Exploring England 2015, Part 6 – Churches, Cathedrals and Abbeys.

Thursday, Mar 17, 2016 at 00:28


There are few sights that evoke "Englishness" more than that of a parish church, its steeple pointing aloft above sheltering trees. The humble parish church has been an integral part of English social life and culture for some 1500 years. For visitors like us, interested to better understand English (and by extension Australian) history and social change, their story is accessible and delightfully multifacetted. Although we are the “hatched, matched and despatched” kind of churchgoers we have always felt at home in these intriguing places where everyday people are often encountered, ready for a chat among a wealth of history.

England has about 16,000 parish church buildings, many of them medieval structures that contain and display an unparalleled array of treasures. Rivalling the collections of the world’s great museums, these buildings house significant monuments, wall paintings, stained glass, textiles and medieval timberwork. Many churches have churchyards that collectively cover an area equivalent to a small national park, and contain not only fascinating headstones but also some of the oldest and most significant trees in Britain. Trees, now that’s really interesting.

Our visits to parish churches were unplanned and opportunistic. Researching came later, although we are unlikely to revisit them to really understand what we saw on our quick visits. But the collective history of this little group is quite mind boggling to us whose idea of an old building is something built 100 years ago.
So here are some thumbnail sketches of what we found, starting with the little village churches around Cambridge. Rob took us on a whirlwind tour to shake off our jetlag.

All Saints' Church at Rampton, near Cambridge is tucked away in a grove of venerable yews. The exact origins of this church are unknown, however the Saxon grave slabs and other fragments show that people have been worshipping on the site for over a thousand years. A tomb in the north wall of the Chancel is reputed to be that of a Lord of the Manor in the 13th Century.

There has been a church on the site of the church of St John the Baptist at Holywell since 990 AD. The present church dates from the 13th century and the tower was added in the 16th century. In the churchyard stands the Holy Well, the spring which gives the surrounding village its name, venerated for its healing properties since pre-Christian times. Now the trickling overflow from the spring supports a tranquil little garden, bursting into flower.

All Saints Church in Conington near St. Ives is a late medieval church. The unusual building displays three distinct styles. The oldest part of the present church is the west tower, probably dating from the 14th century and built of stones collected from the village fields. Some years after the tower was built, it was topped out with an octagonal spire rising to 29m. In the 18th century the tower was supplied with massive sloping red-brick buttresses because it was settling under the weight of the spire. A lych-gate was erected in 1892 at the entrance to the churchyard and from there an avenue of twelve yews (representing the twelve apostles) leads to the west door.

A lych gate was traditionally a place where corpse bearers carried the body of a deceased person and laid it on a communal bier. The priest would then carry out the first part of a burial ceremony under the shelter of the lych gate roof.

Before we left Cambridgeshire our generous hostess Becky took us to the village of Over to see St Mary's Church made of stone from the extreme north of Cambridgeshire. Unlike many Fenland and edge-of-fen churches, it is highly ornamented with traces of 14th century work, including flower-ball carvings, and gargoyles representing birds and beasts. Its size shows the income the village received from, among other things, the Suffolk wool trade and goods sold in the market at St Ives.

On the Norfolk coast we found the tiny Church of St Peter and St Paul. Near the Burgh Castle Roman fort, with their massive bastions still standing to near full height, the little church is dwarfed by mighty trees in an ancient graveyard. It is an attractive small church with a round tower maybe built in the late 11th century, with the rest of the church being later. It is possible that some of the red bricks and tiles visible in the tower are Roman, recycled from the nearby fort. Renovations were underway inside, but the friendly ladies doing the flowers were eager to chat with Aussie visitors – and like just about everyone in England they have friends or relations “down under”.

Moving further afield, we spent a week in delightful Puddletown in Dorset where our accommodation was just around the corner from the church of St Mary the Virgin. We paid a few visits to this wonderful church, one of the finest historic churches in Dorset. We heard the bells pealing and arrived in time for a chat with the team of bell ringers who regularly ring the changes there. We chatted with excited tourists who had found the grave of an ancestor and admired the huge yew tree in the churchyard.

St. Mary’s Church dates to the Norman period, but much of the building seen now is a result of 15th century rebuilding. The interior has abundant riches of 17th century woodwork. The pulpit, reading desk, altar rails, font cover and box pews all date from that period, as does the wonderfully carved gallery over the west end of the church. The Athelhampton Chantry is filled with monuments to the Martyn family of nearby Athelhampton House. The oldest tomb dates to the 13th century and there is a wonderfully carved tomb with the effigy of Sir William Martyn (d. 1503). Thomas Hardy's grandfather is known to have played the cello in the gallery when musicians were used for music during services, while the grave of his uncle John Antell, who is thought to have been the model for Jude in Jude the Obscure, can be seen in the churchyard.

