On Faversham

Church and beer. These are the things I now associate with Faversham, a place I’d never particularly thought about before a friend took me there to mark his moving from Kent back to north London. To my regret the only acquaintance I made with the church during our visit was this glimpse up a side-street as we walked down the road to make our appointment for a brewery tour at Shepherd Neame.

St Mary of Charity with brewery chimney in the foreground.

St Mary of Charity with brewery chimney in the foreground.

So to satisfy my predilection for churches (and St. Mary’s looks a stunner*) I’ll have to return, something I’d like to do very soon.

But the subject of the day (and of this blog) was beer not god. The photograph is a metaphor for the way that beer still dominates Faversham even if the range of breweries in the town had declined in the twentieth century from several to just one. The chimney belongs I think to the now defunct Rigden’s Brewery and is located opposite the entrance to Shepherd Neame’s still thriving site.

I’m always slightly wary of going on guided tours, since I find it difficult to switch off my critical faculties as a fellow pro guide and just listen to the stuff. Fortunately our guide on this occasion proved to be very engaging and competent on the technical side of things, even if the use of headphones was a bit of an irritant.

I’ve always avoided using headphones with a group, where the guide has a microphone and the group have the commentary direct into their ears. It feels like you’re breaking down the solidarity of the tour party by making it into a one to one relationship. On the receiving end it makes it more difficult to tune your brain out of what the guide is saying and allow their commentary to mingle with your own thoughts, your visual impressions and the sounds of the environment that you’re in. But of course a brewery is first and foremost a factory, and an often noisy one at that.

The tour, rightly, focused on the historic aspects of the brewery (‘England’s Oldest Brewer’), the process of making beer and Shepherd Neame’s position in the modern market. I was less enamoured of the World War Two-themed marketing, and the stories associated with it, which seemed less in tune with a forward-thinking operation.

What struck me, and has struck me on similar tours in the past in Meaux (for Brie cheese) and Bushmill’s (for Irish whiskey) is that the more fascinating aspect is the way that these places operate as factories and the architecture associated with that. The marketing of the products themselves often depends on their evocation of an imagined past that ties the commodity to a nostalgia for locality or ingredient. The waters of the river in Bushmill’s, the milk of the cows in Meaux and Kentish hops in Faversham.

Inside a cathedral of beer at Shepherd Neame

Inside a cathedral of beer at Shepherd Neame

More interesting to me is the industrial plant now required to produce a ‘traditional’ product for a mass market. These great tanks for fermenting the beer have an honest grandeur that requires no dressing up as an underdog taking on the fizzy pop brigade of Heineken and their like. The thriving microbrew scene in Kent is where it’s at for that narrative. I could have looked at the crusty texture of the tanks for a lot longer.

Lost Joy Division album cover

Lost Joy Division album cover

But the thought of all that beer did make me thirsty. And the pubs of Faversham were calling. I’ll return for the church soon.

Pevsner describes a church much buggered about with over the years since its founding in the 14th Century. The steeple is compared favourably with that of St Dunstan-in-the-East in the City of London as being an improvement on Wren’s prototype. I beg to differ. It also promises mediaeval wall paintings, things I’ve been mildly obsessed with since reading J. L. Carr’s, A Month in the Country, a must-read book for those who wish to understand a certain kind of Englishness, and certainly my favourite book dealing with the First World War.

Faversham feels very English.

John Newman, The Buildings of England: North East and East Kent (Penguin, 1969), pp. 300-309

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country. I recommend the Penguin Classics edition of 2000 which has an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, although one really ought to get it direct from Carr’s own Quince Tree Press. The process will give you a flavour of the man.

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