St James’s Church

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Most of us will have felt the chill in the opening scene of David Lean’s 1946 film adaption of Great Expectations, where Pip is laying flowers at his parents’ grave and up pops the terrifying vision of the desperate escaped prisoner Abel Magwitch, who grabs Pip roughly saying “keep still you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” Yes, on my fright scale, Magwitch is definitely up there with the Daleks and my beast of a food processor.

It has long been a wish to visit the church and graveyard in that scene and I finally made the trip earlier this month with my partner who, luckily, was also keen to see the spot. It was definitely worth the effort, even if the sun was shining brightly on the day we went and there was no howling wind or creaking branches. No spooky marshes lined with gallows either. All we had were our imaginations, much as the readers of Dickens’s novels would have, all those years ago. And that was enough.

Charles Dickens lived nearby in Higham and it is thought that this is why he “borrowed” St. James’s Churchyard. On the first page of Great Expectations there is a reference to the row of children’s gravestones that are still in the graveyard today (there are actually 13 gravestones, although, of course, they are not Pip’s siblings!):

“Five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long which was arranged in a neat row… and was sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine…”

There is also a chest tomb close to these gravestones which Dickens is said to have used as a picnic table while he sat and wrote Great Expectations.

That is what made this visit so enjoyable. The mix of fact and fiction, old and new. The thought of Charles Dickens sitting in that graveyard writing away, using his surroundings to create such memorable characters and painting such a vivid picture of the marshes and the people who lived there for us his readers.

The 13th century church sits at the top of a hill about 9 miles from Rochester (much longer if you followed us!) on the Hoo peninsula. The road leading up to the church is signposted but rather narrow and parking spaces are really limited; only room for about six cars. That was O.K. as we went out of season, but I’m not sure how easy it would be in summer in what must be a very popular spot. Turning round in the car to get back to the main road was a challenge as it is on a bend.

We had the church and graveyard to ourselves, but still found ourselves whispering. It seemed rude to talk at all somehow, and we found ourselves wondering round in silence, soaking up the atmosphere of the place.

Inside the church, south of the chancel with its stone seats, is the church vestry which is well worth a look-see as it is lined from floor to ceiling with cockle shells, put there in the 19th century. I had no idea why cockle shells were used, but found out later that they are the emblem of St James, the patron saint of the church.

The font dates backs to the late 13th century and there are half a dozen extremely well-worn benches (pews) which possibly date back to the 14th century. They are tiny! How lovely it was to brush our fingers gently across the well-worn wood and try to imagine who would have sat on them. The rest of the pews are Victorian, modelled perhaps on the older versions. The timber door is 500 years old. Although it is now blocked up, it evidently still swings on its original hinges.

Outside, the graveyard has been grassed over right up to the church itself. It’s a fairly easy walk around the outside of the church although slightly lumpy and uneven in places. There is a step down to the door of the church and then two more steps into the church. A spectacular tree in the graveyard

It is hard to believe that, originally, those dark and forbidding marshes came right up to the edge of Cooling. Looking north over what would have been a pretty bleak landscape, we now have a vista of well-drained cultivated land right across the Thames Estuary to the oil refineries in the distance.

This Anglican church hasn’t been used for regular worship since the mid 70s, although Jools Holland managed to get a special licence to marry there in 2005. He bought nearby Cooling Castle in 2006. (Cooling castle is actually a ruin that’s had a house built within its walls, but the gate house still looks in good condition and you can see it from the road.).

Before we made the trip, we checked the opening times (10am – 4pm daily) through the Churches Conservation Trust site, who now manage this church. We thought we would have to obtain a key from a key-holder (it said further information would be pinned to the church door). However, the church was open when we arrived, so there was no need to search for anyone.

There is a train station at Higham which is about 4 miles away, if taking the car is not an option.

I could quote many more facts about this beautiful church but I don’t want to send you to sleep. This review is about giving you a taster if you like; a feel for the place. The ‘Friends of St. James’s Church Cooling’ has a site that gives a more detailed history of the church, and contact details if you would like to learn more; as does the Churches Conservation Trust. The full address of the church is: Main Road, Cooling, Rochester, Kent ME3 8DG.

As an aside, we drove to Rochester for lunch after our visit to Cooling and found a city paying homage to Dickens in rather a delightful way. Judging by the abundance of coffee shops and restaurants (many of them with a Dickens theme), Rochester must, understandably, receive many visitors in high season. There are plenty of car parks close to the wonderful cathedral, impressive castle and quirky High Street. The latter has a large information centre and the not-to-be-missed Baggins second-hand bookstore. Again, as we were there in the off-season we parked easily. I Mention Rochester as it shouldn’t take you all day to visit Cooling church and it would be such a pity to miss a walk and a cuppa in this pleasant city while you’re in the area.

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