Otford & Kippington

Otford, with its listed status duck pond and timbered houses, is an idyllic Kentish village. However, our visit in March revealed that this seemingly unassuming community was once the retreat of kings, with a royal palace rivalling Hampton Court. Otford Palace was a residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury from the ninth century until Henry v111 forced Archbishop Cranmer to relinquish it to the Crown. Nevertheless, Henry made it his home for only a short time, complaining it was damp and cold; sadly, the palace subsequently fell into decline and only a wall and the gatehouse now remain.

Otford’s St. Bartholomew’s Church, built between 1050 and 1080, was our main venue of the afternoon where we had been invited by our President Elect, Kevin Grafton, to hear and try the 1913 Spurden Rutt organ; we were also indulged with a lavish tea and an illustrated talk on the sights and sounds of Austria.

But first we visited St Mary’s Church, Kippington, near Sevenoaks, which was founded in 1878 by the Thompson family, who were wealthy tea-importers. With its early English Gothic architecture, it stands proudly in Kippington Road, a tree lined private road graced by properties of opulent grandeur, set in spacious grounds with sweeping drives.

Kippington, Brindley & Foster

Built by Brindley & Foster in 1880, the organ of St Mary’s Church has a case designed by the church architect, John Hooker, with a front pipe display of fine quality spotted metal pipes. This 3-manual and pedal instrument has 1540 pipes, and a specification of: Great Organ, 8 8 4 4 3 (sic) 2 11 111 8; Swell Organ, 8 8 8 8 4 2 111 16 8 Tremulant; Choir Organ, 8 8 4 2 8; Pedal Organ, 16 16, with usual couplers, including a Swell Octave and a Great Sub Octave coupler. The Great Organ Twelfth 22/3 is unusually marked as a three-foot stop. We were welcomed by Leonard Ross, St Mary’s organist, who gave us a brief outline of the organ’s history which, although overhauled by Hill Norman & Beard in 1975 and again by J W Walker in 1999, still retains its tonal integrity and original tracker action. The Great Diapason chorus is bright and colourful, avoiding the heaviness of some later Victorian organs and Leonard delightfully demonstrated this for us in Prelude in C Minor BWV 564 by J S Bach. He then played Chanty from Plymouth Suite by Percy Whitlock, revealing the clear Great flutes and softer Swell stops and finished with John Ireland’s Menuetto Impromptu from his Miniature Suite, using the Swell Tremulant to good effect. To further demonstrate the subtleties of the organ, Leonard improvised on several individual stops and combinations. Colin Jilks, who tunes and maintains the organ, spoke briefly of the organ’s actions, its metal flutes and some of the additions made during the two overhauls; he also opened the rear of the organ’s case which allowed members to view the organ’s tracker actions. This organ certainly caused a buzz of excitement amongst the over forty members present and many had the opportunity to try the instrument, revealing what a splendid organ it is. We were greatly indebted to Leonard Ross for his playing and allowing us access to this interesting organ.

It had certainly whetted our appetites for what was to come as we made our way to Otford, where some members had visited Otford’s Heritage Centre, which reveals the quintessence of the village’s fascinating history. The ancient Parish Church of St Bartholomew has much of interest. Dominating the north wall of the chancel is a grandiose monument to Charles Polhill Esq. 1679-1755, a Commissioner of Excise. His life size stone effigy looks quizzically down upon the 1913 Spurden Rutt organ standing opposite with its sombre utilitarian case and zinc front pipes, with their pipe-metal mouths and leaves. Apart from one tonal change, the organ remains as it was built, together with its pneumatic manual and pedal actions.

The original Great Dulciana 8ft was replaced with a new fifteenth stop during the 1989 overhaul, which provides some much-needed brightness on the Great Organ; the specification is now: Great Organ, 8 8 8 4 4 2 8; Swell Organ, 16 8 8 8 4 2 8 8; Pedal Organ, 16 16, together with usual couplers. Unlike the Victorian Brindley & Foster we had just heard at Kippington, this organ was undoubtedly Edwardian in sound, with a tonal palette as warm as a plate of buttered crumpets. Spurden Rutt was an exponent of this Edwardian tonality: richly warm, unforced voicing full of character and individuallity, singing strings, rounded flutes and generous diapasons. With suitable 20th century music, Kevin Grafton demonstrated the instrument for us starting with Cantilena by William Lloyd Webber, then Waltz from Dance Suite by Noel Rawsthorne, finishing with Paean by Herbert Howells. Kevin’s musically flowing and enjoyable playing encouraged several members to try the organ, one member extolling the richness of the 8ft stops by drawing them all together resulting in a lush enveloping sound which filled the building. The individual ranks, although smooth in quality, had character and interest, although the new fifteenth fails to fully blend and integrate, needing a touch more languid  “nicking” to lessen a slight classical edge.

A generous tea was served in the adjoining church rooms before we were ready to enjoy an illustated talk given by Kevin Grafton, with recordings and pictures entitled: Sights and Sounds of Austria. Kevin has visited Söll in Tirol, Austria each year for many years and now gives a regular recital on the 1988 Pirchner organ in St Peter and Paul’s Church, Söll. The church was built in 1764 and has a beautifully painted baroque interior; the 1988 organ is also suitably painted to match. Kevin usually plays music by English composers, which can be difficult to register on this classically voiced Pirchner instrument, but the recordings we heard demonstrated Kevin’s outstanding abilities as he finished with some music by Elgar. This mechanical actioned organ has a specification of: Hauptwerk, 8 8 8 4 4 22/3 2 11 8 Tremulant; Ruckpositiv, 8 4 4 2 11 11/3 11 8; Pedalwerk, 16 8 8 4 16 8, with usual couplers. There is no Swell box, and no pistons or registration aids at all, which made Kevin’s playing, with its sensitive crescendos and diminuendos, quite remarkable.

As well as Söll, Kevin showed us pictures of Tirol with its picturesque snow-covered mountains and included a 1931 Walcker organ in an open 300ft tower at Kufstein Fortress, which rumbles out across the town and the surrounding hills.

This had been a full and enjoyable afternoon and we must thank Kevin and his wife Sylvia, who organised the splendid tea, for presenting us with so much of interest. Henry v111 may not have thought kindly of Otford, but we will long remember its delights.


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