Today The Light Ships move into another phase, as conversations begin with people who use, look after, live beside or otherwise have links with the village churches. We’ll be going to meet people in Sutton St James today, listening to their stories and views about the church and its place in social and artistic life.
So far, this site has largely looked backwards, drawing on the words and pictures of visitors to South Holland in mapping some of the ways in which the churches have been seen. From here on, it will be local voices that will come to the centre of the stage. The prologue is done.
From Samuel Pepys to Alan Bennett, Britain has produced many celebrated diarists. Although John Byng is less well-known than some of these, his writing is not less enjoyable. Between 1781 and 1794, he spent his summers riding through Britain, recording his experiences. What I like about him, apart from his gift with words and companionable interest in what goes on around him, is that he knows that there are wonders everywhere. When other aristocrats wandered round Italy on the Grand Tour, Byng preferred to explore the byways of his native country, celebrating the landscapes, buildings and treasures we have stopped seeing because they are familiar.
And so, in July 1790, John Byng’s horse took him to the Lincolnshire fenlands, whose flatness he greatly appreciated:
‘Nothing can form an happier contrast with my late, hilly, stony Derbyshire ride than this flat of fine roads; for there is not a stone to counteract fancy or overturn a castle in the air.I had to observe the richness of the soil and its happy produce, till I view’d the grand remains of Crowland Abbey […] Nothing can be more noble, more Gothic or more elegantly carved than the front (now tottering) of Crowland Abbey, a beauty of the richest workmanship. My eyes gloried in beholding, whilst my heart sickened at the destruction. This, my guide said, was owing to Oliver Cromwell. There are five bells in the steeple, which is built for long endurance; but the present church, an aisle of the old one, has been pillaged, like Thorney, to the very bone; not the smallest remains of stained glass, monuments, or anything ancient except a grand holy water recess. […] Of the great eight southern windows, four have been lately taken down, for fear that they should fall down; […] The front is so seamed by rents that down it must soon come; the finest monument in the kingdom: and would I were near it then (not too near) to save and carry off some of the carved figures.’
Byng went on his way but was not so impressed by the next church he encountered:
‘My road soon brought me to the village of Cowbit, whose miserable little thatched church I walked around. Soon after, being overtaken by a storm of rain, I hurried into a shed which I occupied for half an hour, unnoticed.’
He liked Spalding much better – ‘a large, clean, well-built, Dutch-like, canall’d town’ – where he visited Col. Johnson, ‘a very old, worn-out man’, at Ayscoughfee Hall, finding ‘many good pictures of esteem’d masters; but all in disorder and decay, like the owner’. The next day he rode on early towards Pinchbeck:
‘I had not ridden a mile ere an horrid storm approach’d, which urged me to gallop Pony furiously to the village of Pinchbeck […] and to the Bell alehouse, which I had scarcely enter’d when the clouds broke there fell one of the heaviest storms of rain, with repeated thunder and lightning, that I ever remember. Thomas Bush remained with the horses whilst I sat with the landlady in the parlour; though she pressed me to go into the kitchen to keep company with their clergyman, who she said was ‘a fine learned man’ but so addicted to drink as to have wasted all his money, and now could not live out of an alehouse, where he would accept a glass of gin from anyone, to keep himself drunk. I did go in and saw him sitting before the fire, smoking his pipe.’
With this sad account of the Rev. Charles Townsend Jr., who died the same year, Byng went on to Boston, where he ‘supp’d on boil’d soles’. The next day was
‘A fresh, fair morning, wherein I took a pleasant hour’s walk before breakfast; admiring with all my eyes, and a strain’d neck, the beauty, grandeur and loftiness of the tower of Boston church, a building of most wonderful workmanship. Within, tho’ large, I recollected nothing (peeping thro’ the windows) that met my love of antiquity.’
It was Saturday, so he enjoyed the market and talking to fishermen on the river before wandering as far as Hussey Tower, setting off again after lunch towards Holbeach where he found his supper after admiring the musical tone of the church bells. Indeed, music seems to have a point of local pride, for his waiter told him
‘That the church music and singing were good, but did not advise me to stay the services tomorrow, as their poor curate who has so many children had but a bad delivery (his wife beats him in that). As for the rector of this rich living, he never was here but when presented to it.’
