There is a lovely parish church in Long Melford, Suffolk. Called Holy Trinity Church, it is a fine example of the perpendicular gothic style, completed in about 1484. Some of its windows contain old pre-Reformation stained-glass. A tiny circular piece of stained-glass above the north door of the nave depicts something unusual. It is hard to see with the unaided eye, but if you can manage to see it properly, you will notice something interesting. Known as the Hare Window, it depicts the heads of three hares and three hare’s ears. Each hare appears to have the usual two ears, but each of the three ears on the glass are shared by a pair of hares.
Although unusual, the three hare motif is not unique to Long Melford. Another example, a ceiling boss with three hares sharing three ears can be found in the Chapter House of the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Wissembourg, France, and another on a bell at Kloster Haina near Kassel in Germany (http://www.chrischapmanphotography.co.uk/hares/page3.htm)
THE SUNDAY MORNING SERVICE at the parish church, St Mary the Virgin, in Haverhill in Suffolk had just ended when we entered the building. My wife chatted with a priest, who said he knew little about this church’s history. She asked him if there were any other churches in the district worth a visit. He mentioned two across the county border in Cambridgeshire, at the villages of Bartlow and at Hildersham. The two churches have something of interest in common: unusual colourful paintings.
Bartlow’s St Mary’s church has a distinctive round bell tower. But this is not the only thing that is remarkable about it. It was built in the 11th or 12th century and modified gradually during the following centuries. A real treat greets the visitor on entering the building: some colourful 15th century wall paintings, two on the south wall and one on the north. They depict St George’s dragon (north wall), and opposite this on the south wall: St Michael weighing the souls on The Day of Judgement, and east of it another shows a portrait of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. The paintings existed long before the Civil War. On the 20th of March 1644, they were covered up with paint by Oliver Cromwell’s men under the command of William Dowsing (1596-1668), a fanatic iconoclast, also known as ‘Smasher Dowsing’. The frescos began to become uncovered in the 19th century, but it was only in 2014 that serious conservation work was undertaken on them.
The artists who created the wall paintings at Bartlow have been long forgotten, but this is not the case for the creators of the colourful chancel at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Hildersham. In 1806, the Reverend Charles Goodwin was appointed Rector of Hildersham. Ten years later, his son Robert was born. He studied at Clare College in Cambridge and whilst a student he joined The Cambridge Camden Society, whose aims were to promote the study of Gothic architecture and ‘ecclesiastical antiques’. This society grew to be a great influence on the design of Victorian churches.
In 1847, following the death of his father, Robert became Rector of Hildersham’s church. Soon, he began to consider how to ‘restore’ his church in accordance with gothic revival ideals. Amongst these ‘improvements’ was the painting of frescos on the walls of the chancel. These were executed using a novel technique known as ‘spirit fresco’, which made use of a complex mixture of beeswax, oil of spike lavender, spirits of turpentine, elemi resin, and copal varnish. This technique, invented by Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888), produced durable images that were easier to produce than the traditional fresco technique used, for example, in renaissance Italy. The chancel at Hildersham was painted using the new technique by Alfred Bell, John Clayton, and Stacy Marks. They and many assistants produced a magnificent display of saints and religious scenes, all from The New Testament. They were painted in 1890 and are in wonderful condition. The two churches are just under 4 miles apart and both are well worth visiting. And, when you do go to these buildings, you will find light switches near their entrance doors. We might never have seen them had it not been for my wife engaging in friendly conversation with the priest at Haverhill.
A SHORT REMNANT OF the old Roman city wall, which used to surround London, runs just south of the church of St Giles Cripplegate, which itself is on the southern edge of the Barbican complex. The garden of Salter’s Hall lies where once a moat ran along the outer side of the wall. And on the other side of the wall, between it and the wide road called London Wall (the A1211), there are the remains of a mediaeval structure, which look as if they might have been the lower part of a gothic tower. These ruins can be examined close-up or a few feet away, seated at a table under the awnings of Barbie Green, an Australian-style, contemporary eatery, which serves good coffee. The restaurant is relatively new, but the ruins have been there far, far longer. Oddly, although we have passed this area often, it was only yesterday, 16th of August 2021, that we first noticed them.
