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Making a mark

 

You expect to see stained glass in an English parish church: it’s one of the visual signs that instantly identifies a church as such, like a spire. Most of it was put in by the Victorians, because so much was destroyed by puritans and other iconoclasts in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Victorians meant well, and some of their work is very fine, but often it’s literal, sentimental and crudely coloured, like the pictures in the King James Bible I was given at primary school.

And so, as a result, we see the splash of colour in a church, but don’t often look at the pictures it makes. These three windows, which fill the Victorian apse added to the east end of Sutton St James church, are what you see when you come into the church. When I was there, the southern one glowed with sunshine (which is why the photograph is so dark and bright), but I didn’t look very closely.

But a conversation with Pauline Stebbings changed its appearance entirely. The central window, she said, had been commissioned by her grandmother as a memorial to her grandfather, in 1947. When she had died two years later, the children had installed the northern window and then, when one of them had died in 1951, the third window was made. Pauline remembers the family being involved in deciding the design of the windows:

I do like them and so many people say how good they are. I can remember when I was small, having them on the big table – the plan of it all and working out what scenes they put in and all that.  But the family did say it didn’t matter how many more of them died, there wouldn’t be any more put in, because I suppose they’d cost the earth now. But it would be a lot of money then, wouldn’t it?’

So these images were created in the years after the Second World War, by a local farming family to honour and remember those they had loved. No more and no less than the continuing process of the generations leaving their mark on their church, for themselves and those who come after.

Poetry, film and the strangeness of the recent past

A Passion for Churches (1974)2

What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky,

Without church towers to recognise you by?

John Betjeman, A Passion for Churches (1974)

It’s impossible not to look at and write about English village churches without the presence of John Betjeman. Although he will be remembered as a highly original poet, and was widely appreciated as such in his lifetime, it was his television films that made Betjeman such a recognisable figure in the 1960s and 1970s. Made in television’s salad days, before its executives thought they knew what was good, these are highly personal portraits of places and things that Betjeman loved: the seaside, trains, architecture and, repeatedly, churches.

One of the best, A Passion for Churches, is about Norfolk’s churches and it can be watched on the BBC iPlayer. In it Betjeman visits some wonderful places: Trunch, Sandringham (where Tony Fitt-Savage was organist at the time), Cley-next-the Sea.

But it’s the people who steal the show: the mothers with their children at a Wednesday afternoon Sunday School; the young couple getting married (he went on to be a Bishop of Manchester). He meets the Chaplain of the Broads, chugging about on a boat to greet the holidaymakers, a vicar dedicated to his model railway and another going out to see the men on the Smith’s Point Light Ship. There’s 6am Easter service on the quay at Lowestoft with a Salvation Army band, people singing hymns in the wind and sun. And there’s Billy West, a bellringer for 60 years, saying:

Ah that’s music in your ear, that’s music in the ear. Once that gets hold of you, I suppose that’s like smoking cigarettes; once that gets hold of you that, that’s a drug: you can’t get rid of it. There’s something about it, I don’t know what it is, but you’d go anywhere for it. If there weren’t somewhere where there were some bells I’d go crazy, I know I should. Bells are life to me. I mean, it never seems Sunday to me if we don’t hear the bells.

But it’s hearing the Norfolk in Mr West’s voice that gives that statement its poetry.

A Passion for Churches (1974)8

 

And poetry runs throughout the film as Betjeman shifts easily from prose to verse in a way no one would dare to do today.

And should we let the poor old churches die?

Do the stones speak? My word, of course they do.

Here in the midst of life they cry aloud:

’You’ve used us to build houses for your prayer;

You’ve left us here to die beside the road.’

 

Christ, son of God, come down to me and save:

How fearful and how final seems the grave.

Only through death and resurrection come;

Only from shadows can we see the light;

Only at our lowest comes the gleam:

Help us, we’re all alone and full of fear.

Drowning, we stretch our hands to you for aid

And wholly unexpectedly you come:

Most tolerant and all embracing church.

A Passion for Churches was made forty years ago. It’s not just the clothes and plummy voices that seem to belong to another age. Such public statements of belief would cause embarrassment in public life today. It’s Philip Larkin’s post-religious ‘Church Going’ rather than Betjeman’s faith that fits the tenor of the age.

Nothing is more remote than the recent past: not yet history but how we were is already unthinkably strange. Thus we live and pass and all that we believe to be normal is just more of the vast oddity of human beings.

In some churches all prayer has ceased.

St. Benedict’s, Norwich, is a tower alone.

But better let it stand

A lighthouse beckoning to a changing world.

A Passion for Churches (1974)4

A young painter in Moulton Chapel

Rex Thorpe - Moulton Chapel (1904)

Fred Thorpe was born in Moulton Chapel in 1894 and attended the primary school there. He painted this picture at school, when he was about ten years old – so it dates from about 1904. It’s a bit the worse for wear, but its colours have remained beautifully vivid, and like many children’s drawings it’s full of attention to the detail of life. Children are often excellent at looking, though their technical control of paint and pencil may not yet be as strong.

After school, Fred went into farming, working as a cultivating and threshing contractor, initially with steam engines – probably like this one, lovingly maintained by the Dawson family of Bicker, and which you can see at the Steam Threshing event in aid of church funds, this coming weekend. Both his son and his grandson followed hi into the contracting business, working across lower South Holland.