Further west around the Wye Valley we explored the village of Clearwell that originated in Saxon times when iron ore was extracted from the surrounding limestone rock. The village began as a group of hamlets dating from the 1300s, which coalesced to form the village. It formed around three roads which run down to a central junction marked by a large village cross. Most of the houses that formed Clearwell village were replaced by red sandstone cottages in the late 18th century, although several older buildings survive. In 1830 a chapel was built for the village but replaced in 1866 by St Peter’s Church, built by the countess of Dunraven, owner of the Clearwell estate. A fine example of French Gothic Style, the church is a mass of carving, coloured stone, brass and stained glass. The organ was brought from the family home in County Adare.

Into Scotland the English traditions give way to more varied fare. St. Conans Kirk is nestled on the banks of aptly named Loch Awe. It is steeped in a family history, and marked by unconventional approaches to design. Walter Douglas Campbell, bought the Island of Innischonam, on which he built a stately mansion. Here he settled with his sister and mother. Local tradition has it that the elderly Mrs. Campbell found the long drive to the parish church too much for her, so her son decided to build her a church nearby.

Walter’s first design, completed in 1886, was relatively simple but he began to dream of a far nobler structure. He started work on this in 1907, and devoted the rest of his life to its execution until he died in 1914. Walter Campbell was a man of many talents. He was a capable if somewhat unorthodox architect, a collector of objets d’art, and a skilled woodcarver. Although most of the kirk is in a Norman or Romanesque style, he included not only early and late types of this but other and totally different styles. He was more anxious to achieve beauty than consistency; he deliberately tried to include examples of every type of ecclesiastical architecture found in Scotland. This approach is borne out by the circle of Standing Stones at the entrance gate.

Kilmartin is a small village in Argyll and Bute, south of Oban in western Scotland. It is best known as the centre of Kilmartin Glen, an area rich with prehistoric monuments and historical sites. Kilmartin Parish Church is a congregation of the Church of Scotland. The present church building was opened in 1835, though there had been earlier churches on the site. The churchyard has an important collection of early Christian and medieval carved stones, known as the Kilmartin Stones. Some of these stones are displayed within the parish church while the burying ground around the church contains many mediaeval grave slabs. Other mediaeval grave slabs that used to be at St Columba's Chapel in Poltalloch have also been moved to Kilmartin. Many of these are protected in a covered mausoleum in the grounds of Kilmartin churchyard.

Many of the gravestones are marked by figures of warriors in contemporary dress with spears and swords, along with figures of fantastic animals, foliage and interlace patterns. None are inscribed, so the identities of the persons commemorated are unknown. They are most likely to be the monuments of the local landowning or minor noble class in late medieval times. Women are commemorated on some of the stones, their symbol often being the shears, referring to household activities.

Our travels also took us, this time in a more planned fashion, to the other end of the grandeur scale, to visit some of the mighty cathedrals. In England the Cathedrals make an immense contribution to the country's historic environment as they are physical and social landmarks. They are often the largest and most architecturally complex buildings in their area and they may also be among the oldest buildings in their city or town.

As the seat of the bishop and the mother church, a cathedral is a focal point in its diocese. Cathedrals attract pilgrims and visitors, offer education and hospitality, and excellence in music, art and liturgy. The cathedral building and its precinct can be the largest public spaces in a locality, hosting a variety of events, a setting for civic occasions and, often, an oasis of calm in a busy city centre.

We have discovered that a few hours in a Cathedral requires mental and physical stamina, but is not nearly enough time to see, let alone absorb, all that is on offer there. So our necessarily brief visits merely allowed us a quick sampling and the hope that one day we may be able to return.
Norwich boasts two Cathedrals, both impressive structures although built centuries apart. Our visits were brief, as we wasted time getting lost, then had trouble finding a suitable carpark.

The Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist is the Roman Catholic cathedral of the city of Norwich, Norfolk. It was constructed between 1882 and 1910 on the site of the Norwich City Gaol. The funds for its construction were provided by Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk as a generous gift to the Catholics of Norwich and as a sign of thanksgiving for his first marriage to Lady Flora Abney-Hastings.

Norwich Cathedral is the Church of England cathedral church for Norwich. It is an iconic Norman Cathedral and one of the most complete major Romanesque buildings in Europe. Romanesque denotes a style of European architecture of the 11th and 12th centuries, characterized by round arches and vaults, and thick, massive walls. The cathedral was begun in 1096 and constructed out of flint and mortar, faced with a cream-coloured Caen limestone transported from Normandy.

A whole Saxon settlement and two churches were demolished to make room for the cathedral whose awe-inspiring scale signified the power and permanence of the Norman invaders. The cathedral was completed in 1145 with the Norman tower topped with a lead covered wooden spire 96 m high. It is the second tallest spire in England (after Salisbury) despite being partly rebuilt after being struck by lightning in 1169, just 23 months after its completion.

