Access to churches

Asgarby church2

A baking July afternoon in Lincolnshire. Everything feels flattened under the heat: sheep, crops, fields. The houses I pass are quiet as if people are waiting for the cool of evening to come out of doors. A wrong turn has brought me to Asgarby, a village I’ve never seen: a few houses and a lovely church sheltered by trees as they so often are in the English countryside. I pull over and walk down the lane to the iron gate of the churchyard; a little wooden sign says ‘welcome’. But, with disappointment, I find the church locked. At least the windows are low and filled with clear glass, so I get tantalizing glimpses of the lovely, light-filled interior through the spider webs. But it’s not the same as being able to sit in the cool stone for a few minutes before going on my way.

Unattended churches are vulnerable to thefts, though perhaps less than they once were thanks to modern security measures. At greatest risk, according to statistics published by Lincolnshire Police, are personal property (such as mobile phones), equipment found in the community spaces now common in churches, and building materials – above all lead. Last Friday night, five strips of lead were stolen from the roof of Gedney church. It’s a distressing blow to any church community and the repairs will cost far more than the stolen metal will fetch. But the church being locked made no difference.

Since 2001, both Labour and Conservative governments have made free admission to national museums a point of principle. It’s certainly one mark of a civilised society that its major public museums are open to all. But not everyone can get to the V&A, Tate or the British Museum to see the nation’s treasures. It may be free to get in, but getting to the entrance is not.

There is great art in every part of the country though: in England’s historic churches. These buildings are among the oldest and finest we have. They are treasure-houses of sculpture, stained glass, metalwork, painting and other forms of art, where elite and everyday tastes claim legitimacy in a cultural negotiation that has left its trace over centuries. And they are freely accessible. When they are not locked.

Simon Jenkins describes the parish churches as a vast, dispersed museum of England: I think they are different and more interesting than that, but I know what he means. They are immensely valuable places in so many ways and they belong to all of us.

So perhaps the Department of Culture, Media and Sport could find a way to help ensure that more of them are open, to more people, more often. There’s the Heritage Lottery Fund, ministers will say – but they haven’t spoken, as I have, to elderly people who have struggled with the forms only to be turned down, twice. A government-backed insurance scheme might be one form of assistance, but there are undoubtedly others. A little imaginative help to the communities who use and cherish these buildings, for themselves and for the nation, could make a simple by substantial difference to people’s everyday access to their artistic heritage.

Asgarby church9

Who owns the church?

 

The churches of England do not, like those of France, belong to the state, neither do they belong to the Church Commissioners, the bishops, the parsons or the patrons. They belong to the people. They are part of our common heritage and the responsibility for their custody rests legally with the parochial church councils and morally with the parishioners, of whom the church councils are the elected representatives. In the cases of non-Anglican churches the position is similar. They belong to the religious societies for whose use they were built.

Our ancient parish churches were for many centuries the sole places of worship in the country and they therefore make a claim upon all of us, whatever our religious denomination may happen to be, because our forefathers built them, were christened and married in them and now rest beneath their shade.

Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust, 1976

If allowance is made for some of the old-fashioned assumptions about faith and gender in this 40-year-old quote, it remains a lucid explanation not just of who owns our churches, but why.

Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust

Learning to look: Edwin Smith

Browsing in a secondhand bookshop, thirty years ago, I came across a large format book entitled English Abbeys and Priories, filled with page after page of the most beautiful black and white photographs. I’d always loved photography and knew the work of people like Robert Capa, Bill Brandt, Don McCullin and, most of all then, Henri Cartier-Bresson. But Edwin Smith was a new name, and his work had none of the drama or narratives of modern life I’d been drawn to before. These images of ancient buildings seemed timeless, not least because they rarely included people.

Though the book seemed expensive at the time, it has been one of my most rewarding possessions. I’ve spent hours looking at the photogravure plates – a costly form of reproduction rarely used nowadays but capable of giving deep blacks and silvery greys that beautifully captured the subtle tones of Smith’s work. And over the years, I found other books by Edwin Smith: English Cottages and Farmhouses, Scotland, Ireland, Pompeii, Athens and many others. Sometimes his photographs were just used as illustrations but the best volumes, usually published by Thames and Hudson in the 1950s and 1960s, were long photo-essays of a kind publishers no longer produce. And the best of these were created with his wife, the writer and artist Olive Cook: it is rare to find two creative sensibilities so well attuned as these.

