Back Story

A church that has come back to life thanks to a lack of religion

The strange and compelling story of Dode

It was back in the 1970’s that a young surveyor from Maidstone read by chance an article about a Village which was abandoned as a result of The Black Death – all that remained was it’s Norman Church which had stood empty for over six hundred years and was now ‘lost’ in a little known valley in the North Downs close to Luddesdown in Kent.

For some reason, the romantic story stayed with him and whenever he was working in the area (which was not often in such a remote rural location) he would spend a little time looking for it but with no success.

Then thirty years ago, again purely by chance, he noticed an advert in a local paper saying that the ruined Dode Church in Great Buckland was to be sold by Auction with the benefit of a planning application to turn it into a residential unit, this must be his ‘lost’ Church, so one Sunday afternoon in late November, armed with the Auctioneers details he and his wife set out to ‘just have a look at it’ before it was turned into another ‘des-res’.

As later reported in The Times – that afternoon changed his life and within a few days he had purchased it, not, as it was believed, to turn it into a house but to preserve it as the ‘sacred space’ that to him (and as he eventually discovered many others) it so obviously was.

Had he known the difficulties that lay before him he probably would never have attended the auction, but as he describes himself as ‘stubborn’ perhaps Dode had found its champion. Dealing with ‘officialdom’ in its many forms during the early years was the new owners ( he prefers the term keeper) most unexpected and greatest problem – ‘everybody seemed to have a hundred reasons why something could not or should not be done’ he recalls. It was the start of a long journey but gradually over a period of some 10 years the various issues were resolved.

Dode Church had last been used regularly in the middle of the fourteenth century & despite a program of conservation in the early 1900’s it was ruinous- many of the tiles had been stripped from the roof, the door had been burnt off and the alter lay on the floor in pieces surrounded by discarded larger cans, spliff ends & needles, the walls covered in graffiti.

The first problem was to make it watertight and reasonably secure which was achieved with the help of friends & family during the winter of 1990 and despite the lack of electricity or water and the fact that the building was still the subject of regular break-ins and vandalism, on the 1st April a service was held within the ancient walls.

As funds permitted there followed a seven-year program of repair, conservation & furnishing interspersed with a number of events such as annual Christmas carol concerts, but proper security & keeping warm remained a problem and by the end of year five a suitable replacement door was still only a distant dream; a large metal grill provided security and during the winter events an 8 by 4 sheet of hardboard was wedged in the doorway to stop the draughts. As luck would have it the last person to arrive that Christmas was the owner of a specialist joinery company and it was windy!

At the end of the carol concert, frozen and fed up with fighting a large sheet of hardboard he promised a new door which arrived in the spring! In some unexpected, unexplained way that handcrafted oak door was a turning point. At the end of the repair program a flurry of national press interest one Easter meant that some two thousand people visited over the four day holiday of which a number of couples asked if they could be married there. A previous offer to the Church of England to begin to use the building free of charge had been turned down, but again as luck would have it a relatively recent change in the law meant it had become possible for couples to marry in a civil ceremony in ‘approved premises’. A licence from the Kent County Council was eventually obtained and in September 1999 the first marriage in six hundred and fifty years was celebrated.

It rapidly established itself as a ‘wedding venue’ – helped by a number of further articles in the press, a few ‘TV’ appearances and being voted in a national newspaper as one of the top 50 places to get married in the UK, such financial success was certainly welcome and enabled further improvements to be made.

However it’s ‘Keeper’ who describes himself as having ‘Animistic leanings’ and having a close symbiotic relationship with not only the church but also with it’s ‘sense of place’ remained concerned- even unhappy, somewhere a wrong turning had been made. ‘From the very first day that I saw Dode my intention was to restore & conserve it, but over the years I have come to realise that, in this particular case that means so much more than repairing the roof, building a car park or finding an appropriate use for it – a community is essential, a community who essentially perceive Dode as a special, a sacred place for people of all faiths and none and not subject to the restrictive dogma of any religion. A place in which they may experience their own God in their own way’.

Many people agreed and just over a year ago another ‘long journey’ began; this time to create a new ‘village’ – not a collection of houses as had once existed in the valley but an active group of like-minded people who have an emotional attachment with (as that well known champion & illustrator of Kent, Graham Clarke writes) ‘this lovely church on its lovely hill’.

A small ‘parish council’ with committed members as far distant as County Durham & Norfolk has been formed to advise and assist the current keeper – its ‘villagers’ are kept up to date not only with personal visits but by a number of non-profit making events such as afternoon teas, evening suppers, talks, and sound healing days, (not to mention the incredibly popular Carol Concerts are held each year) and through the internet also.

