Sinking ships

Cowbit Church from the Wash

Cowbit stands just 10 feet above sea level, protected from the Welland floodplain known as Cowbit Wash by a huge earthwork called, appropriately enough, Barrier Bank.

This photo, taken from the drained land below the Bank – famously used for ice-skating contests on frozen floodwaters – gives an indication of the scale of the fenland drainage works. Cowbit church tower does not  dominate the landscape here. Sunk into the earth over the centuries – see how far below the road is the 15th century tower door – it peeps humbly over the protective bank that has kept building and people safe from floods and similar acts of God.

Cowbit Church

In 1856, the First Series of the Ordnance Survey mapped Cowbit, the Wash and the surrounding area. Not so much has changed in the subsequent 160 years, and the map nicely shows the relationship of river, land and fen, the little village holding to the bank where it has been so long.

Cowbit on the Odrnance Survey 1856

In 1947, a cameraman for British Pathé shot this unused film of what happens when the dykes are overwhelmed.

 

Ancient and Modern

Medieval visions

Wrangle Church is known to architectural historians for its rare 14th century stained glass. Such survivals are unusual in English parish churches because artistic work associated with Roman Catholicism was frowned upon after Henry VIII established a Protestant Church of England, and especially by the convinced advocates of Puritanism in the 17th century. Statues, metalwork, books, paintings and stained glass were all stripped out, broken, burnt or sold. The people of Wrangle saved at least some of their ancient glass by burying it; but when it was safe to retrieve it, centuries later, its original design had been forgotten, so the glass in the north aisle windows is beautiful but hard to decipher.

Olive Cook, who produced some of the finest post-war books on English buildings and topography with her husband, the photographer Edwin Smith, gives a good account of Wrangle’s medieval stained glass:

An inscription formerly part of this splendid window is recorded to have stated that it was made to the order of Thomas de Wynesty, Abbot of Waltham from 1345 to 1371. A late mediaeval date for the glass is indicated by the naturalism of the figures, the type of armour worn by the soldiers (camail, bascinet and sallet, which replaced the bascinet), the predominance of canopy work, by the fact that the mosaic technique of early glass painting has been abandoned for larger areas of colour and above all by the use of silver nitrate (a late 14th century discovery) to produce a magical range of yellow tints ranging from the palest lemon to rich amber.

English Parish Churches, Edwin Smith, Olive Cook & Graham Hutton, 1976

A modern vision

But it would be a pity, in admiring this valuable ancient work, to miss the latest addition to Wrangle’s artistic treasures: a stained glass window in the south aisle, dedicated to Lincolnshire farming. It was commissioned by Harry Clarke, a worshipper in the church of St Mary and St Nicholas for 64 years, the window was installed in 1997.

It is entirely contemporary in style, with its sky streaking across the panels in bright colours not found in older glass But the heavy horse and the old tractor – a Massey Ferguson or Fordson Major, perhaps – on which Harry Clarke sits, recall an older time, so there is a little nostalgia in the image too. There is also a wealth of detail to find: a crouching cat, a patient dog and lots of birds. There will be children who will come to love this window for generations to come, as their eyes gradually discover its treasures.

And in one corner, a reminder of something that happened when the artist was working on the window: ‘Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris, 31 August 1997, RIP’. So is another piece of history, and art, laid down in a parish church on the Lincolnshire coast.

Distant spires

Michael Strutt, Distant Spires (2)

Michael Strutt is a clock restorer, a bell ringer (at Gosberton) and a photographer. He use Blipfoto, which has the distinction of allowing photographers to add only one photo a day, taken on the day it is shared. The resulting photo diaries allow the viewer to imagine the connections. They highlight how sequencing images – putting one after another, making a beginning, middle and end – nourishes our natural instinct to compose stories.

With Michael’s permission, here are two of his images of churches, which he captioned ‘Distant Spires’. Although I see steeples all the time, as I drive across the fenland, I’ve found it hard to capture the feel of them with the camera. There is a visual paradox at play here. Last night, coming home from Wrangle, I noticed again how much taller the Boston Stump seems from a distance than it does when you get closer. So it’s a pleasure to be able to share these fine photographs.

Links

Michael Strutt, Distant Spires (1)

The dome of heaven of the Fens

Cowbit drawn by Gordon Home (1925)

‘Because the land is level it need not be supposed that it is ugly; on the contrary there is a charm in the expansiveness of the landscapes which the natives sadly miss when they are obliged to live in a hilly country where the horizon is always close at hand and the sky is much limited. To the visitor, as a rule, it is the great cloudscapes and the vastness of the dome of heaven of the Fens which makes the greatest appeal, for one is able to see the most astonishing groupings of shadow-filled cumulus clouds when the wind is bringing the great creamy-white masses across the deep azure of the zenith.’

Gordon Home, Through the Chilterns to the Fens (1925)

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Flatter

tom-eckersely-Lincolnshire-poster

 

When Tom Eckersley made this design for British Railways in 1961, the great age of the railway poster was almost gone. For fifty years at least, some of the best artists of their day had been commissioned by the railway companies, London Transport, motoring organisations and others to produce work that perfectly combined form and function. The commercial interests of the commissioner was restrained by the cultural interests of the artist.

This poster simplifies Lincolnshire to fields, trees, sheep, church and sky. Above all, it reinforces the idea of flatness, though it makes it beautiful. And it does it with witty nods to current trends in painting: Piet Mondrian’s abstract grids and the flatness sought by Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. But even in this modernity, the ancient church remains the focal point, holding everything together.

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Flat

A Lincolnshire paradox

‘It is commonly thought that Lincolnshire is flat. The Lincolnshire man’s rebuttal takes a double form: first, the county is not flat, and second, if it is flat, that flatness is the essence of its character and particular beauty.’

M. W. Barley Lincolnshire and the Fens London, 1952

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Dust jacket by Brian Cook, 1952
Dust jacket by Brian Cook, 1952