Flat

A Lincolnshire paradox

‘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

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Dust jacket by Brian Cook, 1952
Dust jacket by Brian Cook, 1952

Stone and water

Stones of Gedney Church
Stones of Gedney Church

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.

Wicken Fen (Carol Laidlaw)
Wicken Fen (Carol Laidlaw)

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.

Barnack Hills & Holes National Nature Reserve (Dave Crosby)
Barnack Hills & Holes National Nature Reserve (Dave Crosby)

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.

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An ancient art

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.

Alan Bennett, Talking Heads, (1988) p. 75

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Long Sutton Flower Festival Plan

More heritage than is good for us?

Long Sutton Churchyard 2

“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

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Bryson - Small Island

Thanks to Gordon Bates for starting me in the hunt for this quote

Hope springs eternal

The beginning of May is a lovely time in England. In the Lincolnshire Fens, usually so undemonstrative, it can be extraordinary. The fields, seeming as sterile as brown graph paper for so long, turn green in the blink of an eye as fresh shoots push themselves up through the earth, unconcerned by its weight. The verges and hedges blossom; the trees are dusted with buds. Spring has arrived.

It’s the time of flowers, when it seems that every church has its festival. Fountains of colour appear against grey stone: yellow, orange and green, red, blue and white, gorgeous colour, of an intensity that human artifice can rarely match in paint or pixel.

Village after village brings flowers into their churches, celebrating nature’s limitless diversity on which we all depend for our own life. The spring flower festival, like the autumn harvest festival, is a moment when people still pause to acknowledge the foundations of life on which everything else stands.

Long Sutton Flower Festival

Alexander Pope’s optimistic theology does not speak as loudly today as it did in the 18th century, but hope still springs eternal in the human breast.

Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Book III (1731)

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Sketching churches

Here are some lovely images from Neil Baker’s Sketchcrawl yesterday in Moulton. Neil will be running these community sketching events ‘on location’ for Transported throughout this summer. He’s inviting everyone to get involved, whatever their skill or experience of drawing. To see some of the first results, follow the links to the Sketchcrawl blog and the Facebook page.

I’m off to Moulton shortly, to visit the flower festival and Handmade in Moulton; Jo Wheeler, who is doing another of the artist commissions will be there too. I’ll post some images of the day here tomorrow.

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