One man's revival of ancient English rites

Jonathan Glancey meets Douglas Chapman (right), whose vision led to the rebirth of a Norman church
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The Independent Culture
Less than holy people have been known to smile patronisingly at my trunk-loads of maps, ancient and modern; yet without the assistance of "OS Pathfinder 1193 Chatham", I would not have found Dode church on Easter Sunday.

An article written about this Norman parish church published in a newspaper on Holy Saturday said it was "near Gillingham, Kent". Sort of, give or take the River Medway, Rochester and several miles of motorway and hilly tracks in between. OS Pathfinder 1193 revealed just one "+" (the sign for a place of worship without "spire, minaret or dome") sited at the side of a long lane leading to Holly Hill on the sheepy North Downs. This had to be Dode.

So, I went on Easter pilgrimage to what proved to be one of the most moving churches I have ever set foot in.

Dode church has been reborn, 650 years after it was abandoned on the orders of the Bishop of Rochester, and is now host to religious services from the pagan to those of both Catholics and the Church of England. Dode church was closed because, apart from its resident priest, the entire population of the village it served was destroyed by the Black Death. The great plague killed between a third and a quarter of the population of Europe and wiped Dode from the map. For centuries, the church, built in the reign of William Rufus, lay empty, its stones raided to help build a medieval church nearby and its tumbling walls little more than a windbreak for sheep.

At the turn of this century, the ruin was bought by a local archaeologist, who restored its walls and crafted a new roof in timber and tiles. Originally, nave and chancel would have been thatched in straw. The archaeologist died and the church was abandoned once more, although nominally in the hands of the Catholic church. Because Dode church was closed in 1349, it was never ceded to the Church of England at the time of the Reformation. Nor had it been deconsecrated. By 1992, it had been vandalised, but, in principle at least, Dode was still a Catholic parish church, an architectural recusant in an age of motorways and superstores.

Douglas Chapman, a chartered surveyor who works at Canterbury Cathedral, bought the church from the local Catholic diocese four years ago. He paid pounds 67,000 for it, and it was generally assumed that he would convert this renegade Norman church into a weekend home. Instead, Mr Chapman set to work, bringing the church back to a state of original grace. So much so that when I came here on Easter Sunday, it was as if a time machine had whisked me back to the 11th century.

The floor of the tiny church was strewn with straw and sweet-smelling herbs. Tapestries hung at the round-headed windows. Candles and wall-mounted braziers had been lit. Shafts of mottled sunlight pierced the thick Romanesque walls, illuminating the stone benches that surround and define the chancel. Here, if anywhere, one felt the presence of the God we were taught to worship. Not the God of revenge, nor the God who likes to see the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate, but the God who brooded here before the Normans.

Not only has Douglas Chapman recreated a Norman church as it must have been when consecrated 900 years ago, but he has allowed us to discover a vision of England that predates Christianity itself.

The straight up-and-down walls of Dode church rise from what proves to be an artificial mound in a meadow overlooked by Holly (or Holy) Hill. No one is sure exactly when the mound was created, but it probably dates back 5,000 years and has been a holy gathering place of some sort ever since.

"Archaeological evidence," says Chapman, "confirms occupation of the site during the Roman period, and, on a still night when the moon is full, it is not difficult to imagine pagan rites in this secluded valley where real harmony with nature still exists."

Chapman points out that the church stands at the end of a ley-line that stretches 10 miles through three other pre-Reformation churches, two Roman sites, a Bronze Age burial ground and two Medway megaliths known as the Coffin Stone and Little Kits Coty, plus an ancient sarsen stone buried within the fabric of Dode church itself.

Such information is fascinating, but does not of itself make Dode church a more special place than it seems. Anyone with any sensitivity walking through its door (there is no porch; this really is a simple ecclesiastical building, untouched by Goths medieval or Victorian) will instantly feel at peace. My dog curled up into a relaxed ball on the chancel straw and fell asleep at once.

Such canine contentment appeals to Chapman. "In the days before the Black Death, the church would have been alive with animals as well as people. People have got rather prissy these days; in many country churches, dogs are turned away. I find that odd, especially when congregations sing "All things bright and beautiful" and when the sheepdog would have been one of the most important members of the parish here on the Downs."

This harmony with nature and with an ancient way of life (and an ancient God or gods) is what makes the experience of Dode so special. The church is one of those rare buildings in one of those rare settings that connects time present with time past along one seamless thread. From a strictly architectural point of view, it is a reminder of how all great or moving architecture is connected, is pretty much one and the same thing, despite local styles, materials and changes in technology. If the proportions are harmonious and the light that plays on them delightful, a building is well on its way to being architecture and tracing its roots back to the pyramids of Egypt and the ziggurats of Mesopotamia.

Douglas Chapman has been granted permission to build a small retreat house in a loose-fit 15th-century style next to the church. From a distance, and even close up, it promises to look like a local timber-framed agricultural outhouse, so will fit quietly into its romantic setting. It will open to people of all creeds, or of no creed, and is intended to allow people to find solace in this ancient setting, no more than four miles from the roaring A2; I'll have to check the exact distance of this gap between Norman Kent and superstore Britain on OS Pathfinder 1193 Chatham.

n The restoration of Dode church and the design and construction of the retreat is costing Douglas Chapman dear. He is not a wealthy man. Contributions would help to complete the retreat soon and set up a trust through which Dode will be safe long after Mr Chapman goes to meet his Bronze Age ancestors. For details, call 01622 734205