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…

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.

 

 

Like pearls on a string

Boston from Whaplode
Boston Stump, seen from Whaplode Church across fields that once were marsh and sea

When you climb onto the roof of Whaplode church tower – which requires some acrobatics, these days – you get a breathtaking view of the Lincolnshire fenlands, as far north as Boston, 12 miles away, where the Stump rises on the horizon.

Moulton from Whaplode 2
Moulton, with the windmill and spire, seen from Whaplode Church

To the west, is the spire of Moulton, a mile away as the crows fly, half an hour on foot. Four miles further on, Spalding church can be seen. If Pinchbeck people had added a spire to their church tower, you’d see that too (but given the alarming angle at which it leans, they were probably wise to restrain their ambitions).

Holbeach from Whaplode
Holbeach church, seen from Whaplode Church

To the east, barely two miles from Whaplode, is Holbeach, then Fleet, Gedney and Sutton St. Mary (Long Sutton) on the edge of the old marshlands separating Lincolnshire from Norfolk. It’s 14 miles from Spalding to Sutton, along the road that marks where sand banks once separated freshwater fen from saltwater marsh. Those 14 miles are studded by eight churches as fine as you could wish to see, each one vying to match, if not outshine, its neighbour. It must have been impressive to reach Whaplode by boat in 1300, and see this line of towers and spires marking the shoreline of England: here was a rich and confident land. Now, the parishes of Whaplode and Moulton have been combined into a single benefice, with Moulton Chapel and Holbeach St Johns. For the first time in a thousand years, these close but independent communities will be served by a single minister. With the recent appointment of the Rev. Julie Timings a new chapter of shared fellowship begins, though the pride in local identity that created each of these unique churches will surely not diminish.

My thanks to everyone I met at Whaplode on Friday and particularly to Roy Willingham for his help in organising the day.

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.

Links

The Drunken Church Band

Thomas_Webster_-_A_Village_Choir

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.’

Click here to read the story

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?

Links

Long Sutton Church band

Stone and water

Stones of Gedney Church
Stones of Gedney Church

Churches have been part of the English landscape for so long that they’re easily taken for granted. After all, every village has one. They define the parish, English administration’s basic unit. In rural areas, where later building hasn’t grown up to obscure them, they’re still the most prominent buildings. It is their spires and towers that you see from a distance, marking place.

That familiarity can make it hard to see what extraordinary creations they are. Take something as plain as stone. A stone church looks right, normal, what you’d expect. The Fens are full of them, big, handsome and intricately decorated or small and friendly-looking. Each one made of silvery-grey limestone.

Wicken Fen (Carol Laidlaw)
Wicken Fen (Carol Laidlaw)

But remember: this is Fenland. Until humans got to work, this was a soft place where earth and water existed in an eternal embrace, shifting and slippery. Only the drains and sluices and pumping stations, and the constant vigilance of those who manage them, keep this land from returning to its ousy nature.

So if there was nothing here to build with, except reeds for thatch, where did all this stone come from?

In SW Lincolnshire, where the county meets Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, lies some of the finest building stone in England. Oolitic limestone from Barnack was used to build many of the best churches in East Anglia, including Crowland Abbey and Peterborough Cathedral.

Barnack Hills & Holes National Nature Reserve (Dave Crosby)
Barnack Hills & Holes National Nature Reserve (Dave Crosby)

And it was the same water that allowed people to bring that heavy stone from Barnack and other quarries to build churches in the fens, in a search of permanence in an unstable world. The fabric of every Fenland church has been carried by barge on waters of the Great Ouse and the Nene and the Welland and all their multiple tributaries. This seeming stability depends on movement.

Today, you can visit the old quarries of Barnack, which are a designated National Nature Reserve with the poetic name ‘Hills and Holes’, and wonder at the labour involved in prising the rock from this land and floating it away to build churches among the Fens.

Links

An ancient art

Arranging flowers into a pleasing display must be one of the oldest expressions of human creativity. One can imagine even a Neanderthal responding to the colour and form of flowers by wanting to bring them close, to keep them as living evidence of nature’s extraordinary abundance. A flower arrangement is a still life that embodies the transitory nature of life that paintings can only represent.

Is it art? Of course it is, if art involves trying to articulate what you feel, think, believe and value through creative work that speaks to others.

In the Fenland church flower festivals people make arrangements in response to themes. Long Sutton’s ‘Count your Blessings’ inspired creations that celebrated hearing, books, music, friends and neighbours, employment and the health service. At Moulton, people represented ‘The Wonderful World of Colour’ with displays on Dulux, Cluedo, the Blue Danube and Lincolnshire Yellowbellies.

Having no aptitude for this, I admire those who have such artistry, and sympathise with Susan, the vicar’s wife played by Maggie Smith in Alan Bennett’s monologue, ‘Bed Among the Lentils’:

I’m even a fool at the flower arrangement. I ought to have a Ph.D. in the subject the number of classes I’ve been to but still my efforts show as much evidence of art as walking sticks in an umbrella stand. Actually it’s temperament. I don’t have it. If you think squash is a competitive activity try flower arrangement.

Alan Bennett, Talking Heads, (1988) p. 75

Links

Long Sutton Flower Festival Plan