Aylesford is a place of great antiquity, though much of its early history is still shrouded in the past. In the Christian era however, it soon sprang to the fore, especially because of its strategic ford, known to the Romans, and used by succeeding waves of Teutonic invaders, in the centuries which followed the departures of the Romans from Briton about the year 410 AD.
On Blue Bell Hill stands one of the most notable prehistoric relics in England, a cromlech now known as Kit's Coty House (Kit Coit - the tomb in the woods). This is a megalithic tomb of which only the massive framework, consisting of upright stones covered by a huge capstone, now remains the barrow (covering of earth) having been gradually weathered or dug away over a period of nearly four thousand years. Little Kit's Coty (or the Countless Stones) is a completely ruined example of a similar burial chamber. Both these sites are now scheduled as ancient monuments and protected by English Heritage. Also in the vicinity are the White Horse, the Coffin and other prehistoric stones. Just north of the church in Aylesford is the site of an Iron Age Cemetery where urns containing cremated bones have been excavated.
Aylesford is the Kentish Stonehenge. Although Kit's Coty House, Coldrum and the Countless Stones do not have the grandeur of the real Stonehenge they may be even older. The Sarsen Stones - from the word Saracen meaning devilish or heathen - were believed to have been left in the area during the Ice Age.
The Roman Road from Rochester to Hastings, which was primarily constructed to serve the iron workings of the Weald, ran southwards from Watling Street to Bridgewood Gate and through the parish of Aylesford to Maidstone. Its course can still be traced at Blue Bell Hill, across Robin Hood Lane and Aylesford Common. Various Roman remains have been found from time to time in this parish.
The most important historical event connected with Aylesford was the great battle fought below Blue Bell Hill in the year 455, as recorded in the Saxon Chronicle, when Hengist and Horsa defeated the Britons (Horsa was killed) and thereby established the present English nation. Crossing the river valley the victorious invaders devastated the settlement at Aylesford, driving the surviving Britons into the surrounding forests and hills.
It was at Aylesford too that Alfred the Great gained victory for Wessex against the Danes in 893, and twenty-five years later the Danish invaders under Canute were again routed after Edmund Ironside had pursued them here from Otford. In the 13th century Richard de Grev, Lord of Condor returned from the Crusades and settled at Aylesford. With him came a band of Carmelite friars. Obtaining a grant of land, they established the first foundation of their Order in England and it was at Aylesford that the first Chapter of Carmelites in Europe met in 1245.
The manor of Eccles is recorded in the Domesday Survey compiled by the Normans in 1086. Just east of Cossington, another manor in this parish, there was a chantry chapel of which only a hollow remains, where the foundations have been dug out. According to the Aylesford registers, many weddings took place here during the 18th century instead of at the parish church. The derivation of the place-name Aylesford is from the Old English words meaning the ford by the church (Aeglesford) or more probably, the ford used by the English invaders (Anglesford).
The Lathe of Aylesford was one of seven lathes into which Kent was divided and is recorded in the Domesday Book. The Lathe of Aylesford stretched from Gravesend and Hoo in the north to the Sussex border in the south, from Boughton Malherbe and Frinstead in the east and to Stanstead and Shipbourne in the west. Aylesford was a Royal Manor first owned by William the Norman.
The County Committee which governed Kent - there were sub-committees for each of the lathes - moved its headquarters to the Friars in 1644 and then to Maidstone in 1646.
Close to the river stands the Friars which incorporates the 14th century watergate and the fine 15th century gatehouse of the original Carmelite friary established here in 1240. This Order, dispossessed at the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, returned to Aylesford in 1949 and commenced to rebuild on the same site which, during the intervening years had undergone many changes.
Granted first to Sir Thomas Wyatt, who demolished the church and other buildings, it was passed to John Sedley who erected a handsome Elizabethan residence, some of the rooms, with wall-panelling and fireplaces, still remain. In 1657 it came into the possession of the Banks family and later it was the seat of the Earls of Aylesford. A fire in 1930 destroyed some of the buildings but resulted in many hitherto unknown mediaeval features being discovered during the restoration.
The installation of the new friar in November 1949 marked the first return of a dispossessed Monastic Order to its English home. Considerable repairs and new work have since been carried out including the building of a church by Gilbert Scott. In 1958 the Roman Catholic Bishop of Southwark laid the foundation stone of the new shrine to Our Lady of the Assumption on the actual site of the sanctuary of the original priory church.
Great numbers of visitors come to Aylesford, many for the purpose of seeing this historic place. Thousands of people visit the Friars during the year.
