Anyone who has driven parallel to the North Kent coastline will be familiar with the imposing sight of the ruins of St Mary’s Church in Reculver. Located three miles east of Herne Bay, they stand tall and stark against the skyline, an unmistakeable local landmark. The name Reculver has come from Regulbium, in Celtic times meaning ‘at the promontory’, then with the arrival of the Romans Raculfceastre (Ceaster meaning Roman walled town), which then became the Old English Raculf. It was home to a Roman fort and a large town; whilst lots of the evidence has disappeared due to erosion, there are remains of some structures, and evidence of hypocausts and wells have been found. Archaeological evidence points towards the settlement’s abandonment in the 360s.
Due to its geographical location, Reculver became an important trading town on the Wantsum Channel. As part of the estate of King Aethelbert there was maybe a settlement built on the ruins of the fort but in 669 a monastery was built and dedicated to St Mary. There is a legend that in the 15th century two sisters, both well connected, one the Abbess of Faversham, were taking a journey to Broadstairs to give thanks at a church there, when they were shipwrecked and rescued off the coast at Reculver. Both sisters survived their ordeal but one died later as a consequence of the experience. In her memory her sister erected two spires on top of the existing towers which became known as ‘The Twin Sisters.’
Due to erosion, storm damage and reductions in trade, Reculver in its original location declined and the settlement moved a little further inland to Hillborough. This included the establishment of a new St Mary’s Church. The original church was demolished in 1809 only leaving the towers in place as a navigational aid for sailors.
In 1852 Mr Joseph Brigstocke Sheppard, a chemist, doctor and later keeper of the Cathedral’s archives, visited a friend’s orchard near Canterbury and noticed large stone drums which he recognised as those that made up columns from the old church at Reculver. He mentioned this to Charles Roach Smith who had previously written a piece on Reculver entitled Antiquities of Richborough, Reculver and Lymme. This discovery set in motion a correspondence between Mr Roach Smith and Canon Robertson about Canterbury Cathedral purchasing and displaying the remains of the columns within the Precincts so they could be protected and seen by many.
Mr Sheppard found a further section of the column in a farmyard in Reculver. The two complete columns were then transported and displayed in the Water Tower Garden. They remained there until 1932 when inclement weather and fear for their future meant that the columns were moved into the Crypt with the assistance of a donation of £144 from the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral. That is why when one enters the south side of the eastern Crypt one will find two very large columns reaching almost to the ceiling. The columns, thought to be from the 670s, are made up of ten drums in a very simple design standing on round moulded plinths and with square moulded capitals.
Reculver’s interesting story didn’t stop with the settlement’s economic and strategic decline. In the late 16th century it was the parish of the Reverend Robert Hunt, who went on to be a part of the Virginia Expedition, landing in the Americas on the 26th April 1607, after an eventful and traumatic journey, and playing a part of the creation of Jamestown. By all accounts he proved himself to be hard working, well respected and admired for his stoicism and willing to assist in all aspects of frontier life. He died in 1608 and his epitaph, written by Captain John Smith, illustrates the feelings of his comrades: ‘Our factions were oft qualified, and our wants and greater extremities so comforted that they seemed easie in comparison of what we endured after his memorable death.’ In 2015 Forensic Anthropologists confirmed that they had identified Robert Hunt’s remains at the Jamestown site as part of an archaeological dig by the Smithsonian Institute. More information about the dig and its finds can be seen here. Whilst Hunt took most of his collection of books with him there is one held here at Canterbury Cathedral Library.
A more recent chapter in Reculver’s history is that of it being used as a test site for Barnes Wallis’ Bouncing Bomb. The geographical make-up and seclusion of the coast provided a good testing ground for the bomb. In the 1990s four previously un-retrieved inert bombs were removed from the sea and are now on display at various Kent sites.
We are often asked how we came to have two large columns in the Crypt, sourced from another Kentish church so it seemed only fitting to tell some of their story. The relationship with the Cathedral and local parishes goes back a long way and it continues to this day. To care for and preserve a part of such an iconic site here at Canterbury Cathedral is a great privilege and after visiting them at the Cathedral, I would recommend visiting their original site too, just maybe not on a cold winter’s day!
By Madylene Outen
For more information or if you have any Inventory related queries please contact Madylene.Outen@canterbury-cathedral.org