WHILE SHEP­HERDS WATCH

Stand­ing on Rom­ney Marsh in Kent, sur­rounded by pas­ture and graz­ing sheep, the 13th-cen­tury Thomas à Becket church pro­vides the set­ting for an un­usual Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tion

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by emma pritchard pho­to­graphs by cris­tian bar­nett

Stand­ing in an iso­lated spot on Rom­ney Marsh in Kent, sur­rounded by pas­ture and graz­ing sheep, the 13th-cen­tury Thomas à Becket church sets the scene for an un­usual Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tion

IT’S A DARK AND BLUS­TERY EVENING on Rom­ney Marsh near the vil­lage of Fair­field in Kent. The flat pas­ture – part of the largest coastal wet­land in the south of Eng­land – stretches to the hori­zon in­ter­rupted only by the odd wind-blasted tree or hardy sheep, graz­ing re­gard­less of the chill in the air. But tonight there’s an­other ad­di­tion to the windswept scene: lit­tle lights bob­bing in the dis­tance, grow­ing larger as they ap­proach. These mark the ar­rival of Rev­erend Shuna Body’s in­trepid con­gre­ga­tion who are walk­ing to­wards the beau­ti­ful 13th­cen­tury Thomas à Becket church, a lone build­ing sil­hou­et­ted in the fad­ing light. They are here to mark the sea­son with an un­usual and rel­a­tively new tra­di­tion – a can­dle­light ser­vice, fol­lowed by a torch­lit pro­ces­sion across the marshes – the per­fect way to cel­e­brate in a church, which, in keep­ing with its 800-year her­itage, has never had elec­tric­ity.

“The hard­est part is get­ting here,” says Shuna, her white cer­e­mo­nial sur­plice peek­ing out from be­neath a black cape, as she stands at the door­way to wel­come her con­gre­gants. Be­hind her, the fin­ish­ing touches are be­ing car­ried out – Mau­reen Ak­ers, a church war­den for five years, is straight­en­ing the seat­ing, while Sylvia Pegge, the par­ish or­gan­ist, prac­tises a few chords in the semi-dark­ness. They, plus Shuna and Ro, an­other church war­den, have been here for an hour set­ting up: swags of ivy pro­vide sea­sonal dec­o­ra­tion, hymn sheets are stacked at the en­trance, and can­dles il­lu­mi­nate from ev­ery win­dow ledge.

“The church was orig­i­nally built as a tem­po­rary wooden struc­ture,” Shuna says. “Brick­work was added in the 18th cen­tury to make it more per­ma­nent, and its roof cov­ered with dis­tinc­tive red­dish

tiles, but elec­tric­ity was never in­stalled. It adds to the at­mos­phere of this event – that so many peo­ple come is tes­ta­ment to its magic.”

The first wor­ship­pers have ar­rived, hav­ing suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated the short walk over a field and a cou­ple of marsh-cross­ing wooden bridges to get here. They will be the first of about 60 at­ten­dees. A fam­ily of four, wrapped in thick coats, scarves, woolly hats and wellies, they are greeted like friends by Shuna be­fore tak­ing their seats – not in your stan­dard church pew but strik­ing black-and­white-painted boxes that were added to the church in Ge­or­gian times. Their ex­cited chat­ter, which could be heard as they came over the marshes, is now a hushed, re­spect­ful whis­per. “This is a Christ­mas tra­di­tion for us,” says Vic­to­ria Ersk­ine, who’s here with her hus­band Shug and their two daugh­ters Rosie (seven) and Vi­o­let (eight), from nearby Brook­land. “The girls love it.”

In­deed, since this ser­vice be­gan eight years ago, it has gen­er­ated an un­ex­pected fol­low­ing. Started ini­tially on the re­quest of lo­cals (the church pre­vi­ously held only one ser­vice a month dur­ing the sum­mer), it has come to at­tract a wider au­di­ence. Peo­ple of­ten travel from across the coun­try to ex­pe­ri­ence the magic of this eerily beau­ti­ful ex­panse of wet­land, which cov­ers 100 square miles, much of it re­claimed from the sea, and fea­tured in both the BBC and big-screen adap­ta­tions of Great Ex­pec­ta­tions. But, aside from the unique­ness of both set­ting and ser­vice, per­haps one of the big­gest draws is Shuna her­self. “She’s like one of the fam­ily” is the com­mon re­mark as she does the rounds, laugh­ing and speak­ing with ev­ery­one in turn, adults and chil­dren alike, all ages be­ing wel­come – and in­volved – in the ser­vice.

