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.)
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.’
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?
Almost 150 years ago, when the Rev. John Marius Wilson published his Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales, this is how he saw the parish of Cowbit:
COWBIT, a village and a parish in Spalding district, Lincoln.
The village stands near the Welland navigation and the March and Spalding railway, 3 ½ miles SSE of Spalding, and 5 NNE of Crowland; and has a post office under Spalding, and a r. station. The parish includes also Peakhill hamlet, and allotments in Pinchbeck North Fen. Acres, 4,590. Real property, £4,591. Pop., 649. Houses, 141.
The living is a vicarage in the diocese of Lincoln. Value, £625.* Patrons, Feoffees. The church was built in 1486; and has a tower with a groined roof, and an octagonal panelled font. There is a Wesleyan chapel. A school has £55 from endowment: and other charities £30.
John Marius Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72)
The focus on the church and its value is perhaps not surprising in a record edited by a clergyman, but it is a useful reminder that we tend to see what we look for.
Rosie lives and works in the Lincolnshire Fens, where she grew up. Her year as artist in residence at Woodlands Farm produced a wonderful series of drawings that capture life on the land today. These images of Algarkirk Church, near Woodlands, stand in a very long line of drawings of churches by artists. Rosie will be doing drawing workshops with a local school shortly, taking the church as a subject: some of the results will be shared here in due course.