Monday, 4 November 2013

I join U3A

U3A, the University of the Third Age, a self help group for retired people who are still interested in learning about the world around them.  I put off joining my local branch for a couple of years and I have to say that walking into a room of 300+ elderly people is quite daunting, especially if you then have to admit to yourself that you are actually qualified to be one of them; yes, admitting that you’re a bit old.  Anyway, my local branch is thriving, 630 members and 85 or so different interest groups.  But amongst all the language groups, family history, music appreciation, bird watching, cookery, wine, etc, there was no church appreciation group.  Here’s a tip for anyone contemplating joining U3A: don’t let on that you are interested in or have any particular knowledge of anything.  I casually mentioned that I quite liked to visit old churches.  Suddenly I’m cajoled into organising a group.  Oh well, they are a nice bunch, very keen, quite knowledgeable, but it does take quite a bit more organising to transport 12 people off to the wilds of Lincolnshire instead of just co-ordinating dates between 2 or 3 friends.  It’s great though to see so many more people interested in our local heritage and we have seen some fantastic churches this year, 38 actually, well not 38 fantastic churches, maybe 4 or 5 fantastic ones and 30 odd really good ones.  But as I always say, even plain and ordinary churches have their own special felicitations, every one is different, every one has been built with love, or at least with the desire to do the best with what ever resources were available at the time they were put up, aggrandised, downsized, repaired, reordered or re-built.

U3A visit Stow Minster, our first trip

So where have we been?  We started with a re-visit to Holme, near Newark, still one of my favourite local churches, a fascinating late C15 small wool church in an area without wool churches.  Then another visit to the Jenkins 4 star Stow Minster, near Gainsborough, possibly the earliest church visited this year, Saxon origins, much Norman work, big but rather cold and austere.  On other trips we went to some glorious churches, including Brant Broughton (another 4 star church), Grantham (5 stars), and Louth (4 stars).  There were a few quirky ones as well, and I like quirky.  Alvingham and North Cockerington near Louth, two churches in the same churchyard.  Then there was Saltfleetby All Saints, near Mablethorpe, with its leaning tower and walls at all angles; very atmospheric but sadly ruinous.  I want also to note the wonderfully warm welcomes we got at some churches, particularly at Lambley, Sutton on Trent and Tuxford (all in Notts) and at Sedgbrook, near Grantham.  Guided tours of churches and cups of coffee on cold mornings are always very much appreciated and we were very grateful for the efforts of the local people we met there, especially when they had to come out specially to open up their churches for us.

Below are a few photos from this year’s trips with the U3A.  I hope to cover some of these in more detail in future articles, when I get time.  Retirement is wonderful but I just don’t seem to have the time these days that I used to have.  Is it because I’m actually doing more things or is it because I’m just so much slower than I used to be?  Probably both…

Home St Giles, late C15 and quietly grand
Holme: lots to see, wood carvings, stained glass, chantry chapel
The ladies of Holme
Stow: Ancient and austere
Stow: massive stonework inside

Brant Broughton: Grand and ornate, interesting carvings

Grantham St Wulfram: Seriously impressive, difficult to photograph!

Grantham: West front detail
Louth: Tallest spire in England? 

Louth: Wonderfully light and welcoming inside
Alvingham and North Cockerington: Two churches, one churchyard

Saltfleetby All Saints: Leaning tower and walls at all angles
Lambley: Warm welcome inside

Lambley: At the heart of the community

Sutton on Trent: Big, ornate and welcoming
Tuxford: Lots of history

Tuxford: U3A in learning mode
Sedgbrook: Yet another grand old church

Sedgbrook: Medieval carvings and screen

Click on any picture to enlarge it

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Height of (Medieval) Fashion

A recent article in The Times about hats struck me forcibly. They say fashion goes in cycles but, really, are we seeing a return to 500 year old styles? Well, just compare these hats:

Qatari-designed headwear, The Times 7.9.13
with this wonderful effigy we discovered recently in Ashbourne parish church in Derbyshire.

Dorothy Cockayne

Who could not conclude that the Qatari designers at their London fashion show might have been influenced by the distinctive head piece and ruffs of Dorothy Cockayne, wife of Thomas Cockayne, d. 1592 and daughter of Sir Humphrey Ferrers of Tamworth?
The Boothby Chapel at St. Oswald's in Ashbourne is crammed full of family tombs, monuments and alabaster effigies. Sir John Cockayne, d. 1477 displays a collar with regalia, signifying membership of an order of chivalry in the House of Lancaster, and his wife, Margaret, is shown wearing her best hat with netted hair. Interestingly, the style was used in the BBC TV series set in the same period The White Queen (2013).

