Halfway to Heaven in Folkestone

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Not quite a garden, but this website has done graveyards before so we’ve got form. And besides, this is amazing. It feels so secret and magical, that even the dandelions look as if they are meant to be there.

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The Baptist Burial Ground in Folkestone has been left as an ‘island’ for more than 100 years, floating above the town. You have to go up some steps to get there, and I’m not sure I’d ever have found it if it hadn’t been part of the Folkestone Triennial this year. The sound artist, Emily Peasgood, chose it for her wonderful audio installation, Halfway to Heaven (on until 5th November). She has created a polyrhythmic (phew, trying spelling that when you’ve had a drink) harmony based on the stories of the people buried there – and the living get involved too because you have to stand in front of the grave in order to hear their strand of the composition.

Only when the ground is full, do you get the full experience. So many things to think about as you stand there – the history of the place, the people left almost stranded there and also who we all were – random strangers coming together to make beautiful music. A song of us, as well as those who have gone before.

And I hadn’t heard of Emily Peasgood either before this show, so I looked her up when I got home and found this really charming TED talk – I wonder if there are many writers it won’t resonate with!

The Labyrinth at All Saints’ Tudeley, Kent

Churchyards may not be traditional gardens but in the context of this website I believe they can count, not least because they are so often havens of wildlife and nature.

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However, they DO have to contain something man made (apart from bones, of course) and the Churchyard at Tudeley is special because of the turf labyrinth that’s open for visitors.

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As my friend and Labyrinth expert, Alison, has taught me, labyrinths were a feature of many medieval cathedrals, and the mother of them all is to be found in Chartres Cathedral, so there is something right about them being found in churchyards. The model for the Tudeley one has been taken from a design found in Damascas, with helpful numbering to take you through to the middle, where a simple wood carving symbolises being held in safety.

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It was the perfect day to visit Tudeley, and I was lucky to have the perfect companion in Victoria Field (and her dog, Poppy).

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This was Vicky’s first visit to the church so I could experience – through her – the wonder of entering such a simple building…

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… and being taken by surprise by the beauty of the windows designed by Marc Chagall inside…

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… and as always, I spotted something different. Because this happens every time, I wonder if it is because of who I visit the church with. A trip several years ago with my ever-patient friend, Alice, taught me to stand close enough and long enough to see the artist’s scratchings which now make the design almost unbearably poignant…

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This time, I couldn’t help but notice how the light seems to spill over on to everything. It is almost as if it wants to colour the world…

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Indeed, there is a mixture of personal and public tension with this gift of the commission of a world famous master such as Chagall to remember the death of one twenty-one-year old local girl, Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, who died by drowning. Her family donated the windows to commemorate the accident, and subsequent spiritual support from the heavens, which is shown in the main window…

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When Chagall agreed, after some persuasion, to take on the commission, he visited Tudeley and after seeing the church was reputed to have said, ‘It’s magnificent, I will do them all.’ It took over 15 years for all eleven windows to be completed. And the scale of the beauty is breathtaking.

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And generous too. Although perhaps because of this, I have to admit that I found this simple hymn number display (I’m sure there is a proper word for it!) given in memorium for another 21 year old who died at the same time just as personally heartbreaking.

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We are indeed all equal, as this little sign in front of a back plain window shows….

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A lovely way of showing this symbolically is in the altar covering, where each word was stitched individually by different volunteers and then pieced together…

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… and perhaps even our glasses for our ‘breakfast picnic’ by the labryinth which – although plastic and definitely not beautiful – insisted on making their own reflections!

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After Tudeley, Vicky and I drove on (with only a little accidental detour) to the nearby St Thomas a Becket Church at Capel where we stood under the yew tree where, according to legend, Becket preached…

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Oh but look how lush Kent was looking yesterday:

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It was a remarkable morning, and one I wanted to capture with this poem … I’m not sure I’m quite done yet, but I hope it gives some spirit of the visit.

And after two Churches,
a picnic breakfast
amongst the graves,
a missed turn
down country lanes,
there’s still too much to say.

Our words are stained glass
overspilling windows,
the extra circle
round the labyrinth,
a second language
stitched in satin.

I follow you to your car
waving as you drive away,
and like an ancient echo
from a cracked yew,
continue our conversation
all my way home.