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The churches of Romney Marsh; They've weathered all but the weather

By Mark MuthStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 1982

New Romney, England

Romney Marsh is flat as far as the eye can see. Most of it was at the bottom of the English Channel in centuries past and eons of tides have smoothed it into its present state. The salty marsh soil supports ever-present sheep, whose wanderings are not hindered much by occasional hedges.

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While the rest of the country is engulfed in the worst winter in decades, this southeastern corner of England remains much the same as it is every winter: cold, gray, and drizzly. ''It is no cozy bit of the countryside,'' says a longtime resident.

The unending plain is pierced here and there by church spires which, if it weren't for their height, would be lost in the bleakness. The moist sea breeze takes its toll on the church. The walls of St. George in the matchbox-size village of Ivychurch are crumbling through neglect. The roof at nearby Snave church recently collapsed and the cathedral-size St. Nicholas at New Romney is literally sinking into the bog.

Many of the 13 Romney Marsh churches are in desperate need of repair. There is little local money, and only small stipends are available for vicars' salaries from the Church Commissioners, the national body that coordinates Anglican affairs. If repairs are not begun soon, church benefactors warn, the damage to these historic monuments will be irrevocable.

Part of the problem is simply the lack of local residents. Romney Marsh has a higher ratio of churches to people than anywhere else in England. Village populations number in the low hundreds, with sheep clearly in the majority.

Only one church, at Dymchurch, has a thriving congregation. Even at St. Nicholas in New Romney, a town of 4,500, a mere half-dozen people turn up for Sunday Evensong. Because of sparse congregations, parsons travel from one church to another. The Rev. Peter Ford, resident vicar at New Romney, is responsible for four other churches.

When manor lords ruled the countryside 750 years ago, the churches had more than just the support of the religious community, according to Anne Roper, a local historian and resident since 1926. The churches were political and financial centers, and served as hideouts for roving smugglers.

The Romney Marsh lords were evidently quite effective in carrying out their decree to stop the ''wash and rage of the sea.'' In 1252, King Henry III sent his representative to commend the lords, bailiffs, and jurats, and to grant Romney Marsh independence from the crown. In exchange, the 23 manor lords agreed to continue reclaiming land from the sea by constructing elaborate thorn and clay walls, a method they had managed to keep secret from the king.

The Romney Marsh denizens have always maintained a certain proud autonomy. When William the Conqueror first landed near New Romney (it was ''new'' even then) in 1066, he was repelled and forced to invade at Pevensey.

Later, the Norman churches came in handy in countering the Spanish Armada and Napoleon's navy. The tower at St. Nicholas was a perfect lookout, since the sea came all the way up to the church walls. The sea was pushed back about a mile in 1908, but the town was still on the front line of enemy invasions.

During World War II, Operation Pluto (pipeline under the ocean) was situated at New Romney and adjoining Littlestone. Miss Roper was involved in the operation as an army welfare officer. She still lowers her voice when she talks about it.

''It was top secret,'' she whispers. ''We couldn't tell anyone what we were doing.''

Pluto was the massive British effort to supply the Allied invasion forces with oil. Miles of rubber hose were concealed inside rows of seaside bungalows and the hose later strung under the English Channel to France. Sections of the town were cordoned off and all work took place at night. The operation was a success. The station began pumping oil during the crucial final phases of the war.