Sir John Cockayne

Margaret Cockayne (nee Longford)
St. Oswald's is given 4 stars by Simon Jenkins (he gives only 100 churches four or five stars) and prompts him to assert that "Ashbourne church is one of the finest works of art in the country and should rank alongside the magnificent historic mansions" (England's Thousand Best Churches).
Just down the road from Ashbourne is Norbury, which Jenkins also selects for his book. Like Ashbourne, there are many aspects to its magnificence but one of them, again, is its fashionable monuments to the local powerful family. In this case it is the Fitzherberts, still going strong at Tissington Hall, Derbyshire and in another line as the Barons Stafford of Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire. The family held the manor of Norbury from 1125 to 1987.
The monuments to Ralph Fitzherbert, d. 1483 and his wife are beautifully carved from local alabaster. Their garments were obviously dear to them: witness her elegant dress and tightly-fitting choker necklace and his exquisite collar. Jenkins states that this was a Yorkist emblem, depicting alternating suns and roses. The pendant has a depiction of the white boar of Richard III , the only memorial in the country where one survives ( Ralph was evidently proud, too, of his hairstyle. 

Ralph Fitzherbert and his wife
Ralph's decorative tunic, collar and pendant
At the foot of the effigy a tiny bedesman prays for Sir Ralph's soul, resting on a lion.

Bedesman with a rosary
To conclude this theme here are two delightful alabaster effigies showing fashionable dress in churches we visited some time ago. In St. Luke's, Tixover in Rutland the effigy of the wife of Roger Dale, d. 1623 shows her in some style: 
Wife of Roger Dale, Tixover, with ruff, embroidered dress and hands removed by Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War
Finally, with extravagent ruff, simple head covering and neatly brushed hair, a smiling family "weeper" adorns the tomb of Kenelm Digby, d. 1590 in St. Andrew's, Stoke Dry in Rutland. The fashionable couture of 2013 would not have raised an eyebrow in the sixteenth century!

A daughter of Kenelm Digby


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Pewless in South Nottinghamshire

After last year's enjoyable outing during the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham Open Weekends (see the "Open Sesame" post of 17 August 2012) I went again with Jeanne on 21 July 2013  to see 2 fine churches in South Nottinghamshire. Bunny and East Leake are similar in some ways, both being dedicated to St. Mary, possessing imposing spires and having dispensed with their old pews in favour of simple seats, giving them light, open interiors. But, as always in these trips, the pleasure lies in appreciating the differences.

St Mary, Bunny
Bunny is the largest church in South Nottinghamshire, with a chancel almost as long as the nave. Its clerestory and castellated chancel roof add to its air of grandeur. Inside, features like the piscina and sedilia are of  high architectural quality. An explanatory board states that, sadly, after the Black Death in 1349 skilled workmen were scarce and the same quality is not repeated throughout the church.

Piscina on the left and 3-seat sedilia
There was a long association with the Parkyns family originating in the 16th century and the evidence for that shows up in the numerous and striking monuments. The most arresting is that of the Wrestling Baronet, Sir Thomas Parkyns (1662-1741), who left a life-size monument of himself in a wrestling pose.

Monument to the Wrestling Baronet, Sir Thomas Parkyns, 1741
The inscription, in Latin, Greek and English, indulges in clever wordplay (Sir Thomas was, after all, a lawyer): "that TIME at length did throw him it is plain, who lived in hopes that he should RISE again."

Thomas's ancestor, Sir Richard, left a more traditional kind of monument to himself and his wife and 8 children, which the church has explained imaginatively for the benefit of visitors, bringing history to life.

Monument to Sir Richard and  Elizabeth Parkyns, 1603

Explanatory board for the monument
In fact, the church made great efforts to welcome visitors, with excellent refreshments and friendly guides dressed in the costume of Sir Thomas's period.

Open Day guide, Graham Norbury

St Mary, East Leake
Equally attentive guides were present at East Leake, where a helpful history trail leaflet explained the architectural detail. It was a surprise to me, for example, to see Anglo-Saxon  herringbone masonry containing Roman terracotta tiles in a church so near to Nottingham, an area not noted for its Roman remains. The Roman building was 800 years old when the church was constructed and was evidently a source of building materials. A small section of herringbone masonry has been left uncovered on the otherwise plastered wall inside the church.

Herringbone masonry in the north wall and exterior of the Norman window

East window of the south aisle
East window of the chancel

The interior is uncluttered with an Early English (1150-1250) arcade in the nave and a single aisle, on the south side. There are very splendid 14th Century windows with bold, Decorated tracery in the east wall of both the chancel and the aisle.

