Friday, 3 July 2009

St Dunstan, Snargate

Romney Marsh in Kent is famous for its ancient and atmospheric churches: built to serve villages which are shadows of their former selves, their isolated towers pepper the flat, windswept landscape.

So it is with St Dunstan, at Snargate; a few cottages and a pub, but otherwise all around is fields, willows and sheep. The name derives from the snare-gates, or sluices, built to maintain the water way to Romney harbour, and recorded as long ago as 1254. The flat landscape wasn’t always regarded as romantic, though: as late as 1799, Hasted’s History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent describes it as a “very forlorn unhealthy place, partaking of the same bad qualities of both air and water as the neighbouring parishes in the Marsh”.

The first impression of the church is one of surprising size for so remote a location, a view reinforced on entering its spacious interior. Its early history is not known, but the present nave dates from around 1200, enlarged around 1250 with aisles to the north and south. The resulting arcades are simple but handsome affairs of four pointed Early English Gothic arches on round piers. The responds at either end of the south aisle have women’s faces beneath foliage. The nave roof is magnificent – perfect tie-beams and king posts, dating from the 16th century.

The north aisle roof – unusually gabled – is older still, dating from the fourteenth century. Its trusses have decorative bosses, depicting (from west to east): foliage, a spread- eagle, a cross fleury, the initials “WN” and, against the east wall, the arms of Sir John Copuldlike, whose wife Joane inherited the Manor in 1399.

The chancel was added in the 14th century, and has two bays of arcades to what were once north and south chapels, with octagonal columns. There is – unusually – no chancel arch, although the position of the rood-screen can clearly be seen, as can the remains of the staircase which went up to it. The fifteenth century added the robust Perpendicular tower, dating from around 1400, and also the aisle windows. The tower arch is particularly impressive, framing a text-book late Gothic window. Finally, the small brick porch was added in the 18th century.

The church has some fascinating fittings and furnishings that bear greater inspection. Pride of place goes to the wall painting of a ship in the north aisle, dating from 1500 (picture below). So good is the painting, that it can be dated to a type of ‘great ship’ from the period 1480-1520, of perhaps 800 tones, with four masts, a forecastle, half deck and quarter deck. There is a local tradition that such a painting indicated that the church was a safe place in which to hide smuggled goods, and indeed in 1743 a large seizure of tobacco was made in the belfry, and a cask of hollands (Dutch gin) was found under the vestry table!

To the right of the painting, either side of the north door, two lead plates record those who repaired the church in 1780, including “T. Apps, carpenter, and all his jolly men”.

Between the chancel and north aisle is a 14th century altar tomb in the Decorated Gothic style decorated with quatrefoils, dating from around 1360, but sadly lacking its inlaid brass. The sanctuary rails of wood atop wrought iron supports are 17th century, and the pulpit 18th century. All are simple but handsome. Back in the nave, the font, from around 1220, still has its original lead lining. Next to it are some preserved encaustic tiles, from 1485. Finally, the church has a ring of three bells, one of which, inscribed “+ AVE * MARIA”, dates from around 1275.

The church has a service once a fortnight, and is part of the parish of Brenzett with Snargate and Brookland with Fairfield. The church is normally open in daylight hours. It’s well worth a detour.

Snargate, on lane opposite Red Lion pub, between Brenzett and Appledore TN29 9RX

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