Sis­ter act

In a tran­quil vil­lage in the Weald of Kent, a pair of 12th-cen­tury sis­ters are still keep­ing watch over the poor of their par­ish, dis­cov­ers Deb­o­rah Nash

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Deb­o­rah Nash tells the story of the Bid­den­den maids

ANY­ONE who has passed through Bid­den­den in the Weald of Kent might have no­ticed twins El­iza and Mary Chulkhurst keep­ing watch over the pic­turesque vil­lage.

To­day, it’s from the sign that, in 1920, won £50 in a Daily Mail com­pe­ti­tion for best de­sign. De­pict­ing the pair con­joined at the hip and shoul­der, their names in­scribed be­tween the virid­ian blue of their skirts, the sign still stands proud on the vil­lage green above a panel de­tail­ing how the 12th-cen­tury sis­ters are re­mem­bered ev­ery Easter with the dis­tri­bu­tion of bread and cheese from Bid­den­den’s Old Work­house, along with bis­cuits of flour and wa­ter bear­ing their like­ness and date of birth.

The story, which some now claim is lit­tle more than lo­cal myth, de­tails how the Chulkhurst twins were born into a wealthy lo­cal fam­ily. When Mary died from an ill­ness in 1134, at the age of 34, El­iza re­fused to be sep­a­rated from her and is quoted as say­ing: ‘As we came to­gether, we will also go to­gether.’ She died six hours later.

Leg­end has it that the sis­ters be­queathed 20 acres of land, known as Bread­lands and Cheese­lands, to the church war­dens for the ben­e­fit of the poor of the par­ish. The land lay in five pieces around the vil­lage and the rents col­lected from the farm­ers funded the Easter dole, a tra­di­tion that has con­tin­ued for more than 400 years.

To­day, the land is con­sid­er­ably re­duced: the Bid­den­den Con­sol­i­dated Char­ity is man­aged by trustees and its cur­rent as­sets are two parcels of land and the Old Work­house. Cheese­lands is now a hous­ing es­tate and Bread­lands its play­ground. From the vil­lage sign, the Old Work­house lies west, past a row of Flem­ish weavers’ cot­tages lin­ing the high street.

At All Saints Church, where it’s be­lieved the twins are buried, a no­tice ad­ver­tises the Easter dole. Con­tinue through the grave­yard, up an un­even path, and a broad Ge­or­gian house with large win­dows looms into view: the Old Work­house. Here, two farm­ers in flat caps stand wait­ing on Easter Mon­day with a clip­board and a list of pen­sion­ers’ names— the modern-day re­cip­i­ents of the dole.

‘We ad­ver­tise the dole and peo­ple are only re­moved when they no longer live in the vil­lage or when they die—if their part­ner is still alive, we trans­fer it to them. It’s all done at the dis­cre­tion of the Trustees,’ Tom Lup­ton, one of the farm­ers, ex­plains.

Ev­ery year, a bak­ery in nearby Cran­brook pro­vides the loaves and makes the memo­rial bis­cuits us­ing a mould dat­ing back to the early-vic­to­rian era—ex­am­ples of bis­cuits from 1902 can be seen in the Pitt Rivers Mu­seum in Ox­ford. Sixty-two pen­sion­ers are ex­pected to col­lect their un­cut loaf, half a pound of but­ter, a pound of cheese and a box of tea this year. As the church bells strike 10, the win­dows of the Old Work­house are opened to wel­come the throng and the bags con­tain­ing still-warm loaves are handed out.

In an era in which ru­ral pubs, post of­fices and other ameni­ties are be­com­ing rare breeds, the Bid­den­den Easter dole is a com­fort­ing and con­tin­u­ing cus­tom, fos­ter­ing a sense of com­mu­nity and link­ing the vil­lagers to the history of their home—the Chulkhurst twins would surely be pleased.

‘Ev­ery year, a bak­ery pro­vides loaves and makes the memo­rial bis­cuits’

Above: The leg­endary con­joined twins. Be­low: A memo­rial bis­cuit of about 1900

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