The medieval street pattern of Ashford town centre is one of the heritage charms for twenty-first century shoppers. Narrow alleys between Tudor buildings; low shop doorways; buildings very close to each other. You might walk down North Street, past the Epes’ family house, between the Market buildings in Middle Row with their four hundred year old butcher’s hooks, and left in to Church Yard, the name for the square passage surrounding the church and bordered by a mixture of buildings ranging in date from 1400 to 1800. Right in the centre, of course, is the church: St Mary’s.
There has been a church on this site for almost a thousand years. It is initially referred to in the Domesday book in 1086: ‘at Essitisford, a church and priest’. It is recorded as part of the Priory of Horton Kirby in the twelfth century, under one of King Stephen’s Charters. Robert de Derby was the first recorded vicar in the late thirteenth century, when the first foundations of the present building were laid. This thirteenth century church had a cruciform plan; over the crossing was a squat central tower and wooden spire, possibly covered with lead. Some of this thirteenth and fourteenth century stonework survives in the west wall of the south transept; the columns and arcades of the chancel also date from this period. For ten years, from 1473, the church was extensively renovated and extended by Sir John Fogge, Lord of the Manor of Repton and Treasurer to the household of Edward IV. During the Civil War, there was considerable destruction of the church’s medieval stained glass and monuments. Indeed, the windows can now be seen as part of a garden wall in Park Street. The church was lengthened by one bay in 1860, during the church renovation programme of the Gothic Revival.
© C Julian P Guffoy
Within the church there are many fine monuments which contribute towards its Grade I listed status. There is a carved Coat of Arms of Charles II; the tomb of Sir John Fogge; and a number of marble and alabaster wall monuments dedicated to Thomas Smythe and his family, amongst many others. There is a lovely hoptonwood stone and marble pulpit which was the last work of John Loughborough Pearson, a famous Gothic Revival architect who also worked on the Palace of Westminster’s Westminster Hall, and who became surveyor of Westminster Abbey.
© National Portrait Gallery
A number of Gothic Revival architects made sympathetic amendments to this medieval church as a response to continued population growth and social change. Social change goes on unabated, of course; and church attendance has declined since the Victorian period. A church that serves only a religious function often struggles. Yet, these buildings are essentially for the community; and medieval churches, such as St Mary’s, had always served several functions: as well as worship, business was carried out, legal settlements made, or disputed; and it was a place to socialise and for entertainment.
St Mary’s the Virgin has continued these many functions into the present day. In 2011, it set up ‘Revelation’, a music and arts venue making the church the cultural centre of Ashford. Today, ‘Revelation’ thrives, with support from The Royal Opera House Links programme, Arts Council England and many others. It is also sponsored by Ashford’s Chapel Down wine and beer producer, who serve their Kentish produce at ‘Revelation’s’ performances. These events range widely, from classical music concerts for kids, to plays, to music gigs, to lectures. I’m planning to go to one in October, being given by former MP and cabinet minister, Michael Portillo, setting the scene for Ashford’s central place in the history of Britain’s train building industry (now you know what October’s blog will be about!).
So, churches can be meeting spaces for the community; forums for teaching and learning; areas of human creativity and aesthetic expression, as well as places to worship. All of these activities engage our local community and broaden everyone’s access to Ashford’s heritage in a fun and interesting way. Sounds good to me.