And so, on Sunday, 4 July 1790, John Byng took to his horse once more without attending the curate’s morning service, riding through Gedney and Long Sutton (‘a large, straggling, well-built village’) before passing out of Lincolnshire and out of this story, leaving us only his curious, distinctive opinion of the sights he had seen.
An ancient church is a complex physical object, in a particular place and marked by the passage of time. We recognize that it has purpose and meaning and so we often talk about it – directly or indirectly – as needing to be decoded. It’s true that its sculptures, paintings and stained glass were intended to remind people of specific biblical stories. Its form and the rituals it served were shaped by clear theological beliefs. Nowadays, in the age of cultural studies, ‘text’ is frequently applied to things other than arrangements of letters like these. Everything is a text, if you know how to read it.
But, it’s said, we live in a post-Christian country. People are no longer brought up with the stories of the Old and New Testaments. They do not know about the loaves and the fishes or the Tree of Jesse, nor where a Catherine Wheel gets its name. The uncertainty evoked by Philip Larkin in Church Going – ‘some brass and stuff / Up at the holy end’ – is felt by many people (though perhaps not the poet himself). At any rate, those who write about churches think so. Simon Jenkins writes in England’s Thousand Best Churches:
To most people today a church is a puzzling place […] Why piscinas, stoups and misericords; why gargoyles, corbels and Green Men? The church is a song without words, an architectural Sanskrit.
Sir Roy Strong, though he disagrees with Simon Jenkins about many things, also feels that this knowledge can no longer be taken for granted, explain that his book
is an attempt to tell those who love visiting these beautiful field buildings what went on inside them and in some form, however truncated, still does today.
And so books and TV programmes are dedicated to helping the visitor decipher the text that is an English parish church. Full of recondite information, they can answer almost any question you might have about architectural styles, funerary monuments or rood screens.
But do we really need them?
The point of Larkin’s poem is that, even without such knowledge and whatever their own relationship with Christianity, each person who enters a church understands that this is a place where, for centuries, people have wanted to be serious about themselves and their community, about love, about death, about existence. The forms in which that desire for something beyond ourselves is expressed matter less than the desire. And having been built and used for that purpose for so long, the place may not need help to communicate to strangers from another time or another culture.
(And if we do get stuck, there’s always Wikipedia.)
- Simon Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Churches
- Roy Strong, A Little History of the English Country Church
- Richard Taylor How To Read A Church: A Guide to Images, Symbols and Meanings in Churches and Cathedrals
- Clive Fewins, The Church Explorer’s Handbook
Five hundred years ago there were no tombs in your graveyard. Bodies were under its ground but the souls that had lived in them were remembered at the alter in church. Sometimes after service the churchyard was used for sports. On feast days churchwardens provided ale from the church ale house. In many old towns and villages there is an inn overlooking the churchyard, just as the Swan does at Wantage. It is probably a survival of the church ale house.
But after the Reformation people seem to have preferred to commemorate themselves in stone. The rich had sculptured memorials inside the church, the less rich headstones in the churchyard and the poor had to be content with men’s memory.
Many old customs survive connected with churchyards. No parson, for instance, can cut down the trees in his churchyards unless they are required for the repair of the chancel; and offending rectors can be heavily fined – and once they could be excommunicated. Then it is interesting to see how the old belief that the Devil haunted the north side of the church survived until the 19th century; in few old churchyards are there even any eighteenth-century tombs on the north side of the church and only if the village happened to be on the north side was the north door used.
From Tennis Whites and Teacakes, John Betjeman, edited by Stephen Games, London 2007.
This is from an article by John Betjeman, from an article on ‘Country Churchyards’, published in May 1953 in his diocesan newsletter. Today is the beginning of Cherishing Churchyards Week, organized by Caring for God’s Acre, a small Herefordshire charity that supports the conservation of burial grounds. I wish good weather and good cheer to all the volunteers involved, and all the gardeners who’ll be spending time this weekend caring for a churchyard.
