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The west end of the main street in Smarden. The road takes a sharp turn left at the end, where the white house juts out over the churchyard gate.

Smarden is a very picturesque village with several fine, well-preserved old houses and not too much disturbed by traffic. It is hardly bigger than when the 1838 tithe map was drawn. The traditional style of building made heavy use of wood (oak) and tiles, which were made locally. Brick was expensive and stone even more so, since there are no local quarries.

The church owes its present good state in part to the care taken over its restoration by the Revd F. F. Haslewood, vicar for 25 years in the 19th century. His son published a history of the village and a second book which recorded all the monumental inscriptions in the church and also all the non-conformist burial grounds, as they were in 1886 (see sources).

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Church and churchyard

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The church is nicknamed "the Barn of Kent" because of its unusual ground plan, lacking any side-aisles and having just the single wide nave with a correspondingly impressive roof span. The beams are exposed and many are original.

There are two family gravestones in the churchyard, one for John Bridges and his wife and one for his brother Henry, shown in this picture. Note that it is the stone which is tilted over, not the churchyard! The device at the top is a skull and crossbones, not an indication of piracy but a blunt reminder of human mortality ("memento mori"), while the hourglasses on either side tell us that this life is short. Henry was only 25 when he died. Note that the dates are given according to the old style, with the new year commencing on the 25th March (Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation), so the date of death translates to February 1716.

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HERE lyeth
Interrd ye Body of
Son of Henry & Margaret
Bridges who departed
this Life ye 15th day of
Feb 1715
Aged 25 years

Gilham Quarter

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According to Edward Hasted, writing in his History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent (1799)

The Parish of Smarden is about four miles across, it lies at a small distance south east of the quarry hills within the Weald, in a flat low situation, very unpleasant and watry, the soil being a deep miry clay. The eastern parts of it are mostly covered with large coppice woods, and the whole of it, from the flatness of it, the wide hedgerows, and the quantity of oak trees spread over it, has a very gloomy appearance. The town or village, having the church in it, is situated at the southern bounds of this hundred, on the turnpike road leading from Faversham through Charing hither, and so on to Biddenden, Cranbrooke and Tenterden; a road which, from the depth of the soil, and the want of having had any improvement ever made on it since the trust has been created, is in winter, or indeed after any wet weather, hardly passable, throughout this parish, even for wagons.

This description is still recognisable in this view across the fields at Gilham, though the modern visitor would probably put a higher value on the oak trees. Driving along one of the back lanes in March, I realised that any attempt to pass an oncoming car would be doomed; the single narrow lane of tarmac was bordered by wide verges with many ruts all brimful of water.

Tilden Chapel

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The original Baptist chapel, built with funds given by Thomas Tilden

The Baptist record book was started in 1640 but there was no chapel until 1726. This picture is the only one known of the original building; I have copied it from Norman Hopkins recent history The Baptists of Smarden and the Weald of Kent, 2000 (see sources). The frontage looks substantial but in fact the side walls were less than half as long and the proportions of the interior must have seemed quite cramped. The main focus was on the pulpit raised up against the back wall facing the entrance, putting the preacher in a position to look closely at any member of his congregation. The present chapel dates from 1892 and is not so wide but longer, more like a small church.

The graveyard contains the tombstone of Joseph and Mary Bridge. This has the same wording recorded by Francis Haslewood but the stone is in much better condition than the others of similar age, which makes me wonder if it is original. Perhaps it was well cared for by Joseph's descendents. A very curious feature is that the names of one of his three sons is given as James but there is no other evidence at all for the existence of this person. On the other hand, there is quite good evidence that he also had a son William who moved to Lancashire.

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The slate plaque over the door of the present chapel comes from the first building.

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Joseph's house is opposite the chapel; it can clearly be identified from the tithe map, which shows it standing in the southwest corner of his holding.

His grave is in the chapel burying ground, across the road.

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