History of our church
THE CHURCH TODAY
For the first time in the long history of Ash Church, the name on the Board just inside the South Door which lists all the parish priests from the 1200s to today, is that of a Canon of Rochester Cathedral. The fact that she is also a woman says much for the way the local church has moved with the times!
Sadly the cost of maintaining the church building and funding the stipend for the parish priest have risen dramatically since the document printed below was published in 1982. In 2013, the church people, and those in the local community who value this building and what it stands for, will need to find of the order of £75,000 to maintain the building and the life and worship of the church.
We hope you find the history of the building interesting, and we encourage you to visit and see it come to life when used for worship.
Until the twentieth century the whole upland area that rises from the Thames Valley to the escarpment of the North Downs was sparsely inhabited. Although traces of Roman occupation have been found on the site of New Ash Green, the heavy soil, clay-with-flints, and the south-westerly winds that sweep unchecked over the high ground, made the area difficult for farming and unattractive to settlers.
Hardly anything one could call a village ever formed, although the present distribution of churches seems to have been established in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Thus Domesday Book (1086) records the names of almost all the present hilltop parishes, but mentions churches only at Fawkham, Meopham, Nursted and Luddesdown. The Norman churches still surviving at Ridley, Hartley and West Kingsdown must therefore have been built within the ensuing century; and it is quite likely that Ash too had a Norman church. Nothing as early as that remains at Ash, for the chancel and the tower date from the thirteenth century, and the nave was rebuilt in its present spacious form with aisles in the later Middle Ages. Why Ash church was enlarged in this way while all its immediate neighbours were left unaltered is not known; but the parish, about three thousand acres, is three times as large as most of those adjacent to it, and as early as 1286 Ash church was valued at twice as much as Fawkham, Ridley or Hartley (even if at only half the value of Meopham). The fact that the church belonged 'from very early times' to the priory of St John of Jerusalem meant that it had to pay 10 marcs per annum to the prior and brethren of the order and they may have felt obliged in return to improve the building .But that is speculation, and there is plenty that is factual about the church building and about the people who have worshipped in it over the centuries.
As seen from the south, Ash church appears typically Kentish, with it russet-tiled nave and slightly lower chancel, and the sturdy battlemented west tower and polygonal stairturret. The walls, as in all the upland churches, are built of the flints which the plough everywhere turns up, split and laid split-face outwards to form a smooth surface. Originally they were rendered over with a thick white lime-mortar, traces of which can still be seen in a few sheltered areas of walling (e.g. under the eaves of the north aisle). The dressed stone used for windows and doorways is mostly grey ragstone from quarries a few miles to the south-east which also supplied the stone for all London's major medieval buildings. But the honey-coloured sand stone used on the south aisle and porch probably comes from the Tonbridge area, a little further afield and rarely used in the uplands. The red brick on the tower, the turret and some of the buttresses is patching, probably of the late eighteenth century. This too was originally hidden by render, but now that it is visible it adds a touch of warm colour to the building. Internally the walls retain their thick coat of rendering, limewashed over. Whether medieval wallpaintings survive under the limewash is not known .The roof timbers are of oak in its natural colour and in the nave and north aisle are medieval.
The thirteenth century chancel is two bays long, and almost without decorative enrichment. The piscina is just a simple niche in the south wall of the sanctuary. This was for the ablution of the priest's hands and of the chalice and paten at the Mass. To provide side light large lancet windows were placed, one in the north and one in the south wall, each within a large blind arch. (The original lancets in the east wall are lost; the present window dates from c.1860.) A second arch each side, not exactly a pair, opened originally, it seems, into small chapels north and south, quite a common arrangement in Kentish churches. But neither chapel survives: that on the south side was pulled down and the arch blocked in the late Middle Ages, and the Victorian vestry occupies its site; that on the north was quite soon replaced by what is now the Lady Chapel.