Norwich Cathedral has the second largest cloisters in England, again only outsized by Salisbury Cathedral. There is a turf maze within the cloister. The Cathedral Close is one of the largest in England and has more people living within it than any other close. Visitors to the Cathedral enter via the Hostry Visitor & Education Centre This modern building, completed in 2009 stands on the footprint of the original monastic hostry and replicates its role to make visitors welcome. Unfortunately we were unable to spend time in this area which includes some excellent displays.

We travelled south to Canterbury where we spent a full morning exploring ancient Canterbury Cathedral. But first we had to find the Cathedral as we wandered through the old city from the bus station. Although the cathedral is in the middle of the city it is surrounded by buildings and spotting it from the old narrow streets proved difficult. Canterbury Cathedral is the worldwide Anglican Mother Church and seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, a holy place and part of a World Heritage Site.

St Augustine arrived as a missionary to England in 597 AD. He came from Rome and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine’s original building lies beneath the floor of the Nave – it was extensively rebuilt and enlarged by the Saxons. Later the Cathedral was rebuilt completely by the Normans in 1070 following a major fire. There have been many additions to the building over the last nine hundred years, but parts of the Quire and some of the windows and their stained glass date from the 12th century.

The cathedral encompasses layers of history, one of the most infamous events occurring in 1170 when Thomas A’Becket was murdered in the Cathedral. Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170 by King Henry II's knights. The king had ordered his murder for refusing to give the monarchy power over the church. Visitors today can stand on the exact spot where that historic event – that still has echoes in our modern systems of government - took place.

Canterbury Cathedral contains over 1,200 square metres of stained glass, including one of England’s largest collections of early medieval stained glass. Much of this is in need of urgent attention and all conservation work is carried out at the Cathedral’s own Stained Glass Studio, run by highly-trained conservators and glaziers. A couple of days before our visit a major exhibition of stained glass and its restoration had opened in the Chapter House, so we were fortunate to be able to see this incredible collection and gain some insight into the history and significance of this iconic art form.

In the north of England we planned a return visit to York and famous York Minster. A visit to the cathedral had been a highlight of an earlier trip, and we were keen to see more of this breathtaking building that dominates the city skyline.

York Minster seems to capture the whole sweep of English history. The city of York has had a Christian presence since about 300 AD. The first church on the site, built over Roman structures, was a wooden structure built hurriedly in 627 to provide a place to baptise Edwin, King of Northumbria. Over the next half a millennia there were a series of churches on the site. Some were large and impressive structures but fire and invasion took their toll. There was a series of Benedictine archbishops, including Ealdred, who travelled to Westminster to crown William the Conqueror in 1066. Ealdred died in 1069 and was buried in the church. When the Gothic style of cathedrals arrived in the mid-12th century Walter de Gray was made archbishop. In 1215 he ordered the construction of a Gothic structure to rival Canterbury in grandeur and magnificence – one-up-manship on a grand scale. Building began in 1220 although the cathedral was only declared complete in 1472.

The Reformation led to the first Protestant archbishop, and the looting of much of the cathedral's treasures. Under Elizabeth I there was a concerted effort to remove all traces of Catholicism from the cathedral, leading to much destruction of tombs, windows, and altars. Then during the English Civil War York was besieged and fell to the forces of Cromwell in 1644, although further damage to the cathedral was prevented.

Following the easing of religious tensions there was some work to restore the cathedral but there followed a series of fires and periods of debt that left the fabric of the building in poor shape. It was not until the 1850s that work was done that successfully revived the cathedral.

The 20th century saw a great deal of preservation work, especially after a 1967 survey revealed the building was close to collapse. Major work was done to reinforce and strengthen the building foundations and the resultant excavated space is now used to house an excellent exhibition covering the history of the site from its early Roman beginnings. A fire in 1984 destroyed the roof in the south transept. Restoration work was completed in 1988, and includes new roof bosses based on designs by schoolchildren who entered a competition organised by BBC Television.

As we approached the building we noticed that the scaffolding that had previously obscured much of the western façade was gone, although subsequent walks around the exterior revealed that the scaffolding had merely moved to keep up with the endless repair and maintenance that is needed to keep the building in good repair. Now the east end is covered in scaffold and nearby we were able to watch stonemasons at work in the stone-yard, shaping stones to replace those worn down by pollution and the passage of time.

A visitor’s ticket is valid for 12 months; we made the best use of it that we could during our few days stay, returning twice to soak up as much as we could. On our initial visit we joined a large tour group led by a sprightly volunteer guide who explained many of the highlights in the allotted hour or so. After that we explored at our leisure (if aching backs and feet can be called leisure) going back to the wonderful stained glass including the Heart of Yorkshire, the rood screen with its row of kings, the enchanting Chapterhouse, the massive central pillars and soaring high ceiling and the expanse of the nave. And finally we visited the wonderful museum that has been created in the undercroft excavated under the central columns when the foundations were reinforced. And after all that, we would visit again if opportunity permitted.

