Stone House Hospital, near Dartford, is a former Victorian asylum, all of whose buildings are Grade 11 listed, surrounded by parkland. Despite the bright spring day, the gloomy Gothic brick architecture of the buildings, particularly the strange, almost Gothic-horror appearance of the water tower — one could almost see the ghost of Quint from The Turn of the Screw standing up there — had a somewhat sobering effect on the queue of organists waiting to pass through the tight security. The Hospital was established in the 1860s as the City of London Lunatic Asylum, its name later being sanitised to the City of London Mental Hospital, and then changing under the NHS to its present name. The few remaining patients (some of whom have been resident since the Second World War, having spent their entire lives in care) are now housed in assisted accommodation nearby, the Hospital itself being disused since late 2007, and destined for residential redevelopment, within the confines of the Grade 11 listing.
Its most famous patient was no doubt Ivor Gurney, poet and composer, who was there from 1922 to his death in 1937, aged only 47. Gurney suffered from what is now recognised as bipolar disorder, which was thought at the time to be shell-shock and thus never properly treated.
The witty and entertaining Dennis Moor — Chaplain to Kent NHS Trust and self-confessed ‘typical organist eccentric’ — was our guide to the Chapel, which dates from 1898. The 3-manual organ, by Norman & Beard, is of 1912 vintage and in decent condition notwithstanding its lack of tuning and maintenance for some 2 years. It produced a good, full sound and range of colours, demonstrated by our own Michael Cooke in his version of Sullivan’s The Lost Chord (with some very lost chords….).
Thence to the top of the nearby hill, for the architectural and musical delights of St Mary’s, Stone — perhaps not the most obvious place to encounter a colourful Nigerian wedding party, but this is exactly what greeted our members, anxiously seeking parking spaces in the narrow streets. Having negotiated this obstacle, our group was greeted by Stone organist Nik Kerwin, who introduced us to the 2-manual Father Willis organ, purchased for £400 in 1865 to replace a barrel organ. It was refurbished in 1999 by Mander, retaining the original pipework, action and casing. The Great has 10 stops, including Sesquialtera and Corno di Bassetto, and the Swell has 5 stops, including a Cornopean and Hautboy – a good selection of reeds for the size of the instrument. The Pedal has just the omnipresent Bourdon. Nik demonstrated the bright-sounding reeds and clear, light flutes in Howells’ Prelude in E minor and a Passacaglia by Muffat.
After tea, the Vicar, Kenneth Clark, talked about the church, known as the ‘Lantern of Kent’ for its hilltop role as a navigation mark for sailors negotiating the Thames, and also as ‘Little Westminster’ because of its stonework. The chancel arcades, with carved foliage in the spandrels, recall those of Westminster Abbey, for the good reason that the same masons worked on this church as on the Abbey, fitting their labour into lulls in the work on Westminster. Mr Clark pointed out the careful planning of the decorative carving, so that the embellishment of the windows and arcades increases gradually as one moves further east.
Practically all the church was built in 1250-70, with the tower being added slightly later. However, a lightning strike in 1638 caused a fire, which destroyed the spire and the roof. In 1860 Street restored the church — in more sensitive style than some of his work — putting in new vaulting in the chancel, blending harmoniously with the stonework from six centuries earlier.
As we headed for home, we were once more able to marvel at the fascinating variety of churches and organs sometimes unsuspected within our own county.
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