AN ELDERLY LADY WALKING with the help of a walking frame beckoned to us just after we had walked around the Church of St Mary in the village of Guilden Morden near Royston in Cambridgeshire. As with so many country churches we have visited since the onset of the covid19 pandemic, we had found that the church was locked up. However, the lady, who had called us over, was holding a large old-fashioned key and asked us whether we would like to see inside the church. I am so glad that we accepted her offer because she pointed out something that is very rarely found in English churches: a double rood screen.
A rood screen is often found in late mediaeval churches. Commonly made of wood and often ornate, the screens separate the nave where the congregation assembles from the chancel where the choir sings and the clergy officiate near to the high altar. The rood screen at St Mary’s in Guilden Morden, whose construction began in the 12th or 13th centuries, consists of two parallel screens on either side of a central passage leading between the chancel and the nave. It is decorated with some paintings of saints and on each side of the passage, there are small enclosures large enough for several congregants to sit during a service.
The lady, who pointed out the special nature of the rood screen, told us that in the past, the lord of one manor sat with family members in the ‘cubicle’ on one side of the central passageway and the lord of another manor sat in the cubicle on the other side. She told us that when she was a small child in the village, she had seen the local aristocrats occupying the rather cramped-looking booths between the parallel screens.
The website www.english-church-architecture.net doubts the church’s claim that the double-rood screen is an original feature of the church. It quotes the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who:
“… declared it to be reassembled from the original rood screen and one or more parclose screens, to form “a double rood-screen, i.e. with a kind of pew left and right of a central passageway. Three designs are represented, two very similar and clearly not too late in the fourteenth century, the third, early Perp.” In fact, the early Perpendicular work forms the back of the screen and the re-used sections of parclose screens, if that is what they are, appear to have been built up against it on the side towards the nave.”
Whatever its history, neither my wife nor I had ever seen anything quite like that in British churches … and we have visited quite a few of them.
Before leaving the church and the kind old lady, I spotted the baptismal font that looks far older than the church. Our new friend thought it predated the present church. According http://www.british-history.ac.uk, the font’s basin is 12th century and the pillars supporting it are later.
Before we left the church and the lady locked it up, I asked her about the name Guilden Morden. She believed that it might mean something like ‘golden moor’. She was not far off the truth, which is that the name is derived from the Old English ‘Gylden More Dun’, meaning ‘Golden’ (rich or productive) ‘Moor Hill’.
Once again, a trip out of London into the countryside has proved to be not only refreshing but also enjoyable. England, from which we have always travelled abroad during the years before the current pandemic, is proving to be at least as interesting as the many far more exotic destinations we have been enjoying over the years.