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.

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)

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

The original skyscrapers

Boston Stump

The train curved round and then I saw, for the first time, that astonishing church tower known as the ‘Boston Stump’. This tower is not quite three hundred feet high; but nevertheless, situated as it is, it looked to me more impressive, not as a piece of architecture, but simply as a skyscraper, than the Empire State Building in New York, with its eleven hundred feet. It is all a matter of contrast. Here the country is flat; you have seen nothing raised more than twenty or thirty feet from the ground, for miles and miles; and then suddenly this tower shoots up to nearly three hundred feet. The result is that at first it looks as high as a mountain. Your heart goes out to those old Bostonians who, weary of the Lincolnshire levels and the flat ocean, made up their minds to build and build into the blue. If God could not give them height, they would give it to him.

J. B. Priestley, English Journey, 1932

Apparently, the earliest appearance of the word ‘skyscraper’ relates to the topmost, triangular sail on a square-rigged sailing ship, in the late 18th century – something that must have been familiar in a port like Boston.

But church towers and spires have been stretching up to scratch the heavens for centuries. Competitive pride pushed communities to outdo each other, especially in wool-rich counties like Somerset and Lincolnshire. Travellers on the Great North Road seeing the distant spires of Grantham and Newark must have debated which was the finer. Lincoln Cathedral, visible for miles around on its cliff, once capped its towers with wooden spires, the tallest of which collapsed in 1549, not to be replaced.

Running like a thread through all these stories is the idea of humanity challenging the deity by daring to leave the earth and, like Icarus, falling to destruction.

Links

Boston Church, Lincolnshire," by James Harrison (1814-1866), watercolour. Dated 1821
Boston Church, Lincolnshire,” by James Harrison (1814-1866), watercolour. Dated 1821