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

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.

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.

Less noble activities also took place in the misty darkness of the marsh. The voluminous churches and their dank cemeteries provided an excellent cover for smugglers, whose actions were apparently not all that unpopular with the locals.

This variegated history has led contemporaries to ask exactly what role the churches should perform today. Some, like the newly formed Friends of Romney Marsh Churches committee, promote the churches' architectural and historical value.

''The churches of Romney Marsh were not built to serve a large population, which has never been there,'' says Michael Nightingale, chairman of the Churches Committee of the Kent Archaeological Society, ''but perhaps to stand as a thank offering for one of the most fertile and productive soils in the country.''

Sean Leavey, county secretary of the National Farmers Union and a leader of the newly established group, says the initial appeal for (STR)250,000 (about $ 700,000) has generated wide support. He says that with the help of the ''improbable triumvirate'' of the Most Reverend Robert C. Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Ingrams, editor of the often-profane satirical magazine Private Eye, and John Piper, a well-known local artist, the appeal will ''exploit the interests of the church and non-church-going public.''

Others emphasize the essentially religious purpose of the churches.

Miss Roper, who speaks with such ease about the past 2,000 years that it seems she must have witnessed it personally, argues that the move to diversify the role of churches has largely failed. Church basements turned into youth centers, for example, have often meant the decline of quiet sanctuaries. While the seaside resort towns of Lydd and Littlestone have mushroomed during the past decade, the vacationers seem little interested in the churches, Miss Roper laments. ''There are no squires and no money.''

It is not even clear how much money will eventually be needed, according to Mr. Leavey. The first step, he says, is to make a comprehensive financial assessment. ''There is more than meets the eye,'' he points out.

At the Norman church in Brookland, mites are eating the timbers, weakening the structure. But what causes even more concern is the state of the stone columns running along the main nave. They splay outward -- miniature towers of Pisa leaning in unison. An architect has declared the church ''beyond the theoretical point of collapse.''

Brookland church is perhaps the most unusual on Romney Marsh, with its belfry separate from the nave. Legends explaining this arrangement abound. Some say the architect ran out of paper and had to draw the tower next to the church. Others say the tower was blown off twice by the stiff marsh wind, and because of its affinity to the ground, was left there. Still others say the belfry was an afterthought, built about three centuries after the original church.

More likely, according to Miss Roper, who has written numerous histories of Romney Marsh churches, the soft marsh ground wasn't expected to support a church with a heavy bell tower on top.

''Everyone -- all the distinguished scholars -- say it is a 16th-century belfry,'' Miss Roper relates. ''But this is based solely on the outside uprights , which were built then.''

''If you look at the sartires,'' she says, like a schoolteacher explaining a tricky lesson, ''you'll see a notched lap joint.'' She points upward to the massive crossbeams, squinting to see in the dim light.

''These were never used after 1300,'' she says, getting excited. ''The belfry had to be contemporary with the church.''

The discovery prompted her to write yet another Brookland church guide. It seems that every time she publishes a new edition, another fact about the church emerges. The churches are like living entities, she says, and seem to write their own histories. She has published 25 editions since 1932. Her work has added a good bit of the alphabet after her name: she is an FSA (Fellow of the Society of Antiquity) and an MBE (Member of the British Empire).

Even without heavy bells on top, Brookland church has sunk into the ground. Heeding the solid advice of building on firm foundations, the original masons planted all the Romney Marsh churches atop artificial mounds. The mound at Brookland has disappeared and the church now sits at street level. At New Romney church, with its imposing tower, one steps down to enter. It may cost up to (STR)500,000 (about $1.4 million) to bolster its sagging foundations.

''Geography is the basis of all history,'' states Miss Roper, citing another example of how storm and sea have affected Romney Marsh and the churches.

A full-fledged moat used to form around nearby St. Augustine at Fairfield during rainy periods. This early Norman church nearly collapsed before being rebuilt in 1913, the same time a more modern drainage system was added. In the sepia photographs of the restoration effort, workers use barges to transport supplies to the construction site.

Still, only the hardy manage the half-mile trek across the pasture to the church at Fairfield (a name more than one visitor has called a misnomer). The 1913 architect added a causeway and bridges to facilitate the walk, the only way to reach the church.

The marsh churches have also seen rough times in the past. An archbishop passing through Brookland from nearby Canterbury in 1573 reported that ''they Lacke the Paraphrases of Erasmus and a decent Commonion table. Item the Chauncell windows are Broken so . . . the doves comme in, in defalte of our parson or his farmer.''

During the 17th-century revolution, when many churches were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's troops, local parishioners ingeniously safeguarded sacred treasures. In 1947, workmen using wheelbarrows at Old Romney church wore through the soggy grass to discover what they thought was a tombstone. Instead, they unearthed the original altar table, missing since the days of the Roundheads. Not until 1964 was a painting of the murder of St. Thomas a Becket discovered under the whitewashed church walls at Brookland.

Three Romney Marsh churches -- Midley, Eastbridge, and Oscarwick -- were abandoned long ago, their ruins a legacy of ravaging weather and armies. Patrons warn that Snave and St. George of Ivychurch will also fall prey to the elements - this time through neglect.

St. George seems totally out of proportion to the tiny village (pop. 456) it towers over. The cavernous nave is empty; only a few folding chairs, huddled together away from the crumbling walls, dot the long aisles. Church wardens say (STR)14,500 is needed immediately.

The damage to the fallen roof at Snave has not been assessed. Like St. George , it may be made redundant and the property sold by the Church Commissioners.

''When I came here in 1926,'' Miss Roper recalls, ''every village parish had its own vicar to tend to the people. Between the wars were the halcyon days. But everything changed with the war. All the men went away and the retired people were left to do everything.''

''After the war,'' she continues, ''the vicarages were sold in order to pay the priests, who were very poor indeed.'' ''When you think that every stone was laid through love, care, and devotion to God . . . ,'' she says, her voice drifting off.

The funding appeal moves forward. Mr. Leavey and Mr. Ingrams are encouraged by initial pledges of support. At a committee meeting in December, Lord Geoffrey-Lloyd, son of Lord Clark (of ''Civilisation'' fame) offered the use of nearby Leeds Castle for a fund-raising fete this summer. The castle, which Mr. Leavey calls the ''most beautiful on earth,'' is often used by Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, and other heads of state for important conferences.

For the campaign to succeed, sponsors say, it will have to extend beyond the local area. Mr. Leavey suggests the appeal should follow the paths of the Romney Marsh sheep and sailors -- to Australia, New Zealand, and America.

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