Cliffe today is a small town or large village which feels a little bit on the edge of civilisation … north of here the Cliffe Marshes spread out towards the Thames in an inaccessible sprawl and Cliffe feels a bit forgotten. However, one clue as to how important it once was is the size of St. Helen’s Church – built around 1260 replacing an earlier structure and constructed in attractive alternating layers of Kentish ragstone and black flint. It is one of the largest parish churches in Kent and inside has some important wall paintings and fine stone carvings.
By the 14th Century Cliffe had a population of around 3,000 and was part of the advowson of Christ Church, Canterbury. 3,000 people was, at this time, a quite large populous and the main reason for this is that Cliffe once supported a port on the River Thames which was very important until around 1520. That year a terrible fire swept through the town and marked the begin of the decline of Cliffe port. Over the next few decades the access to the Thames silted up – creating the Cliffe Marshes of today – and slowly the town became a village.
1520 also seems to be the end of the period when the Church of St. Helen was being extended, restructured and renovated. The porch is certainly late 15th Century and the tower is late 13th at the base and probably early 16th at the top. In the early 18th Century the medieval gabled roof was removed and a new flat one (now also gone) put in its place. The east window was demolished in 1732 and new one, described as a ‘hideous brick opening’ put in its place. Two massive bulky brick buttresses were added to the tower and the nave and chancel were both sealed off.
By the mid-1800s only 900 people lived in Cliffe. With the arrival of the Thames and Medway Canal and later the Railway Cliffe revived a little, but neither now have any influence and Cliffe has slipped back to being a backwater. During the revival period the church was renovated and repaired. The chancel was restored in 1875 and the ‘hideous brick opening’ was improved by the addition of a Victorian stained glass window. Finally, the buttresses were removed from the tower at the very end of the 19th Century.
One oddity in the graveyard is a Charnel House which was used to store bodies dragged out of the Thames. This seems to date to the mid-1800s.
Photo - Andrew J. Müller
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