Am I alone in thinking that God only pokes His head out when the congregation goes away? Or maybe I mean that He is there all the time, quietly, but you’re more likely to find him if you go between services, when hymns aren’t being sung; when rabbits are sunbathing among those time-smoothed, drunken gravestones; when bees buzz and crickets chirrup. I never yet sensed God in a church service, but if you go to a church alone, and don’t look for Him, or even think about Him, sometimes He seems to be there, keeping you company.
I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I worked in one of the 0ffices at Wye College for a while and spent my lunch-hours over at the church. If it was rainy I sat in that porch thing at the front, on the hard bench, and ate my sandwiches, but if it was sunny I sat at the back of the graveyard under a tree. Nearby was a new white headstone, with a teenager’s name, and a picture of a musical instrument engraved on it. The gilding was still intact. It was sad, this new, white stone at the back, among all the unreadable, moss-covered ones, but we kept each other company. The dead, like God, like a bit of company from time to time. Sometimes I would talk to my grandmother in that churchyard, even though she wasn’t buried there. In fact, I don’t think she has a proper grave. They cremated her, as was the fashion. Grandad wasn’t allowed to go to the service – or maybe he just couldn’t face it. I never did get to the bottom of that one. We came back to find him staring at the knitting she had left behind on her chair. He hadn’t moved it.
I’ve visited most of the churches on Romney Marsh. My favourite is St Thomas à Becket at Fairfield; the one I used to walk to with my parents. They used to rent a chalet in the grounds of a farm, miles away from anywhere. You couldn’t even get a mobile phone signal; there was a strong smell of garlic at certain times of year – we imagined it was wild garlic, a plant we had vaguely heard of, but a turkey farmer’s wife (poor old turkeys) told us it was something they sprayed on the potato crops to stop them getting wireworm. Frogs sang in the ditches. It is rumoured that the frogs on Romney Marsh are a rare, giant variety, unlike any others in Britain. You never get to see them, though, so it’s difficult to tell. They just serenade you, invisibly.
Fairfield Church is right out in the middle of a field. To get to it you have to borrow a giant, old-fashioned key from a house further down the lane, then walk back. You have to get in through an awkward gate or over an awkward style – I can’t remember which at the moment – and then walk out to it, along a grassy causeway. All the way, you are having to look where you are going because of all the cowpats and sheep-droppings. And even then it’s not straightforward. The door is round the back, and then when you go in – it’s tiny, with box pews and a triple-decker pulpit, and bells. It’s quiet in a way that almost makes you uneasy. It’s quiet in a knowing you are here sort of way. The church, or what’s inside it, is considering you – very carefully. But I like it because it reminds me of holidays, and Mum and Dad when they were at their happiest and easiest to get on with.
Like many places on the Marsh, at one time you could often only reach it by boat during the winter flooding. I visited it once with my then-husband and a friend of his. That was a different sort of day, in the autumn. The key had already been collected, and there were cows in the field, all round the church. A low-lying mist meant you couldn’t see the bottoms of their legs, so they looked… truncated. Ghostly. And when we opened the door we found a party of bell-ringers inside, circling round the bell-ropes. They treated us to some unexpected music, and told us they were on holiday, touring churches and ringing in every one.
I have sat about in graveyards all over the place, come to think of it. In Ashford town centre there’s a weird one, where they moved all the gravestones over to a narrow strip on the left to make way for a square little park, with diamond-shaped borders and row upon row of purple and yellow pansies. I sat in there sometimes, with my everlasting sandwiches, on one of the uncomfortable benches under the evenly-spaced trees, but my eyes were always drawn to the left, and those heaped and broken gravestones. What is the point of gravestones, I wonder, if people are going to move them? Does it matter that there is no one left to remember the person the name belonged to? Surely it only matters that they are there, in the earth, keeping us company? Circling with us under the sun. Wordsworth got it right. In that place of desecration, I would often think of his lines:
A SLUMBER did my spirit seal; I had no human fears: She seemed a thing that could not feel The touch of earthly years. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, With rocks, and stones, and trees.