St James' Church Cooling

St James’ Church Cooling

In January I read a Charles Dickens book for the first time since leaving school. Dombey and Son reintroduced me to the power of Dickens story telling and characterisation so much so that I went to Kent in search of some of the places that had inspired him. When we left the A2 and took the road to Cliffe I spotted a sign to Dickens World. I had never heard of it. I since found out that this is a theme attraction based near to Chatham Dockyard that has been opened since 2007. We were not enticed to go and visit but headed as planned for St James Church Cooling on the Hoo Peninsula.

Winter feed in March

Winter feed in March

Although it was March it was a bitterly cold day and the countryside was still barren and looked seriously bleak. We had to stop at one point to check out some strange objects in a farmer’s field. My companion thought they could be some kind of modern art. It turned out they were beets put out to feed the sheep during this very long winter.

Pip's Graves St James' Church

Pip’s Graves St James’ Church

When we arrived at the 13th Century Church we were delighted to see that it was open. It is managed by The Churches Conservation Trust and is open daily 10am-4pm. The church is no longer used for services. Walking through the graveyard to the church door we noticed a very somber sight. Dickens describes them in Great Expectations as “little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their [parents’] graves”. Known as Pip’s Graves they are the graves of children from the Baker and Comport families who died between 1771-79. The children’s ages ranged from one to seventeen months. A potent reminder of the misery of infant mortality. It was these that had been the inspiration for the opening scene of Great Expectations when Pip meets Magwitch who had just escaped from one of the prison hulks anchored in the nearby Thames. As the east wind whipped around the graveyard we went into the church for shelter.

Inside there is good information about the church and its links to Dickens. Apparently, he liked to picnic in the churchyard. I just couldn’t imagine this on such a cold day. There is a quote from his son that, “He loved Cooling Church more that any other.” A quirky feature is the 19th-century vestry – its walls are lined from top to bottom with thousands of cockle shells. There is a 500-year-old timber door that still swings on its ancient hinges – even though it now leads to a blocked north doorway! I think it would be good to revisit in warmer weather and walk into Higham where Dickens lived whilst writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.