A notice next to the ruins explains that they are all that remains of the tower of St Elsyng Spital, which was also known as ‘The Hospital of St Mary within Cripplegate’ (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/london/vol1/pp535-537). This hospital was founded in 1330 by the merchant, a mercer, William Elsyng as a college for priests and to provide shelter and other assistance to London’s homeless blind people (https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.538317). A victim of the Black Death, he died in 1349. Following his instructions, after his death it became an Augustinian priory, which survived until it was dissolved in 1536 during the reign of King Henry VIII. After its dissolution, the parishioners of the nearby St Alphage Church, which had become derelict, purchased the church of Elsyng’s establishment. According to the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, the 14th century tower, whose remains we saw, was incorporated into the structure of St Alphage. St Alphage was demolished at the end of the 16th century and its parishioners used what was left of Elsyng’s priory church, which was eventually replaced by a newly built church on a different site in 1777 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Alphege_London_Wall).
The well-maintained ruins consist of several tall gothic arches connected to each other by walls made of roughly hewn stones and mortar. Most of the arches are arranged around what was once the base of a tower. This mediaeval site is surrounded by modern buildings, lies beneath a sinuous elevated oxidised metal walkway. It is sandwiched between the fragment of London’s Roman Wall and the busy London Wall dual carriageway. Part of the joy of stumbling across this relic of pre-Reformation architecture is that unlike so many others we have seen on our travels, it is in the heart of a modern metropolis rather than a rustic environment.
Small though it is in comparison with its modern surroundings, finding this reminder of London’s distant past, founded long ago by a philanthropic merchant, was a delightful surprise. Even today, so many centuries later, philanthropy thrives in the heart of the old City of London in the form of the descendants of the guilds, of which The Salters, whose hall I mentioned above, is just one example of many.
THE BATTLE OF NASEBY was fought on the 14th of June 1645 between the Royalists, led by King Charles I and his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. It was a victory for the Parliamentarians and the last major battle in the (First) English Civil War (1642-1646), putting an end to any hopes that the king had of winning the conflict. The battlefield at Naseby is about 5 miles southwest of the small Leicestershire town of Market Harborough, which we visited for the first time in July 2021. We dove there, almost accidentally, after having had a frustrating experience navigating the ring road around the town of Rugby without finding a route to its old centre. Shamefacedly, I must admit that we were completely ignorant of this town’s connections with the Civil War and the Battle of Naseby.
It was at Market Harborough that King Charles had his headquarters before the fight at Naseby. I am not sure which buildings in the town were used by the king, but one of them, still in existence, might possibly have been visited by the royal person. This is the former coaching inn, The Three Swans. Its website informs us with appropriate cautiousness:
“Like most old inns, The Three Swans has become the subject of a number of legends, often passed on with varying degrees of accuracy. One is that Charles I visited the inn on the night before the Battle of Naseby in June 1645. According to surviving records made at the time, the king actually retired for the night two miles down the road at the private house of Lubenham Hall. He was raised from his bed at 11pm by reports of the unexpected arrival of the Parliamentarian army just eight miles away at Naseby. He rushed to Market Harborough to meet his senior General, his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who had established his military headquarters in the town.
At midnight they met with several other commanders for a council of war. The venue for the meeting is unknown. It could have been The Swan, or it could just as easily have been anywhere else in the town…” (from a pdf accessed via www.threeswans.co.uk/about/history/).
An information plaque in the town suggests that on the eve of the battle, the king and Prince Rupert conferred in an Inn on Church Street, the site of the present Kings Head Pub. The present establishment was built in the 19th century.
There might be some uncertainty about the king’s whereabouts in Market Harborough before the Battle of Naseby, but there is no doubt where some of his soldiers spent some time as prisoners after the Royalists were defeated. After the battle, the Parliamentarian Provost Marshall had to secure the 4000 to 5000 Royalist soldiers who had been captured during fight at Naseby. The only building in Market Harborough large enough to house this large number of captives and to secure them was the centrally located church of St Dionysius, which is close to both the Three Swans and The Kings Head. They were held in the church for one night before they were marched to London via nearby Northampton.
