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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Seeing what you’re looking for

Cowbit Church in 1820 (from South Holland Life)
Cowbit Church in 1820 (from South Holland Life)

Cowbit seen in 1870

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.

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Welcome to The Light Ships

 

Linconshire (John Bee 1937)

The Light Ships

Lincolnshire’s churches have been a focus of art and community for more than a thousand years. Built by England’s finest masons and decorated by gifted craftsmen, they are treasure houses of art and sculpture, of glass, wood, metal and needlework. Their stones reverberate with the choral singing and organ music. From their towers, ancient bells peal over field and fen, as they have for centuries.

But that would not matter if the churches weren’t also where people have gathered, generation after generation, to mark the important moments of their shared life, to stop, to think and to wonder. They have seen every joy and grief, quiet happiness, anxiety and stoic resolution. They record the life of a community in parish registers, monuments, newsletters, pictures and gifts. Each one is like a ship carrying its ever changing, ever constant family across the seas of time.

A community art project for Fenland Lincolnshire

This summer, community artist François Matarasso will be exploring the church’s place in the creative and social life of 14 Fenland villages in conversations with local people.The Light Ships will celebrate every aspect of the church: fabric, furnishings and natural surroundings, of course, but no more than the memories, feelings and stories of those who are the church—the people who keep it alive, those without whom it would be just one more museum. And that includes those who never go, except perhaps for a funeral, or to whom it’s so familiar that they pass it without a thought.

Everyone with win interest in one of the villages below is welcome to contribute. If you’d like to get involved, or just to know more, please call Lauren Williams on 07747 271824 or send an email through the contact page.

A Transported Commission

François’ work is commissioned by Transported, a local programme creating new occasions to enjoy the arts in the Borough of Boston and South Holland District. The Light Ships will include these villages, which have been chosen because they have not yet had an opportunity to be involved in Transported’s arts programme;

  • Bicker
  • Fishtoft
  • Swineshead
  • Wrangle
  • Cowbit
  • Gosberton
  • Holbeach St. Johns
  • Moulton
  • Moulton Chapel
  • Moulton Seas End
  • Quadring
  • Pinchbeck
  • Sutton St. James
  • Whaplode

A harvest festival of the arts

The Light Ships will culminate in publication of a short book in September 2014. The larger part of the book will be a patchwork of voices and images celebrating the fenland church and its place in cultural and community life. There will also be an essay reflecting on the complex meanings of the parish church today. Copies will be given to all the contributors and to the churches, as a small contribution to their fundraising efforts.

The book will be accompanied by a short film, portraying the churches as works of art and places of continuing creation. Book and film will be presented at a special event in early autumn – a kind of artistic harvest festival – at which everyone involved will be able to celebrate the unique place of a parish church in each community’s life, always changing, always itself.

Keeping in touch

News about on The Light Ships will appear this blog, but it will also be used to share images, texts and other reflections about the churches. Photographs, old paintings and engravings, travellers’ tales, architectural descriptions, historic notes, poems – any and all of these will be added so that over the next few months the blog becomes a rich resources of treasures, great and small, about these Fenland churches. If you’d like to be kept up to date, click on the follow button and you’ll get an email whenever there’s something new to look at or read.

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