Friday, 29 July 2016

The Wantsum Channel, Reculver and Thanet

Reculver or Roman Regulbium in north eastern Kent is a place of poetic power and inspiration. The towers of this ruined 7th century Anglo Saxon church now teeter on a cliff as the sea has advanced a mile inland, since Roman times. St Mary’s Reculver was built from Roman stones from the surrounding Roman fort (built in 200AD) which guarded the northern end of the Wantsum Channel, which separated the Isle of Thanet, from Kent in Roman times.

Viking ships navigated the Wantsum Channel to attack Canterbury from what is now dry land via its inland port of Fordwich (now high and dry). At the southern end of the Wantsum Channel was the Roman fort at Richborough. This end of the Wantsum Channel silted up forcing ships to sail around the Isle of Thanet which was no longer an island. The Isle of Thanet retains its original name today. Thanet is home to Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, the most picturesque of which is Broadstairs - beloved of Charles Dickens. Ramsgate offers some lovely Regency squares and Margate's has a seafront like some beaches in Spain (but both are quite rundown in parts). Turner was inspired by the sea around Margate. The yellow colour of the sands of Ramsgate are reflected in various 19th century paintings. Their colour is very pleasing against a pastel-green sea.

The twin towers of Anglo Saxon St Mary's Reculver were built with Roman and other 'rubble', then plastered. The stone comes from the Roman fort of Regulbium inside which the church was erected as there were no Anglo Saxon stonemasons, at this point. The design seems like churches around Ravenna. St Augustine was probably accompanied by an Italian architect.
By S. R. Gardiner (d. 1902) - A School Atlas Of English History, Longmans, Green, 1892, Public Domain, caption

Reculver Church today is both tragic and majestic.  Blown up in 1809 by its own clergy who wanted its stone for their new church, the problem of its dwindling congregation and the sea lapping at its foundations could not be remedied. This hardly excuses such vandalism. The twin Anglo Saxon towers were allowed to remain - merely to help mariners entering the Thames estuary.

Originally the towers of Reculver were topped by wooden steeples as shown in this watercolour. The entrance was decorated with Anglo Saxon motifs. Inside the church was quite plain with three fine Saxon columns and a sanctuary to King Aethelberht of Kent, converted by St Augustine.

Under the Christian influence of St Augustine, King Aethelberht put in place the first set of Kentish laws (604AD) in ninety sections which were later integrated into the medieval Textus Roffensus. They also inspired Saxon King Alfred of Wessex. This Kentish legal code was mostly fines but also included provision for married women, widowed or divorced who had children. This Kentish set of laws was not inspired by Roman law, but by Christianity which is the root of the distinctly English legal system.

St Mary Reculver symbolises obstinate survival against the odds along with English continuity from the Romans, Saxons and Italians. In mystical places like this, 1500 years ago, English culture, identity and institutions took hold. Reculver is a unique church in an unmatched location. I would highly recommend a visit to Anglo Saxon enthusiasts.

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