Thursday, 24 May 2012

Ironstone and Angels

Kirby Bellars

Leicestershire this time and what a contrast to the grey limestone churches of Lincolnshire!  Around Melton Mowbray most churches are built of ironstone, smaller ones wholly of ironstone and others part ironstone and part limestone.  This makes the colours on a sunny day really quite vivid, ranging from dark rusty brown to orange, but many of the churches show considerable erosion which results in some cases in an odd knobbly effect, as at Kirby Bellars. There the erosion on the south and western sides is serious, especially when compared to the northern more sheltered side where some of the original surface survives.   

Elsewhere the stone appears to be trying to return to the beach where it must have originally been formed; indeed at times it is possible to see masses of compacted shells poking out from the stone.  But with the degree of erosion in places it is really possible to imagine some time in the future where it will become a serious issue and for small rural churches could that mean the end of their life as viable operational buildings?  But for now the ironstone produces a very picturesque quality to many churches in the area. 

Another feature of the area is that in many churchyards there are slate gravestones, some dating from the C17 and many from the C18.  These came from the Swithland slate pits, near Loughborough, and are characterised by beautiful lettering and touching doggerel and many have depictions of cartoon like angels, called locally Belvoir Angels, mostly at the top of the stones.  It is rare to see so many memorials from the C17 and C18 outside in graveyards but the endurance of the slate has ensured that now, 250 or even 300 years later, we can still celebrate the lives of long dead parishioners and still mourn their tragedies.  One poignant memorial to a toddler dated 1724 reads, 
   Short was his race
   Long his rest
   God takes them soon 
   Whom he loves best

For me such insights into life lived so long ago by our ancestors is one of the things that makes church visiting so rewarding.  We found these stones in abundance at Upper and Nether Broughton and at Long Clawson.

 St Mary’s church in Melton is justly celebrated, “the stateliest and most impressive of all churches in Leicestershire” (Pevsner).  But strangely it didn’t grab my heart strings as I thought it would.  Yes it’s grand, big and airy with its remarkable Perpendicular clerestory windows around its nave and transepts, and it’s everything the guide books say about it but even so what we especially liked this trip were the smaller churches around Melton, particularly Holwell and Wartnaby.   

Holwell hardly merits much of a mention in Pevsner, being only a simple rectangular building with a single bellcote, but its setting in the centre of the village on a small rise well above the main street is lovely.  Again, like at Dry Doddington and Brandon, the churchyard is now laid out as an open green space incorporating seating and the village pump.  And the church’s simple interior could easily lend itself to use for other communal activities in a village where few other facilities appear to be available.  We’ve seen such uses in other villages where the local church is again assuming a stronger relationship with its parish rather than in places where the church seems on the periphery of village life rather than being central to its community.

Wartnaby is another tiny church with no tower.  It was undergoing extensive repairs when we visited and was covered in scaffolding.  Inside though is an early round arched arcade which still bears its original painted ornamentation of flower and plant motifs and fleurs de lis.  Very unusual, we must revisit when the repairs are completed.  Again, it has a lovely setting in a tiny village.   We also visited two other miniature churches at Welby, where there is no village, and at Sysonby, right on the edge of Melton’s built up area.

Elsewhere we were impressed by Scalford which has quite a grand church, and is well worth a visit, as is Asfordby, and happily we could see inside both but other churches we visited were locked with no indication of where we could find a key.   

One of these was at Frisby on the Wreake which has an interesting church with a beautiful Decorated south transept window featuring flamboyant flowing tracery, quite unusual in a village church.  As for the rest of the day the other churches we saw were strangely less memorable, or maybe we just tried to see too many churches in a day, but the weather was so good we had to make the most of it!


What else?  Well, we were intrigued when coming out of Holwell we encountered a gated road with dire warnings about the possibility of the ground collapsing under us if we ventured off the road, due presumably to former iron workings.  But what also amused us was the little sign added to the warning notice which advised us, “CAUTION LAMBS ON ROAD”.  I know it was to warn us to watch out for lambs who might not yet have learned the highway code but the thought also occurred that perhaps there might be some huge mutant lambs marauding along the lanes up ahead. That reminds me also of that other favourite sign that proclaims “DANGER HEAVY PLANT CROSSING”.  For years I’ve watched out for a giant oak or triffid like plant suddenly lurching across the road in front but I’ve never seen one yet… One day…

23 May 2012

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