St. James' Church, Cooling, Kent

Although Cooling Church is a fine, ancient venerable church – it is to Charles Dickens that we must look for its fame (more of which later).

The church dates to around 1250. The de Cobhams who owned the manor at the time are most likely responsible for its construction. The initial building work dragged on for some time, it took about 50 years to complete the nave, chancel and the bottom part of the tower. The top half of the tower was not completed until about 1400, some 150 years later.

By this time Cooling’s other famous building – Cooling Castle (where Andrew and Jacqui married in 2006) – had been built by Sir John de Cobham in 1385. Sir John was also responsible for rebuilding Cobham Church and for the medieval bridge across the Medway at Rochester, whose pillars can still be seen close to the Victorian rebuild.

The church remained pretty much untouched until the Victorians renovated it, which they did with a great deal of restraint for once.

The Dickens connection is what has made Cooling Church famous. Just outside the south porch are some tiny little children’s tombstones, now normally referred to as “Pip’s Graves”. There is a tow of ten, and then a cluster of thirteen, dating to the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

The opening scene of Great Expectations is set here, with Pip as narrator noting

“… five little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row … and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine …”

Although Dickens, uncharacteristically, under-exaggerated the number of graves it is clearly supposed to be this graveyard and today it draws Dickens pilgrims from all over the world to this very remote spot in North Kent.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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