A southern light ship sheltered in a northern land

It’s been quiet on The Light Ships blog because there’s so much to do getting the book ready and preparing for the events which will be happening in November – more news about all that next week. But in the meantime, here are some photos of the Italian Chapel, on the island of Lamb Holm. I had a longstanding invitation to give a lecture in Kirkwall at the end of September so I got to spend a weekend in Orkney, which is one of the loveliest and most interesting places I know. When a friend took me to see the Chapel I saw why it is the most visited site in an area not short of wonderful monuments right back to Neolithic times.

The chapel was created by Italian prisoners of war, who were in Orkney to work on the Churchill Barriers which link several islands and close the eastern approach to Scapa Flow. The men requested a chapel and were assigned a couple of Nissen huts. In a few months of 1943, using only salvaged materials and working in their spare time, they created an extraordinary vision of the kind of church they were used to attending at home. Several men were skilled craftsman, including the painter Domenico Chiocchetti, who was responsible for the Madonna and Child among much else.

When they left, in September 1944, they entrusted the chapel to the people of Orkney who have looked after it impeccably in subsequent years. Signor Chiocchetti and others of the men involved returned in later years to do repairs and add further embellishments, cementing a friendship that had grown in the least auspicious of circumstances, and across all the cultural distance between Orkney and Italy. Today, the Italian Chapel continues to bear witness to humanity’s creativity in its search for meaning: a northern light ship.

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

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.

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Flowers Whaplode August 2014 flyer

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

Like pearls on a string

Boston from Whaplode
Boston Stump, seen from Whaplode Church across fields that once were marsh and sea

When you climb onto the roof of Whaplode church tower – which requires some acrobatics, these days – you get a breathtaking view of the Lincolnshire fenlands, as far north as Boston, 12 miles away, where the Stump rises on the horizon.

Moulton from Whaplode 2
Moulton, with the windmill and spire, seen from Whaplode Church

To the west, is the spire of Moulton, a mile away as the crows fly, half an hour on foot. Four miles further on, Spalding church can be seen. If Pinchbeck people had added a spire to their church tower, you’d see that too (but given the alarming angle at which it leans, they were probably wise to restrain their ambitions).

Holbeach from Whaplode
Holbeach church, seen from Whaplode Church

To the east, barely two miles from Whaplode, is Holbeach, then Fleet, Gedney and Sutton St. Mary (Long Sutton) on the edge of the old marshlands separating Lincolnshire from Norfolk. It’s 14 miles from Spalding to Sutton, along the road that marks where sand banks once separated freshwater fen from saltwater marsh. Those 14 miles are studded by eight churches as fine as you could wish to see, each one vying to match, if not outshine, its neighbour. It must have been impressive to reach Whaplode by boat in 1300, and see this line of towers and spires marking the shoreline of England: here was a rich and confident land. Now, the parishes of Whaplode and Moulton have been combined into a single benefice, with Moulton Chapel and Holbeach St Johns. For the first time in a thousand years, these close but independent communities will be served by a single minister. With the recent appointment of the Rev. Julie Timings a new chapter of shared fellowship begins, though the pride in local identity that created each of these unique churches will surely not diminish.

My thanks to everyone I met at Whaplode on Friday and particularly to Roy Willingham for his help in organising the day.

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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