The bus to Swingfield Street

There can be a certain camaraderie on an early morning bus. Today it was the driver, myself, a large man with a walking stick, two women in their sixties or seventies and a younger man covered in tattoos who spent the whole journey ‘doing something’ on his phone. Buses take you on journeys through a different England, through housing estates which haven’t been forgotten, they’ve just faced years of neglect. This has a name, it’s called Austerity. There is masses of good housing in Britain. But it’s been rubbished by the property development industry, their little helpers in the Conservative Party and the representatives of hedge fund capital who are always looking for new investments. And banging the drum for knock ’em down, evict the existing tenants and build ’em high and put the rents up – well it’s the Qatari Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Chinese Communist Party, Russian Oligarchs, Saudi Arabian despots. Taking back control indeed.

The bus I traveled on this morning went through some excellent ‘ex-local authority’ housing estates. Semi-detached, spacious and with good sized gardens and lots of green in-fill between streets and groups of houses. They are English country cottage style and before anyone starts getting agitated about the architecture, it’s worth pointing out the ancestors of this style are not pompous conservatives (they rarely have style at all) but socialists and real designers and architects; the likes of Philip Webb, William Morris, William Richard Lethaby. Every town in east Kent has a stock of this housing; Deal, Dover, Folkestone, and some of the villages too, Aylsham and Betteshanger for example.

The bus pulled up to let one of the women off. She stood on the side of the road, her hair blowing in the breeze. She has that look which so many have round here, of the hard life and the endless struggle, not necessarily with life itself but that alienated monster called money. People should be studied carefully. The pensioners in their plastic shoes and thin coats in the winter, counting up the items in their shopping trolleys. Attention should be paid to statistics. The statistics that tell of 4.5 million people living in poverty in Britain, the 2.5 million emergency food parcels handed out last year. Five thousand of those were in Dover and Deal alone. It’s estimated that around 40 percent of the recipients are children. The woman was still standing there as the bus moved off and gave me such a lovely smile. There is a lot of solidarity. We just need to work out how to organize it. The rich and their famous friends are terrified of it.

The bus stopped at Alkham and the man with the tattoos got off and went in to the hotel, I assume to start a shift. I got off too but I am free of toil today so I’m off to look for the 13th century. The first remnant of the era is of course St Anthony the Martyr. I’ve been here before, sketching, dozing in the long grass, eating lunch. There are good walks across the Downs nearby. This is 13th century but not actually the bit I’m looking for.

Alkham deserves it’s own entry and shall have so. I’m not going to stop long here today. But I did notice this tomb with its sturdy railings. Now why would one person in the churchyard need such protection? I noticed that the incumbent of this tomb is a certain William Smith, ‘Late of Evering Farm’ who died in 1831. There was a great deal of rural unrest in this part of Kent in the 1820s, partly in response to the pressures of enclosures, changes in farming techniques and the introduction of threshing machines. Let us not talk ill of the dead because we know nothing of William Smith but he does suggest something is worth further investigation.

There are wild strawberries growing on the path through the churchyard and then the path goes through a field where the wheat is becoming straw coloured. It will soon be ready to harvest. A lot of the land is still meadow, grass for hay and a surprising amount of trees and hedges.

As I walked the path a butterfly kept me company. It was flying in front of me and I didn’t want to tread on it or scare it so I slowed down to butterfly speed expecting it would fly to one side. Straight ahead if flew, keeping the line of the path. I walked very quietly and carefully. My little friend posed for a photograph before we parted.

The church of St Peter at Swingfield Street is an impressive church from the outside. The technical description can be read in the Pevsner edition of ‘North East and East Kent’ – which is actually by John Newman. The technical descriptions are good if you like that sort of thing.

“Roof: crown-post roof to nave, with five slender moulded octagonal crown posts, ashlar pieces, and scissor braces trenched past collars, and past each other above. At each end, crown post is raised on a low secondary collar, with ogee braces between the collar and tie-beam. Scissor braces a relatively unusual survival in this area”.

But this approach is like trying to understand what the internet is, based only on reading technical descriptions of TCP/IP. You may work out that packets of data are moving around the world but you get no sense of what those packets of data are about and what the implications are.

Here is a sundial on the south porch of a church. But what does it represent and why was it carved there? No technical artifact is without social content.

Here lieth Interred the Body of Martha Pilcher the Wife of Mr Zouch Pilcher.

Another puzzle.

Even a casual visitor might want to know why there was a significant extension to the church in 1870 with the addition of the north aisle. And why was the tower added in the late 15th century? It’s a substantial addition, requiring not only a lot of labour, but capital to pay for it. It’s not just a tower. It looks as if it might have a military function. Jack Cade’s rebellion was in 1450 and there were rumbling discontents over large parts of Kent and Sussex until at least the 1470s. Was there an alarm in Swingfield Street?

The next question the visitor might ask is what happened to the original stained glass windows? There is one new-ish window (from 1929). Everything else in the south facing wall – part of the original church – is plain glass. And yet this was a big church. Was the glass smashed during the Reformation? Or during the Civil War? Are there any records and references to this anywhere?

There are two Union Flags hanging from the roof beams. I’m not sure why. It’s a medieval church and when it was built it was within the realm of Christendom. The Kingdom of Christ was the primary allegiance for not simply the body, but the eternal soul. Allegiances don’t get more powerful than that. I thought the flags misplaced. They distract from the medieval atmosphere, such as it is. In fact they destroy the medieval atmosphere; or rather they stop it forming. I wonder what a person thinks when they see not the past but must have the current flag as the prominent item on display? What point do they wish to make in the House of God and why?

Not sure what this is. Grain silos? Grain barns? Chicken growing factory? Office workers piled up in ever expanding office blocks, racks of chickens living in factory-chicken-land equivalents. I may be wrong; it may be something else. But I can’t think what. It appears to have been built over an existing footpath so there is a permissive rights of way instead of the original footpath. That’s not so good as it deposits the walker on a busy scary b-road. On the map it looks as if the original path took the walker to the chapel which was once occupied by the Sisters of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (before 1180). The Knights Hospitallers then took it over before they were suppressed and then it passed to the Templars. In the 16th century it became a house. It is now empty and managed by the National Trust. I wrote down a phone number that can be used to arrange a visit. Tis a pity we cannot telephone through time. I would like to talk to those Sisters and Knights.

And so it was time to go home, across the Downs to find another bus stop. After all, I did have an all-day ticket.

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