It has survived desecration by Cromwellian Troops and a falling doodlebug but now St John the Baptist church in Penshurst has to prove its resilience once more.

No visitor to Penshurst can fail to spot the magnificent building known as Penshurst Place but sheltering within its shadow lies another gem; St John the Baptist Church.  

Built predominantly of Wealden sandstone, one of its most impressive features is the Sidney Chapel.  Belonging to, and maintained by, the family who have owned Penshurst Place for the past 450 years, the tunnel-vaulted chapel ceiling is covered in a rich tapestry of brightly coloured heraldic shields. All hung from a gold family tree that spreads over your head in a spine tingling reminder of the people who have sat and prayed in the pews over the centuries.    

But not all of the church’s points of interest come from this family alliance and many other notable figures are honoured in the church’s guide.  A rare stone dole table, previously used to give alms, stands at its entrance and its first priest, Wilhelmus, was installed by Thomas a Becket just two days before the archbishop’s murder.  The civil war also brought history to its door and the Royalist actions of Reverend Henry Hammond, the Rector from 1633, saw Cromwell’s troops chase him from the parish before they desecrated the church.  But the villagers of Penshurst are a resilient lot and repairs and alterations have been carried out in almost every century since the church was built.  Walls have been moved, towers added and ceilings raised but now it needs further improvement if it is to remain open to the community as a whole.  With no toilet or kitchen facilities, contaminated water and an antiquated heating system the church can no longer compete with other local facilities and, whilst the congregation are covering its running costs, additional maintenance and restoration is beyond their means.  All is not lost, however, and the key to church’s future may actually lie in its past.   

When it was built nearly 900 years ago the church, as the only covered space big enough to hold all of the village’s inhabitants, whether for prayer, recreation of business would have been the focal point for the area and a new committee known as ‘The friends of Penshurst Church’ have plans to recreate this multi-functional space.  Religious celebration will remain at the heart of the building but it will once more become a place where plays and concerts can be held and local groups can gather.

Numerous fundraising events are now underway and it seems perfectly fitting that the committee have teamed up with Chilstone, a local company that has taken the traditional craft of stonemasonry and transformed it with modern methods, to run a series of fundraising events. 

Chilstone is located at Fordcombe and its 35 acres of landscaped lakes and gardens, woodland walks and sculpture trail are being opened up for the first Chilstone Festival.  An event that will raise money, not only for the Friends of Penshurst Church but also St John Ambulance, Kent Air Ambulance and Guide Dogs for the blind. 

If you enjoy Jazz then a candlelit evening around the lake on Saturday 24 September 2011 may appeal.  The gates of Chilstone’s Lake Victoria Park open at 7pm and music by the Martin Nicholls Broadway Band will be playing from 8pm.  Tickets are £10 per person. 

Alternatively, why not bring the family along on Sunday 25 September 2011? Gates are open from 12 noon to 6pm and you are welcome to bring a picnic.  Folk, jazz, classical and popular music will be played throughout the day and, once again, you are free to explore the landscaped gardens, woodland walks and children’s treasure trail.   Approximately 30 stalls will be showcasing the best local goods and gifts and entertainment such as the Wheelhouse Circus Theatre and the Tiny Travelling Tightwire show will be on hand to entertain the family. 

As this is a fundraising event for a group of charities, and not just the church, pre-booked admission has been set at £15 for a car of up to 6 people. Additional passengers are charged at £3 per person.  PLEASE NOTE that admission on the day will cost £20 per car and £4 per additional passenger.

Motorbikes and pedestrians are charged on a per person rate of £4, if booked in advance, or £5 on the day.     

Tickets for either event can be pre-booked via bob.atkins@realityinbusiness.co.uk or by calling 01892 871596

Further details can also be found at:

www.thechilstonefestival.co.uk and www.friendsofpenshurstchurch.co.uk

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Bob Atkins from The Friends of Penshurst Church for taking the time to give me a guided tour of Chilstone and St John the Baptist church and to Steve Clark, the Manager of Chilstone, for taking the time to answer all my questions.

I would also like to thank Chilstone and the Friends of Penshurst Church for allowing me to take and display both my own and their archive images.