With a back­ground in farm­ing – “I started out as a shep­herd!” Shuna laughs – she felt a call­ing in the late 1990s, did her or­di­na­tion train­ing and be­gan work­ing for the Brook­land and Fair­field Par­ish, which in­cluded St Thomas à Becket. “You can’t help but be cap­ti­vated by it,” she says, re­fer­ring to the first time she vis­ited the church in 1991. “Not only the beauty of its set­ting but its quirks – the pews, the over-sized front-door key – all add to its charm.” In ad­di­tion to look­ing af­ter two churches, Shuna also works for the county coun­cil, as a com­mu­nity li­ai­son of­fi­cer. “I like hav­ing that bal­ance,” she says. “It also means I have that strug­gle of how to jug­gle work and church, like many of my con­gre­ga­tion.” The Christ­mas ser­vice – the first she gave af­ter be­ing or­dained – re­mains one of her favourites. “It marks the start of the sea­son for me and is a time when I can pause and re­flect on what’s to come. See­ing so many peo­ple turn out for it is in­cred­i­bly spe­cial.”

The pews are fill­ing and over­flow seat­ing po­si­tioned in the chan­cel has al­ready been taken up. It will be an­other stand­in­groom-only event. Ev­ery­one seems to know one an­other: there’s Pauline Wil­lis and Ju­dith White­man, who have raised money for the church on spon­sored cy­cle rides; Nigel Gibbs, who grew up in the area and re­mem­bers vis­it­ing St Thomas as a child; and Rachael Wil­son, who was mar­ried there in June 2015 and has now re­turned to do a read­ing. “It’s like no other place I know,” Rachael says. “It gives the com­mu­nity an op­por­tu­nity to get to­gether and catch up,” lo­cal pho­tog­ra­pher David May­hew adds.

A gen­tle bell and the loud click of the solid oak door sig­nals it’s time for the ser­vice to start. Shuna sweeps up the aisle and care­fully climbs the steps to the pul­pit, re­veal­ing a flash of

welly-clad feet. A for­mal wel­come is fol­lowed by the safety notices, then “If you smell burn­ing, shout!” – a ref­er­ence to last year when an over-ex­u­ber­ant car­oler caught a can­dle with their hymn sheet.

“What shall we sing first?” Shuna asks. “Once in Royal David’s City,” comes a cry and the sound of the or­gan – pre­car­i­ously car­ried across the marshes be­fore the ser­vice – fills the crowded space, fol­lowed by ex­ul­tant voices. Read­ings fol­low, each speaker cho­sen by Shuna from her church com­mu­nity. “I was so happy to be asked,” says ten-year-old Freya Cap­pelli from Harstead.

Out­side, the wind is pick­ing up, rat­tling win­dows and whoosh­ing through cracks. The can­dles flicker but don’t fal­ter, St Thomas à Becket’s solid walls pro­vid­ing pro­tec­tion against the el­e­ments. “This church is spe­cial in all sea­sons but in win­ter is at its best. Even the sheep can’t re­sist it – well, that’s un­til we gated the ends of the bridges,” laughs Shuna, re­call­ing a time when, mid-ser­vice, an over-in­quis­i­tive ewe had ap­peared at the door.

The ser­vice ends with a solo from 13-year-old Luc Doane, the sound of his lone voice pro­vid­ing the per­fect op­por­tu­nity for re­flec­tion. There’s a pause, then the con­gre­ga­tion rises to its feet. Farewells are made and coats once more se­curely fas­tened, then, with torches at the ready, this friendly flock ven­tures out into the night ready to process back across the marshes un­der the wide night sky.

The 2016 Christ­mas Carol Ser­vice at St Thomas à Becket will take place on Sun­day, 4 De­cem­ber at 3.30pm (therom­ney­marsh.net).

Rev­erend Shuna Body (be­low left) sits among her com­mu­nity, which in­cludes the Roper fam­ily – Kevin, Diana, Emma and Lau­ryn (above). Can­dle­light makes the carol ser­vice at­mo­spheric and lights their way home, too

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