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
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