Sunday, 22 April 2012

Pagan Sites or Washed Away Villages?

Dawn came with a fiery redness in the eastern sky but happily the shepherds got it wrong this time and our April outing had spells of sunshine, white clouds and blue skies in equal measures.
This time we continued our search of villages in the Witham Valley. Martin had spotted on the map that many churches along the valley are located close to the river well away from the centre of their villages, such as at Westborough, Barnby in the Willows and Stapleford. Could it be that the churches were built on pre-Christian sites where there was a ritualistic connection between the river and the site or had early settlements near the churches been swept away by long ago floods and then rebuilt at a safer distance away from the river? Or is it just coincidence? Perhaps there’s a future PhD on this subject and we may well return to it in later blogs. Our day was coloured, however, by speculation about pagan sacrifices and votive offerings cast into the waters….

We started the day at Dry Doddington where the church sits proudly in a beautifully kept village green, fringed with colourful spring flower beds. Presumably there must have been a churchyard in earlier times but the effect is certainly neat and different, though at Brandon a few miles away there is the same feature. Another unusual feature is that the tower and spire has a pronounced lean, almost enough to rival the slightly more famous church at Pisa. Unfortunately the church was locked and so we then followed the local bus two miles to the next village, to the more celebrated Claypole church, accorded two stars in Simon Jenkins’ list.

Claypole is an impressive church with spire and ornamentation in abundance. Inside it has beautiful carvings of leaves on the capitals of pillars throughout and hiding amongst them some depictions of green men. Could there be any connection with Southwell Minster where similar carvings can also be found? Lots of interesting things to see inside, notably the ornate sedilia and aumbry in the chancel, the delicate rood screen and Perpendicular font. Outside the church is big, too big to photograph comfortably in a single shot and though it was possible using wide angle it could only be done with huge distortion of the verticals. Beautiful church though and well worth a visit.

The next four churches were in small villages and on a more domestic level, Stubton, Fenton, Brandon and Stragglethorpe. Of these Stragglethorpe is the most interesting having the rare distinction of not being rebuilt in the Victorian period, presumably because, unusually, it had been restored in the previous century. Inside there are Norman arches and a complete set of C18 furniture including pulpit and pews, and notably a huge box pew that was presumably for the lord of the manor, so big that it occupies a good proportion of the nave. Many thanks, incidentally, to the young lady who came running across to us with the key even before we’d worked out where we should go to fetch it from.

The day was going well but then we hit a few problems. Firstly it was getting near lunchtime so we thought we’d find something to eat in the next village but first we had to endure a nose to tail first gear stop start queue of traffic on the A17 due, we found out later, to road works nearer Newark. Having survived the queue, and associated argument in the car as to how we could and should have avoided it, we arrived at Beckingham, only to find the pub closed and the church covered in scaffolding as it was undergoing major work on its tower. So we had to hastily replan our route and the next pub wasn’t until Norton Disney, several villages down our list and several miles to the north. 

A pleasant lunch was followed by a brisk walk to the very engaging church, again near the river and on the edge of the village. The church possesses many gargoyles and other funny carved faces, both inside and out, some looking almost as if they could have been the original models of Disney characters! Several ancient stone effigies in the side chapel as well.

Then on toThurlby, rather plain and locked but within the churchyard there is a poignant area containing military headstones commemorating RAF pilots and aircrew who died in WWII and later, some tragically very young. These must have been stationed at the nearby Swinderby aerodrome.

Our trip then continued back to the simple, mainly Georgian, church at Stapleford very close to the river and well away from its village. Then on to Coddington, but both churches were locked. We had hoped to see the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows at Coddington but it seems to be necessary to pre-arrange access to the church and we will have to return another time. 

So in the late afternoon sunshine we went onto our last church at Barnby in the Willows. Here the churchyard borders the river and it is a really superb setting seen from the riverside. The church is surprisingly large for a small village and the general impression is that it looks a bit patched up with areas of rendering around the clerestory and eastern end. The first thing to see though is the grand and ornate C15 north porch which features again some rather comical carved faces and creatures, very similar to those at Norton Disney, perhaps even by the same set of masons. It also has a particularly long chancel which appears to have been added on much later than the rest of the building. This is unusual in several aspects, not least because of the curious windows in the chancel which the British Listed Buildings website describes as C17, though I’ve certainly never seen anything like them anywhere else.

Our day out was as usual very enjoyable and despite being in a week of heavy rain and grey skies luckily we seem to have picked the best day of the week. I hope that we are similarly lucky when we go out in May, this time, for a change, to the area around Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire.

22 April 2012.

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