Getting Mediaeval on the Edge of the Borough

Maybe it is because we have so many beautiful old buildings, but I sometimes forget how new Tunbridge Wells actually is. We haven’t in fact got as long a history as the USA.

This really struck me on Heritage Weekend when we finished off our tour of local churches at Capel.

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The Church of St Thomas a Becket here is old even by mediaeval standards, with parts being built not long after the conquest. I was delighted to find something so old inside the borough, if only just- like it’s neighbouring church in Tudely (of the Chagall windows) this building is actually nearer to Tonbridge than it is to the rest of us.

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The Church itself has a simple elegance inside:

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Somewhat more dramatic is a set of mediaeval wall paintings which were only discovered and restored in 1967:

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Outside is a beautiful graveyard where it is believed that St Thomas A Beckett actually preached – hence the name:

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A stark reminder of the age of the graveyard was this tombstone hidden in the roots of a tree:

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We followed our visit with a walk through a nearby orchard:

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And finally, some local woods:

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New or Old?

In my recent heritage day trip around the churches of Tunbridge Wells, I nearly didn’t bother visiting St Augustine’s. Although I am a fan of good modern architecture, this was the church of my childhood and I had no particular memories of it as anything special.

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Nevertheless, I was passing…

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What a surprise it was- this is a really pleasant space with no grandstanding going on, it has a lovely simplicity. I was not surprised to be told since visiting, that it won an architectural award. Although I’ll admit I’ve not been able to substantiate this claim after a quick search online.

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By way of comparison, last weekend we went outside of the borough to visit the more traditionally impressive 18th century church of St Lawrence in Mereworth. This is a building I have driven past many times and wanted to visit. from the outside it is magnificent.

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On finally getting inside, however, I am not quite so sure. I think this could maybe do with a bit less of the bombast and a bit more of the modest elegance of St Augustine’s.

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What do you think?

The Masterpieces in our Midsts

In accounts of my recent Heritage weekend journey around our local Churches, I originally planned to leave Tudeley All Saints until later, but I ended up not being able to contain my excitement. If you don’t know about the Chagall Windows in Tudeley, you really should.

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First of all, for those of us who live close to the centre of Tunbridge Wells, Tudeley is probably not on our radar at all, but it is in the borough of Tunbridge Wells (just) even if the village is much closer to Tonbridge.

So why should Tunbridge Wells dwellers drive the 15 minutes or so it takes to get to this unassuming church?

All Saints is the only church in the world that has all of its stained glass by the famous painter Marc Chagall. I’d actually been to see a window by Chagall at the church when I was a child, but my memory was of just the one. While I am quite capable of confused recollections, this one may actually be right as my reading of the history of the windows shows that the last ones were not installed until 1985.

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The windows are there because of a sad story. Sarah D’Avigdor-Goldsmid was a local girl who grew up obsessed with art- her father was the wealthy owner of Somerhill and a conservative politician. In 1962 she travelled to Jerusalem on holiday and visited the newly installed windows by Chagall at the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Centre.¬† She loved them and apparently talked about them endlessly with her mother. Then the next year she was tragically killed in a boating accident and her parents decided to commission a window by the artist she loved for her local church in her memory.

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Chagall created just the one window, but when he visited the church for its unveiling in 1967 he apparently declared: C’est magnifique! Je les ferai tous!” (“It’s beautiful! I will do them all!”)

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So the church now has twelve stunning windows by Chagall which he worked on through the rest of his life- he wouldn’t have finished when I was last there as the last ones were installed just before he died in 1985.

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The windows really make the church. Otherwise it is a simple medieval building which was heavily restored in the 18th century. It has a calm, low-key elegance which is exploded by the colours that the windows convey, particularly if you visit on a sunny day.

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For a non-religious visitor like myself, it is also interesting to see the work of a profoundly Jewish artist in a Christian location. Chagall was keenly accepting of all faiths and the Church is similarly welcoming.

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Go and see this church- I’ve seen stained glass in numerous cathedrals around Europe including such legendary¬† masterpieces as the giant windows of Chartres cathedral. I honestly prefer these beautiful little windows and the effect they have on their surroundings.

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