PRESTON HALL AND THE ROYAL BRITISH LEGION VILLAGE
Situated between the village and the Maidstone to Sevenoaks road (A20), Preston Hall is a handsome 19th century mansion in Tudor style near the site of the mediaeval residence of the notable Kent family Colepepper. There has been a great house here since the Magna Carta. Of the original manor house only a 16th century barn now remains. Formally the seat of the Brasseys, this mansion wwas converted into a hospital for disabled servicemen after the 1914 - 1918 war and was taken over in 1925 by the British Legion for use as a pioneer rehabilitation centre.
The present Preston Hall was built about 1850 by Mr Edward Betts, who leased it to the Brassey family in 1855. Its medical history began in the 1914 - 1918 War when Madame Sauber, who had recently acquired it, let it for a Red Cross Convalescent Home. After the First War, it was sold to Industrial Settlements Incorporated from which the British Legion Village concept sprang in 1925. The idea of the village was to help the large number of ex-servicemen who contracted turberculosis in the 1914 - 1918 War. The hospital side cured them and the village housed their families and the Industries gradually rehabilitated them back to full working life, after which they moved away. This concept was maintained until a cure was found for tuberculosis, when this side of the hospital gradually gave way to ex-service chest and medical cases.
In 1948 the National Health Service took over the Hospital and its ancillary buildings as a Chest Hospital, leaving the village and Industries for the British Legion. It later became a General Hospital until the opening of the new Maidstone Hospital in Hermitage Lane, which was in 1984 when it was gradually absorbed into the new buildings. The Industries have been rebuilt and revitalised to include Fancy Goods, Timber Goods and Poppy Distribution Departments. These departments are mainly staffed by disabled workers. New flats and houses have been built to house them and their families and in their retirement there is a special accommodation with a resident warden.
The Royal British Legion's original concept was for ex-servicemen of broken health back to a full working life, to retirement and to a peaceful end.
Formally Aiglessa. Mr D P Detsicus and his team worked just outside the village for seven years uncovering the remains of a Roman Villa, Kiln and a Saxon Cemetery. Of the various hamlets ans small villages which comprise the remainder of the parish, Eccles has developed quite considerably in more recent times. It is situated about a mile north of Aylesford and is now a thriving community with large modern housing estates, its own shops, post office, inns, clubs and a chapel. The entrance to the village is brightened with islands planted with rose bushes. In the recreation ground stands a clock tower known locally as "Eccles Memorial Clock". It was erected by local public subscription, which forms an unusual war memorial with a most practical and permanent use.
A church has stood on the hill above Aegel's Ford since Norman times, but all that now remains of the Norman building is the lower portion of the tower. The list of Vicars goes back to 1145. The Parish Churchyard has been formally closed and is now maintained by the Parish Council.
The Church stands on a magnificent site commanding a view of the Medway and the ancient mediaeval bridge. Beneath the massive tower on its solid base, are signs of an earlier dororway at the West entrance. Roman tiles are built into the local ragstone and sandstone, which speaks of the days of Roman occupation.
Near the entrance to the South porch is a memorial over the vault of the Spong family. It is believed that a member of the Spong family was the original Mr Wardle in 'Pickwick Papers'. Under the yew tree by this memorial is a plaque in the wall which indicates that the yew was planted in 1708.
To the west of the Priest's doorway into the South Chancel, the Rood Loft Turret, which once had an outside entrance, gracefully adds character to the south wall of the church.
The oldest memorials at Aylesford are to be found lying flat on the ground against the east wall. These Coffin Covers, being carved flat slabs of stone, tapering towards the base and without inscriptions of any kind. All coffin covers of this type date from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Aylesford Church consists of two naves, supported by pillars of singular grace and beauty. These are early 15th century. The arches dividing the north and south chancels are cut low and those octagonal pillars are 14th century, being more massive than those in the naves. The twin-gabled roof is of medium high pitch, with collar beam and struts, a style used in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The south chancel arch and roof are not in alignment, which gives the appearence of a 'twist' to the chancel. This represents the angle of our Lord's head on the Cross. It is a fairly common feature of ancient churches and known as a 'weeping chancel'. Two Corbel stones can be seen on the nave side of the chancel arch. On these corbels rested the rood-beam which carried the Rood and its attendant figures (in 1456 Harry Birch willed money for lights on the Rood-beams. In 1524 and 1531 the Rood was repainted). Entrance to the loft was by the doorway and staircase on the right. The doorway is a fine example of Tudor work.
The old Church Chest, which is over 300 years old, stands in the Lady chapel. The Piscina in the north chancel is low down to the right of the East window. It dates from the 14th century and its position denotes that the level of the floor has been raised considerably over the last few centuries. On the floor of the north chancel, between the Colepepper monument is the oldest brass in Aylesford Church, the Cossington Brass, to John Cossington and his wife. It consists of two figures, each about thirty inches long. On the left is the figure of a man in armour with a lion at his feet. The right hand figure is of a woman wearing a horned head-dress, a long simple gown, with large full sleeves, gathered at the wrists and wearing gauntlets.
