The thought of exploring the ancient churches scattered across small villages and hamlets in the 100-square-mile Romney Marsh in Kent, a history-rich county in southeastern England, was alluring enough to bring me across the pond.
Admittedly, church touring seems like an uncommon vacation, but it’s a relatively popular English pastime that seems to be right up there with gardening, at least judging by the scores of guidebooks written for those who chase steeples, stained-glass windows, and architectural details dating back more than a thousand years to the Normans and Saxons.
Of the Romney Marsh’s 14 churches—distinct even in a country with thousands of quaint churches—St. Thomas Becket Church in Fairfield stands out, not least because getting there is an adventure in and of itself.
It required me driving down one-lane country roads, where semi-trucks or “lorries,” as they say on these shores, seemingly came out of nowhere and forced me to pull over in hopes the oncoming truck wouldn’t hit the mirrors of my rental car.
Back on the road, I spotted what appeared to be a house or two in the distance and then something that looked like a church off to the right in the middle of a field protected by ditches and dikes that, for centuries, have drained the land to make it arable for growing crops and rearing sheep.
As I drove closer, St. Thomas Becket, which dates to the 1200s, came into full focus. It stood alone in a somewhat muddy field with hundreds of nearby sheep seemingly its only parishioners.
I quickly realized that Fairfield is but a name on the map. The village long ago disappeared, likely a result of the Black Death, with the church being the last evidence of whatever settlement once existed here.
The church is said to be a Georgian brick building encasing an earlier wooden structure. While a restoration a little over a hundred years ago replaced some of the older wood, the simple interior with its timber arches and tie beams, box pews, and triple-decker pulpit looks unchanged since the 18th century. It could be the setting for a Jane Austen novel.
When my guide arrived, I asked him what he made of the fact that people seem more interested in visiting than worshipping.
He said it would be a mistake to consider the churches strictly artifacts of a bygone time, when rural life dominated England and religion was much more prominent in daily life.
Many of the churches remain houses of worship, albeit with limited Church of England (Anglican) services due to rural depopulation, budgetary realities that force churches to share clergy, and the dwindling number of churchgoers in highly secular 21st-century Britain.
Most astonishing is the fact that the churches of Romney Marsh have survived the Protestant Reformation, kings and queens, a civil war, the Industrial Revolution, the rise and fall of an empire, great social changes, and two world wars.
Throughout it all, countless generations have gathered within these sacred places in times good and bad. The thought of that is surely enough to make even nonreligious visitors feel a sense of awe.
If You Go
Many of the churches have limited opening hours. Others require visitors to get a key from the keyholder, who often resides in the house nearest the church. As a result, give yourself three days to see all of Romney Marsh’s churches.
Founded in 1982, the Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust (RomneyMarshChurches.org.uk) is an invaluable source of information. Additional trip planning resources are available through the Visit Kent website (VisitKent.co.uk).
Stay at The George Hotel (TheGeorgeHotelKent.co.uk) in Cranbrook, about 30 minutes by car from Romney Marsh. The Crimson room includes a splendidly carved four-poster bed that is literally fit for a queen, as Queen Elizabeth I stayed in the room during a visit in 1573.
For something statelier, consider the Champneys Eastwell Manor Spa & Hotel (Champneys.com). The 23-room, four-star hotel is one of those quintessential English countryside hotels. There’s even a ruined 14th-century church on the other side of the estate.
The Romney Marsh is an easy two-hour drive from London’s Heathrow Airport, where rental cars are available from all of the major rental agencies. A GPS navigation device is a must.