The construction of the Church of St Dionysius with its tall tower with steeple was started in the 13th century, but much of its structure dates to the 14th and 15th centuries. High up on a wall at the west end of the church is a depiction of the royal coat-of-arms dated 1660. This was the date when the monarchy, led by King Charles II, was restored in England. Five years earlier, the church was crowded with tired soldiers, who had fought in vain for Charles’s father, who was executed on the 30th of January 1649.
Some, if not all, of the Royalist soldiers, who were about to be incarcerated in St Dionysius, might have noticed a curious structure next to its southern side. Built in 1614, this building, which stands on sturdy wooden posts at least 6 feet high, must have seemed quite new in 1645. It was the grammar school founded by in 1607 by Robert Smyth, a resident of the town who became Comptroller of the City of London’s Chamber and member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. The structure, which you see today, was funded by Smyth’s money. The school, which is accessed by a staircase, stands raised high above the ground. The space beneath it was created to keep the town’s market dry in wet weather. Many years later, a descendant of this school was established elsewhere in the town. Now known as the Robert Smyth Academy, one of its past students was the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Sir William Henry Bragg.
Today, the centre of Market Harborough is pleasantly vibrant with a good range of shops and eateries. Contemporary life and memories of the town’s history rub shoulders harmoniously in this place that deserves the attention of more tourists.
On our return from Market Harborough and the fascinating Foxton lock staircase nearby, we did manage to find our way into the heart of the town of Rugby, which did not impress us nearly as much as Market Harborough.
SNAPE MALTINGS ON Suffolk’s River Alde is a famous venue for music (mainly) and the other arts. It is the home of the Aldeburgh Festival, started in 1948 by the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and his partner, the singer Peter Pears (1910-1986). We have yet to attend a concert there, but we have eaten a fine lunch in its beautifully designed River View eatery. From the Maltings, you can enjoy views across the water meadows and if you look carefully enough, you can spot the tower of the Church of St Botolph in the tiny village of Iken across the river.
St Botolph, who died in about 680, is believed to have brought Christianity to Iken in about 654. He is the patron saint of boundaries, and, because of this, also of trade and travel. The present church dedicated to him is curious because its nave has a thatched roof. It was preceded by a minster built by Botolph but destroyed by the Danes in the 9th century. In 870, a Saxon timber church was constructed. This has also gone. It was replaced by a stone edifice, the beginning of what we can see today.
The Norman flint-rubble nave of the current church was built between about 1070 and 1110. The western tower, also with flint and other masonry was constructed soon after Robert Geldeny and William Baldwyn bequeathed money for its construction in 1450 and 1456 respectively. During the Reformation in the 16th century, various changes were made to the church’s interior to conform with the restrained liturgical requirements of the Reformed Church. This would have included whitewashing over colourful frescoes and destruction of stained glass and other decorative features. By the 19th century, the church was becoming somewhat dilapidated. Between 1850 and 1860, restoration works were undertaken. A new chancel was constructed in the style of the early 14th century on the foundations of the original mediaeval chancel. It was designed by John Whichcord (1790-1860) of Maidstone in Kent.
In 1942, during WW2, the whole of the population of Iken was evacuated so that the area could be used for battle training. The church was also closed. It reopened in 1947 after the villagers returned to Iken. During the 1950s, they did much work to improve the condition of their church. In 1968, sparks from timber being burnt nearby set fire to the thatched roof of the church. The nave was badly damaged, but the chancel survived. Today, visitors to the church would not be able to imagine that it had suffered such a conflagration, so well has it been repaired.