Smith was an artist at heart, though he had little success as painter or draughtsman. The only exhibition of his paintings, in 1944, earned a single sale and he later observed that he must be the only artist with a complete collection of his own work. Although it was in photography that he found artistic success, his real peers are artists like Edward Bawden, Peggy Angus, Enid Marx, John Piper and Eric Ravilious.

Edwin Smith died in 1971, aged only 59, but his work, never fashionable, was already out of time. Neo-romantic in spirit, it was a conscious resistance to certain aspects of the modern world, including its tendency to make everywhere look the same. And that matters not just for reasons of aesthetics or sentimentality but because the places where we live shape how we live.

In art, as in life, this perspective always risks nostalgia and worse. It is easily dismissed as backward-looking, fuddy-duddy even. But the voices who question the headlong rush towards progress are important, and sometimes they are right. In the anxious times we live in today, there has been a revival of interest in the 20th century English neo-romantic artists like Angus, Piper and Ravilious. Edwin Smith, whose photographic archive is held by the RIBA, is being rediscovered with a major exhibition of his work in London this autumn. It will have been worth the wait.

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith

Christian art in a post-Christian society

As The Light Ships has developed, I’ve been thinking more and more about the complex relationship between faith and art. I’ve written a longer, more general piece about those issues on the Regular Marvels site. If you’re interested in these ideas, do follow the link to read the article.

Regular Marvels

‘If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian. It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. And in some ways, the cultural presence is still quite strongly Christian. But it is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted.’

The only really surprising thing about these measured, thoughtful words is that they were spoken by Rowan Williams, poet, theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury. In many ways it seemed – and was greeted as – a statement of the obvious. Dr Williams’ interview was followed by quiet murmurs rather than controversy, as if he’d said something everyone knew but was too embarrassed to say.

The consequences of European Christianity’s decline in authority are vast and unforeseeable. They affect individual and social life not just here but also across the world, because elsewhere religion…

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A church in a church

Moulton Chutrch in Moulton Church

When I wrote about the drawing of Moulton Church by William Burgess, I hadn’t noticed that a copy of the engraving that he made from it is actually in the church. Finding pictures of the church you’re in displayed on its walls is another small pleasure. They may be old or new, professional or amateur, skillful or a bit ordinary: they’re always worth a look. And in their quiet way, they underline people’s constant need to express what they value by representing it, even when reality is all around to be seen as itself.

An ancient tradition in an ancient church

Bicker Church

Today is Bicker’s Gift Day, when parishioners and others are invited to visit and support the church. Gift days are traditionally held close to a church’s Patronal Day – the feast day of the saint to whom the building is dedicated. In Bicker’s case that is St Swithun, a slightly obscure but much venerated Bishop of Winchester in the ninth century.

The dedication to a Saxon saint underlines Bicker’s ancient origins: formerly a harbour and – like Wrangle – prosperous centre of salt-production, the village was already substantial when the Domesday Book was compiled. The scale and quality of the 12th century nave of St Swithun’s church – of which only a part survives – is impressive, even among the Fenland’s fine churches, and deserves to be better known.

 

 

An elephant in Moulton

Moulton Elephant

It never occurred to me that elephants would feature in a project about village churches, but they keep turning up. This one lies on a carpet in the children’s area of Moulton Church, waiting for some small person to sit on him. There seems nothing incongruous about him in this graceful medieval building: both serve to express the human need for love.

Some of the older residents of Moulton remember how severe church services once were: it was forbidden even to turn around in the pew. Times have changed. Mary Brice spoke to me about the festival of animals she organised in the church a couple of years ago, which included a service to bless and give thanks for local people’s pets: dogs, birds, cats and other creatures took place with their owners, while the then vicar’s cockerel paced the ancient floor.

I think the medieval people who made Moulton would have felt entirely comfortable with the presence of animals, living and stuffed, in their church. People lived more closely with animals then than most of us do today, even taking them to court in certain circumstances.

Treasure tucked away in Boston

You wouldn’t think to look if you didn’t know they were there, which may be why the carved figures under the seats of the choir stalls in Boston Stump have survived when so much medieval church art has not.

