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St James’ in Cooling, Kent

For anyone with a love of Dickens this church is an unmissable experience. The churchyard of St James was his inspiration for the opening chapter of Great Expectations, where our hero Pip meets Magwitch. Here, you can find ‘Pip’s Graves’ – the forlorn gravestones of 13 babies that Dickens describes as “little stone lozenges”. The site is dramatic – on the Hoo Peninsula with marshes stretching north to the Thames estuary. Settle down in the church with a pork pie and some brandy or visit Rochester during the Dickens Festival, held each year in June.

The Estuary Festival is coming to Cooling from 22nd May to 13th June with a sound installation of poetry readings in the shell vestry Please be aware that if booked during this time, your exclusive use of the church will be from 5pm to 10am to allow for festival use during the day.

Inside, the church is light and spacious. There is a 500-year-old timber door that still swings on its ancient hinges – even though it now leads to a blocked north doorway! Another quirky feature is the nineteenth-century vestry – its walls are lined from top to bottom with thousands of cockle shells – the emblem of St James. The monuments in the church walls and floor are a fascinating record of those who once lived here.

They include a slab with a brass effigy of Feyth Brook, who died in 1508 and was the wife of Lord Cobham, of nearby Cooling Castle. Dickens fans should also visit St Mary’s in Higham, the village where the novelist ended his days while writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

For more information on the church and the work of the CCT, click here.

Rambling and Roaming in Cooling

St John’s Jerusalem – A tranquil garden and 13th-century chapel, set in the Darenth Valley, the rare surviving chapel is the only remaining structure of the Preceptory of the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, formed in 1113. The chapel is adjacent to a now privately occupied and much altered house, dating from the 16th century. The preceptory is thought to have gone out of use by 1338, after which time it was used as a residence. Among its later occupants were Abraham Hill, a founder of the Royal Society, and the historian Edward Hasted. The chapel and tranquil gardens are surrounded by a moat, one arm of which is the River Darenth.

Rochester – Founded in 604, Rochester Cathedral is the second oldest in England and has been a place of worship and prayer for centuries.  Just across the road from the cathedral is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in the country. Rochester Castle has a chequered history, having been subject to siege three times and partly demolished by King John in 1215. Visitors can discover the history of the Medway area from pre-historic times to the present day at the Guildhall Museum in Rochester.  Here you can witness the terrible conditions endured by the Napoleonic prisoners in the Hulks Experience and learn about the life and times of Charles Dickens. Click here for more information.

Coldrum Long Barrow – There are stunning views from the top of the least-damaged megalithic long barrow in Kent and takes its name from the now demolished Coldrum Lodge Farm. It’s possible the name ‘Coldrum’ derived from the old Cornish word ‘Galdrum’ which means ‘place of enchantments’. Owned in perpetuity by us since 1926 in memorial of Benjamin Harrison, an Ightham historian, this 3,000 year-old burial chamber is the only one of those originally present in the Medway Valley to remain virtually intact. Every year, on the 1 May at dawn the Hartley Morris Men visit the stones to ‘sing up the sun’. This consists of performing a number of dances within the stones on top of the barrow, followed by a song usually performed at the base of the stones.