BBC Radio Lincolnshire has a weekly arts programme called Tuesday Extra, and this week’s edition was particularly rich in connections to The Light Ships. The guests included Andrew Dennis, who runs Woodlands Organic Farm, near Boston, and whose vision of the land’s connection with people has made it such a rewarding place to visit. As someone who knows and loves the arts, Andrew has welcomed poets, composers and artists to spend time at Woodlands, creating new work inspired by the landscape, the people and their work in growing organic food and raising traditional Lincolnshire breeds. The programme included extracts from Cecilia McDowall’s lovely ‘Five Seasons’ (2006), whose composition was partly inspired by her stay at Woodlands and the fenland scene.
Richard Still, another guest on Tuesday’s programme, spoke about his efforts to reconstruct the instruments that were played in medieval churches. At a concert in Lincoln Cathedral, he’d found his attention caught by the pictures of angel musicians in the stained glass: the images above, from the cathedral, were all added by Richard to BBC Lincolnshire’s Facebook page so that listeners could see for themselves. A recorder player and expert in ancient music, he has made some instruments based on the versions that can still be found in churches, five hundred years or more after the echoes of their notes faded away.
A programme like Tuesday Extra – which you can still listen to online by clicking here – is wonderful partly because it’s so ordinary. One weekday teatime, you might be driving home or preparing supper (with local vegetables!) and find yourself transported by the haunting sounds of mediaeval music over the fields on whose produce we all depend.
The train curved round and then I saw, for the first time, that astonishing church tower known as the ‘Boston Stump’. This tower is not quite three hundred feet high; but nevertheless, situated as it is, it looked to me more impressive, not as a piece of architecture, but simply as a skyscraper, than the Empire State Building in New York, with its eleven hundred feet. It is all a matter of contrast. Here the country is flat; you have seen nothing raised more than twenty or thirty feet from the ground, for miles and miles; and then suddenly this tower shoots up to nearly three hundred feet. The result is that at first it looks as high as a mountain. Your heart goes out to those old Bostonians who, weary of the Lincolnshire levels and the flat ocean, made up their minds to build and build into the blue. If God could not give them height, they would give it to him.
J. B. Priestley, English Journey, 1932
Apparently, the earliest appearance of the word ‘skyscraper’ relates to the topmost, triangular sail on a square-rigged sailing ship, in the late 18th century – something that must have been familiar in a port like Boston.
But church towers and spires have been stretching up to scratch the heavens for centuries. Competitive pride pushed communities to outdo each other, especially in wool-rich counties like Somerset and Lincolnshire. Travellers on the Great North Road seeing the distant spires of Grantham and Newark must have debated which was the finer. Lincoln Cathedral, visible for miles around on its cliff, once capped its towers with wooden spires, the tallest of which collapsed in 1549, not to be replaced.
Running like a thread through all these stories is the idea of humanity challenging the deity by daring to leave the earth and, like Icarus, falling to destruction.
- John Angerson’s English Journey – A revisiting of Priestley’s Journey
The organ is such a staple of church music that it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t always so. The churches of the Fens have echoed to many different styles of music over the centuries: plain chant in Latin, choral singing, organ recitals and the ever changing music of the people. There’s a lovely story by Thomas Hardy about a church band – fiddles, bass-viol, serpent; clarionet and oboe – who have a bit too much brandy and beer one Christmas to keep warm in the unheated west gallery, while the sermon rolls on. The shocking consequence spells the end of their playing in church as the squire invests in:
‘a barrel-organ that would play two-and-twenty new psalm-tunes, so exact and particular that, however sinful inclined you was, you could play nothing but psalm-tunes.’
Nowadays, squires and parsons are more relaxed about what music should be heard in church. When I was at Long Sutton recently, the Rocking Rector of Market Deeping was doing a sound check for that evening’s concert. Five miles away, at Holbeach Church, the South Holland Singers and the Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra were performing Haydn’s Creation. Who could feel deprived of opportunities to enjoy music in the Lincolnshire Fens that Spring Saturday evening?
- South Holland Singers
- Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra
- West Gallery Music Association
- A Village Choir (1847) by Thomas George Webster (V&A Museum)
- Absent-Mindedness In A Parish Choir by Thomas Hardy