On first acquaintance Thanet may not be the prettiest of places, being flat, full of cabbage fields, smallholdings and caravan parks. But it does have its own distinctive character exemplified in place names such as: Monkton, Stodmarsh, Sarre, Paramour Street, Plumpudding Island and, of course, Pegwell Bay where St. Augustine landed in AD597.
Although Thanet’s spreading conurbation of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs may now dominate its north east corner, Broadstairs retains its character. Its historic charms were to reveal themselves during our visit to St. Peter’s on 13th October, an area of Broadstairs which has retained its own individual identity, centered on the ancient Parish Church of St. Peter. The church has a fine Norman nave dating from 1180 and a 13th century Chancel adorned with dazzling Italian mosaic tiling, added during Victorian times. There is also a long musical tradition; a tradition Sir Edward Heath enjoyed when he was a choirboy here. The organ is based on an 1885 J W Walker three-manual tracker instrument, which was extensively rebuilt with electric action by F H Browne & Sons in 1962.
This was to prove an absorbing afternoon but first, by way of an hors d’œuvre, we were to visit The Vale United Reformed Church, Broadstairs. This small Congregational chapel, built in 1870, remains largely unaltered with dark wood furnishings and commanding battleship pulpit. The organ gallery at the rear of the church provides an aesthetic counterbalance and houses an F H Browne & Sons organ built at their Deal works in 1902. We were fortunate to have our member Roger Greensted with us, together with original Browne specifications, to illustrate the history of the organ for us. It is a simple two-manual and pedal utilitarian instrument containing some pipework from an earlier organ, with charge pneumatic action and a specification of: Swell Organ, 8 8 8 8 4 8; Great Organ, 8 8 8 4; and Pedal Organ, 16 with usual couplers. It was last cleaned and overhauled in 1985 at a cost of £2,500.
Member John Hurd was first to play and a rich diapason warmth enveloped the building. The flutes and strings were beautifully balanced for the church and the light ivory key touch and flat straight pedalboard proved comfortable to play.
Appetites whetted, we turned with expectation to St. Peter’s. Organist Desmond Harvey outlined the history of the Walker organ detailing the 1962 rebuild, resulting in a fine three-manual and pedal electric actioned organ with detached console. The main body of the organ speaks down the north aisle with the Choir Organ decoratively displayed uncased in a Chancel arch. The specification is: Swell Organ, 16 8 8 8 8 4 111 8 8; Great Organ, 16 8 8 8 4 4 22/3 2 111 8 4; Choir Organ, 8 8 4 22/3 2 13/5 8 8 4; Pedal Organ, 32 16 16 16 8 8 4 2 16 8 4 with usual couplers.
Choir Organ, St. Peter's Broadstairs
Demonstrating the organ for us, Michael Cooke played Rheinberger’s 2nd Organ Sonata which displayed the expansive compass of this organ, ranging from its softest strings and flutes, clear diapasons and rich swell reed chorus, through to a fulsome full organ ensemble. Its speech was vibrant and clean in tone, but with that slight sterility of voicing typical of 20th century Walker organs.
There was time for several members to play before tea, which was followed by a talk on the church and its history by John Cox, St. Peter’s Lay Reader. He has been associated with the church since boyhood as a chorister, when he had time during sermons to allow his eye to wander, examining the building’s intricate architectural details.
Although the Nave is Norman it has, intriguingly, just one English arch. The chancel and sanctuary are 13th century, now adorned with Victorian Italian mosaic tiles whose full radiant beauty was only fully revealed some ten years ago when the chancel was cleaned and restored. The bell tower presents a conundrum as it has a serious crack in its structure, which has been there for over five hundred years and stands seemingly undisturbed even by the tower’s ring of eight bells.
The church furnishings have evolved over time, the high Georgian pews and pulpit being removed during the 1850s. The new replacement pews and furnishings are now held in esteem by the Victorian Society, as are the stained glass windows, which date from 1870- 1890. The main east window is later, being a memorial to those who fell during the First World War.
We are grateful to John Cox who, with his relaxed anecdotal charm and modest manner, delighted in the fact that, on Trafalgar Day, they are the only land-based site allowed to fly the White Ensign. We must also thank Desmond Harvey for arranging such a fascinating and enjoyable afternoon for us, revealing that Thanet has undoubtedly much to commend it.
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