The Isle of Sheppey, with its bleak wave-washed shores, is perceived, perhaps unfairly, to be a remote insignificant island laying forgotten out in the Thames estuary. More recently, this lingering misconception has been finally banished with a new road link and an elegant new bridge, bringing investment, business and new people.
Indeed, the new Sheppey bridge, set against a darkly foreboding March sky with its white carriageway and piers, spanned the Swale with a swan-like grace as we crossed for our visit to Minster and Queenborough; ancient settlements with a rich and compelling past. The fierce wind and rain had not deterred our members and the Abbey Church of Saint Sexburgha was buzzing with excitement: an adult gathering of over forty people, but with the animated air of school children returning to their classrooms having been out in the wind and weather.
The Vicar of Minster, Rev. Canon Gilbert Spencer, introduced us to their Verger Mr. Ken Edworthy who has taken a great interest in the Abbey and its history. With informed enthusiasm he told us of its foundation in ad 664 by Queen Sexburgha on land granted to her by her son Ercombert, the King of Kent. The Abbey was consecrated in ad 674 and is the sixth oldest Christian foundation in England. Viking invaders destroyed the Abbey in the 9th century, although William the Conqueror partly rebuilt the church and priory, installing nuns from nearby Newington on the mainland. The foundation remained poor until Archbishop de Corbeuil resumed the rebuilding work in 1123-1139 and the priory prospered again until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. The Church and Abbey Gatehouse survived but were greatly neglected during the 1800s until the appointment of the Rev. William Bramston m.a. in 1877, after much restoration work, the church was again opened for worship in 1881.
Minster’s 2-manual & pedal 1927 Henry Willis 111 organ was donated in Bramston’s memory, the opening recital was given by Willis’s close friend Reginald Goss-Custard, organist of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster and Alexandra Palace. Deputy President, Colin Jilks, who tunes and maintains the Minster organ, spoke of Willis’s unusual tonal design and described the working of the organ’s electro-pneumatic “Pittman” chest actions. Having served his apprenticeship under Henry Willis 111, Colin had experienced some of Willis’s eccentricities, especially in his latter years when his favourite stop was the Gemshorn 4ft and, suitable or not, every new or rebuilt organ had to have one.
The Minster Abbey organ has a predominance of 8ft stops, with just one 4ft stop on the Great Organ and one, a Gemshorn, in the Swell. Its specification is: Great Organ, 8 8 8 4; Swell Organ, 8 8 8 8 4 8; Pedal Organ, 16 8; Swell Tremulant. The individual ranks have their own distinctive character with unusual names like Cor de Nuit 8ft in the Swell and Flute Triang 8ft on the Great Organ, which is a three sided open wooden pipe related to a Claribel. The seemingly limited design is enhanced by the inclusion of Sub Octave and Super Octave couplers on the Swell and a Super Octave on the Great; even the Pedal couplers are at 8ft and 4ft pitch. The organ’s versatility and engaging colour was demonstrated by Michael Cooke as he first played on individual stops, then improvised, bringing the whole organ to life, showing how stops blended, playfully concluding with In an English Country Garden.
The history of Queenborough reveals moments of national importance and a High Street that still retains its character. Following tea in Holy Trinity Church Hall, their Vicar, Rev. Fr. John Streeting, introduced us to Churchwarden, Colin Wyver, who spoke of Queenborough “the Capital of Sheppey” which, in 1832, was of such significance as to require the election of two MPs to the Westminster Parliament. Lord Nelson worshiped here taking communion before the battle of Trafalgar and Lady Hamilton lived in Church House next to the church. Queenborough was, because of its sheltered harbour and proximity to the Thames estuary, an important naval base in Nelson’s time.
Although there has been a church on this site since Norman times, the present building dates from c1367 and has a wooden painted ceiling extending the full length of the church. It depicts the “firmament of the sky” with white clouds and gold stars, cherubs and a centrepiece Angel of the Apocalypse sounding the last trump; it was painted by an unknown Dutch artist c1698. Regrettably, a fire in the 1930s scorched and damaged the ceiling, veiling its original lustre.
The 2-manual and pedal organ by Bevington & Sons, c1900, is installed on its own small gallery above the South door, reached by a precarious cast iron spiral staircase. It has pneumatic action and a specification of: Swell Organ, 8 8 4; Great Organ, 8 8 8 4; Pedal Organ 16 with usual couplers. The Pedal Bourdon 16ft is, unusually, an extension of the Great 8ft Flute and the Pedalboard is radiating but not concave. Rev. John Streeting trained as a music teacher and taught for some fifteen years before becoming a Bass Lay Clerk at Hereford Cathedral. He was fortunate to have organ lessons from Roy Massey whilst there, making him well qualified to demonstrate the organ for us. He played music by: C. Franck; H. Howells; Herman Schroeder; Geoffrey Burgon and finished with one of his own improvisations. The organ has a warm enveloping tone, the flute and diapason voicing richly filling the church, with its lofty position making it a powerful instrument. We were most grateful to both John Streeting, for his playing, and Colin Wyver for his enlightening talk revealing the many historical wonders of the Isle of Sheppey.
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