An elephant in Gosberton

The steeple of St Peter and St Paul’s in Gosberton reaches 160 feet into the Lincolnshire sky. Stone spires are a special feature of churches in the East Midlands, and Gosberton’s is one of the loveliest. Each angle of the octagon is decorated with little crockets, while four exceedingly thin – and structurally useless – flying buttresses connect it with the tower corners. The whole elegant construction dates from about 1300.

Gosbert Elephant Gargoyle (AA 1963)

But the most surprising thing about this spire is the elephant carved on the east side of the tower. This drawing, which I found in the 1963 AA Book of the Road, is very evocative, though there’s a modern photograph in this recent story about the church repairs in the Spalding Guardian. The elephant is a gargoyle, a sculptured stone spout used in the Middle Ages to throw rain water away from the building, and its trunk is made of lead that needs to be renewed.

Whoever carved the elephant, probably a jobbing mason who would follow the work from site to site, was very unlikely to have seen an elephant so the accuracy of the representation is remarkable. This image, from a 15th century herbal held in the British Library, is characteristic how medieval artists imagined the strange creatures travellers told stories about. Perhaps the Gosberton sculptor had encountered a real elephant in his journeyman life.

Elephant from a herbal (Italy, c.1440) British Library

 

 

In the larger fabric of history

‘While the tower of this church […] was being built, Columbus reached the Caribbean. Stone masons climbed ladders to shape the upper windows while Leonardo da Vinci was experimenting with flying vehicles. Carpenters fitted the beams on the roof as Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, fell. To spend time there is to be reminded – in a very touching and helpful way – of how tiny our existence is in the larger fabric of history.’

Alain de Botton (2014)

A Lincolnshire Church, by W. Dodd (1949) (National Trust)
A Lincolnshire Church, by W. Dodd (1949)
(National Trust)

Links

Filming Creation

The Light Ships will produce not just a book, but a short film evoking the village church as a centre of artistic and social life. For that side of the project, I’ll be working alongside my son, Laurence, a young filmmaker who has just completed his first big commission. 

Looking for Melody is a 50 minute documentary about the recording of Sine Qua Non, an album of Serge Gainsbourg songs recast in a jazz idiom. Filmed mainly at Abbey Road Studios in London, it captures the evolution of musical creation in the hands and minds of a diverse group of musicians, engineers, and producer. It’s a process of exploration and discussion, trying things out, abandoning things that don’t work, arguing for what you hear or hope to hear, starting, stopping and starting again.

I don’t know what story The Light Ships film will tell, nor how. The heart of these projects is open-minded exploration, a journey through new land, in company and conversation with anyone who wants to come along. In its way, the process is not unlike that of musical creation documented by Laurence in Looking for Melody. That work will begin in June, once we’ve been able to do more of the background research.

In the meantime, although the subject is very different, I hope you might enjoy Looking for Melody.

 

 

Welcome to The Light Ships

 

Linconshire (John Bee 1937)

The Light Ships

Lincolnshire’s churches have been a focus of art and community for more than a thousand years. Built by England’s finest masons and decorated by gifted craftsmen, they are treasure houses of art and sculpture, of glass, wood, metal and needlework. Their stones reverberate with the choral singing and organ music. From their towers, ancient bells peal over field and fen, as they have for centuries.

But that would not matter if the churches weren’t also where people have gathered, generation after generation, to mark the important moments of their shared life, to stop, to think and to wonder. They have seen every joy and grief, quiet happiness, anxiety and stoic resolution. They record the life of a community in parish registers, monuments, newsletters, pictures and gifts. Each one is like a ship carrying its ever changing, ever constant family across the seas of time.

A community art project for Fenland Lincolnshire

This summer, community artist François Matarasso will be exploring the church’s place in the creative and social life of 14 Fenland villages in conversations with local people.The Light Ships will celebrate every aspect of the church: fabric, furnishings and natural surroundings, of course, but no more than the memories, feelings and stories of those who are the church—the people who keep it alive, those without whom it would be just one more museum. And that includes those who never go, except perhaps for a funeral, or to whom it’s so familiar that they pass it without a thought.

Everyone with win interest in one of the villages below is welcome to contribute. If you’d like to get involved, or just to know more, please call Lauren Williams on 07747 271824 or send an email through the contact page.

A Transported Commission

François’ work is commissioned by Transported, a local programme creating new occasions to enjoy the arts in the Borough of Boston and South Holland District. The Light Ships will include these villages, which have been chosen because they have not yet had an opportunity to be involved in Transported’s arts programme;

  • Bicker
  • Fishtoft
  • Swineshead
  • Wrangle
  • Cowbit
  • Gosberton
  • Holbeach St. Johns
  • Moulton
  • Moulton Chapel
  • Moulton Seas End
  • Quadring
  • Pinchbeck
  • Sutton St. James
  • Whaplode

A harvest festival of the arts

The Light Ships will culminate in publication of a short book in September 2014. The larger part of the book will be a patchwork of voices and images celebrating the fenland church and its place in cultural and community life. There will also be an essay reflecting on the complex meanings of the parish church today. Copies will be given to all the contributors and to the churches, as a small contribution to their fundraising efforts.

The book will be accompanied by a short film, portraying the churches as works of art and places of continuing creation. Book and film will be presented at a special event in early autumn – a kind of artistic harvest festival – at which everyone involved will be able to celebrate the unique place of a parish church in each community’s life, always changing, always itself.

Keeping in touch

News about on The Light Ships will appear this blog, but it will also be used to share images, texts and other reflections about the churches. Photographs, old paintings and engravings, travellers’ tales, architectural descriptions, historic notes, poems – any and all of these will be added so that over the next few months the blog becomes a rich resources of treasures, great and small, about these Fenland churches. If you’d like to be kept up to date, click on the follow button and you’ll get an email whenever there’s something new to look at or read.

Transported logo