The village of Hernhill probably takes its name from Old English and means: “The Hill of the Hares” – hares being a creature much venerated by the Celts, and still commonly seen in the parish.
Founded in 1120 and built of flint and stone, St Michael’s is the third church to stand here, and one of the few in Kent surviving as an example of the Perpendicular style. Before that, it is believed that this was a site of Pagan rite until King Cenwulf of Mercia sold the land to Archbishop Wulfred around AD 811. Then some 250 years on, Domesday Monachorum lists a Saxon Church at Harenhylle, dedicated to St Stephen and sited a little way to the south of the church today.
Legend has it that Lady Elizabeth Martyn, wife of Sir John of the Manor of Dargate, vowed to restore the church if her husband and son returned safely from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Her prayer must have been answered. Although much of the church along the South side dates from the 12th century, there were extensive alterations in the 15th with a window in the vestry depicting the arms of the Martyn family.
Successive agents of change have followed Lady Elizabeth in creating the church you see today - fit for the 21st century. Victorian worthies tore out Jacobean installations and renovations such as the Jacobean pulpit, tester, rood loft, box pews and floor tiles. The 15th century floor tiles were recycled into gutter channels outside the church. These are still in place. The Vicar’s wife’s pew went to build a pig pen. In 2011 the area at the foot of the tower, used as a vestry during the previous century, was converted to provide kitchen and toilet facilities.
The heavy oak inner door with handmade nails, stud, staples and lock is unchanged from when it was hung as the outer door almost 600 years ago before the porch was made.
At the back of the church is a Church Wardens’ Chest known to exist in 1691 but likely to be much older since it stored records dating from 1557 now archived at Canterbury Cathedral. On the wall above it are the names of those who have ministered in the Church for some 700 years along with the Royal Arms of George lll, whose Chaplain at the time was Dr Burney, Vicar of Hernhill and whose sister, Fanny, was a celebrated Court diarist.
There is a hagioscope high in the wall of the tower allowing bell ringers a view of the altar. Entrance to the tower is through the Belfry door, a rare
remaining example of overlapping panels, dating from the 15th century and still with its original lock.
A spiral staircase, turning clockwise, leads up to the ringing chamber, then to the belfry with its eight bells and finally, 60ft above ground, the roof. Nowadays the roof offers a spectacular panorama of the surrounding countryside across to the Thames Estuary, the Isle of Sheppey and Essex. During World War ll it served as a vantage point for fire watchers alert for the enemy bombs raining down on Hell Fire Corner.
One fire watcher was accidently left behind in the tower, and locked in. Ever since the key has been taken in and the door left ajar when anyone goes up there.
The Tower bells and Belfrey were restored in a massive project in the 1990s. Three bells dating from the early part of the 16th century had been recast in Whitechapel in 1785 with two more added and in 1887 a further three cast by Warner Bros of Cripplegate. A dedicated band of ringers, drawn from this parish and neighbouring one, Saints Peter & Paul, Boughton-under-Blean, continue to ring for services and celebrations.
The King posts and tie beams in the Nave are original and the massive
chandelier is early 19th century, candle-lit and not converted to electricity until 1928.
The font once had a pyramid cover but all that remains of its existence is the hook in the arch above from which it was suspended.
There are masons’ marks in the jambs and mullions of the windows nearby: stick-like incisions, believed to have been carved there by long-ago craftsmen working around 1120.
An Aumbry, dating from the same time, is a niche let into the South wall in which the Church’s pewter Communion plate, dating from the 15th/16th centuries, was kept.
Evidence of the Church’s earlier dedication is a piscina for the washing of sacred vessels after Communion – where the organ is installed is an area formerly occupied by St Stephen’s Chapel
Windows along the South aisle contain Old Testament cameos in the top lights, probably of 16th century Northern Europe origin, although how they came to be installed here is a mystery. Below these are panels painted by Caroline Handley, wife of Rev Charles Handley, who played a significant role in the Courtney Rebellion and its tragic aftermath. She and her sisters, daughters of the Rev Julius Hutchinson of Hertfordshire, are memorialised on marble plaques on this wall.
Chief Engineer Charles Warton, who lived in Hernhill whilst responsible for the construction of the rail line from Faversham to Thanet, is also commemorated along with his wife Lucy, in a magnificent window nearby.
The rood screen, dividing Chancel from Nave, was fashioned from oak in the 15th century, with boldly moulded uprights and delicately traced crocketed ogees above. Its panels would once have borne brightly painted images of the saints and high above would have been fixed a large crucifix as the screen’s centre piece.
