This roundel is at the top of the St Frideswide window made in 1858 by Edward Burne-Jones for the Latin Chapel of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. It fits within an ancient iconography that connects ships, church and community in a metaphor of the human journey through life.
I’ve seen some lovely stained glass at Moulton and elsewhere but I haven’t yet discovered whether there is any among the 14 churches in this project made by an artist of the calibre of Burne-Jones. But it wouldn’t surprise me: churches are full of art that you’d usually have to go to a museum to see.
Rosie lives and works in the Lincolnshire Fens, where she grew up. Her year as artist in residence at Woodlands Farm produced a wonderful series of drawings that capture life on the land today. These images of Algarkirk Church, near Woodlands, stand in a very long line of drawings of churches by artists. Rosie will be doing drawing workshops with a local school shortly, taking the church as a subject: some of the results will be shared here in due course.
The Rev. Reginald Thompson was 59 years old when he was filmed by British Pathé for this newsreel, in 1963. Apparently, Mr. Thompson learned his wrestling while working as a farmhand in Canada, before returning to the open prairies of southern Lincolnshire. It’s a lovely period piece, with everybody hamming it up for the camera – not least the narrator. Perhaps wrestling was always as much performance art as sport.
Does anyone in Moulton Chapel – or elsewhere – remember Mr. Thompson? Please share any memories below.
‘It is commonly thought that Lincolnshire is flat. The Lincolnshire man’s rebuttal takes a double form: first, the county is not flat, and second, if it is flat, that flatness is the essence of its character and particular beauty.’
M. W. Barley Lincolnshire and the Fens London, 1952
Churches have been part of the English landscape for so long that they’re easily taken for granted. After all, every village has one. They define the parish, English administration’s basic unit. In rural areas, where later building hasn’t grown up to obscure them, they’re still the most prominent buildings. It is their spires and towers that you see from a distance, marking place.
That familiarity can make it hard to see what extraordinary creations they are. Take something as plain as stone. A stone church looks right, normal, what you’d expect. The Fens are full of them, big, handsome and intricately decorated or small and friendly-looking. Each one made of silvery-grey limestone.
But remember: this is Fenland. Until humans got to work, this was a soft place where earth and water existed in an eternal embrace, shifting and slippery. Only the drains and sluices and pumping stations, and the constant vigilance of those who manage them, keep this land from returning to its ousy nature.
So if there was nothing here to build with, except reeds for thatch, where did all this stone come from?
In SW Lincolnshire, where the county meets Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, lies some of the finest building stone in England. Oolitic limestone from Barnack was used to build many of the best churches in East Anglia, including Crowland Abbey and Peterborough Cathedral.
And it was the same water that allowed people to bring that heavy stone from Barnack and other quarries to build churches in the fens, in a search of permanence in an unstable world. The fabric of every Fenland church has been carried by barge on waters of the Great Ouse and the Nene and the Welland and all their multiple tributaries. This seeming stability depends on movement.
Today, you can visit the old quarries of Barnack, which are a designated National Nature Reserve with the poetic name ‘Hills and Holes’, and wonder at the labour involved in prising the rock from this land and floating it away to build churches among the Fens.
Arranging flowers into a pleasing display must be one of the oldest expressions of human creativity. One can imagine even a Neanderthal responding to the colour and form of flowers by wanting to bring them close, to keep them as living evidence of nature’s extraordinary abundance. A flower arrangement is a still life that embodies the transitory nature of life that paintings can only represent.
Is it art? Of course it is, if art involves trying to articulate what you feel, think, believe and value through creative work that speaks to others.
In the Fenland church flower festivals people make arrangements in response to themes. Long Sutton’s ‘Count your Blessings’ inspired creations that celebrated hearing, books, music, friends and neighbours, employment and the health service. At Moulton, people represented ‘The Wonderful World of Colour’ with displays on Dulux, Cluedo, the Blue Danube and Lincolnshire Yellowbellies.
Having no aptitude for this, I admire those who have such artistry, and sympathise with Susan, the vicar’s wife played by Maggie Smith in Alan Bennett’s monologue, ‘Bed Among the Lentils’:
I’m even a fool at the flower arrangement. I ought to have a Ph.D. in the subject the number of classes I’ve been to but still my efforts show as much evidence of art as walking sticks in an umbrella stand. Actually it’s temperament. I don’t have it. If you think squash is a competitive activity try flower arrangement.
“It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource. Consider the numbers: 445,000 listed buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 1,500,000 acres of common land, 120,000 miles of footpaths and public rights of way, 600,000 known sites of archaeological interest (98 per cent of them with no legal protection).
Do you know that in my Yorkshire village alone there are more seventeenth-century buildings than in the whole of North America? And that’s just one obscure hamlet with a population comfortably under one hundred. Multiply that by all the other villages and hamlets in Britain and you see that the stockpile of ancient dwellings, barns, churches, pinfolds, walls, bridges and other structures is immense almost beyond counting.”
Bill Bryson, Notes from A Small Island (1995) Ch. 7