These four heads hold up the roof of Cowbit church, above the altar. They are probably the oldest carved stones in the building and they didn’t start out where they are now, though they were always made to support a roof, probably for a church built in the 1100s. They are crudely made – at least in comparison with the skillful carving you can see at, say, Pinchbeck – but they are full of life. Their wild, untamed faces, seem either threatening or fearful.
They speak of an older world, far more insecure than ours, where suffering and death could strike from a blue sky, without understandable cause and therefore without the possibility of mitigation. In such times, the church’s protection must have seemed a vital defence against the randomness of life.
These heads belong in Cowbit church. As sculptures in a white-walled museum, surrounded by unrelated treasures, they would be prisoners of an alien culture. It’s good to see them where they have always been, rooted in the place they were made, their eyes meeting the descendants of those who made them.
Among the people I met last week at Sutton St James was Tony Fitt-Savage, who retired in 2006 after 39 years as organist at St Mary Magdalene in Sandringham. Tony was kind enough to play for us, four people in a sunlit church on a quiet Thursday morning.
The organ at Sutton St James was installed in 1910, by Cousans, Sons & Co, of Lincoln, at a cost of £160. It’s a modest instrument, but one that has accompanied weddings, funerals and everyday services in the church for more than a century, a consistent sound amidst the changing styles of congregations.
A vegetable village near Boston, and near the sea bank of the Wash. A tree-surrounded rectory, and a distant scatter of farmhouses. The smooth-stone church has plain west tower and some clear-glassed windows to the aisles: others are drearily glazed. Spacious, but scraped with dark pointing. But as a landscape feature, among elms and fields, it is proper mediaeval, marshland architecture.
Henry Thorold and Jack Yates, Lincolnshire: A Shell Guide (1965)
The elms photographed by John Piper in the 1960s to accompany this text have gone, victims of Dutch Elm disease and the church looks less dramatic today than it did.
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.