You never know who you might see if you go down to the church today. This summer, Quadring parish church held a teddy bear jump from the tower to raise funds. Bears of all shapes and sizes sailed down on parachutes, to an inspired commentary from Ian, the vicar, and with prizes for the longest and most accurate jump. Inside the church, were homemade cakes, tea and juice – and a concert by The Grizzly Bears, all of whom attend the local primary school, with their tutor, Neave. Here’s a snapshot of their performance:
Quadring is unusual because the church and school stand at some distance from the village itself, though there is a field path connecting them. Like many village schools in the area, Quadring has a strong relationship with the church, so when The Grizzly Bears needed rehearsal space, the church proved ideal. They’ve been able to practice there and have even played at services, including Mothering Sunday.
The style of music has changed, but The Grizzly Bears are just the latest of a very long line of Quadring people who have made music in the church over the centuries. Three of them moved on to secondary school in September, so the band is now renewing itself with new members and a different name, but Neave says there are lots of talented children to step up. The music goes on…
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.
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.
Boston Church from the N.E,, Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
The churches of England do not, like those of France, belong to the state, neither do they belong to the Church Commissioners, the bishops, the parsons or the patrons. They belong to the people. They are part of our common heritage and the responsibility for their custody rests legally with the parochial church councils and morally with the parishioners, of whom the church councils are the elected representatives. In the cases of non-Anglican churches the position is similar. They belong to the religious societies for whose use they were built.
Our ancient parish churches were for many centuries the sole places of worship in the country and they therefore make a claim upon all of us, whatever our religious denomination may happen to be, because our forefathers built them, were christened and married in them and now rest beneath their shade.
Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust, 1976
If allowance is made for some of the old-fashioned assumptions about faith and gender in this 40-year-old quote, it remains a lucid explanation not just of who owns our churches, but why.
I met Tony Quinton at Gosberton Messy Church, a monthly event for young children that is one way in which the church expresses its mission today. An artist and teaching assistant, Tony is passionate about connecting his faith with his creative practice. He shared these photos taken in Lincoln Cathedral a few years ago, which I include here with thanks.
Three days after Christmas 1797, an artist called William Burgess was in Moulton and made this fine ink and wash drawing of the church, writing on the bottom ‘sketched on the spot by W Burgess, Dec 28 1797’. He wrote the same thing on a drawing of Spalding church so, if it’s a true record, he had a productive day, despite it being one of the shortest of the year.
At the time, there was no technology capable of reproducing such a drawing in large numbers. Printing allowed only black ink or white paper, so greys were produced by tricking the eye. Very fine black lines on white ground can give the illusion of shades. Engravers copied an artist’s drawing onto a copper or steel plate, scoring marks onto the surface that could hold ink. Many artists were also engravers, because selling a number of prints was a better way to earn a living than selling a single drawing.
There was clearly interest in pictures of these churches by early 19th century, because the drawings of Moulton and Spalding were engraved and published a few years later in a volume dedicated to Fenland churches, alongside views of Boston, Kirton, Holbeach, Gedney, Sutton St. Mary (Long Stutton), Tydd St. Mary, Fleet and Gosberton. This is what Burgess’s drawing of Gosberton church looked like as an engraving:
The volume was published in Fleet by William and Hilkiah Burgess (presumably William’s brother and perhaps the engraver), and there is a copy in the British Library (and 78 other libraries across the world). I can find very little information about William or Hilkiah, though there are a few other surviving works including views of Croyland Abbey and Lincoln Cathedral. Apparently there’s a file on him assembled by the Frick Art Reference Library in the United States, but his spirit continues in these drawings which continue to give pleasure so long after his death in 1813.
There’s an artistic puzzle about these pictures though, as well as a historical one. If these drawings were made on 28 December 1797, as William states, why do they show trees in full leaf? Although they are closely-observed representations of the churches ‘on the spot’ the artist was not concerned with mere accuracy. This is an idealized vision of the church in its surroundings, the church in its Sunday best. As such, it’s another sign of the admiration these buildings have inspired and a recognition of their symbolic preeminence in their communities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)