A 900 year old abandoned church with an intriguing history in north Kent.
Abandoned in 1349 when the Black Death wiped out the whole of the village of Dode in Kent, Dode Church was purchased by Doug and Mary Chapman 30 years ago. Now lovingly restored, it hosts ‘circle of life’ ceremonies from baby namings and weddings to memorial services. The ancient and spiritual site is also home to a sacred stone circle and two tranquil holiday cottages. We talk to ceremony coordinator Becky Mayger about what makes Dode such a unique and special place.
When did you start your venue business and what is its history?
The Lost Village of Dode is owned by retired couple Doug and Mary Chapman (although Doug prefers the term ‘keeper’) who still keep a close involvement in its running. They purchased the derelict Norman Church with a couple of acres of land on an impulse 30 years ago. It had been abandoned at the time of the Black Death in 1349 and essentially unused since then.
History has always been Doug’s passion and the opportunity of restoring and conserving a building that was 900 years old, with such a mysterious and intriguing past, was too good to miss! The church stands on a manmade mound and was built in 1100 but the origins of the site go back much further into the mists of time. The hill that surrounds and protects it is known as Holly Hill, a corruption of Holy Hill, and is approached by a lane that goes nowhere. Its ancient name is Wrangling Lane, clues to a site of great antiquity.
Tell us about your location and site
The location of Dode is truly unique, it is literally lost, some few miles up a single track road in a valley in the North Downs of Kent – almost at the end of a lane that goes to nowhere. Many people in the general vicinity don’t even know it’s there, or if they do they’re not always exactly sure where it is! This is both a challenge and a blessing.
Perhaps the silence is its most noticeable feature or the church’s commanding position on its ancient mound overlooking the valley.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
Our facilities for outdoor functions are purposefully limited so as not to detract from the natural beauty and setting of the site. Civil ceremonies and receptions are all held inside the small unassuming church.
In the meadow below the church is a stone circle, within which our hand fasting ceremonies are conducted. A recent addition is a ‘circle of life’ conceived, refreshed and maintained each year by our gardener Chris.
Artfully concealed by trees and hedging, a canopy overlooking the site is sufficient to provide shelter to our guests if needed and extends over the lawn. Tucked away behind the church are two purpose built retreat cottages to sleep up to six guests, one with a hot tub in the bedroom.
What services do you offer?
In keeping with its original purpose Dode principally celebrates ‘the circle of life’ but now in a non-religious or Humanist setting. Weddings, baby naming /welcoming ceremonies, renewal of vows and memorial services are our principal business although within more recent years open air, nature-based handfastings have become an extremely popular part of our offering.
Describe how you researched and sourced your structures
Apart from the church the only permanent structures currently on the site are the retreat cottages, built some 21 years ago. Designed in the vernacular style of a building of the 16th century to blend unobtrusively into the landscape, the oak frame was sourced and provided by a local specialist company and uses reclaimed materials as much a possible (including many found on site).
How do you work with your customers to make their event unique?
We only offer 42 ceremonies a year and, as ceremony coordinator, I support couples from start to finish. I have first-hand experience as my own ceremony was held at Dode and I am only too happy to become as involved as a couple may wish.
How do you publicise yourself?
We have grown very organically over the years and the majority of our couples come to us via recommendation or have an interest in local history and happen to have stumbled across us one day. We also have our website, social media channels, some directories we use and of course Google!
How would you describe your style or unique selling point?
Where else in the UK can you celebrate with loved ones within the stone walls of an ancient 900 year old church, lit by candlelight and with the smell of hops and straw strewn across the floor?
What challenges have you faced historically?
There have been many challenges (all of which have been overcome) but undoubtedly the most difficult to understand historically was the attitude of the Church of England who tried unsuccessfully to ban the use of Dode for civil weddings, made even more baffling as some years before we had offered them the use of the church free of charge!
The resultant national publicity however quite literally proved ‘a godsend’.
How has Covid-19 impacted you?
Like many others, the majority of our 2020 couples postponed to 2021/22 however we were fortunate to do a few smaller ceremonies during the various lockdown lifts last year. We are closed from January to April anyway so we were lucky in this aspect to not be too affected. We worked closely with our couples to be able to move their dates swiftly and with the least stress possible.
How large is your team – any special people you’d like to mention?
We are a small family team. Doug and Mary have looked after Dode for the last 30 years and then we have myself, ceremony coordinator, who runs everything plus our on the day host Graham, and finally our celebrant Paul. We also work closely with a great group of suppliers to provide packages to our couples, for example our caterers The Flying Pig Kitchen, our florist MoodyBlooms and photographer Matt James Photography.
Have you worked with any industry bodies or consultants?
We have followed news from the UK Wedding Taskforce closely regarding the updates in government guidance and restrictions, and take advice from Bridebook HQ. On Facebook, the Wedding Venues Members club run by Host Venue Consultancy has been a fantastic source of information and support from fellow venues especially during this period of Covid.
What are your plans for next season?
For us the season has begun with our couples proceeding with their intimate and special days. With most of 2020 weddings having moved into 2021 we are busier than ever and already over half full for the 2022 season. Currently we are really trying to change the public perception of Dode from a ‘wedding venue’ back to a church which celebrates the circle of life, of course in non-religious or humanist ceremonies.
Describe your average day mid-season
We generally host between one to three exclusive events a week during our open season (April-October and December), whether this be a full day wedding/reception, a handfasting ceremony or a baby naming ceremony.
Typically a wedding day begins with our host Graham opening up the church in the morning to start the task of setting up and lighting all the candles. Ceremonies are generally held at around 1-2pm so guests would arrive via minibus from 12.30pm and are welcomed by Graham. Some choose to have non-alcoholic welcome drinks while others will wait until after the ceremony. Civil ceremonies are conducted within the church but for spiritual blessings and nature-based handfastings these generally take place around our sacred stone circle.
Drinks and canapés on the lawn follow the ceremony while the couple spend time with the photographer. Receptions would begin by around 5pm, seated inside the church on two long banquet tables. With Dode providing a relaxed and informal atmosphere, table plans are kept minimal with couples choosing to sit with their wedding guests as opposed to ‘top tables’. The meal, frequently based on a hog roast banquet, is served followed by the cake cutting, first dance and music into the night. Transport arrives at 10pm to ferry guests home.
What do you enjoy about the business and why?
We love meeting so many wonderful and diverse people all with their own styles and visions for the day. Many of the people who have their ceremony at Dode form a long lasting attachment.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
We run various non-profit community events throughout the year such as afternoon teas, history talks, supper nights etc. Our on-site retreat cottages are also on Airbnb when not in use by wedding couples and we attract a large number of people from the city looking to escape and wind down for a weekend.
What are you most proud of?
We are proud of those simple villagers all those many years ago that originally built the church. Without them we wouldn’t have what we do now.
Locate to Create – www.locatetocreate.com
The Lost Village of Dode
Kent DA13 0XF