‘In Church’

Sswineshead Church
Sswineshead Church

‘Often I try

To analyze the quality

Of its silences. Is this where God hides

From my searching? I have stopped to listen,

After the few people have gone,

To the air recomposing itself

For vigil.’

R. S. Thomas (1966)

R. S. Thomas (1913–2000) was one of the finest poets of the last century. He was also an Anglican priest, serving communities in mid and north Wales between 1936 and his retirement in 1978. In combining the vocations of poetry and ministry, Thomas is part of ancient tradition, old as the church in England as the legacy of Anglo-Saxon poetry shows. Rowan Williams, Welshman, retired archbishop and poet is part of its living continuity. Thomas’s poetry is a rich body of work, approachable yet tough, and well worth getting to know. The opening lines of ‘In Church’ give a glimpse of how a church might feel to the priest left alone after the congregation has gone home.

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Flatter

tom-eckersely-Lincolnshire-poster

 

When Tom Eckersley made this design for British Railways in 1961, the great age of the railway poster was almost gone. For fifty years at least, some of the best artists of their day had been commissioned by the railway companies, London Transport, motoring organisations and others to produce work that perfectly combined form and function. The commercial interests of the commissioner was restrained by the cultural interests of the artist.

This poster simplifies Lincolnshire to fields, trees, sheep, church and sky. Above all, it reinforces the idea of flatness, though it makes it beautiful. And it does it with witty nods to current trends in painting: Piet Mondrian’s abstract grids and the flatness sought by Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. But even in this modernity, the ancient church remains the focal point, holding everything together.

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An elephant in Whaplode

Whaplode Elephant

It’s easy to love elephants: they’re so huge, so gentle, so strange, so grey. Still, it was a little surprising to find a second elephant in a Fenland church, after the mediaeval one at Gosberton. I came across this cheerful chap in the north transept of Whaplode Church, when I visited a few weeks ago. How does he come to be here? Who made and decorated him?

The first Elephant Parade was held in Rotterdam in 2007. Artists and celebrities were invited to decorate statues of baby elephants, which were exhibited and then auctioned to raise funds for conservation. Since then, parades have been held in Copenhagen, London, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Theirs is currently a UK tour of some pieces, ending in London on 26 July.

A canny mix of art and celebrity, charity and marketing, the Elephant Parade is one of a number of similar public events. One of the first and most successful is the Cow Parade, created by Swiss artist Walter Knapp in 1998 and which now describes itself as the world’s largest public art event. During Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, Taro Chiezo’s ‘Superlambanana’ sculpture was replicated in smaller versions in designs by artists and local groups.

 

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These global urban public art events may seem very distant from the quiet life of Lincolnshire churches, but as Whaplode’s elephant illustrates, you can never be sure what you might see in a parish church. After all, it may have been gathering the symbols of people’s hopes and dreams for a thousand years or more…

 

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God’s Acre

Luck be a lady

Ladybirds have a special place in our hearts, reflected in their many names, and their place in popular culture. Children are captivated by their dots and red shells, and the ease of getting close to them. They are gentle, inoffensive, nurturing creatures, as suggested by the old rhyme:

Ladybird, ladybird fly away home, Your house is on fire and your children are gone…

Ladybirds are associated with good fortune in many European cultures. A Polish children’s verse ends:

Biedroneczko leć do nieba, przynieś mi kawałek chleba

Fly to the sky, little ladybird, bring me a piece of bread

In France, they’re known as ‘la bête à Bon Dieu’ – God’s creature, in English, although it doesn’t sound as pretty. There is a legend that a ladybird saved an innocent man’s life by landing repeatedly on his neck and so obstructing the executioner.

Life among the graves

This ladybird, minding its business in Moulton churchyard, is a reminder of the life that is nurtured when churchyards are not trimmed and manicured like municipal gardens. Costs and changing attitudes have helped us see long grass in churchyards not as lack of care but as a different kind of care. After all, until quite recently, it was common for sheep to graze in churchyards, which was quite appropriate since their wool had often paid for the beauty of the building.

