Friday, 16 March 2012

Cold, Gloomy and Locked Out!

The weekend had been fabulous, T-shirt weather in mid-March. But come Wednesday, the day of our first foray of 2012, the morning started misty, gloomy and depressingly cold. At least it wasn’t raining but it didn’t bode well for brilliant photography. It brightened up later in the afternoon but until then skies were leaden, photographs rather colourless and interior shots difficult. Things weren’t helped as the first three churches on our list were all padlocked and of the ten churches we visited during the day only four were open. It’s a sad reflection on our society that churches have to be locked up to protect them from theft and vandalism, but it also reflects the fact that the role of the church within rural communities is often peripheral, no longer the centre of village life and merely an expensive building to maintain which is only occasionally used for sparsely attended services.

Anyway as always, even in difficult circumstances, there was enough of interest amongst the ten churches we visited. The plan was to visit villages along the Witham Valley north of Grantham. We started out at Sedgebrook, a biggish church mainly of ironstone with the golden browns of the ironstone contrasting well with the grey of its Ancaster stone edgings and surrounds. We would have liked to have seen the interior, particularly the chancel and chapel described in Pevsner as “so lavishly adorned that the effect is almost barbaric.” The church is sited next to the historic Sedgebrook Manor, a grand house associated with the Thorold family and Thorold was a name we encountered again and again in the churches we visited during the day.

Our second stop was Allington, a quirky church with no tower and much of the building constructed in Flemish bonded brick, probably C17. This incorporates some reused windows from an earlier building and doubtless that indicates an interesting period in the church’s history as the mid C17 would have been an unusual time for church building given the turmoil within the church at that period when Laudian and Puritan elements were vying for precedence and the country erupted into civil war. Now the church is peaceful with a lovely setting surrounded by big houses, and a beautifully maintained churchyard.

Then on to Grantham and what can you say about St Wulfram’s church that hasn’t been said already? It’s one of the very rare 5 star churches in Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Churches and Jenkins describes the spire as “one of the most exhilarating images of English Gothic”. The whole church is magnificent and though dark inside, as strangely it lacks a clerestory, new lighting picks out carved angels in the roof to great effect. The Lady Chapel and crypt chapel are also impressive as is the huge highly ornate font cover presented to the church to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to appreciate all the church’s beauties as it was lunchtime and again the church had to be locked up. Out in the cold again we sought refuge in the bar of the historic Angel and Royal Hotel.

The weather brightened up a bit after lunch with a first quick stop at the early Victorian church at Manthorpe. Clean lines and a well thought through gothic design of appropriate scale but what was the purpose of the series of curious stumpy spikes sticking out from the spire? Nice carved heads on the porch.

Then to Marston, deep in Thorold family country. Marston church was open and well worth a visit, especially for the Thorold family monuments, including the grand 1594 tomb of Sir Anthony Thorold. There is also a curious feature consisting of two oddly shaped openings within the spandrels above the south arcade which appear to be neither decorative nor functional. Just one of those quirks that make untangling the history of our village churches so fascinating.

The next church was Hougham only a mile or so from Marston, where finally the sun came out. Hougham was lovely, again clean lines and an attractively simple C18 chancel with clear glass windows. But workmen were replacing lead on the north aisle roof. Like many churches in the area thieves had recently ripped the lead from the roof, in this case, we were told, for the third time. We’d seen similar damage at Leadenham on a previous trip and again were told there that the diocese and heritage bodies required that lead should be replaced with lead so of course the churches remain targets for thieves again and again. But why does lead have to be replaced with lead when there are plenty of alternative materials available that would be just as efficient in keeping out the elements, materials that could indeed be cheaper, could still look similar to lead and would not risk further attack? When many churches are not roofed with lead in the area why not allow different materials to be used? So what if re-roofed buildings might look a bit different? The history of church building involves continual evolution, parts collapse or crumble into decay, liturgical changes or the changing role of churches over the centuries have all involved modifications to the fabric so where’s the problem?

