Should you go walking on the southern shores at the mouth of the Thames Estuary, it is pretty certain that you will see a strange shape looming on the hills in the distance. The twin towers of St Mary's Church at Reculver are a prominent feature of this shoreline and have been standing as a landmark to visitors and as a navigational aid to shipping since the 12th Century.
Despite having been under threat from coastal erosion for the past 200 years, the site has become increasingly popular, now sporting three caravan parks, a pub and a plethora of snacky, eatery type places.
The site was founded by the Romans in the 4th century and named Reculbium, although there is some evidence that it had been settled by the Belgae previous to this. It most likely served as a fort to protect the entrance to the Thames, and also the Isle of Thanet.
(It is well documented in '1066 and All That' that anyone arriving at the Isle of Thanet had instantly conquored England.)
The site was linked to three other Roman fortresses - Richborough, Lympne and Dover, and also had a road linking it to Canterbury which may have been the main control centre for the forts. In the 3rd century the fort was enlarged and fortified, and must have been an imposing sight with a commanding view over the sea and land alike.
Legend would have it that there was often the sound of a baby crying from within the ruins, and during excavations several infant skeletons were discovered. The exact number does not appear to have been decided on, some reports suggesting three and others eleven. The infants all appeared to have died of natural causes, but a more sinister implication is that they were buried alive and suffocated. I believe that infant mortality was pretty high at this time, and the notion of Roman infant sacrifice is a pretty silly one, especially as this is not a phenomenon repeated anywhere else, as far as I know.
Anglo Saxon Evidence
By the 7th century the Roman fort had fallen into ruin, but the site of Reculver was still an extremely prominent one. The influence of St. Augustine in Canterbury during the 6th and 7th centuries AD were the impetus for much church and monastic foundation in Kent, and the church of St Mary's at Reculver became one of ten churches founded during this period of religious zeal and expansion, the official founding date being 669AD.
The church followed a rectangular design, its most striking feature being a chancel screen of three arches, the columns of which now stand in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. Also in the crypt are the fragments of a carved cross shaft from the chancel screen, the artistry of which cannot be matched in Anglo-Saxon Britain, or indeed in Europe at that time.
The two towers date from the end of the 12th century, when a new western front was added to the church. Both towers are now flat topped, but at some point during the 15th century, spires were added, both of which were dismantled around 1880. The spires were apparently paid for by the Abbess of Faversham and were built in memory of her sister who was drowned in a shipwreck of Reculver whilst on a pilgramage to St Mary's church at Broadstairs, further up the coast. The towers are still known to some as the 'Twin Sisters'.
The church at Reculver remained virtually intact until 1809, when a disaster occured. The mother of the then vicar, a Mr C.C. Nailor, felt that the church stood as merely a 'poppet show' and persuaded himto demolish it! All that was left were the twin towers, due to their status as a navigational aid for shipping. These were then maintained by Trinity House and now by English Heritage, along with the fort and the remains of the Angle-Saxon church.
Pevsner writes of the towers:
"From the water they are a moving sight on the brink of a bleak promontory, and it is a disgrace that the inland road approaches through the vulgarest caravan site in the country."
The caravan site, Reculver monument and surrounding reclaimed marshland is now part of the Reculver Country Park, and managed by English Heritage and the Kent Wildlife Trust. The area is easily accessible from the A299 by car, or by the 634 Stagecoach bus from Herne Bay or Canterbury. There's a fantastic stretch of shingly beach, and a really great looking cycle path, as well as vast ammounts of butterflies and crickets to be seen in the fields around the area. 100,000 or so visitors come every year, but it's far better out of season when you can walk in solitude, with the mysterious towers wreathed in mist up on the hillside.
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Pevsner - North East and East Kent ISBN 0140710.396