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

Aspiring ingenuity

Gosberton tower and spire

The idea of looking at churches with new eyes is at the heart of The Light Ships. Unless you were brought up in another faith or a different part of the world, churches are such a familiar part of the English cultural landscape that their strangeness is all but invisible. All these arrows pointing at the sky, the spires that give the project its name, are so commonplace  – but what an extraordinary thing to build.

Unlike skyscrapers like the Shard, they have no monetary purpose. Their value is immaterial. And yet, they are massive physical presences. Tons and tons of stone, quarried, ferried, carted, hauled, carved, winched, set and finally billed.

For all that, it’s never occurred to me to wonder what was inside those stone needles. When you walk under towers, you see a ceiling, sometimes beautifully vaulted in stone, like this one at Gosberton.

Gosberton, Tower vault

Climb up into the tower, and you’ll probably find a room from which the bells are rung, the ropes telling you that the bells are hanging above.

Gosberton, ringing chamber

But go on up, as I was able to do yesterday, and you might be able to step into the spire itself and discover this extraordinary sight, the walls stained by rainwater but otherwise unchanged in the 700 years since the masons took away the scaffolding.

Gosberton, inside the spire 2

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.

The music of angels

BBC Radio Lincolnshire has a weekly arts programme called Tuesday Extra, and this week’s edition was particularly rich in connections to The Light Ships. The guests included Andrew Dennis, who runs Woodlands Organic Farm, near Boston, and whose vision of the land’s connection with people has made it such a rewarding place to visit. As someone who knows and loves the arts, Andrew has welcomed poets, composers and artists to spend time at Woodlands, creating new work inspired by the landscape, the people and their work in growing organic food and raising traditional Lincolnshire breeds. The programme included extracts from Cecilia McDowall’s lovely ‘Five Seasons’ (2006), whose composition was partly inspired by her stay at Woodlands and the fenland scene.

Richard Still, another guest on Tuesday’s programme, spoke about his efforts to reconstruct the instruments that were played in medieval churches. At a concert in Lincoln Cathedral, he’d found his attention caught by the pictures of angel musicians in the stained glass: the images above, from the cathedral, were all added by Richard to BBC Lincolnshire’s Facebook page so that listeners could see for themselves. A recorder player and expert in ancient music, he has made some instruments based on the versions that can still be found in churches, five hundred years or more after the echoes of their notes faded away.

A programme like Tuesday Extra – which you can still listen to online by clicking here – is wonderful partly because it’s so ordinary. One weekday teatime, you might be driving home or preparing supper (with local vegetables!) and find yourself transported by the haunting sounds of mediaeval music over the fields on whose produce we all depend.

A ship of light

Edward Burne Jones, St Frideswide Window (1858) in the Latin Chapel of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
Edward Burne Jones, St Frideswide Window (1858)

This roundel is at the top of the St Frideswide window made in 1858 by Edward Burne-Jones for the Latin Chapel of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. It fits within an ancient iconography that connects ships, church and community in a metaphor of the human journey through life.

I’ve seen some lovely stained glass at Moulton and elsewhere but I haven’t yet discovered whether there is any among the 14 churches in this project made by an artist of the calibre of Burne-Jones. But it wouldn’t surprise me: churches are full of art that you’d usually have to go to a museum to see.

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Stone and water

Stones of Gedney Church
Stones of Gedney Church

Churches have been part of the English landscape for so long that they’re easily taken for granted. After all, every village has one. They define the parish, English administration’s basic unit. In rural areas, where later building hasn’t grown up to obscure them, they’re still the most prominent buildings. It is their spires and towers that you see from a distance, marking place.

That familiarity can make it hard to see what extraordinary creations they are. Take something as plain as stone. A stone church looks right, normal, what you’d expect. The Fens are full of them, big, handsome and intricately decorated or small and friendly-looking. Each one made of silvery-grey limestone.

Wicken Fen (Carol Laidlaw)
Wicken Fen (Carol Laidlaw)

But remember: this is Fenland. Until humans got to work, this was a soft place where earth and water existed in an eternal embrace, shifting and slippery. Only the drains and sluices and pumping stations, and the constant vigilance of those who manage them, keep this land from returning to its ousy nature.

So if there was nothing here to build with, except reeds for thatch, where did all this stone come from?

In SW Lincolnshire, where the county meets Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, lies some of the finest building stone in England. Oolitic limestone from Barnack was used to build many of the best churches in East Anglia, including Crowland Abbey and Peterborough Cathedral.

Barnack Hills & Holes National Nature Reserve (Dave Crosby)
Barnack Hills & Holes National Nature Reserve (Dave Crosby)

And it was the same water that allowed people to bring that heavy stone from Barnack and other quarries to build churches in the fens, in a search of permanence in an unstable world. The fabric of every Fenland church has been carried by barge on waters of the Great Ouse and the Nene and the Welland and all their multiple tributaries. This seeming stability depends on movement.

Today, you can visit the old quarries of Barnack, which are a designated National Nature Reserve with the poetic name ‘Hills and Holes’, and wonder at the labour involved in prising the rock from this land and floating it away to build churches among the Fens.

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