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.

Cherishing Churchyards

Long Sutton 2
Long Sutton Churchyard in late April

 

Five hundred years ago there were no tombs in your graveyard. Bodies were under its ground but the souls that had lived in them were remembered at the alter in church. Sometimes after service the churchyard was used for sports. On feast days churchwardens provided ale from the church ale house. In many old towns and villages there is an inn overlooking the churchyard, just as the Swan does at Wantage. It is probably a survival of the church ale house.

But after the Reformation people seem to have preferred to commemorate themselves in stone. The rich had sculptured memorials inside the church, the less rich headstones in the churchyard and the poor had to be content with men’s memory.

Many old customs survive connected with churchyards. No parson, for instance, can cut down the trees in his churchyards unless they are required for the repair of the chancel; and offending rectors can be heavily fined – and once they could be excommunicated. Then it is interesting to see how the old belief that the Devil haunted the north side of the church survived until the 19th century; in few old churchyards are there even any eighteenth-century tombs on the north side of the church and only if the village happened to be on the north side was the north door used.

From Tennis Whites and Teacakes, John Betjeman, edited by Stephen Games, London 2007.

This is from an article by John Betjeman, from an article on ‘Country Churchyards’, published in May 1953 in his diocesan newsletter. Today is the beginning of Cherishing Churchyards Week, organized by Caring for God’s Acre, a small Herefordshire charity that supports the conservation of burial grounds. I wish good weather and good cheer to all the volunteers involved, and all the gardeners who’ll be spending time this weekend caring for a churchyard.

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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

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Long Sutton Flower Festival Plan

Hope springs eternal

The beginning of May is a lovely time in England. In the Lincolnshire Fens, usually so undemonstrative, it can be extraordinary. The fields, seeming as sterile as brown graph paper for so long, turn green in the blink of an eye as fresh shoots push themselves up through the earth, unconcerned by its weight. The verges and hedges blossom; the trees are dusted with buds. Spring has arrived.

It’s the time of flowers, when it seems that every church has its festival. Fountains of colour appear against grey stone: yellow, orange and green, red, blue and white, gorgeous colour, of an intensity that human artifice can rarely match in paint or pixel.

Village after village brings flowers into their churches, celebrating nature’s limitless diversity on which we all depend for our own life. The spring flower festival, like the autumn harvest festival, is a moment when people still pause to acknowledge the foundations of life on which everything else stands.

Long Sutton Flower Festival

Alexander Pope’s optimistic theology does not speak as loudly today as it did in the 18th century, but hope still springs eternal in the human breast.

Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Book III (1731)

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