A small Norman window in the north aisle has a splayed recess, gaining maximum light and showing off delicate stained glass depicting The Annunciation. St John the Baptist is portrayed in the adjacent window.

Norman window in north wall

Stained glass depicting St John the Baptist

The vamping horn

Perhaps the most unexpected feature in the church is its vamping horn, found in only 8 other churches in the country. Otherwise known as a shawm, it was nearly 8 ft. long at its full length and was  used to "vamp up" the sound of the choir. Both instrument and choir would have occupied the gallery that was at one time accessed through a high doorway in the tower. The blocked up door above the tower arch can still be seen.

Early English arcade with tower arch and blocked up doorway above

Finally, a simple, unadorned Early English font dating from the 12th Century provides a reminder of 900 years of day to day history in East Leake. It once had an elaborate lid that was raised and lowered with a winch, such as can still be seen in the rich churches of East Anglia.

In summary, Bunny and East Leake are two splendid churches with interesting features which provided a fine welcome to visitors on their open weekends.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Contrasts: Wartnaby and Owthorpe

Nether Broughton

Between Melton Mowbray and Bingham, an area at the edge of the Vale of Belvoir, there are many interesting and contrasting churches, some built of ironstone such as Nether Broughton and Long Clawson, some ashlar faced like Hickling, and others have been totally rebuilt at differing times, such as  at Kinoulton and Owthorpe.  None of these churches is without interest and many have churchyards full of C18 slate gravestones, characterised by beautiful lettering, endearing heart felt doggerel, and many headed with cartoon-like Belvoir angels.

Long Clawson


"Belvoir Angels" at Hickling

Less than two miles from Ab Kettleby within the fields lies the hamlet of Wartnaby with its quaint little church.  It is another ironstone church of golden brown colour, much eroded, approached through a field, with a pretty little bellcote.  Quaint and little it may be but Pevsner (1960) describes it as “impressive and important” and its importance lies in its surviving C13 painted decorations on its round arched south arcade and the fact that it appears to be untouched by Victorian restorers.  The decorations consist of mainly red painted motifs of intertwining flowers, foliage, and ribbons, certainly like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else.  Last year, like Ab Kettleby, the church was undergoing repairs but it is now open again for visitors and it is well worth a diversion off the main road. 

Wartnaby: Painted South Arcade
Wartnaby: C13 Foliage

A few miles up the A46 is Owthorpe, another hamlet a mile or so off the main road, again with a church built in a field.  But this church is completely different.  For a start it replaces a much earlier and bigger church destroyed in the Civil War, for Owthorpe was the ancestral home of Colonel John Hutchinson, the principled Parliamentary commander of Nottingham Castle and co-signatory of the death warrant of Charles I.  While he was deployed in Nottingham his manor house was attacked by Royalist troops and much of the village was destroyed.  This is covered in the detailed biography, still in print, of Colonel Hutchinson written by his wife, Lucy.  After the war Colonel Hutchinson returned to Owthorpe, rebuilt his house and the church. though the house was again raided by Royalists after the Restoration when Col. Hutchinson was arrested and imprisoned as a regicide.  The house itself survived until 1825 when it was destroyed by fire. 

None of this turbulent history is evident in today’s peaceful hamlet.  A few humps and bumps in an adjacent field show where the manor house stood and no doubt there is much archaeology under the surface.  But what of the church?  When first seen it presents quite a strange shape with its rather dumpy tower, curving  western facade and almost domestic hipped roof.  Of the medieval church only parts of the north wall survive with a few fragments also built into the tower’s fabric.  Otherwise it is a simple rectangular room lit by southern windows built in a simple late C17 style.  Pevsner gives it a date of 1705.

Owthorpe: Atmospheric Interior
Inside one is struck immediately by the C17 painted screen which extends across the whole width of the church, said to have come from Owthorpe Hall, and also the C17 panelled pulpit.  However it is the number of memorials inside the church which gives the church its atmosphere, particularly the memorial to John Hutchinson himself with its inscription, said to have been written by his wife.  This refers to his being buried in a family vault beneath, though the monument is known to have been moved.  Also, it is said locally that Lucy Hutchinson herself is also buried in the vault, but buried upright.  Some excavations have been done in recent years around the church which have established that the vault does indeed exist.  What a pity that Time Team is no longer to continue; there surely would have been enough for several three day digs around Owthorpe so how about one of those special Time Team investigations?  Tony and Phil, it’s over to you.

Owthorpe: Part of the Inscription to Col. John Hutchinson