A Time of Gifts

Light Ships at Gosberton Church

Yesterday, we held the final Light Ships celebration at Gosberton – not in the church, which was taken up with its own Christmas Tree Festival, but in the hall next door. In those much less imposing surroundings, I felt more relaxed about presenting the book than I had standing before the chancel arch at Whaplode and Wrangle, like an amateur preacher. So my talk was both easier to give and closer to what I wanted to say about the joy of working on the project, meeting so many kind and welcoming people, and listening to them speak about why their church and their community matters to them.

The Light Ships has been about gifts, though perhaps it’s only now that I can see it.

The gifts of time and trust that people brought, in coming to meet a stranger in their church, to talk about themselves. The gift of sharing treasures with a visitor – opening drawers, unfolding cloths, rolling back a carpet to reveal a hidden brass, guiding me onto roofs or under spires. The gift of lending photographs and books and knowledge. The gifts of hospitality and welcome, tea and biscuits and saying yes, of course, no problem…

And then, a gift in return, of telling those stories in a way that does them honour and giving each person their own copy of a book that, in its way, is just one more of those memorial books recording the lives of each church community over decades and ultimately centuries.

And yesterday was a day of gifts too. Old friends who drove from Nottingham and Newark to be there for me. A mother who’d organised a letter of permission so that I can put a video online (it will go up later this week). Ian, the vicar, finding time to put up signs to the exhibition in between caring for the sick. Tony, who drove all the way from Sutton Bridge to play the organ, as he has for each event. The Gosberton bellringers – Brian, Carrie Lester, Michael, Nicola, Peter and Rachel – who not only rang at the end of the afternoon, but invited everyone up into the tower to watch and even try their hand on the rope. The Transported team – Joan, Kristina, Lauren, Martin and Richard – who made everything possible: shifting chairs, setting up computers, making tea and, above all, creating a space of welcome for visitors.

All afternoon, in my pocket I could feel a bag of shelled walnuts that was a gift from Lou Thorpe, shared from the abundance of his tree in Holbeach St Johns. How often over centuries, I wonder, has a gift of walnuts been made to someone in the church of Gosberton?

Thursday was Thanksgiving Day in North America, but you don’t need to have got safely across the Atlantic Ocean in a small wooden ship from Boston to feel grateful. As the Light Ships reach harbour, I am deeply thankful for the gift of this time and to all those who helped make it possible.

Three afternoons to launch The Light Ships

 

The Light Ships Launch at Whaplode Church
The Light Ships Launch at Whaplode Church

The culmination of The Light Ships project will happen in November 2014 in three events to celebrate the place of art in the life of the village and the church at:

Whaplode Church – Saturday 8 November

Wrangle Church – Saturday 22 November

Gosberton Church – Saturday 29 November

Each event will be from 2.00pm until 4.30pm,with the book launch at about 3.00pm

In addition to the presentation of The Light Ships book, there will be

  • An exhibition of art inspired by Lincolnshire churches
  • Archive films of Boston and the fenland villages
  • Tea, coffee and cake – and a chance to meet other people who’ve been involved

Each weekend will have special features: at Wrangle Church a peal will be rung to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the bells, while at Gosberton there will be a Christmas Tree Festival organised by the community. Others special moments are being planned as I write…

If you can’t come on Saturday afternoon, the exhibitions will be open from 10am to 4.00pm on the Saturday and Sunday of each weekend.

The events will be informal and everyone is welcome – bring a friend, spread the word.

If you’re able to be there, a phone call or email would be really helpful so we can organize the right number of cakes! You can let Lauren know at Transported on:

01406 701006 or 07747 271824 or TransportedLauren@1Life.co.uk

But that’s not essential: the important thing is to come and help us celebrate these wonderful buildings and the place they’ve held in our villages for hundreds of years. Click on the picture below to download the invitation to your computer.

The Light Ships Invitation

Now, it’s back to the proofreading – the final text goes to the printers on Monday…

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

Heckington Church, Lincolnshire, July 2014
Heckington Church, Lincolnshire, July 2014

 

Oh, is the water sweet and cool,

Gentle and brown, above the pool?

And laughs the immortal river still

Under the mill, under the mill?