There is a third category of Christian establishment in England that has had a significant part in English (and by implication Australian) history. These are monasteries and convents, collectively referred to as abbeys.

An abbey was governed by an Abbot or Abbess, depending on whether it was a monastery (for men) or a convent (for women, also known as a nunnery). This person was the spiritual head of the institution. Abbeys were often established on arable land because they were intended to be self-sufficient centres of prayer, productivity, and communal harmony. They were also centres of culture, learning, and social progress. Monks established schools, copied and illuminated manuscripts, improved farming methods, and organized early cooperative farming. They developed the first hospitals because of their care of the sick on pilgrimage. Abbeys were often hospitable places, welcoming visitors. The guest accommodation and facilities at many abbeys, particularly those situated near the highways were abundant and impressive.

In the 1500s monastic life in England and Wales was brought to an abrupt end by King Henry VIII. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was part of the king's policy to establish total control over the church. The destruction of English monasteries marked (after the murder of Thomas A’Beckett in Canterbury) the second great contest between Church and King. Henry had broken ties with the Catholic Church in Rome, and declared himself head of the Church of England. His intention in destroying the monastic system was both to reap its wealth and to suppress political opposition. Between 1536 and 1540 he took over 800 monasteries, abbeys, nunneries and friaries, some of which had accumulated land and great wealth. These had been home to more than 10,000 monks. Many monasteries were sold off to landowners, others became churches, and many, such as Tintern Abbey were left to ruin. Monks who resisted were executed, but those who surrendered were paid or pensioned off.

Because of this tumultuous history and their considerable religious and cultural significance, the abbeys that still remain are highly valued by both local residents and tourists.

Our journey south towards the coast took us by chance to the little town of Battle and Battle Abbey. Battle Abbey is a partially ruined Benedictine abbey built on what was believed to be the scene of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Current research has called this site into question and ongoing research is being done to discover the actual battle site. Despite this it was pleasant to walk in the sun and try to imagine the tumult of that historic and horrendous day when 6-7000 men died, about one third of the total forces on the field that day.

In 1070 Pope Alexander II ordered the Normans to do penance for killing so many people during their conquest of England. In response, William the Conqueror vowed to build an abbey where the Battle of Hastings had taken place, with the high altar of its church on the supposed spot where King Harold fell in that battle on Saturday, 14 October 1066. All that is now left of the abbey church is its outline on the ground. However parts of some of the abbey's buildings built between the 13th and 16th century are still standing. These are still in use as the independent Battle Abbey School. There is also a visitor centre that provides a good insight into the Battle of Hastings and how the armies fought and died.

Beside the Wye River in SW Wales is the Cistercian Abbey of Tintern. It is one of the greatest monastic ruins of Wales although it was never very large or important, and its history was relatively uneventful. The present-day remains are an amalgam of several phases of building spanning 400 years. During the 13th century the abbey was more or less completely rebuilt, starting in about 1220 with the cloisters and domestic buildings around them, and finishing with the great church. Tintern's crowning glory, its great church, was built between 1269 and 1301. It stands today much as it did then, although now lacking a roof, window glass and internal divisions. Tintern abbey is not as long as the other great Cistercian abbey churches at Fountains and Rievaulx in Yorkshire, but its completeness makes it impressive.

The main abbey buildings were contained within a walled precinct of 11ha within which there were many other secular buildings. Tintern Abbey was surrendered to the king's visitors on 3 September 1536. Apart from the Abbot, there were twelve choir monks and some 35 monastic servants. As they left the abbey in late summer, a way of life which had lasted for 400 years finally came to an end.
With the roofs gone, and windows smashed, the shell of the abbey fell into decay.

Some 250 years later, in the late 18th century, when it became fashionable to visit wilder parts of the country, the Wye Valley became renowned for its picturesque qualities. Tintern Abbey, then swathed in ivy, was rediscovered and visited by many seekers after the romantic and picturesque. Famous visitors who immortalised the ruins included the painter J M W Turner and poet William Wordsworth. Since the early 20th century extensive restoration work has been done to preserve this wonderful abbey church.

We visited on a grey drizzly day and for a while almost had the place to ourselves. How remote and isolated life must have been there, hemmed in by the brooding hills. But the community was well provided for with kitchens, running water, infirmary, library and scriptorium. And the surrounding countryside provided not only food but smelted iron that was crafted into goods that were exported widely, even then.

That diversity of activity, form and function neatly encapsulates what we learned about English churches. They are full of history and surprises, a sort of time capsule able to transport us back in time, making a visit however brief, an enjoyable and fulfilling experience.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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