Fairfield Church from the West
The first time I visited Fairfield Church, the rain was driving, the clouds were scudding and Romney Marsh seemed to have reverted to what it was before it was systematically drained and transformed into farmland – a marsh. I must have been crazy.
The Church of St Thomas Becket, Fairfield - to give it its full title - stands all on its own in the middle of nowhere, about a quarter-mile from the lane between Brookland and Appledore in Kent. It may not be the smallest church in England (quite) but it’s certainly one of the most remote, being surrounded by nothing but a vast, flat landscape of fields, ditches and reed beds where sheep graze, swans flap and lapwings wheel and cry. All that now remains of the parish of Fairfield is nearby Becket Farm and a few surrounding cottages and even those are at some distance from the church. Like Midley, Eastbridge and Hope and many others beyond the Marsh, Fairfield is a classic example of a parish church left stranded by shifting populations blown by the winds of social and economic change. Remote villages in medieval times were little more than clusters of wattle and daub cottages and maybe an inn huddling round the church and quickly fell into disrepair and vanished once the inhabitants moved away, leaving the church as the only substantial building. Although, judging by Fairfield’s scale and simplicity, it is unlikely it ever served much of a community.
Dating originally from the 14th century, it stands on a man-made mound which, though slight, is enough to raise it above the level of floods (most of the time), although old photographs show it poised like a ship on an ocean, the congregation being ferried out to it by boat. You approach it from the lane along a grass bank, the shaggy Marsh sheep (who will have lavishly fertilised your route) staring at you resentfully before turning and scurrying away. The timber structure is decked in brick and tile rather than stone and lead, and from the outside it is not, it has to be said, the most beautiful building in the world. Take away the little bell turret and it could be a rather nondescript barn. The interior, by startling contrast, is exquisite, the more so for being so unexpected. Unlike most churches, it is intimate and human-sized, like a room in a house. The walls and roof are of lathe and plaster and massive, ancient timbers and, though tiny, it is has an aisle and chancel divided by a span of wall which may once have supported a rood screen. A simple altar – just a wooden cross on a table – stands beneath text boards bearing the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments and a seven-sided stone font is tucked into an alcove at the other end, before the west window. Georgian box pews rise to the three-decker pulpit (a rarity) and further text boards offering inspirational quotes from the Bible – another Georgian feature common in Marsh churches – are stuck to the ceiling. The glass in the windows is unstained which provides views over the Marsh in every direction and allows a little much-needed light into this electricity-free environment.
Due to its damp and desolate position and rough timber foundations, the church was more than usually subject to decay and dilapidation but has been restored a number of times over the centuries, most recently in 1912 when the entire building – in danger of collapsing altogether – was painstakingly deconstructed and rebuilt, with proper foundations, every usable part of the interior being faithfully preserved and resurrected. This accounts for the rather more recent and robust appearance of the outside compared to the interior. Despite all the love and attention lavished on it, the church doesn’t see much action nowadays, though a service is held here once a month. The little bell turret sports three bells – once ancient but recast in 1912 – which are rung occasionally in the afternoon by a very eager gentleman who arrives from somewhere on a bicycle.
I have visited Fairfield in every mood and in every season but, whenever I do so, my thoughts always go back to that first wild, wet and windy afternoon in November soon after we moved to Winchelsea, just over the border in Sussex. I remember sitting all alone in one of the box pews as the darkness deepened around me, listening to the wind howling in the roof and the rain lashing at the windows and feeling very close to something. Whether it was God, I wouldn’t like to say, but it was certainly something. This short poem came out of that experience.
In Fairfield Church
each grain of plaster dust
the dead cranefly on the window sill
and wind rumbling
what man has left for God
in unstained glass and glimpses
over wide ripples
Looking east towards the altar
The box pews and three-decker pulpit
Looking west towards the font
View south from the interior
Fairfield Church is about six miles east of Rye. To get there, turn left off the A259 Rye-Folkestone road a few yards beyond the turning to the ancient Woolpack pub (where spiritual strength of another kind can be obtained). The key is hanging on a wall at Becket Farm, just past the church – you simply take it and put it back when you’ve finished with it – no human contact necessary.
View north from the church. A typical Romney Marsh sky