The Grade 1 listed organ, built by Bevington and Sons of Soho Square, London, is now installed where it can be seen by the whole congregation (if not the choir) and was moved to its present position during the major restoration programme begun at the turn of this century. It bears a plaque commemorating Miss Blanche Foreman who played the instrument for 71 years ~ thought to be an unassailable record. The Foreman family is among a number of village folk who have their roots going back to the Middle Ages here.
Moving the organ from behind the choir stall in 2011, revealed an old packing case. It had a delivery note reading: “Bevington & Sons, Mr Dawes,
Faversham Station. To be called for. Carriage paid in London 21st July 1882’.
The pulpit dates from the zealous restoration of 1868 when so much was removed, such as the Minstrels’ Gallery at the back of the Church while the Jacobean pulpit panelling was used in what is now the Lady Chapel. The carpet cladding the steps to the present-day pulpit is post war and was a gift from the father of one of the choristers.
The vestry is now housed in the space behind the choir stall and Lady Martyn’s window, which also contains the arms of Archbishop Bourchier (1404-1486), can more easily be seen.
Entry to the Lady Chapel, built in memory of Sir Edwyn Sandys Dawes and dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson in 1915, is from the choir stalls through a 15th century arch bearing an acorn and oak leaf decoration ~ the personal trade mark of the mason who carved it. The Dawes family has played a significant role in church and village life for more than 300 years when Major Lancelot Dawes came down from the Lake District. Successive generations are now
commemorated in the Chapel which also serves as a robing room for the Choir at services.
Dominating the area above the North door is a list of benefactors ~ their generosity converted from bushels of grain to cash in the current day.
There are two mysteries inside the church for which, as yet, no answer has been found.
What was the purpose of the long timber board running along the interior of the North wall east of the main door?
And what is the reason for L-shaped handmade, ancient and rusting nails, embedded at the feet and head of all the nave columns?
Outside, generations of villagers lie beneath the earth in ‘God’s Little Acre’, overlooking the orchards and hills of the surrounding countryside and, unlike many in the county, the churchyard is still used for burials. Like other churchyards though, few stone memorials date further back than 300 or so years ~ prior to that time a wooden cross did service for all.
A curiosity set in stonework low down to the right of the big West Door is a metal Trigonometrical Bench Mark – height above sea level is 38.68m.
The church clock was a gift of Alfred Foreman whose tablet in the Church records that as a bell ringer he rang in the New Year at Canterbury Cathedral for 51 years. It was installed in 1907 and in 2004 donations in memory of his descendant Edward supported its restoration.
Steps on the south side of the church lead down to the boiler room.
Violence in the form of the Great 1987 Gale devastated the row of Lime trees along the church path just as Dutch Elm Disease wrought havoc to the ancient elms in the 1970s. But two old Yews, symbols of immortality, survive as did their younger counterparts, lining the route to the church door.
Daffodils carpet the churchyard thanks to Staplegate WI and the planting round the War Memorial is courtesy of the parish council.
More violence is symbolised by the simple wooden plaque commemorating the dead of May 31, 1838 when desperate poverty, huge social unrest and a charismatic but ultimately deluded character came together fatally in Bosenden Wood.
John Thom, styling himself Sir William Courtney, Lion of Judah, roused the
villagers in a rebellion against the system. It was a call to arms that led to callous cold-blooded murder, which resulted in the Riot Act being read for the last time in Britain and the 45th Regiment of Foot in Canterbury Barracks being sent to quell the rioters. At the battle site in the neighbouring parish of Dunkirk, known for many years as ‘Mad Tom’s Corner’, Thom shot Lt Francis Bennett at close range. Retribution was instant and troops with fixed bayonets fired and charged, killing Thom and eight of his men.
The following Tuesday the coffins, borne on farm wagons and escorted by their bereft families, made their way up Church Hill as the passing bell tolled. There was no music at the next Sunday’s Evensong – most of the choir were dead or held in Maidstone Gaol.
Five widows, eight wives and 49 children were left to face the most appalling want and grief. The men of their households were either killed, transported to Australia for life after their death sentences were commuted, or imprisoned for a year with Hard Labour.
To this day no one knows where Thom and his men were interred in the churchyard. Traditionally suicides, murderers and felons dying in mortal sin, were buried in un-consecrated land on the north side of the church. Some of the transportees applied to return home when their life terms were rescinded, but the Revd Handley wrote back forbidding them and their families never saw them again.
St Michael, Hernhill
St Michael's is a classic Kentish church overlooking Hernhill village green. The church is situated on the top of a hill in the centre of the village. The postcode is ME13 9JU.