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

And Certainty? and Quiet kind?

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (1912)

Although written long before anyone knew the Great War was coming, and in a lighter tone than the poetry he would write when it did, Rupert Brooke’s evocation from abroad of life in an English village is endlessly poignant. We do, after all, know what came in 1914.

Rupert Brooke died in 1915 on a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea. He was 27 years old. By then, his poetry was both successful and closely associated with the war. His sonnets, The Dead and The Soldier, – ‘If I should die, think only this of me’ – had caught something of the spirit of sacrificial heroism that had inspired young men from all over England to volunteer in the summer of 1914.

Among them were scores of farm labourers, tradesmen and other young men from the Fens, who joined the Lincolnshire Regiment and fought on the Western Front. Many of them, far more than anyone imagined on 4 August 1914, never came back. The lost were remembered by their parents, sisters and former comrades in the parish church, where so many other lives, and so many historical crises, had also left their mark.

The poetry of the First World War is closely linked in the English imagination with the experience of industrial warfare. No other war has left such a trace in our literature. Today, one hundred years after the entry of Great Britain into the Great War, let the words of another fine poet, Laurence Binyon, mark the day, as they have so often in Remembrance Services in each one of these churches:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon, For The Fallen, (1914)

Links

On the eve of war

 

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.

 

 

The idealised vision of an obscure artist

Moulton Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),  Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm
Moulton Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),
Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm

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:

Gosberton Church by William Burgess,  From Twelve views of churches in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire; drawn and engraved by W. and H. Burgess, Fleet 1800-1805
Gosberton Church by William Burgess,
From Twelve views of churches in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire; drawn and engraved by W. and H. Burgess, Fleet 1800-1805

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.

Spalding Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),  Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm
Spalding Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),
Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm

When you’re smiling…

George Harrison once said that you can’t hear a ukulele without wanting to smile. I know what he meant: I was beaming throughout the Ukulele Orchestra of Spalding concert at Holbeach St John church last night. As the sound of church bells is naturally joyful, the sound of the ukulele just brings a smile to your face.

It helped that the Orchestra played familiar songs with style, adding colour with flashes of violin, trumpet, recorder – and triangle. It helped that their performance was full of self-deprecating wit, and the jokes nicely polished by age. It helped too that the church members who’d organised the concert to raise funds were so welcoming, providing an interval buffet of heroic generosity.

It all made as happy an event as one could wish for on a summer’s evening in a fenland village. C community, art and church in easy harmony: at the end of the evening, the Orchestra returned what they’d been given to help with church funds. Everybody went home with a smile and a tune in their heads.

PS The Ukulele Orchestra of Spalding plays about 50 concerts a year, all in aid of local charities: they will be performing at Gosberton Church on Saturday 25 October: more details on their website.

Aspiring ingenuity

Gosberton tower and spire

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.

Gosberton, Tower vault

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.

Gosberton, ringing chamber

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.

Gosberton, inside the spire 2

An elephant in Gosberton

The steeple of St Peter and St Paul’s in Gosberton reaches 160 feet into the Lincolnshire sky. Stone spires are a special feature of churches in the East Midlands, and Gosberton’s is one of the loveliest. Each angle of the octagon is decorated with little crockets, while four exceedingly thin – and structurally useless – flying buttresses connect it with the tower corners. The whole elegant construction dates from about 1300.

Gosbert Elephant Gargoyle (AA 1963)

But the most surprising thing about this spire is the elephant carved on the east side of the tower. This drawing, which I found in the 1963 AA Book of the Road, is very evocative, though there’s a modern photograph in this recent story about the church repairs in the Spalding Guardian. The elephant is a gargoyle, a sculptured stone spout used in the Middle Ages to throw rain water away from the building, and its trunk is made of lead that needs to be renewed.

Whoever carved the elephant, probably a jobbing mason who would follow the work from site to site, was very unlikely to have seen an elephant so the accuracy of the representation is remarkable. This image, from a 15th century herbal held in the British Library, is characteristic how medieval artists imagined the strange creatures travellers told stories about. Perhaps the Gosberton sculptor had encountered a real elephant in his journeyman life.

Elephant from a herbal (Italy, c.1440) British Library

 

 

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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