely moving river; an enormous collapsed field maple lies adjacent to the riverside path, sprawling like a drunkard; songbirds flit from branch to branch; in the clear water, darting shadows hint at the presence of fish. An idyllic scene along a typical lowland chalk stream – but one which a few years ago may have been less vibrant. From being one of the finest trout rivers in the country, the river suffered from pollution and over-abstraction during the 20th century, many stretches running dry during drought years. But over recent years, as a plaque by the path commemorates, the Darent was the subject of a restoration programme – which seems to have been thoroughly successful.A brief stop at the Visitors’ Centre atLullingstone Country Park, then onwards, not though the country park itself – which boasts of extensive chalk grassland and an impressive collection of veteran trees in its woodland (if I’d known this before setting out, I would have planned a different route!) – but continuing along the Darent Valley Path. Leaving the river as it veers southeastwards, a permissive path across Castle Farm allows me to avoid the tarmac and traffic (what little there is of it) of Castle Road. Instead, my route continues along the grassy buffer strip at the edge of a field of lavender, narrow purple-grey rows climbing the hillside like contour lines on a map.
Crossing the lane onto a farm track, the view eastwards gives an indication of the diversity of land use here: hop poles, naked at this time of year, indicate that this traditional Kentish crop is still grown locally, along with winter wheat, more pinstriped fields of lavender, grazing beef cattle, and, on the higher ground across the valley, beyond the Shoreham Road and the railway, forestry plantations and woodland.
Fine drizzle mists the hilltops as it begins to descend – if descend is the right word, so fine are the droplets they swirl randomly. A brief pause to put on a waterproof, then across a field and I’m back at the river, now flowing more surreptitiously in a narrower, deeper, more sinuous channel in the shadows beneath the crowns of alders. Almost unnoticed at the edge of its flood plain, the river feels insignificant in the landscape now, whereas, in reality, it was the river that sculpted much of this landscape.On the outskirts of Shoreham, the Darent Valley Path bifurcates, one branch heading across the water-meadow of the flood plain. I choose the other path, following the river, as it runs past the old mill and along the backs of cottages on the village edge. Past yellowing grapevines and a young plantation of walnuts – more evidence of agricultural diversification locally – the path arrives in the village in the midst of some splendid Georgian and Queen Anne dwellings. One, the Water House, was home and studio to the artist Samuel Palmer, between 1827 and 1835. Palmer was as an associate of, and heavily influenced by William Blake, and it is in the period after the two met in 1824, when Palmer was a resident of Shoreham, that he produced what is judged to be his best work, much of it influenced by the surrounding landscape. Among these paintings, one, In A Shoreham Garden, is clearly based on the semi-formal gardens of the Water House.
I turn away from the Darent at the pretty arched bridge which is the start of the annual duck race, along the road to the church of St Peter & St Paul. In gold gothic script on the lych gate are the words: Blessed are the Dead which die in the LORD. I’m not entirely sure if that’s a promise to the devout, or a subtle threat to the non-believer. Beyond the lych gate, a double row of stout neatly clipped Irish yews lines the path to the gabled entrance porch. A fantastic structure, its stocky timbers, some of which may date back to when it was first constructed in the 16th century, are weathered silver-grey with age.Through the entrance door the church is gloomy and a little chilly, but atmospherically so. High above my head, the timber beamed ceiling is richly decorated with painted stars and carved bosses, while beneath my feet are brasses, and time-worn memorials carved into the flagstones – one of which simply yet sadly reads ‘Here Lies the Bodys [sic] of three sons of Iohn Wood & Sarah Wood’, no names, no dates.
Like so many churches, St Peter & St Paul has been altered, added to and restored over the centuries. Only the stonework either side of the door into the tower dates from when the church was first built in around AD1100. The north wall of the nave dates from the 14th century, to which was added the Polhill or Lady Chapel in the 15th century, while in the 16th century the church was enlarged by the addition of a south aisle, including the timber porch. Of the fittings and furniture, notable are the organ case and timber pulpit which are both reputed to have been brought here from Westminster Abbey. Somewhat curiously, what appear to be old leather fire buckets are lined up in a row on the lintel above the doorway into the tower.But the finest feature has to be the late mediaeval timber rood screen which stretches across the nave and south aisle to divide the chancel, altar and Mildmay chapel from the remainder of the church, said to be the only surviving rood screen in Kent to span the entire width of a church. The warm, rich, deep red-brown timber is beautifully carved, the rood loft supported by gracefully curving and exquisitely crafted lierne vaulting.
I make a quick circuit of the church’s exterior through the churchyard, pausing to admire the tower, rebuilt in c. 1775 using flint with a rather colourful red-brick dressing to form the quoins, parapet and pinnacles. Then, with the light fading, I press on, leaving Shoreham behind to head south across the golf course. The narrow footpath skirts the edge of the fairway, in a tunnel of dogwoods, wayfaring trees and sycamores whose last remaining golden-yellow leaves glow in the dusk.
