As one of the best-preserved Tudor villages in the country, Chiddingstone is renowned not only locally but nationally. Owned today by the National Trust, and found just two miles down the road from Hever Castle, this heritage village is visited by people from far and wide.
However, while they often enjoy a stroll among the charming old buildings, also renowned as one of the best examples of the ‘Kent’ style, and usually make a beeline for the famed village store – believed to be the oldest working shop in the country and once owned by Anne Boleyn’s father – there is a hidden gem standing proud just opposite The Castle, that they sometimes miss.
The fascinating church of St Mary’s – notable for a whole variety of reasons – is well worth a visit in its own right. Dating back many centuries, we know that there has been a church here since at least the 13th century and very likely before then. However, the church we see today, constructed mainly from local sandstone, dates primarily from the 17th century.
The reason for this is that on July 17, 1624, a dramatic event occurred in the village. During a thunderstorm, the church was struck by lightning and caught fire, with the result that it had to be substantially rebuilt. Thankfully, though, the fine west tower, dating from the 15th century did survive intact.
This older part of the structure is notable for its impressive stair turret, four crocketed pinnacles and, not least, the unusual stone faces near the top of the tower. As well as one that is double-headed, another has two noses, three mouths and three eyes – and several are sticking their tongues out, in a derisory manner, looking toward the village and its inhabitants.
Today, the tower is also home to the church’s peel of eight bells, the earliest of which dates from 1753. Still going strong today, they were all returned and rehung in 1991.
Other highlights include the main doorway of the church, which dates from the 14th century, leading to speculation that the porch – an unusual combination of Gothic and Renaissance style – was rebuilt on the foundations of an earlier feature. Then there is the celebrated font, which dates from 1628, and has been described as the best one of its kind in Kent. Another must-see is the bible on display in the glass case, one of the few surviving ‘vinegar bibles’ – so-called because in this edition, from 1717, the words “Parable of the Vinegar” appear instead of “Parable of the Vineyard”.
In addition to all that, hanging in the south aisle, you will find one of the finest collections of in Kent. These special coats of arms were created, on the death of a person of note, to be carried at their funerals. The earliest one at St Mary’s dates from 1627 and the latest was painted in 1852 for Henry Streatfeild – whose descendants still live in the village today. In the churchyard, there is also an impressive vault belonging to the family that was built in 1736.
So, next time you pay a visit to Chiddingstone, we highly recommend a saunter round St Mary’s – you definitely won’t regret it.
To discover more about the history of the church, visit their website at http://www.chiddingstonechurches.org.uk/stmarys.html. Alternatively, you can pick up one of their fascinating booklets, A Guide to St Mary’s Chiddingstone, priced at 80p