St John the Baptist Church Tenterden
Smallhythe  Road
Kent TN30 7NG
 

 

A most unusual church near Tenterden in south-east England is Smallhythe’s St John the Baptist.  It is a Tudor church (1516-17) built of red brick and is well worth seeing.  Unlike most old churches it is not cruciform in shape but a single east-west block with stepped gable ends. The Dutch influence is obvious.
 
Although Smallhythe is now a hamlet of lovely old houses, in medieval times it was a busy shipbuilding centre beside the sea.  It had a medieval chapel and was allowed to bury the bodies of shipwrecked sailors in its graveyard.  In 1514 a terrible fire swept through Smallhythe burning most of the buildings and destroying the chapel.
 
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So wealthy was Smallhythe that the village was quickly rebuilt and the church reconstructed in the latest fashion with imported bricks.  It is believed the bricks came from the Low Countries in exchange for timber from the Weald of Kent.
 
The interior is lofty and has a perfect example of a rectangular Tudor roof with two interesting repairs in evidence.  The roof over the chancel was repaired in 1747 by the addition of oak side purlins fixed at right angles to the rafters.
 
The roof over the west end was repaired in 1982 by steel brackets and stainless steel straps on top of the beams.  These are fixed to wall plates set in concrete spreader beams on top of the walls, almost invisible, and so preserving the antiquity of the building.  The cost of this last repair was £24,000, a sum raised by the parish itself.
 
Medieval Oak Screen
The medieval oak screen and wainscot panelling are the oldest features of the church, and are perhaps the oldest of their type still in existence. The pews in the nave are made of pitch pine and replaced oak family boxes in 1900.
 
The font is undated but interestingly it stands on what is obviously a millstone.  The west window, the only one with the original brick Tudor tracery, but all the glass in the church is modern.  The east window depicts Christ victorious with a Paschal lamb and a medieval ship.  This window was installed by the War Damage Commission in 1952, after the original window had been destroyed by a V1 flying bomb in 1944.
 
The medieval ship is a reference to Smallhythe’s shipbuilding heritage but if you study the church’s door you will see real relics from this time, the door contains Tudor shipwrights’ nails.
 
Dame Ellen Terry
The lovely half-timbered house next door to the church is the Priest’s House.  Within easy walking distance of the church is Smallhythe Place, former home of Victorian actress, Dame Ellen Terry.  She regularly worshipped in this church and and her funeral service was held here on 24th July 1928, conducted by the Rector of Wittersham who was vicar in charge at the time. Her ashes are kept in a small silver funeral casket in the south wall of St Paul's Churchyard, Covent Garden in London.
 
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Contact & Further Information
Telephone   +44 (0)1580 763 118
 
Getting There
The church is a few hundred yards down the hill from Smallhythe Place and the Vineyards.
 
Google Maps - St John the Baptist Church-Smallhythe