An unexpected new discovery in Lyminge

Decorated carved block dating to the mid 12th Century discovered at Old Robus

Long-term readers of this blog may remember that over the winter of 2018/19, we embarked on a small project to see if there were any interesting stones in Lyminge. The premise behind this exercise was that Lyminge has no local source of building stone except flint, so any stone anywhere in the village has been brought in from elsewhere. This naturally means that stone used in a building that was subsequently demolished is most likely to have been re-used. Studies show that stone is typically transported no more than 5 miles from a demolition site, so the consequence is that once quarried, it does tend to stay reasonably local. So we thought there was a chance that re-used fragments of medieval buildings in Lyminge might survive, and carving might even allow them to be dated and a source identified.

Sadly, the survey in 2018/19 didn’t reveal any very distinctive worked stone, even if some we looked at was probably recycled. But a recent discovery at Old Robus has certainly justified the exercise. A carved stone has been unearthed in the garden that is very distinctively decorated. This stone was studied in detail at the weekend by Dr Toby Huitson, who is the local editor for the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland, the on-line resource that catalogues every known piece of decorated stone that in Britain is commonly known as Norman. Architecturally in Britain, Romanesque style (typified by round arches) begins in the early 11th Century and ends with the coming of Gothic (typified by pointed arches) in the later 12th Century.

So what is this new stone, the other decorated side of which is shown below?

Decorated carved block dating to the mid 12th Century stone from Old Robus

The stone has two carved faces, identical in design. The face between them is broken off but Dr Huitson thought this would not have been decorated. It probably formed the top of the springer for an arch. The smooth tooled face you can see would have been embedded in a wall, so the only visible part of the block would have been the decorated end. Although this needs to be examined in more detail, it seems most likely that this is Caen stone from Normandy. It is thus imported, and while it is not so unusual – there is much Caen stone in buildings of the 11th and 12th Centuries in Canterbury for example – it shows that this stone was used in a high status building on which money was being lavished. The other indication of this is the carving itself. The carving is exceptionally fine and intricate and of the highest quality.

The decoration with beading is very distinctive, and the immediate parallel is with a collection of stones discovered at Great Woodland Farm that was reported by the Rector of Lyminge Canon Jenkins in the 1861 edition of Archaeologia Cantiana, Journal of the Kent Archaeological Society. Jenkins was a founder member of the society and this was only the fourth edition of its annual journal. Jenkins says that he found fourteen capitals, as well as various mouldings with zigzag and other decoration, all of Caen stone, embedded in the farmyard wall adjacent to the road. He was allowed to remove those of interest to him. Unfortunately all these stones are now lost, but there is a strong probability that they came from the same workshop as the stone just found at Old Robus. Indeed, Jenkins refers in his article to finding identical mouldings at other locations in Lyminge, including at North Lyminge. Since Old Robus was at the time regarded as part of the hamlet of North Lyminge, it is possible that he saw the stone that has now been rediscovered.

Jenkins suggests that the decorated stones came from the residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, a portion of which was exposed in the church yard during the excavations in 2019. This is a seductive argument, but we have no evidence that this building was standing as early as the mid 12th Century, which is the date that has been assigned with reasonable confidence to the Old Robus stone . Far more is known about such decoration than was available to Jenkins writing 160 years ago. Dr Hewitson is of the view that these stones are more likely to derive from Horton Priory at Monks Horton, which was founded in 1142 and where similar decoration has been identified.

How could fragments of Horton Priory come to be in Lyminge? The distance by road is just over 4 miles, so within the accepted normal radius of 5 miles for the transport of recycled building stone. Horton Priory was dissolved as part of the suppression of the monasteries in 1536 under Henry VIII, so it was a quarry for building stone from the late 1530s onwards. While much of the Priory still survives and has been incorporated into the standing house, it is also clear that much was demolished and the stone went somewhere. It happens that the date applied to the earliest still visible phase of Old Robus is mid 16th Century. Because of the high water table, the house is built on a stone platform, and the owner of the time would have been looking for stone to make his foundations just at the time when stone became available at Horton Priory. The decorated stone may thus have arrived as part of a consignment of stone, selected not so much because of the fine decoration but because the top face is dressed and quite square, so it could be readily re-used for building.

Old Robus as it stands today is a building of two halves. The northern portion is 16th Century in origin. The southern part is a late 19th Century addition, but from the Tythe Map of 1840, it is possible to see that this extension replaced an earlier structure. Thus it is possible that this decorated stone was built into the foundations of this earlier extension and was available for Canon Jenkins to view in 1861. But later when this extension was demolished and replaced, the stone may then have been moved to the garden, where it was found last month amongst the many stones bordering a flower bed. Despite much searching, no other decorated or even obviously dressed stones, have yet been found, so at the moment, this stone remains unique. Though it probably did not adorn a medieval building in Lyminge, it is still an interesting story, and one that fully justifies keeping an eye out for other interesting pieces amongst the stones of Lyminge.

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