Medieval church services were sung standing up, several times a day for those in religious life. Thus was born the idea of the misericord, a little wooden shelf on the underside of a folding seat that provided the old, infirm (or less motivated) with something to lean their backsides on when they were supposed to be standing at prayer. Its a very human solution, pragmatic and realistic as mediaeval people often were. It’s name derives from the Latin for an act of mercy.

Because a misericord was rarely seen, the carpenters who made them were allowed more freedom in their work. So, rather than saints and biblical scenes, they carved animals, heraldic symbols and scenes of everyday life. The result is a rich picture of life in the Middle Ages, full of humour and interest – and St Botolph’s church in Boston has as fine a set as you can see anywhere.

There’s a boy being whipped by his teacher, protecting himself with a schoolbook; a bear baited by a man with two dogs; a man and a woman sitting beside a cooking pot; a hunter pursuing a deer with a fearsome arrow; and much more. And if Ernest Napier, author of an excellent guide to the Boston misericords hadn’t told me about them, I’d have left without discovering the wonderful art hidden below the seats.

Sinking ships

Cowbit Church from the Wash

Cowbit stands just 10 feet above sea level, protected from the Welland floodplain known as Cowbit Wash by a huge earthwork called, appropriately enough, Barrier Bank.

This photo, taken from the drained land below the Bank – famously used for ice-skating contests on frozen floodwaters – gives an indication of the scale of the fenland drainage works. Cowbit church tower does not  dominate the landscape here. Sunk into the earth over the centuries – see how far below the road is the 15th century tower door – it peeps humbly over the protective bank that has kept building and people safe from floods and similar acts of God.

Cowbit Church

In 1856, the First Series of the Ordnance Survey mapped Cowbit, the Wash and the surrounding area. Not so much has changed in the subsequent 160 years, and the map nicely shows the relationship of river, land and fen, the little village holding to the bank where it has been so long.

Cowbit on the Odrnance Survey 1856

In 1947, a cameraman for British Pathé shot this unused film of what happens when the dykes are overwhelmed.

 

Ancient and Modern

Medieval visions

Wrangle Church is known to architectural historians for its rare 14th century stained glass. Such survivals are unusual in English parish churches because artistic work associated with Roman Catholicism was frowned upon after Henry VIII established a Protestant Church of England, and especially by the convinced advocates of Puritanism in the 17th century. Statues, metalwork, books, paintings and stained glass were all stripped out, broken, burnt or sold. The people of Wrangle saved at least some of their ancient glass by burying it; but when it was safe to retrieve it, centuries later, its original design had been forgotten, so the glass in the north aisle windows is beautiful but hard to decipher.

Olive Cook, who produced some of the finest post-war books on English buildings and topography with her husband, the photographer Edwin Smith, gives a good account of Wrangle’s medieval stained glass:

An inscription formerly part of this splendid window is recorded to have stated that it was made to the order of Thomas de Wynesty, Abbot of Waltham from 1345 to 1371. A late mediaeval date for the glass is indicated by the naturalism of the figures, the type of armour worn by the soldiers (camail, bascinet and sallet, which replaced the bascinet), the predominance of canopy work, by the fact that the mosaic technique of early glass painting has been abandoned for larger areas of colour and above all by the use of silver nitrate (a late 14th century discovery) to produce a magical range of yellow tints ranging from the palest lemon to rich amber.

English Parish Churches, Edwin Smith, Olive Cook & Graham Hutton, 1976

A modern vision

But it would be a pity, in admiring this valuable ancient work, to miss the latest addition to Wrangle’s artistic treasures: a stained glass window in the south aisle, dedicated to Lincolnshire farming. It was commissioned by Harry Clarke, a worshipper in the church of St Mary and St Nicholas for 64 years, the window was installed in 1997.

It is entirely contemporary in style, with its sky streaking across the panels in bright colours not found in older glass But the heavy horse and the old tractor – a Massey Ferguson or Fordson Major, perhaps – on which Harry Clarke sits, recall an older time, so there is a little nostalgia in the image too. There is also a wealth of detail to find: a crouching cat, a patient dog and lots of birds. There will be children who will come to love this window for generations to come, as their eyes gradually discover its treasures.

And in one corner, a reminder of something that happened when the artist was working on the window: ‘Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris, 31 August 1997, RIP’. So is another piece of history, and art, laid down in a parish church on the Lincolnshire coast.