Saturday, May 14, 2022

St Mary in the Marsh, Kent

On the marsh, 2

Of the many churches on Romney Marsh, St Mary in the Marsh is now one of my favourites. Standing alone except for a pub and a small group of houses, it signals its presence with a lovely splay-footed spire, on which the shingles make the transition from the the upper steep slope of the spire to the lower splay with a satisfying curve. From a little nearer one can see a small church of grey stone and the red roof tiles so common in Kent and Sussex, mostly built in c. 1300. On either side of the porch, though, are two large later windows of two round-headed lights and dripstone in the shape of a shallow arch – the hybrid form of design is a feature of that late Gothic (but without pointed arches) that antiquarians used to sneer at and call ‘debased’. These two windows are said to have been inserted in around 1800. On making their acquaintance, I was inclined to ignore the antiquarians’ sneers and to like them, and to reflect that their clear glass should make for a pleasant, light interior.

And so it proves. Inside, the church is whitewashed, paved with quarry tiles, furnished with box pews, and topped with crown-post roofs. These elements suggest that there has been no Victorian restoration and that nothing much beyond discreet repair has been done to the building since the insertion of those two large windows. The arms of George III, vigorously painted on canvas, no doubt by a local artist, adorn the north aisle. The result is both beautiful and, as we stood there on a quiet spring afternoon, it exuded an atmosphere of spirituality that made one happy to be present.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

New Romney, Kent

On the Marsh, 1

Driving across Romney Marsh in Kent, near the border with Sussex, you cross a flat landscape, characterized by pasture, occasional drainage channels, and isolated, scattered settlements. Here and there the emptiness is relieved by a small medieval church and here and there you spot tiny buildings in fields, like stone or brick sheds. Too small to be houses or barns, they’re lookers’ huts, a unique phenomenon of the marsh, and one that might have vanished completely had it not been for the interest of a few enthusiasts.

The lookers owed their existence to the economic changes that occurred after the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The plague killed a vast number of people (estimates vary between a half and one-third of the population), and the remaining landlords on the marsh bought up small landholdings that no longer had owners or tenants and combined them into larger estates. Here they ran sheep in extensive flocks, and they employed ‘lookers’ to tend them. Lookers worked over a large area, and needed a base where they could store equipment and food, and that would sometimes provide a bed for the night. Hence their huts, which were basic in the extreme (one window, a door) but also had a chimney so that the looker could keep warm in the winter. The lookers’ huts that survive today are not as old as the 14th century – I’d guess most of them are 19th century.

The huts were useful all the year round and vital during the lambing season, when the sheep needled to be constantly checked and cared for, and during shearing, the shepherd’s other time of intensive hands-on work. By the early-20th century, agriculture and then transport were transformed, and there was no longer a need for lookers or their huts. Although robust, many of these buildings, left to decay, have now gone. Around 20 remain, some well maintained, others in ruins. The example in my photograph is a reconstructed looker’s hut at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, outside New Romney. It’s there to explain the story of the lookers and their buildings and, as long as a few huts remain in situ, to answer the inevitable questions of observant tourists, who want to know why these tiny structures were sited in the middle of Kentish fields.

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For an account of the similar ‘hovels’ of Worcestershire, see my earlier post, here.