Making a mark

 

You expect to see stained glass in an English parish church: it’s one of the visual signs that instantly identifies a church as such, like a spire. Most of it was put in by the Victorians, because so much was destroyed by puritans and other iconoclasts in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Victorians meant well, and some of their work is very fine, but often it’s literal, sentimental and crudely coloured, like the pictures in the King James Bible I was given at primary school.

And so, as a result, we see the splash of colour in a church, but don’t often look at the pictures it makes. These three windows, which fill the Victorian apse added to the east end of Sutton St James church, are what you see when you come into the church. When I was there, the southern one glowed with sunshine (which is why the photograph is so dark and bright), but I didn’t look very closely.

But a conversation with Pauline Stebbings changed its appearance entirely. The central window, she said, had been commissioned by her grandmother as a memorial to her grandfather, in 1947. When she had died two years later, the children had installed the northern window and then, when one of them had died in 1951, the third window was made. Pauline remembers the family being involved in deciding the design of the windows:

I do like them and so many people say how good they are. I can remember when I was small, having them on the big table – the plan of it all and working out what scenes they put in and all that.  But the family did say it didn’t matter how many more of them died, there wouldn’t be any more put in, because I suppose they’d cost the earth now. But it would be a lot of money then, wouldn’t it?’

So these images were created in the years after the Second World War, by a local farming family to honour and remember those they had loved. No more and no less than the continuing process of the generations leaving their mark on their church, for themselves and those who come after.

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)

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