There is no train station at Chilham, just a platform on each side of the tracks, each sporting a bench and an information sign. Three cars are parked in the gravel lot outside the fence, awaiting their owners who, more than likely, have traveled to nearby Canterbury, the medieval town of Chaucer fame in southeast England.
Chilham (pronounced Chill-um) is a good fifteen minute walk down a tree-lined country lane. Only two cars pass during my trek, perhaps tourists who've heard about the castle in the village. They'll be returning shortly, no doubt, because the castle isn't open to the public; a family lives there. Probably watching an American reality show on the telly.
I trudge past a fifteenth-century pub, The Woolpack Inn, and up a street named The Street, I kid you not. Could it be any more charming? I'm in search of a church, the one recommended by a train conductor during my journey to Canterbury. I told her I was in search of something unique, off-the-trail, interesting. Ostensibly I'm scouting locations for a novel, but I'm also in the mood for an introspective adventure.
She'd told me to jump off at Chilham and find the 700-year-old church. "You'll probably have it all to yourself."
And I do. There, at the top of the hill, the spire pokes up from the trees, beckoning pilgrims who've been demoralized, persecuted, or simply turned away from the snooty castle. The grounds are deserted this late in the afternoon, save for a tired-looking elderly man who's mowing the cemetery surrounding the church.
That's a job, isn't it? He's sweating in the hot (for England) July sun, and has headphones that I'm pretty sure are worn to protect from the mowers roar, not to rock out to Zeppelin. Or maybe Anne Murray. He's cut a path this way and that, maneuvering through literally hundreds of headstones that dot the church grounds.
Perhaps you've seen movies with old European churches surrounded by graves, but I don't know how any of them could possibly match the solemn, mystical grace shrouding these monuments. I stand near the entrance for a few moments, taking in the sweeping sea of stone, unsure of which direction to walk. But then I realize it doesn't matter. I begin.
The old man eyes me warily but is unwilling to pause in his pattern. I think he just wants to finish and hit the pub. So I wander to my right, toward a far corner of the grounds. I pass headstone after headstone. The first one is dated from the 1760s, and I immediately feel small, dwarfed by the weight of the centuries.
As I walk, reverently, counter-clockwise around the ancient church I see an endless number of tombs. And I find that I'm becoming despondent. Not sadness because of the lost lives but because the majority of the tombstones are unreadable. There's no record of who these people are. The inscriptions are completely worn away, the tale of each life scraped off by wind and rain and time. Many of the slabs are tilted to one side, nearly toppled. They're forlorn testaments to forgotten lives.
Their sole purpose - to account for the souls interred below - has been absolved. I begin to feel a sense of melancholy.
At the far side of the church I'm surprised to see that, across a small lane, the cemetery continues, down a hill, through a copse of trees. The old stones stretch for more than a hundred yards, along each side of paths overgrown with grass and weeds. This clearly is not the church lawn proper and therefore not specified in the old guy's maintenance plan.
Ten or twelve feet off the path the weeds are so high I can barely see the tops of some headstones. They're not only stripped of all information, but lost in a forgotten field, likely unseen for . . . how long?
That's when I actually feel the tears. I'm starting to weep over people the world has misplaced. Who were they? What were their stories? Were their loved ones interred nearby, or did they die alone? How long did somebody - anybody- remember them, perhaps place flowers, or maybe say a small prayer?
And at what point, I wonder, did they receive their final visit? How many generations of people have come and gone since, walking past the church without turning in to the grounds? How many have sailed past on the train, not even noticing the lonely rail platform as it whisked by their window, let alone the quiet church cemetery over the rise and beyond the trees?
The church has stood for seven centuries and I have no idea how far back the oldest graves date. But hundreds of them are alone, adrift in the trees and the wild undergrowth, with tilted stone markers now illegible. I weep in this graveyard for people who no longer have an identity, who have no one to mourn for them or fondly remember them or their descendants. They are blank slates in a remote country field.
For a moment, as I walk out of the grounds and back toward the rail line, I entertain a completely random thought. What if I chose this spot as my final resting place? What if I requested that my remains be buried in the farthest corner of a cemetery in an old Medieval English village? Could I join their sacred - though neglected - patch of land? And would they want me?
For no reason at all I like to think they'd enjoy the company of a tearful Yank. The last person to cry over their graves.