Beneath is a Latin inscription that translates to "Here lies John Cossington Esquire, who died the second day of April 1426 and Sarah his wife, on whose souls may God have mercy, Amen". The last few words have almost been entirely obliterated, and obviously gave offence to the Puritans.
The crest and the shields at the top of the brass appear to have been restored. The arms of the Cossingtons who were one of the oldest families in Aylesford were 'Azure, three roses or' and are thought to be derived from the arms of the de Ros family who came over with William the Conqueror.
A small brass, called a pilimpsest, which used to lie close to the chancel and may be seen on request. On one side it bears the following inscription: Here lyeth John Savell gentilman Sutyme servant to Syr Thomas Wiat Knyght which deceased the XXIXth day of March Ao dni MVXIV. On whose soule ihu have mercy.
The Sir Thomas Wyatt to whom Savell had once been a servant, was probably Sir Thomas Wyatt the poet, who lived at Allington Castle and died in 1542 rather than his son, the traitor, who apparently did not reside at Allington before 1550.
When restoring the church, it was necessary to move the brass, it was discovered that it was a palimpsest and that it was engraved on both sides.
Several well known families are commemorated in the north chancel, eg Banks, the Milners, the Colepeppers, the Cossingtons and the Earls of Aylesford (Heneage Finch). Apart from the manor of Cossington the two great local houses were the Friars, where the Banks and the Aylesfords lived and Preston Hall. The Friars has now been restored as the Mother House of the Carmelite Order of England. For many centuries Preston Hall was a seat of the Colepepper family, who were well known in Kent and has connections and estates at Pembury, Leeds, Hollingbourne, Langley, Boughton, East & West Farleigh, Yalding, Malling, Brenchley, Tonbridge, West Peckham and Shipbourne. A John Milner married one of the Colepeppers and he passed on the Preston Hall estate to his brother Charles. Charles died unmarried in 1771 and gave the whole of his possessions to his nephew the Rev. Joseph Butler (who took the name of Milner). This Joseph Milner's memorial is on the north wall of the north chancel.
The old Colepepper mansion was taken down in the last century by Edward Ladd Betts, who was succeeded at Preston Hall by Henry Arthur Brassey. Both Edward Betts and Henry Brassey were railway constructional engineers of international fame. Henry Brassey restored the church in 1878, entirely at his own cost. He is commemorated by a fine window at the west end of the north nave. The two monuments, however, which catch the eye at the eats end of the church are the Banks Memorial and the Colepepper Tomb. The former is an ambitious and florid monument in marble. The inscription is in Latin and records the names of Caleb (died 1696, aged 37), Elizabeth (died 1696, aged 59) and John (died 1699, aged 72).
The Colepepper memorial, which is of alabaster and marble and beautifully executed (some say that it is the finest of its kind in Kent) as an altar tomb. On it lie the full length figures of Sir Thomas Colepepper and hid lady. At the sides are their three sons and three daughters. The date of Sir Thomas's death is 1604. It is believed that the present tomb is a successor to an earlier family one, as in 1533 it is recorded that Edward Colepepper desired 'to be buried in the high chawnsall in the Parish Church of Aylesford, in the place where Margaret my moder was leyde'.
The old oak door, which was the original north entrance into the church is over 500 years old and now leads into the Clergy and Choir vestries which were built at the beginning of this century. Above the door is a fine Royal coat of arms, of William and Mary's reign. Near the door is an ancient oak screen.
The Tower Arch to the nave has undergone many restorations. In 1738 it was filled in, a doorway inserted and a gallery built. In 1787 the arch was unblocked, the existing arch added and the gallery removed. At one period this gallery contained the barrel organ.
The font was made of Caen stone and given by Mr John Thomas (1813 - 1862) who was the architect employed by Betts to rebuild the Hall and who supervised (free of charge) the 1851 restoration. It replaced a font which had been in use since 1662. The remains of this earlier font are at present in the ringing chamber of the tower.
The Church Plate includes a silver paten and chalice dated 1627, a silver flagon for wine of 1711, a plate for communion bread and an alms dish, both dated 1724.
The tower carries a peal of eight bells consisting of the original peal of five with three new ones added when these were re-hung in 1886. Of the old bells, two were cast by Michael Darble in 1652, one in 1661 which is inscribed 'God save King Charles ye 2nd' another is inscribed 'Anthony Bartlett made made me 1666' and the last bears the date 1708.