Replacing the irreplaceable

Tony Leonard

The stone that Tony Leonard was holding had taken him a couple of days to carve. It’s called a ‘springer’ because from it spring the intricate lines that make up the tracery of a gothic window. The next time I pass St Botolph’s church in Boston, it will be in place, white and crisp looking, compared to those around it. In a few year’s time, it will have weathered and softened: only an expert eye will be able to distinguish the new stone from the old.

Tony and his brother Phil have been stonemasons at the Boston Stump for 34 years. A job they began in 1980 – a few months after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister – has gone on and on, as funds have been raised and new repairs identified. They can see their work throughout the building, from the tower downwards: the south window on which they are working today is just the latest in a very long line of projects.

Next year, Tony and Phil will make the long journey from Nottingham, where they live, to Boston for the last time. They will retire and the church administrators will have to find a new way to manage the everyday conservation of the building. It will not be easy.

In some ways Phil and Tony Leonard must know this church better than anyone alive, through the daily task of handling it. Their knowledge is experiential, not intellectual, held in muscles and fingertips. It can’t be written down for someone else to read: it can only got by doing. That’s why stonemasons have traditionally learned their craft through apprenticeship, learning from those who have travelled the same paths before them.

It will not be easy to replace these craftsmen and their knowledge but, one way or another, it will be done. The church has stood for over 700 years. It has been made and remade by numberless hands over that time. Everything about them has passed away except the work they did. The first person to be buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, in London, was its architect, Sir Christopher Wren. On the wall beside his tomb is a tablet inscribed with the Latin words:

Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice’

Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you

The same could be said for all those who have laboured by hand and mind and heart to build and maintain their churches for each succeeding generation.

Workmen removing the bells from St Botolp's during the 1932 restoration of the tower.
Workmen removing the bells from St Botolp’s during the 1932 restoration of the tower.

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Ancient presences

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.

A view of the fenland in 1790

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.

Peakirk to Boston in 1766
The road from Peakirk to Boston as printed in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ in 1766

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.

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Reading a church

Gosberton

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.)

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The original skyscrapers

Boston Stump

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.

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Boston Church, Lincolnshire," by James Harrison (1814-1866), watercolour. Dated 1821
Boston Church, Lincolnshire,” by James Harrison (1814-1866), watercolour. Dated 1821