Having had a long-standing fascination with buildings that are long gone from the landscape, it was inevitable that I should be interested in one particular building that once stood not a mile from where I grew up. The building in question was the chapel of St. Mary Magdalene in the hamlet of Lidsing, an outlying part of the parish of Gillingham in Kent, which stood for at least 750 years until its demolition in the 1880s.
The hamlet is located nearly 4 miles from the parish church, which, aside from the distance, could be reached only by traversing a steep wooded valley, and so it is no surprise that the inhabitants were keen to have religious facilities closer to home. Indeed some residents of the neighbouring parish of Boxley, part of which was located on top of the same plateau high above its own parish church, were obviously users the chapel, as evidenced by bequests from numerous 16th century wills of Boxley parishioners. It will almost certainly have been used by inhabitants of the hamlet of Hempstead (now greatly expanded), located only a mile distant.
The chapel was located on an area of high ground overlooking a dry valley, which acquired the name ‘Chapel Valley’, and which is now almost entirely taken up by Hempstead Valley Shopping Centre, opened in 1978. A chapel appears to have been present on this site as early as the 12th century, as a chapel at ‘Lindisinge’ is mentioned in the Textus Roffensis (transcribed by Thomas Hearne, 1720). However, documentary sources are thereafter silent until 1448, when it is mentioned in a rental, and then the bequests mentioned above. The narrow two-cell arrangement of the chapel hints towards an early date and bears comparison with extant chapels at Dode and Paddlesworth, both located on the other side of the Medway valley and both of 12th century date, though the former was largely rebuilt in 1990.
The chapel had fallen into disrepair by the early 18th century, but seems not to have become totally disused. Attempts were made to reinvigorate the chapel under the incumbency of Rev. John Jenkinson, vicar of Gillingham from 1753-87, who rebuilt the east wall of the chancel in brick at his own expense and is recorded as having done so by Hasted. The Churchwardens’ Accounts reveal various repairs throughout the 1720s to 1750s and these are recorded to the end of the extant accounts in 1775.
As well as the 18th century engraving shown above, made in 1776 and originally from Bibliotheca Topographica Brittanica, 6 (part 1) (1782), various photographs of the chapel survive from the time just before its demolition. The photos show a stone building, most likely ragstone, although samples of stone retrieved from field-walking the site include tufa. Tufa was not unknown in Kentish building: it is used on the 12th century church tower of St George’s, Leeds (Kent), and is often found on buildings of the Norman period in the county. The east wall of the chancel, along with two attached buttresses at the eastern end, are in brick, reflective no doubt of the ‘rebuilding’ mentioned by Hasted. Unlike Dode and Paddlesworth chapels, the chancel roof is hipped at the east end, rather than gabled, although it too might have been remodelled at the time of the chancel repairs.
The photos of the front (south) elevation show round-headed Romanesque windows with a shallow-pointed Gothic arch door, together suggestive perhaps of a transitional architectural style. The remaining fenestration comprised a round-headed window in the north wall of the nave and an 18th century timber casement window in the rebuilt east end wall. By the time of the photographs, there does not appear to have been any other window into the chancel, though one photograph shows the hint of a blocked window on the north wall. A collapsed bell turret, added in 1821 and notably absent from the engraving above, lies forlornly over the roof at the west end. The peg tiles of the roof are largely missing, revealing the common rafter roof beneath.
The chapel is shown on the Tithe Map of 1838 and on the 1st edition of the 6-inch Ordnance Survey of 1869, its last appearance. The maps show the chapels position at a confluence of trackways, leading from Hempstead to the north, Lidsing to the south and Bredhurst to the southeast. One of these tracks, called Chapel Lane, lead east across the front of the chapel before curving south and then sharply diverting southeast towards Bredhurst. This road survived as a public highway until it was closed to traffic in 1987, though its route was altered to run directly south at the time the M2 was built in 1964, thereby severing the old route to Bredhurst.
The site is now overgrown, the trees of the churchyard and chapel garden themselves now indistinguishable from the copse that has sprung up around them. It is of course regrettable that the chapel was demolished at all, especially at a time when the conservation movement was just getting off the ground, but it is equally sad that neither Gillingham Borough Council, nor its successor Medway Council, have ever sought fit to investigate the site further, or provide any information identifying and interpreting it; the shopping centre directly opposite would be an obvious location for information boards. Therefore to the majority of those passing the site, it is nothing more than another clump of overgrown woodland in the landscape, while its position in the religious and architectural landscape of the area fades ever further from memory.