The Lady Chapel
This is artistically the most remarkable part of the church and must have been built in the early fourteenth century. It is certainly earlier than the nave arcades, as is shown by the way the chapel rafters are carried across an arch, which had been cut through the nave wall, into which they were originally built. The flowing tracery in the three windows is typical of that period, and so are the tantalising remains of the stained glass, bright ruby and gold borders and lozenge-shaped quarries each decorated with a maple leaf. All the stained-glass figures are lost, but the stone hoodmould of the east window rests on two lively heads with the curly hair so often seen on carved effigies of that period. (Their counterparts outside are crude modern replacements). The original length of the chapel can be deduced from the form of the roof timbers, and it is now only about half the length it was. When first erected its western half must have overlapped the nave, which was no doubt at that time still without aisles. The timber screen, now sadly cut down, at the west end, probably dates from the period when the chapel was shortened, i.e. late fifteenth or early sixteenth century
The rebuilding of the nave with aisles must have dramatically transformed the whole church. It is the airy lightness of the present nave design which, more than anything, makes the interior so restful and satisfying. The chancel arch is high and wide, and the length of the nave is spanned by three arches to north and south, on slim octagonal piers. The bold mouldings of the pier capitals and bases look like work of the fourteenth century, but the simple 'Perpendicular' panel tracery of the windows suggests a later date, and the only external evidence for the date of the rebuilding is a bequest towards the 'repair of the nave' in 1472. The nave roof, with tie beams on handsome pierced spandrels, and crown posts, is contemporary. The north aisle continues the width of the Lady Chapel, the south aisle being somewhat narrower, although the piscina at its east end shows clearly enough that a side altar stood here. Indeed it is known to have been in use as a chapel dedicated to St Blaise, the patron Saint of woolcombers - very probably an indication that there were sheepwalks at Ash in the fifteenth century. In the western bay of the nave is placed a north doorway and, facing it, the main, south, doorway, protected by a porch. The porch was provided with a stone recess to the right of the entrance archway, serving as a holy water stoup.
The double arch from the nave into the tower clearly dates from the thirteenth century, and in the exterior of the north wall of the tower are two contemporary lancet windows. However the present form of the tower, with its angle buttresses, stairturret and top battlements, dates from the same period as the nave, for the west doorway of the tower is identical with the north doorway of the nave.
The function of church towers may originally have been defensive but by the later middle ages their primary purpose was to house bells. In the tower at Ash there are six bells, dating from the eighteenth century (three of 1717, one 1727 (tenor), one 1795 (treble) and one recast in 1856). The vibrations set up by the bells have twice occasioned substantial repairs. The Georgian brick patching and the iron tie-bars which hold the tower together suggest that at one point there was danger of a major collapse. In 1976 the continuance of bell-ringing at Ash was ensured by the discreet introduction of a concrete ring-beam.
The chancel is the part of the church specifically for the use of the clergy and choir, with the main, or high, altar against its east wall. Until modern times the rector of the church has had the responsibility of maintaining the fabric of the chancel. It so happens that most of the notable and vigorous rectors of Ash over the last five hundred years are commemorated by memorials in the chancel, memorials which are almost certainly still in their original positions.
The earliest is the fine brass, showing a half figure of a priest in vestments, commemorating Richard Galon, who died in 1465. Its central position at the west end of the chancel suggests that he had made an important contribution to its building or fitting, but we do not know what it was, as the inscription merely asks for our prayers and for God's mercy on his soul. Later ages were less reticent about good deeds on earth, so the early seventeenth-century memorial to Dr John Maxfield, the rector who died in 1605, consists not only of a brass plate in the pavement marking his grave on the south side of the altar, but also an alabaster wall-tablet on which painted plaster effigies of the rector and his wife kneel at an over-large prayer-desk, and a verse inscription points out his doctor's gown and hood, indicating that he was 'pastor, praeco, doctor' (pastor, preacher, teacher). This emphasis on learning was of course very proper in the post-Reformation era, when the sermon was the most important part of worship.
