Walkround Guide - Cliffe History

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St. Helen's Church

Walkround Guide

ST. HELEN lived in the 4th century AD and was the mother of the Emperor Constantine. She was highly venerated in the Middle Ages as it was generally believed she had been privileged to discover the Cross of Christ, or part of it.

The present church building has been preceded by two earlier structures. According to ancient records, a Saxon Church stood here in AD 747. No trace of this remains. Some foundation walls of the former Norman building were discovered east of the present Lady Chapel during building excavations in 1897.

THE NAVE, TRANSEPTS AND TOWER form the earliest part of the building standing today and AD 1260 is the date frequently associated with this area of the church. However, the entire building could be said to have taken from 1200 to approximately 1380 AD to reach its present extent.

THE NAVE is the great central area from the base of the tower at the west to the chancel step in the east. On most of the pillars may be seen distinctive medieval chevron markings discovered during restoration work in 1897. Towards the east end may be seen the ancient tie-beam.

High above the nave are the celestory windows added to provide extra light when the aisles were widened. Round about 1730-1732 all the roofs were lowered, made less steep and leaded. Towards the end of the 19th century the roofs were raised again to the original high pitch.

THE PULPIT is believed to be of the same period as the attached hour glass bracket which bears the date 1636. The hour glass itself disappeared mysteriously in 1967.

THE CHANCEL SCREEN, now seen with a new upper part (added in 1909), stands on the site of the original Rood Screen which, apart from the lower section, was destroyed by "Puritan violence". At the north end of the top of the existing screen, the doorway which led out on to the 14th century Rood may be observed.

THE CHANCEL AND SANCTUARY are some 100 years younger than the Nave. The original chancel and sanctuary of the 13th century were destroyed by fire in AD 1350. This area was again extensively repaired and restored towards the end of the 19th century following damage by the Puritans and subsequent neglect and indifference over many years.

The present large east window has been re-constructed partly on the basis of fragments of tracery discovered during the 1870's. It is thought to be a near replica of the fine window which was here before the roof was lowered in 1732. What fragments could not be re-used were placed as a parapet on top of the school wall facing the south porch. They are still in position there today.

THE CHOIR STALLS were renovated, repaired and added to during the restoration work of the 19th century when more poppy-headed benches were obtained from an Augustine Priory in Leicestershire. Originally there were just six stalls. Each of the back seats are misericords.
THE SEDILIA is one of the chief glories of this fine building. It has suffered neglect and decay but was restored in the 19th century. A fascinating feature of the decorative stone work are the many small faces, some quite well preserved.
THE EASTER SEPULCHRE or tomb-like recess built into the north-east corner of the sanctuary has particular significance for Passiontide and Easter ceremonies.
A CHANTRY CHAPEL could once be entered by the now blocked old doorway beside the Easter Sepulchre. All that remains of this chapel is visible exteriorly in the form the outline of this door, a piscina and a holy water stoup.
Two large indents or ledger slabs below the Altar rails once contained brasses of important persons.

New tiles were laid on the floor in 1876, and were supplied by Messrs. Webb of Worcester.

Note the several carved stone heads on the chancel, in particular the Archbishop's head on the north wall opposite to a monk's on the south side.

A rather lovely window on the south side, near the screen, is a memorial to a 21-year old daughter of a former Rector.

THE NORTH TRANSEPT - now the Lady Chapel, contains the wall painting depicting the martyrdom of St. Edmund. Below this is a well preserved piscina and on the wall above the Altar, on the right-hand side, a fragment of the stone reredos of an earlier altar. The Aumbry recessed in the north wall was installed in 1968, In the north wall may be seen the largest stained-glass window in the Church. It depicts the Ascension. The window above the Altar features the Blessed Virgin Mary, and one of similar dimensions beside it shows St. Helena (Helen, as we say) the patron saint of this Church. Note the emblem of a cross and nails held by St. Helen. These two windows were installed in 1912. Immediately inside the Altar rail are 36 glazed tiles thought to be of Roman or Saxon origin. The North Transept has had a chequered history being used for important ecclesiastical meetings, as a place there the Rectors of Cliffe held court (until 1845), and as a school. Holes on a column on the west wall are attributed to the sharpening of slate pencils.

A large area of the SOUTH TRANSEPT opposite is taken up by the organ which came from Coventry before being erected here in 1903. The wall paintings depict the martyrdom of St. Margaret and the Last Judgement. An altar once stood below them, as indeed, does one again, today. A piscina may be seen nearby.

THE SOUTH AISLE along with the North Aisle, were originally lean-to structures. Both were widened in the 14th Century. The remains of small lancet windows and certain stonework are evidence.

THE NORTH AISLE now has a children's chapel at the west end. This is also used by the Roman Catholic community for monthly Mass. At one time - around the latter part of the 19th century - it was a dark, derelict corner known as "the Bone Hole". On the wall at the north side may be seen the Royal Arms. These were ordered to be set up at the Restoration.

THE TOWER has an ancient screen across its base which originally came from the North Transept. It is thought a gallery once took the place of this and minstrels would have played from the west end of the church. A careful look at the north wall at this point will reveal a further wall painting. Note the rib vaulting of the ceiling under the tower. This is original. The wooden trap-door is to facilitate the passage of the bells. Access to higher levels is only by special permission. Above is a Ringing Chamber, a Silence Chamber and a Bell Chamber containing a fine ring of eight bells weighing over 3/2 tons. The present clock was installed in 1906.

THE BAPTISTRY at the west end of the South Aisle contains a 15th century ragstone Font with cover. The original Font would have been positioned near the pillar with the bracket and chain attached. The stone benches were for the infirm and where "the weakest went to the wall".

THE PORCH ROOM is entered by way of the door and a flight of steps leading from the Baptistry. Permission must be obtained to visit this.

THE SOUTH PORCH is large, much restored as far as timber work goes, and full of interest. One Rector named the wooden benches "gossip seats". This porch was built in the 14th century at the time the aisles were widened, and exteriorly is of striking appearance with its bonded flint and ragstone construction and its distinctive crenelations.

The building measures approximately 45.4 metres (149 feet) from east to west, and is 25 metres (82 feet) across the transepts.

It is now the parish church serving the community of Cliffe, Cliffe Woods and Cooling in deanery of Strood in the diocese of Rochester.
These fine buildings we are privileged to view today are here mainly through the vision, enthusiasm, skill and generosity of those responsible for the great work of restoration towards the end of the 19th century. Largely through their efforts most of England's ancient church buildings have been preserved. During the 1880's, every roof of this massive building was systematically raised to the original high pitch as you see them today. All materials were new, the interior roof timbers coming from New Zealand. A figure of £4,000 is mentioned but it is thought the work probably cost more. We do now have a phased program of restoration and repair work based on a regular quinquennial survey by an architect appointed by the diocese. Quite a considerable sum is given and raised locally but the extent of the work is beyond the scope of local resources alone. We appeal to all who value this aspect of England's heritage to contribute to this work.

I shall pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore I can do, or any kindness I can show, let me do it now, let me not defer it nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.

(The words of this prayer are by an unknown author.)

A comprehensive history "St. Helen's Church Cliffe - the Inside Story" is available giving detailed history and much information in depth.

Patrick Gray
Parish Priest, Rector of Cliffe, Cliffe Woods & Cooling.
(Reproduced with kind permission of Reverend Patrick Gray)
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