Cooling is a small, remote and windswept village, overlooking the North Kent Marshes. The northern boundary of the Thames Estuary is two miles away and the chimneys of Canvey Island, Essex, can be seen on the horizon. The village is situated six miles north-west of Rochester on the Hoo Peninsula. The population is less than three hundred and has barely changed in total over the last one hundred years. Cooling was recorded in the Domesday Book when it was owned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror.
Although a small remote village, it receives many visitors due to its association with Charles Dickens, who lived six miles away at Higham and often walked in the countryside in and around Cooling. His description of the churchyard in the opening scene of his novel, Great Expectations, is believed to have been inspired by St. James’ Churchyard, Cooling and in particular, ‘Pip’s Graves’. Visitors come to view the distinctive ‘five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long’, which Pip, in Great Expectations, had come to see. These were the graves of his brothers set beside his parents. In reality, there are thirteen stone graves, most of them children of the Comport family of Cooling Castle.
St. James’ Church dates from the late 1200s and early 1300s, on the site of an earlier Saxon church. It is no longer used for regular worship and is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust, which opens the church to visitors daily. South of the chancel, there is a tiny vestry. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with thousands of cockle shells and it is extremely rare. This was created in the 19th century by church wardens. The scallop shell is the emblem of St. James, the patron saint of the church. Jools Holland OBE, the composer, pianist, bandleader and broadcaster, was married here to Christabel, the former Countess of Durham, in August 2005. They own the 17th century Manor House in the grounds of Cooling Castle.
Cooling Castle was built between 1380 and 1385 by Sir John Cobham, following a raid by French ships on the Thames Estuary. When the castle was built, it was close to the banks of the River Thames, but the shoreline has receded over the centuries. There is a plaque on the Gatehouse of the castle in Old English, reassuring Cooling residents that the castle had been built for their protection. In the 15th century, Sir John Oldcastle, who had married a member of the Cobham family and living in Cooling Castle, supported the Lollard Movement against the Crown. This Movement believed in social equality, but was illegal and he was hanged for his beliefs. It is thought that William Shakespeare modelled his famous character, Sir John Falstaff, in his play Henry IV, on Sir John Oldcastle. It is said that Shakespeare apologised to his relatives for the way that he had portrayed him. The castle now only consists of four walls and the Gatehouse, after it was severely damaged by Sir Thomas Wyatt in 1554, during his unsuccessful rebellion against Queen Mary I.
Cooling Castle Barn is used for weddings and other functions and provides accommodation. There are three barns, providing a character venue for weddings. The Heritage Barn, Fathom Barn and Tithe Barn, offer a complete service for the special day – reception of guests, the marriage ceremony and wedding breakfast.