During the eighteenth century Ash church was entirely refitted, though very little evidence of that remains today. The Rev Samuel Atwood, rector 1701-1735, donated an altarpiece, now removed, and it must have been he who laid down the present chancel paving and bow-fronted sanctuary step. Within the sanctuary a handsome oval ledger slab commemorates him. The two mighty benefaction boards at the west end of the church were made primarily to record Mr Atwood's bequest of £20 per annum to found a parish school. Atwood's successor as rector, Dr John Pery, whose grave slab is in the centre of the chancel, is not known to have embellished the church. But it was for him that the rectory (now The Old Rectory) was rebuilt in 1739. The design for the new house, closely corresponding with what one sees today, survives among the archives of Rochester Diocese.
In Georgian and Victorian times parish incumbents might spend their whole working lives in one place. The rectors of Ash were no exception. Dr Pery was rector for thirty-one years. Thomas Lambard, who was appointed rector of Ash at the age of twenty-five and stayed there until his death aged fifty-two in 1811, is the rector who comes most vividly before us. He was a gentleman, educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, and came to Ash because his father held the patronage of the living. However he was clearly a 'father to his flock' of the sort more characteristic of the Victorian period. The two elegant tablets on the south wall of the chancel, to Lambard and his wife, record how, left a childless widower after only a few years of marriage, 'Curis Parochialibus totum se dedit' (he gave himself totally to parish duties). In the early 1790s he completely renewed the nave and laid down the pleasant red tiled floor which survives. But the most telling evidence of his parochial care is in the registers (now deposited at the County Record Office in Maidstone) which, starting two years after his wife's death, he kept in much greater detail than any earlier rector had done. In the baptismal register he recorded not only the name of the child and the names of its parents but the father's occupation, the mother's maiden name and their place of marriage; in the register of deaths he noted ages and causes of death. As one turns the pages of the registers a vivid picture is presented of a rural farming community, not particularly isolated - many marriages had taken place in London churches - and fairly healthy, with a significantly higher birth than death rate. The causes of death recorded are, of course, mostly quite unscientific.
Thanks to Thomas Lambard's refitting and the long and uneventful rectorship of Richard Salwey (1841-95) Ash church escaped a drastic Victorian restoration. Only the east window, the organ and the conveniently-sited new vestry belong to Mr Salwey's time. The parish papers suggest that at the end of the century church life, with the rector in his eighties and nineties, had become somewhat stagnant. Church rate was still being collected, but with increasing difficulty, and by the early 1890s running expenses were under £10 per annum
At the start of the new century another Lambard, the Rev C J Lambarde, rector 1894-1909, put in hand a second refitting. He employed one of the most prestigious architects of the day, Sir Thomas Graham Jackson, a native of Sevenoaks and no doubt a family friend of the Lambardes, themselves resident in Sevenoaks. Jackson tactfully repaired the church fabric, but made a clean sweep of the fittings. His are the present handsome altar rail, stalls, pulpit, lectern and pews.
Church rate continued to be the basis of the church's finances until about 1910, but by that time collections were regularly being taken at services. Then, in 1911, during the Rev H B Hennell's time, finances were transformed. Collections became virtually the sole source of income, and the income increased at one leap from an average little more than £20 per annum to just over £100, which was spent in a much wider range of church activities than ever before. Now we find a robed choir and a Sunday School, money is spent on a notice board, and regular donations are made to the poor and to Gravesend Hospital. At the same time the present parish hall was built.
After the Reformation, when side altars in churches went out of use, side chapels were frequently appropriated as burial places by the leading local tamilies. This happened at Ash, although not until the 17th century. The earlier burials were in the nave itself. What is probably the earliest gravestone of all is now half buried under the chancel step, which was probably moved westwards as part of Thomas Lambard's reflooring. In line west of it survives a slab with an inscription on a brass plate. It is medieval, though it bears no precise date. It reads (with contracted words here written out in full:
Reginald and Alice probably lived at South Ash, for their successors there, the Hodsolls, whose late medieval house still survives, are buried in adjacent tombs in the centre of the nave, William Hodsoll of Southashe, gent who died in 1586, and another William who died in 1616.
