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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Local voices

Sutton St James, as  mapped by the First Ordnance Survey in 1824
Sutton St James, as mapped by the First Ordnance Survey in 1824

Today The Light Ships move into another phase, as conversations begin with people who use, look after, live beside or otherwise have links with the village churches. We’ll be going to meet people in Sutton St James today, listening to their stories and views about the church and its place in social and artistic life.

So far, this site has largely looked backwards, drawing on the words and pictures of visitors to South Holland in mapping some of the ways in which the churches have been seen. From here on, it will be local voices that will come to the centre of the stage. The prologue is done.

Sutton St James Church

Cherishing Churchyards

Long Sutton 2
Long Sutton Churchyard in late April

 

Five hundred years ago there were no tombs in your graveyard. Bodies were under its ground but the souls that had lived in them were remembered at the alter in church. Sometimes after service the churchyard was used for sports. On feast days churchwardens provided ale from the church ale house. In many old towns and villages there is an inn overlooking the churchyard, just as the Swan does at Wantage. It is probably a survival of the church ale house.

But after the Reformation people seem to have preferred to commemorate themselves in stone. The rich had sculptured memorials inside the church, the less rich headstones in the churchyard and the poor had to be content with men’s memory.

Many old customs survive connected with churchyards. No parson, for instance, can cut down the trees in his churchyards unless they are required for the repair of the chancel; and offending rectors can be heavily fined – and once they could be excommunicated. Then it is interesting to see how the old belief that the Devil haunted the north side of the church survived until the 19th century; in few old churchyards are there even any eighteenth-century tombs on the north side of the church and only if the village happened to be on the north side was the north door used.

From Tennis Whites and Teacakes, John Betjeman, edited by Stephen Games, London 2007.

This is from an article by John Betjeman, from an article on ‘Country Churchyards’, published in May 1953 in his diocesan newsletter. Today is the beginning of Cherishing Churchyards Week, organized by Caring for God’s Acre, a small Herefordshire charity that supports the conservation of burial grounds. I wish good weather and good cheer to all the volunteers involved, and all the gardeners who’ll be spending time this weekend caring for a churchyard.

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God’s Acre

Luck be a lady

Ladybirds have a special place in our hearts, reflected in their many names, and their place in popular culture. Children are captivated by their dots and red shells, and the ease of getting close to them. They are gentle, inoffensive, nurturing creatures, as suggested by the old rhyme:

Ladybird, ladybird fly away home, Your house is on fire and your children are gone…

Ladybirds are associated with good fortune in many European cultures. A Polish children’s verse ends:

Biedroneczko leć do nieba, przynieś mi kawałek chleba

Fly to the sky, little ladybird, bring me a piece of bread

In France, they’re known as ‘la bête à Bon Dieu’ – God’s creature, in English, although it doesn’t sound as pretty. There is a legend that a ladybird saved an innocent man’s life by landing repeatedly on his neck and so obstructing the executioner.

Life among the graves

This ladybird, minding its business in Moulton churchyard, is a reminder of the life that is nurtured when churchyards are not trimmed and manicured like municipal gardens. Costs and changing attitudes have helped us see long grass in churchyards not as lack of care but as a different kind of care. After all, until quite recently, it was common for sheep to graze in churchyards, which was quite appropriate since their wool had often paid for the beauty of the building.

Cherishing Churchyards Week 2014

Caring for God’s Acre is a small charity dedicated to the conservation of churchyards and burial grounds, both for their importance to people and to nature. Their website is full of valuable information and resources about conservation, and they support volunteer-led conservation projects across the UK. Between 7th and 15th June, they are holding Cherishing Churchyards Week, encouraging more people to get involved in looking after their churchyards not least to make them good homes for ladybirds, among the many other creatures in need of sanctuary in the modern world.

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