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

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