The Darent Valley Path doglegs to take a southerly course east of the river, but I leave it to continue directly south, alongside grassy meadows beneath a darkening and drizzly sky. In the near distance, over the railway, the hills of the North Downs fade into misty grey. Onto a farm track, further along which the map shows a ‘Monument’ – a typically nondescript, anonymous Ordnance Survey description – which might be worth investigating. I’m expecting a war memorial, perhaps in the form of a stone column, but nothing typically monument-like appears. To my right however, in the corner of the playing field on the edge of Otford, a number of white obelisks, similar to trig points, are scattered across the turf – can this be it? I hop over a stile for a closer look and an interpretation board explains all: this is the Otford Solar System, a 1:4595000000 scale model of our planetary system.At its centre is the sun, represented by a 300mm diameter dome. Surrounding the sun are each of the planets, represented to scale by an engraving on a flat disc atop a pillar, which can be found at the relative position of each planet as at 0001hrs on the 1st January 2000. Of course, this means that I can wander around the corner of the playing field and find the inner planets – Mercury is only a few metres from the sun, Venus and Earth a little distance further, Mars, a mere speck at 1.49mm in diameter, is at a distance of 45m on a plaque at ground level – too near to the football pitch for a pillar. But the outer planets are, of necessity, some way off: Jupiter is beyond the football pitches, Saturn outside the doctor’s surgery, Uranus in Telston Lane, while poor lonely Pluto sits on the edge of a field on Sepham Farm, 1km away.
It is possible, given a couple of hours, to walk to each of the planets in turn (as others have done). But the shortening days have caught up with me and there’s no time for space exploration today. Nor is there time to continue, as I had planned, along the North Downs Way for a few miles eastwards. Instead, I decide to cut short my walk and end here in Otford, but before I head for the train home, there’s time for a quick tour.Past the duck pond, marooned in the middle of a busy roundabout, I briefly follow the Sevenoaks Road before doubling back onto Old Palace Field. As the name suggests, this is the site of a former residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, one of a number of such palaces around London and on the route between the capital and Canterbury, including those at Croydon, Maidstone and Addington. Rebuilt in a grand Tudor style by William Warham in 1515, the palace was seized from Thomas Cranmer by Henry VIII in 1537. After Henry’s death the palace fell into ruin. But even so, substantial parts of the building still remain: remnants of the Gatehouse, the lower storey of part of the northern gallery (converted into cottages and still occupied today), and the North-West tower.
In the fading light, the latter, now an abandoned hollow shell, its mullioned stone windows open to the elements and the doorways gated with iron bars, is eerily imposing. Built by Warham to rival Cardinal Wolsey’s palace at Hampton Court, it is just as ostentatious in its construction of red brick, with stone quoins and blue brick diamond diapering. I peer through the doorway into the gloom: the floor is littered with rubbish and detritus. But looking up, a first floor fireplace, framed by a stone arch and with typically Tudor diagonal brickwork to the back wall, hints at the sumptuous splendour of its heyday.
Looking less than splendid currently is the church of St Bartholomew: scaffolding, corrugated iron and tarpaulin clads the tower and it looks as if the church is closed. Impermeable concrete render applied to the tower in the 1930s, compounded with water ingress through cracks caused by second world war bomb damage, has led to the rubble core of the tower walls becoming damp, and a long restoration project is currently under way. The concrete render has been removed, and the stonework, protected from the elements temporarily by tarpaulins, is being given a chance to dry out after which the tower will be re-rendered with traditional (and permeable) lime render.
The door into church at the base of the tower is boarded up. I head round to the south porch and try there: locked. I consider giving up and going home, but as I approach the north entrance, double doors open automatically with a pleasing hum, giving entry into a modern carpeted foyer. But once inside, the church is more traditional in character: a timber-trussed roof, dating from c.1635, spans the nave, almost as wide as it is long, some of the masonry of which is believed to date back to Norman times. The walls support the usual monuments and memorials, together with, on the south wall, the coat of arms of William of Orange, and on the west, a group of diamond-shaped hatchments dedicated to members of the Polhill family. More unusually, hanging from the roof beams, are highly ornate chandeliers.Even more extravagant is the memorial in the chancel to Charles Polhill, great grandson of Oliver Crowmwell, a merchant tailor in Smyrna, and latterly a Commissioner of Excise in London. Following his death in 1755, Sir Henry Cheere, sculptor, ornamental mason and official ‘carver’ at Westminster Abbey, was commissioned to produce the grandiose marble memorial in which a lifesize Polhill stands in a relaxed pose, head resting on hand, elbow resting on an urn at his side. Two muses – Faith, reading a bible, and Hope, clutching an anchor – sit at his feet, while above his head a cameo commemorates his wife, Martha. It’s possibly the most astonishingly flamboyant memorial I’ve yet seen in a church.
While I’ve been exploring, a member of the parish has been busying herself around the church, tidying and cleaning, and I get the impression the church may be closing for the evening soon. Regardless, it is time to head home. I leave through the churchyard, to pass under the gloomy spreading crown of an impressive ancient yew, and along narrow footpaths and back alleys through the village to the station.