And while I’m on the subject why not allow churches to put up photo-voltaic panels on their roofs. Because of their east-west orientation most churches have extensive south facing roofs so PV panels could be a good little earner for cash strapped rural parishes and that could pay for other essential repairs. And if permitted widely I’m sure that the design of panels could be modified to be as unobtrusive as possible. And a further thought, lead roofs themselves are often not very attractive, particularly when they are old and become distorted or ragged around the edges.

Our day out concluded with three more churches including the lovely church at Westborough, filled with sunlight streaming through its big clear glass windows. Lots of interest inside including two small oddly placed possibly re-used Saxon circular windows high up in the north wall, wall paintings of Time and Death, a Jacobean pulpit, remains of a medieval screen, and curious carvings on the poppyhead bench endings in the chancel that would seem to show devil heads licking the backs of naked people at prayer.

Many more churches to see. Looking forward to our next trip. Hope the weather is better next time.

16 March 2012

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Celebrity Churches

It is quite reassuring, when pursuing what some might call an eccentric pastime, to come across well-known and respected people who share the same passion. OK, I'll be honest, I mean when you come across celebrity churchcrawlers. Discovering two who have visited churches that we have visited ourselves provides, if you can believe it, a sudden thrill of excitement. These are the actor Richard Briers and broadcaster and comedian Mike Harding. In this article we will mention 2 churches we have shared with them that also have celebrity connections with historical figures.

Richard Briers' book "English Country Churches" covers 100 he has visited and includes 13 in the East Midlands. He sums up well the attractions of church crawling:
"At a time when those all-important moments of tranquillity and reflection become increasingly hard to find, sitting quietly in the cool of a building that has been standing for a quarter of the Christian era or longer helps put life into perspective. Visiting a country church is like opening a window on living history ... inside every one and around every churchyard the past is always present."
One of his favourites is St Helen's, Brant Broughton, in Lincolnshire, which we visited in June 2011. It is an example of a fine medieval church that was sympathetically restored by the Victorians. In fact, it was restored by one of the most influential church architects of the time, G.F. Bodley. The crowning glory was the restoration of the 15th Century angel roof.

George Frederick Bodley, 1827-1907, has been described by Country Life as one of the great British architects. He worked extensively for the Church of England and his work, especially for the Duke of Westminster in Cheshire, is regarded as among the best examples of the Gothic Revival.

At Brant Broughton his client was the rector, Frederick Sutton, who wanted, when he arrived in 1873, to reclaim the church from its state of "poverty and squalor."  He ensured that the restoration was completely in harmony with the work of the original medieval builders. In restoring the roof, Bodley kept the original colour scheme and as much of the original wood as he could. We rather like it. The church is deservedly included in Simon Jenkins' book "England's Thousand Best Churches" and other features of it will no doubt crop up in future posts.

Our other celebrity, Mike Harding, visited St Peter and St Paul, Exton, in Rutland, which he mentions in his "Little Book of Tombs and Monuments." This is one of an attractive series of books in which Mike includes his own photographs of stained glass, gargoyles, green men and other features in churches he visited while on tour all over Britain. Exton is one that we visited in August 2010.

The feature that caught Mike Harding's eye was the 1686 memorial to Baptist Noel, 3rd Viscount Campden (not Lord Lonsdale, as Harding mistakenly ascribes it), carved by Grinling Gibbons. It seems the Viscount's (the figure on the left) missing fingers fell off over the years and were thrown out by cleaners!

Simon Jenkins includes the church as one of his thousand best purely on account of its monuments, which fill every corner. This one, in marble, has urns, swags and curtains and would not be out of place, according to Jenkins, commemorating an 18th Century pope in St. Peter's, Rome. We are very pleased we photographed it.


Mike Harding's book, which also includes Wirksworth (Derbys), Gaddesby (Leics) and Grantham (Lincs), to which we will no doubt return, was published in 2008 by Aurum Press Ltd.

Richard Briers' book was published in 1989 by Robson Books Ltd and re-published in 1995 by The Promotional Reprint Company Ltd, exclusively for Bookmart Ltd, Enderby, Leicester.

"England's Thousand Best Churches" by Simon Jenkins was first published by Allen Lane in 1999 and by Penguin Books in 2000 and 2009.

The article on G F Bodley was published in "Country Life" on Sat 30 January 2010.