Steam engine, Bicker

Fred must have been proud of his picture to hang on to it, and now it has become a treasure passed on in his family. I came across it thanks to Rebecca Lee, who is working on one of the other Transported commissions in the area: Outside Broadcast. Rebecca took the photo and I’m grateful to both her and Rex for permission to share it here. It’s left me wondering about the many small and unknown artistic treasures there may be on walls, in drawers and in people’s memories, about the places and people who matter to them in the villages of South Holland…

Whaplode Church Flower Festival

Whaplode Church

Whaplode flower festival starts today

Church flower festivals, which are such a beautiful aspect of life in the Lincolnshire fenlands mostly take place in the spring. But one or two cannily wait until later in the year and Whaplode is one of those. If you have some time this weekend, do try to get there. As well as the flowers, there’s an organ recital, bell ringing, live music, teas, a hog roast and much more – all at one of the most beautiful, interesting churches in the Fens.

It’s the kind of celebration that has been going in churches and churchyards for hundreds of years: a community coming together to celebrate being who they are. 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Whaplode Flower Festival – Long may it continue.

Links

 

Flowers Whaplode August 2014 flyer

The difference between being and doing

Freiston Church 1

An ancient and beautiful church fulfils its primary function merely by existing. It is, in itself, and irrespective of the numbers using it, an act of worship. … It is only in modern times that the belief has arisen that a church has to be filled regularly with worshippers to justify its existence.

These words, originally from the Friends of Friendless Churches and quoted by the late Henry Thorold, in his Lincolnshire Churches Revisited, are a striking reminder of the difference between being and doing, a distinction that is often forgotten in our utilitarian age.

News about ‘The Light Ships’

It’s been quiet on these pages for a few days because I’m working on the first draft of the book – well, to be more precise, on the first draft of the first part of The Light Ships book. Using only the words of the 70 or 80 people I’ve met in the past three months, this is the core of the book. It is something of an experiment, as I try to weave a true and interesting tapestry from all those conversations. I did a short version of that for another book called Where We Dream, but this is very different, not least because this is a much bigger conversation between people who have never met. I expect to have it done by the end of the month, so that everyone can check their own part, as it were.

In the meantime, here is a little gallery of church kneelers, which are for me the very symbols of art that in the service of life, faith, community and memory. It is also an art without pretention or, it seems to me, egotism.

More news in a week or two…

Whaplode Riots!

Jo Wheeler’s Village Postcard project – a Transported commission, like The Light Ships – is coming to fruition this week, with photographic installations in bus stops at Cowbit, Moulton, Whaplode and Pinchbeck, as well as on the 505 buses that link Spalding with King’s Lynn. All the details are on Jo’s website. Because we’re working in the same villages, there’s naturally some overlap – and here’s her account of a visit to Whaplode church, with some great photos of the churchyard.

The Village Postcard Project

Found out about the Whaplode riot of 1482 today, which took place in the grounds of the St Mary’s where I’ve been photographing recently. The grounds are more of a cottage garden than a graveyard, which the villagers plant and tend. There are no oppressive yew trees, and this time of year there’s a wonderful array of colourful and casual blooms lining the pathway to the Church entrance and framing the ancient stone. In the 15th Century the Abbot at Crowland was responsible for collecting Whaplode’s local taxes. When these were not used to make urgent repairs to St Mary’s the villagers asked if they could chop down the trees in the grounds and use the wood to make the repairs themselves. When the Abbot refused the villagers rioted, kidnapping the Abbot’s local steward and taking axes to the trees. So there may well have been Yew trees at one time! Hundreds of years…

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Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

Heckington Church, Lincolnshire, July 2014
Heckington Church, Lincolnshire, July 2014

 

Oh, is the water sweet and cool,

Gentle and brown, above the pool?

And laughs the immortal river still

Under the mill, under the mill?

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

And Certainty? and Quiet kind?

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (1912)

Although written long before anyone knew the Great War was coming, and in a lighter tone than the poetry he would write when it did, Rupert Brooke’s evocation from abroad of life in an English village is endlessly poignant. We do, after all, know what came in 1914.

Rupert Brooke died in 1915 on a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea. He was 27 years old. By then, his poetry was both successful and closely associated with the war. His sonnets, The Dead and The Soldier, – ‘If I should die, think only this of me’ – had caught something of the spirit of sacrificial heroism that had inspired young men from all over England to volunteer in the summer of 1914.

Among them were scores of farm labourers, tradesmen and other young men from the Fens, who joined the Lincolnshire Regiment and fought on the Western Front. Many of them, far more than anyone imagined on 4 August 1914, never came back. The lost were remembered by their parents, sisters and former comrades in the parish church, where so many other lives, and so many historical crises, had also left their mark.

The poetry of the First World War is closely linked in the English imagination with the experience of industrial warfare. No other war has left such a trace in our literature. Today, one hundred years after the entry of Great Britain into the Great War, let the words of another fine poet, Laurence Binyon, mark the day, as they have so often in Remembrance Services in each one of these churches:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon, For The Fallen, (1914)

Links

On the eve of war

 

In 1914, Macmillan & Co published the latest in their successful series of topographical books on England. Highways and Byways in Lincolnshire was written by a retired Hampshire Headmaster, Willingham Franklin Rawlings, and illustrated with pencil drawings by Frederick L. Griggs. It was a handsome volume, over 500 pages of rich text about the county, with – as usual in Lincolnshire – much attention given to the ancient churches.

Griggs’ drawings, even allowing for the limits of available print technology, are very fine. Although he contributed illustrations for a number of similar books, Fred Griggs (1876 –1938) was far more than a jobbing artist. He studied at the Slade and was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He made an important contribution to English etching and has been described as ‘the most important etcher who followed in the Samuel Palmer tradition’.

And, like Edwin Smith, John Piper and so many other 20th century artists drawn to the subject of churches, his work was firmly within the English neo-romantic tradition. Here are his drawings of fenland churches as reproduced, on the eve of the First World War, in Highways and Byways in Lincolnshire.

 

 

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