As you can see, we worship on two sites in Birchington. But how did that come about? It is a story of God's faithfulness and blessing.
By the start of the 20th century Birchington-On-Sea was growing. The railway station had been open nearly forty years, with the Railway Hotel (now the Sea View) two years later. Station Road was built to serve as Birchington's main shopping street. It was a time of expansion, and this growth had shown a need for a public meeting place.
The Institute was the first 'village centre', a large hall at the back of the Square, behind what is now 'Brills'. It had served the parish well, but just before the turn of the century plans were made for a new building.
An article from the Parish magazine of August 1904 tells some of the story of the vision for a new place. 'A Committee of Churchmen have acquired the three commodious rooms at the Public Hall for the purpose of having a central place for carrying on the various parochial organisations and for religious and sociable meetings. An appeal has been made to the Church people for subscriptions to purchase a piano, tables, chairs, bookcases, pictures, etc. - will entail an outlay of not less than £50. At the same time they will be glad to received gifts of suitable furniture as well as illustrated and daily papers.' And so the Public Hall in Station Road was built. Very much a village community project.
The memorial stone was laid on 28th September 1901. The hope, expressed by the Parish magazine was that 'When it is built it "will add much to the importance of Birchington". 'A large audience was assembled in front of the building and a small company of the local Volunteers under the command of Lieutenant Matthews was drawn up in Station Road to receive Mrs Gray, (of Birchington Hall) who laid the memorial stone. Mr Robert Grant spoke and explained the aim and scope of the Managers in building the Hall and its adjuncts, a short service was held by the clergy and choir. Then Mrs Gray, with a silver trowel laid the stone and declared the same well and truly laid. The large audience was afterwards entertained to tea in a tent erected in the foundations of the Hall." When the Public Hall was officially opened on April 2nd 1902, a "capital concert" was provided by the Committee.
It was well used. There was a reading room and library. Lectures, evening classes, Penny readings, plays, musical evenings, childrens concerts and magic lantern shows are all mentioned in the Parish magazines of 1902-1909. Restrictions imposed when the building was first erected mean it's not possible to have a carousel or fairground roundabout on the premises, or to carry on the trade of shoemaker or phamacist - both trades used by the owners of the shops at the front at the time.
In 1910 the village embraced new technology from across the pond, and the Public Hall Cinema was started. This was to become it's main function in the next decades, but its public role continued for some years to come.
Little did those folk, who opened and celebrated with such enthusiasm in 1902, know what was just around the corner. Its not hard to imagine the impact the Great War would have had on a community such as Birchington. It’s young men proudly marching off to fight for King and Country, and many not returning from the horrors of Europe. Those left behind seeking to do what they could for the war effort, and I guess meetings were held in the Public Hall, and many prayers offered in local churches. Like many communities Birchington faced the end of the war with mixed feelings. Glad that war was over and peace established, but a sense that things would never be the same again. The Public Hall's were initially funded by Birchington parishioners, but after the First World War, it was running at a loss.
During the early 1920s, Gladys Cooper, a regular visitor to Birchington and her friend Ivor Novello came down to the village for a weekend visit. There was a musical film showing at the Birchington Public Hall Cinema in which they both starred - probably 'The Bohemian Girl' of 1922, later remade by Laurel and Hardy. Ivor asked Gladys to accompany him to the showing on the Saturday evening, and was greatly disappointed that she refused point blank. 'I wouldn't cheapen myself.' She exclaimed haughtily. 'Well, I shall' came the reply, 'It will be a good advertisement for both the cinema and for me - and I bet I get in free.' He did! 'I got a huge round of applause,' he assured her next morning.
In 1923 a less famous resident of Birchington, one Mr W M Cooper, a Baptist, began a series of Sunday evening services in the Public Hall. So Baptists first met in the Public Hall... we have come home! However, the vision was to build a permanent home for the Baptist believers in Birchington, so work began on planning, funding and building a church in Crescent Road.
This opened in 1925 with a formal membership of four, and has been home ever since. It is still well used for evening worship, coffee bean drop in, a monthly lunch club and weekly by community groups.
According to a books on Kent cinema's between August and November 1918 the Station Road site was known as 'The Princess'. It was 'The Select' until 1933; then to January 1936 'The Regent', and until 9 April 1958 'The Ritz'. Its final name, until the closure on 14th October 1961 was 'The Regal'. From the early 60's, its uses were many. A Bingo & Social Club, and various incarnations including names such as Trader's Pink Night Spot, Sand's Cabaret Club, the Pink Panther Club and as part of the neighbouring Birchington Club. By then the place has seen better days from its grand opening almost 100 years before.
In 2000 Cornerstone Church took it on. They undertook a major work replacing the roof, rebuilding the stage area to accommodate offices, revamping the kitchens and so on. It was once again being used as a place for the worship of God. The church closed in the summer of 2008, and in an act of true Christian generosity, have given it to us - lock, stock and barrel. What an incredible blessing.
We moved in officially on 13th June 2010 with a march between both churches. We use it for a weekly YOYO kids club (7-11's) and parent and toddlers. We have hosted pantomines by the excellent Saltmine Theatre Company, with more to come. We open the front as a small coffee meeting place (Open Door) during the week.
It has been a challenge to take on both sites, but we believe God has blessed us. We feel that as well as them being spaces to meet and worship God, we want to let the people of Birchington hear the good news about Jesus. Also perhaps to regain its original use as a place to serve the community. feel there will be ways in which this can continue to be used as a place to serve the community of Birchington.
In November 2010 something else happened which, in part, reclaimed the building if only for a moment for its former life.
Heartstone Picture is an American film company, making available films with a clear Christian message. Instead of distributing them through the various cinema chains, they offer the films to local churches for local outreach premieres. We became a premiere venue showing 'A Christmas snow', and we plan to show more films this way. So, through all the changes of recent years we are taking the building back to her roots. Not only a full circle as the Baptists are back, but to show films here again, and a local premiere nonetheless.This building has seen a lot in its century of life. Imagine it looking out on this community. It has seen Birchington change in so many ways. Buildings come down, new ones being built. Traffic getting heavier and the population growing, with a busy shopping street. And some of the things which would have gone on inside! All the discos, the films, the fun, laughter and tears. The songs of worship and reading of God's word. It has stood here for over a century and is still, despite a few wrinkles, doing well. We hope it can continue to be used to the glory of God in this place, and look forward to all He will do here.