Thereafter the Hodsolls took over the Lady Chapel, where on the floor there is a splendid array of finely lettered ledger slabs, bearing dates 1683, 1699,1709,1720,1736,1741,1751,1775 and 1799.
The 17th century owners of Ash Manor, were a less enduring family. Sir Edmund Fowler acquired the property in 1634, and the fine red-brick manor house which he built beside the church is dated 1637. He appropriated what had been St Blaise's chapel for his family burial place; but only one burial is recorded, that of his widow, Dame Anne, who died in 1645. She is commemorated by a black floor slab and an inscribed marble tablet in the wall above, where the family's various distinguished connections are recounted at length.
Among the few other slabs and tablets only one rouses our curiosity. This is the white marble tablet in the south aisle, to James Fletcher, who died aged eight-eight in 1853, and two of his adopted children. One would like to know more about Mr Fletcher who, 'having served his country for several years by sea and land retired from the gay world in a bad state of health' and found at Ash a comfortable state of health and all the other blessings that he could wish for'.
The people of Ash church today (1982)
In 1964 the population of Ash was something over six hundred, an increase of only fifty per cent over what it had been two hundred years before. Today New Ash Green, most of which lies within the parish, has added another five thousand souls. So there is at Ash in the nineteen eighties probably a more lively and varied church tie than for many centuries past. The church building is always open, services are held daily, and at Easter and Christmas the building can barely accommodate the congregation. The rector's pastoral ministry is of course vastly increased as well.
Nevertheless the days are gone of the wealthy rector and the wealthy patron who would pay for whatever repairs the church fabric needed. Even today the nucleus of the congregation worshipping here Sunday by Sunday amounts to no more than about fifty families. These are the people who raise most of the £14,000 per annum which is needed to keep the church in use, to contribute towards the rector's stipend and expenses and to pay the diocesan quota. Many of them also give generously to the fabric fund; but they invite members of the general public to join them in this. If you have enjoyed visiting this beautiful and historic church, would you consider making a donation, or taking out a covenant towards Ash church Fabric Fund?
©John Newman 1982
lesus nazatenus rex iudaeorum Hic iacet Reginaldus
de Asshe & Alicia uxor eius quorum animabus propicietur deus.
In reproducing this text for the website we have maintained the original text of the pamphlet, written in 1982 by John Newman, which is available in Ash Church. A few comments are now a little dated and we have added some further information to supplement it.
John Newman was also responsible for the West Kent and the Weald volume of Pevsner's The Buildings of England although, having been published in 1976, this predates his pamphlet dedicated to our church. However the entry for Ash Church is attached as a download from this page. A more recent work is a detailed historical survey by the Diocese of Rochester which is attached as a download from this page.
In 1957 the Ash Womens' Institute published a history of the parish. It includes much information about our church and its bells. The Kent Archaeological Society has recently made their work available on their website so you can now read it, and many more interesting facts about our parish, here.
There are three records of interest in the English Heritage National Monuments Record. Here are links to the church, Monument to Lock Family and The Old Rectory. Finally you can download an old map from here which shows the church and surrounding area.
The church building has seen extensions or major works in most centuries and it is the intention of the current Parochial Church Council to continue to make improvements that will enhance its primary function as a place of worship but also make it more suitable as a resource for the whole community. Most notable are the plans to add a "church room" that will include toilets and kitchen facilities so that a wider variety of events can take place in our ancient Grade I listed building. We encourage you to come along to enjoy the building but, more importantly, also to share in our worship and help to perpetuate the reason for the church's construction over 700 years ago. You will be very welcome.
PCC Secretary, March 2008
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