Sunday, 31 March 2013

Great Expectations : the real churchyard

I wanted to see the graveyard which inspired the best start of any novel, Charles Dickens "Great Expectations" and there was no more appropriate day to go, as it was nearly freezing and the wind chill made one subject to -3. The church is St James, Cooling in the marshes of north Kent.  St James, Cooling, founded by the Saxons, is next to where there used to be an old blacksmith's forge, now vanished. It looks out across open marshes to the rather lovely Thames estuary, around the isle of Grain.  Nearby is the ruined castle of Sir John Oldcastle, the confused prototype of Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff.

                                                    St James, Cooling

St James, Cooling now has no services except one at Christmas. However, the valiant Friends of Cooling Church keep the church open and ask one to sign the visitor's book.  St James is situated in a lovely position, with hills on one side and fields on the other reaching down to an inlet of the broad Thames estuary.  Its aspect is flat but does not have the utterly bleak and desolate flatness of the opening of Great Expectations.  That bleakness, I now realise, is the inner bleakness of the small, motherless Pip, subject to beatings both physical and mental from his sister the wife of Jo Gargery, the smith.

                                          The interior of St James, Cooling - Jo Gargery's church

Cooling was Charles Dickens favourite church, within walking distance from his home in Higham. Dickens used to visit and lay out a full picnic on the top of one of the tombs. This is also Pip's childhood church, which he is supposed to have attended, in which he would have been baptised. Cooling would be a lovely place to live on warm summer's days and the church would be a lovely place to attend, with Jo Gargery. It is an unusual spot but lacks the complete plainness of the novel and the imagined smell of salt sea, which is more suited to a wild place like Dungeness.

Two things in Great Expectations, Chapter One are absolutely true. First, the savage, wild wind coming from "its lair" which Dickens calls "the sea" (actually the estuary). It turned me into "a bundle of shivers" in two minutes. The second is the family of "lozenge" shaped tombs which were imagined as Pip's dead family and from which Pip, "the little bundle of shivers", gets an impression of what they looked like, in the days before photographs.  In Chapter One, Pip has clearly popped next door from Jo Gargery's forge, in the late afternoon dying light, to visit his entombed family when Magwitch, a convict, just escaped from one of the prison hulks (ships) moored in the nearby estuary, jumps up on his from behind one of the nearby tombs and terrifies the small boy into feeding him.  Here are those very lozenge shaped tombs:

                                         The lozenge shaped tombs
We then proceeded to Cobham and had lunch again in his favourite pub, The Leather Bottle. Then we inspected  another of Dickens favourite places, Cobham College, hidden behind the church.  It was founded as a priests' chantry in the 14th century, but at the Reformation, it was converted into almshouses.  It is a housing association today, a potent symbol of an enduring village community, in sharp contrast to the seriously fractured community of Pip's imagined village in "Great Expectations".

Inner courtyard of Cobham College

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