Cherishing Churchyards Week 2014

Caring for God’s Acre is a small charity dedicated to the conservation of churchyards and burial grounds, both for their importance to people and to nature. Their website is full of valuable information and resources about conservation, and they support volunteer-led conservation projects across the UK. Between 7th and 15th June, they are holding Cherishing Churchyards Week, encouraging more people to get involved in looking after their churchyards not least to make them good homes for ladybirds, among the many other creatures in need of sanctuary in the modern world.

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Steeple Jackass

‘Climbing church steeples appears to have been an unusual pastime, with those conquering the climb usually leaving a ribbon for challengers to retrieve. In 1812, labourer Robert Jarvis is said to have taken this recreation to new extremes by climbing Moulton church spire with his small child in his arms and tying the infant to the weathercock with his handkerchief. Leaving the child there
 he returned to earth and went home to fetch his wife to view the spectacle and admire his skill before ascending once again and safely retrieving the child. His wife’s reaction is not recorded!’

This extraordinary story appears in Wide Horizons: A History of South Holland’s Landscape and People.

Mary Bryce, who lives in Moulton, sent me these photographs, taken from the church tower (though not the top of the spire where Robert Jarvis dangled his child); they give some sense of what the climb involved. The originals are in the collection of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, the learned society which marked its 300th anniversary in 2010.

And the British Pathé film of Mr. C. L. Ager, though filmed in Surrey, shows that the tradition of tying a handkerchief to a weathercock was still alive in 1920. The way in which he presents the handkerchief to the vicar at the end of the film suggests the social deference that still existed too.

Wide Horizons was commissioned by South Holland District Council in 2010, written by Paul Cope-Faulkner, Hilary Healey, Tom Lane John Honnor and Liam Robinson, and published by Heritage Lincolnshire. A fascinating insight into how this part of the county came to be as it is, the book can be downloaded free from the Council’s website.

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PS And this is what the spire looks like from the ground up…

Moulton Church Spire

Contemporary art in churches

Altered

Most village churches are hundreds of years old, and they look it, ancient and old-fashioned. It’s easy to think of them as embodying stability in a changing world. So they do, because they have survived so much for so long – and yet they were once the height of fashion. They were built to the latest trends in contemporary art and architecture. Each new aisle or window or sculpture similarly reflect current tastes.

It can be hard to see that now for several reasons, which is one reason why it can be so exciting to encounter contemporary art in an ancient church. Altered is a partnership between the Diocese of Lincoln, arts NK and the University of Lincoln to commission artists to create new work in churches. The experience is well captured by this comment from the Dutch artist Pat van Boeckel, who created work last year:

‘The challenge in Heckington for me was to make artwork which would not disturb the unique atmosphere of the centuries old church. In between the various projections I left room to look at the beauty of the church itself. I was surprised how much the church and the video could strengthen each other.’

Several installations have now been completed: they’re documented on the project’s website. The next one, by Carol MacGillivray and Bruno Mathez, will be at St James, Dry Doddington, next Bank Holiday weekend, Saturday 24 to Monday 26 May. Definitely worth a visit…

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Seeing what you’re looking for

Cowbit Church in 1820 (from South Holland Life)
Cowbit Church in 1820 (from South Holland Life)

Cowbit seen in 1870

Almost 150 years ago, when the Rev. John Marius Wilson published his Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales, this is how he saw the parish of Cowbit:

COWBIT, a village and a parish in Spalding district, Lincoln.

The village stands near the Welland navigation and the March and Spalding railway, 3 ½  miles SSE of Spalding, and 5 NNE of Crowland; and has a post office under Spalding, and a r. station. The parish includes also Peakhill hamlet, and allotments in Pinchbeck North Fen. Acres, 4,590. Real property, £4,591. Pop., 649. Houses, 141.

The living is a vicarage in the diocese of Lincoln. Value, £625.* Patrons, Feoffees. The church was built in 1486; and has a tower with a groined roof, and an octagonal panelled font. There is a Wesleyan chapel. A school has £55 from endowment: and other charities £30.

John Marius Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72)

The focus on the church and its value is perhaps not surprising in a record edited by a clergyman, but it is a useful reminder that we tend to see what we look for.

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