In order to observe the three traditional ‘Rights of Passage’ and celebrate the circle of life, cremated ashes have been interred & scattered within the grounds but by the year 2020 respectful space had become scarce. It became clear that in order to continue Dode’s heritage as a church with ancient inalienable rights of Marriage, Baptism & Burial, a solution should be found and at the beginning of 2021 construction began on a beautiful structure; nestling within the fold if the valley to eventually contain some 350 urns, and despite the virus, it is hoped that it will be completed by the late spring.

This ancient sacred place whose origins go back far beyond the present building is open at regular times, principally but not exclusively during the summer months for private reflection and prayer and now performs all of the functions of established Churches such as marriages – baby naming – memorial services & renewal of vows etc but in a humanist or civil service and after essentially being unloved & forgotten for almost 650 years it is once again taking its rightful place in Kent and the wider worlds life.

“Beautiful retreat. Relaxing with plenty of walks. Everything we needed was there. Enchanting stay. No Wi-fi no phone use. A tonic and and escape from the hustle and bustle. Such a refreshing stay. Will treasure the memory forever. Thank you.”
Maxine, London

If you would learn of history – of a fragment of rural history in these hidden vales of Kent – come with me to this Ghost Village of Dode – So wrote Donald Maxwell – 1926.

This Little Norman Building is a rare and magical place indeed, looking almost exactly as it did over 900 years ago when it was first built in the reign of William Rufus, the son of the Conqueror. As you stand beneath the massive stone arch, you stand where, over 800 years ago, a Priest told of the death of Thomas Becket.

As you sit beneath the sturdy Oak roof, you sit where almost exactly 650 years ago the Villagers prayed for their loved ones as the Black Death swept England. You are in their space within the four walls which they knew.

Dode is more than an ancient building, for it is a far older place than perhaps we can imagine, it’s beginnings go back into the mist of time. If you walk into the meadow surrounding the building you will see that it is build on a substantial mound which is man-made. The hill which totally surrounds and shelters the building has been known from time immemorial as Holly Hill and it is approached by a narrow roadway which goes nowhere, its ancient name is Wrangling Lane. Here then are the clues to a site of deep antiquity, for Holly Hill is a corruption of Holy Hill and the name Wrangling Lane indicates that here on this mound may well be the site of a Moot or Meeting Place perhaps going back thousands of years.

Archaeological evidence 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 pre-Christian rites in this secluded Valley where real harmony with nature still exists, Dode is indeed a place of myth and legend.

The mound stands at the end of a ley-line which stretches to the east for some 10 miles, exactly upon this line stands three Pre-Reformation Churches, two Roman sites, a Bronze Age Burial Ground and two of the Medway Megaliths, the Coffin Stone and enigmatic Little Kits Coty.

Ancient stones are also to be found on the ley-line including a substantial Sarsen now buried within the fabric of the building itself. This truly is an ancient place, steeped in history which is needed as much today as it was in the distant past, and perhaps more.

The Village of Dode was destroyed in 1349 as a result of the Black Death and shortly afterwards the building was abandoned, it was not to be used for regular worship again. If you have read the last few lines quickly, please re-read them, and think exactly what they mean. To help, visualize that the last Masses were said and that the Building had been silent and sleeping for almost 150 years before Columbus discovered America. Indeed it was to remain asleep until 1901 when it was purchased by a local antiquary who restored it at his own expense, thereafter it gradually began to wake up and for over a hundred years occasional use was made of the building although it is still very much a silent place.

Today Dode is in private ownership and after an almost unimaginable time span, regular use is again made of the building. To celebrate the millennium a beautiful retreat building was constructed in English Oak – a place of solitude and peace for those wishing to escape the world for a few days or indeed celebrate their wedding.

Responding to requests from many couples to be married at Dode, some 18 years ago it was licensed as a Civil Wedding Venue, a use which continues. Baby naming’s, Renewals of Vows and Memorial Services are also a feature of this sacred place. The basic simplicity of the building, which has always been Dode’s abiding strength, will however remain unaltered. Light will only be provided by candles and braziers, and straw and autumn leaves scented with herbs will always cover the floor.

The 12th Century seating – still in place – around the walls will continue to be used and to provide a reminder of the circle of our forefathers who once gathered here to celebrate important times in their lives, long before any building occupied this sacred place.

Dode has been loved and cared for the last 30 years by Douglas & Mary Chapman

“A truly special wedding day in an absolutely magical location. Doug and the team made the day seamless from selecting the venue and planning, right down to covering the tiny details on the day itself. Thank you so much for such a memorable, wonderful occasion with memories that we will cherish for many years to come!’ Thanks so much again for everything Sarah and Bryan”
Sarah & Bryan