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…

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

When you’re smiling…

George Harrison once said that you can’t hear a ukulele without wanting to smile. I know what he meant: I was beaming throughout the Ukulele Orchestra of Spalding concert at Holbeach St John church last night. As the sound of church bells is naturally joyful, the sound of the ukulele just brings a smile to your face.

It helped that the Orchestra played familiar songs with style, adding colour with flashes of violin, trumpet, recorder – and triangle. It helped that their performance was full of self-deprecating wit, and the jokes nicely polished by age. It helped too that the church members who’d organised the concert to raise funds were so welcoming, providing an interval buffet of heroic generosity.

It all made as happy an event as one could wish for on a summer’s evening in a fenland village. C community, art and church in easy harmony: at the end of the evening, the Orchestra returned what they’d been given to help with church funds. Everybody went home with a smile and a tune in their heads.

PS The Ukulele Orchestra of Spalding plays about 50 concerts a year, all in aid of local charities: they will be performing at Gosberton Church on Saturday 25 October: more details on their website.

The Drunken Church Band

Thomas_Webster_-_A_Village_Choir

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.’

Click here to read the story

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?

Links

Long Sutton Church band