Located midway between Gravesend and Rochester, on the border of the Hoo Peninsula, Shorne and Higham are villages steeped in history. During a talk given last November by Rev. Fr. David Preston, of St John’s Church Higham, we were to discover that St. Mary’s Church at Lower Higham — now a redundant church in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust — dates from before 1086 and is listed in the Domesday Book. The founder of St John’s College Cambridge and one time Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, was a resident of Higham as was Charles Dickens who lived at Gad’s Hill Place until he died in 1870.
But before Higham revealed its secrets we visited St Peter & St Paul’s Church at Shorne, which was founded in the 11th century. The church was greatly enlarged during the 12th and 13th centuries, when the chancel took on its present form with its walled sanctuary. The north chancel wall displays an imposing memorial to Sir William Page who died in 1625. His chiselled stone effigy, in Tudor half armour and trunk hose, kneels facing his father, both supported by their respective wives; this family was associated with the church for over one hundred and fifty years. With our visit on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, a large display of red poppies, set beside the stone altar opposite the Page memorial, was a timely reminder of those who had died in more recent centuries.
We were welcomed by their organist, Edmund Redfern, who, following a brief introduction to the church, demonstrated the organ for us. Built in 1880 by T Hopkins & Hepworth of York, it is a two manual and pedal instrument with mechanical action and a specification of: Great Organ, 8 8 8 4 4 2; Swell Organ, 16 8 8 8 8 4 11 8; Pedal Organ, 16 8 with usual couplers. It is situated in the north transept and sounds comfortably English, typical of its period. Unusually for an organ of this date the front pipes, which are of zinc with pipe metal mouths, remain devoid of any stencilling or painting. Martin Cross overhauled the organ in 1990, when its original flat straight pedalboard was replaced with a modern straight, but concave, continental style pedalboard to accommodate new electric contacts for the pedal pipe actions. Also, the Great Piccolo 2ft, although apparently in need of some repair, was replaced with a modern 2ft conical metal flute which, with its coarser voicing, now stands a little apart from the general tonality of the organ.
However, belying his eighty-eight years, Edmund Redfern ably demonstrated the colours and quality of this interesting instrument for us, encouraging a succession of members to try it for themselves.
Moving on to Higham and St John’s Church, which is high Anglican built in 1862, we were welcomed by their organist John Etherton, known to many members from his Lay Clerk days at Rochester Cathedral. John played a recital programme of: Prelude and Fugue in C major BWV 545 by J S Bach, No.2 of Four Inventions by Heinrich Gerber, Scherzo (No. 4 of Five Short Pieces) by Percy Whitlock and finished with Toccata in G Major by Theodore Dubois.
The organ, with its specification of: Great Organ, 8 8 8 8 4 4 2; Swell Organ, 8 4 11 8; and Pedal Organ, 16 8 with usual couplers and mechanical action, set in the north side chancel, sounded rather taxed by Mr Etherton’s ambitious recital programme, even though it is reputedly an instrument by Father Willis. On closer inspection its pedigree was indisputable, although its precise history is not known. It is an early Willis, with a straight flat pedalboard, and its small-scale voicing suggests it may have been designed for a less palatial location. Undoubtedly, Willis’s hallmark tonalities in the diapasons and Swell Cornopean are unmistakably present, but in miniature. Regrettably, the organ has not been helped by a recent overhaul by Wood-Brown who seem to have changed the stop-head ivories for newly engraved plastic and left the instrument in poor tune.
Nevertheless, following John Etherton’s recital a generous tea awaited us in an adjoining church room with delicious homemade cakes and sandwiches; the carrot cake was greatly enjoyed and much commented upon.
This interesting visit to north Kent concluded with the informative talk by Rev. Fr. David Preston bringing the history of Higham to life with evocative tales of characters from Charles Dickens’ novels and visits by Longfellow and many others of literary renown, as well as the more ancient history of St Mary’s Priory and the devastating effects of the Black Death. We must thank Fr. David and John Etherton who had arranged the afternoon and provided a printed programme for us.
T. Hopkins & Hepworth of York 1880, Shorne Parish Church
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