Inside the church, several things attracted my attention. The most fascinating is the Saxon cross shaft in the northwest corner of the nave. Covered with bas-relief Celtic-style carvings this 4 ½ foot fragment of a stone cross (possibly, originally 9 feet in length) was created either in the 9th or 10th century. Near to this, there is a lovely octagonal stone font, which is 15th century. It is covered with superb carvings, some of which depict the emblems of the four Evangelists. These are separated from each other by angels. The wooden altar reredos, a panel behind the altar, was carved by Harry Brown of Ipswich and dedicated in 1959. It bears a bas-relief of The Last Supper, which Mr Brown based on the famous painting of that occasion by Leonardo da Vinci. I have mentioned a few of the items within the church that I found interesting but there is plenty more to see, all listed in an informative booklet on sale in the church.
From the boundary of the graveyard surrounding this lovely church, you can catch glimpses of the River Alde, which flows nearby. Visitors to Snape Maltings should spare some time to visit the church at Iken. It is so nearby yet feels so far away.
FROM THE STREET, the Victorian gothic façade of Hampstead’s Heath Street Baptist Church is unremarkable. Over the past more than 60 years, I have walked or driven past this place of worship, but it was not until today (20th July 2021) that I entered it for the first time.
The church was designed by the architect and surveyor Charles Gray Searle (1816-81) and completed 1860-61. Searle was himself a Baptist. He had been apprenticed to the renowned master builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who bought stone from his father, John Searle, who owned a quarry near Wapping. Charles set up his own practice in about 1846.
“An early print of the proposed chapel shows buttresses but in its method of construction it was more modern, cast iron being used not only for the pillars and probably for the whole interior framework, but also for the gallery fronts and the mouldings of the pew-ends. The strength of the building is based upon this framework formed by the cast-iron pillars in church and hall below and their linking beams. The brick walls cling to the framework and have tiebars linking the hammer beam roof.”
Cast iron, which has high compressive strength, began being used to create buildings at the end of the 18th century. Pillars made of this material can be made slenderer than masonry columns required to support the same load. The slender nature of the columns in the Heath Street Chapel is immediately evident when you enter the building. What is less obvious is that the decorative fronts of the gallery that surrounds the nave are also made from cast-iron. The material has hardly been used for structural elements of buildings since modern steel and concrete became available at the start of the 20th century.
If you do visit this church, do not miss the fine art-nouveau stained glass window at its western end.
Although the Heath Street Chapel was certainly not the first church to be built using cast-iron structural elements, it must have been one of the first buildings of its kind to have been built in Hampstead, which is why I have given this short piece the title “A High-tech Church in Hampstead”.
AN UNUSUAL CRUCIFIX hands within the church of St Mary in Bruton, Somerset. It is a sculpture typical of early 20th century German Expressionism, yet it was created in 1969, long after the heyday of this artistic trend. The creator of this religious sculpture was Ernst Blensdorf (1896-1976). He was born Ernst Müller in North Germany, but after his marriage to his first wife, Ilse Blensdorf, in 1923, he changed his surname to ‘Müller-Blensdorf’, then later to ‘Blensdorf’.
At first, Blensdorf became a seaman. After having been interned as an enemy alien by the British during WW1, Ernst travelled to Johannesburg in South Africa with a fellow internee. It was here that he made a table-top wood carving of an African village. On his return to Germany, this fine carving persuaded Ernst’s father that his son had a future as an artist and was willing to support him towards this aim. While in Africa, Ernst had seen African art first-hand and exposure to this certainly helped influenced his future creations.
After a brief spell at an art school in Barmen, he left to become apprenticed to a master joiner. By 1922, he had become a journeyman for a furniture company, which specialised in manufacturing luxury items. During this period, he was influenced by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko. The skill that Ernest acquired and developed whilst manufacturing wooden objects for the furniture company became useful as he moved from applied craftsmanship to artistic endeavours. In addition to other activities, he taught at the art school in Barmen during the 1920s. By the 1930s, he had become an established sculptor and had exhibited his works at various exhibitions in Germany, where he received both private and public commissions.
When the Nazis took power in Germany, Blensdorf became one of the first artists whose works were categorised as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler and his regime. This led to him losing his teaching post at Barmen and his studio being wrecked by the Nazi’s loutish followers. Ernst, his wife, and children, moved to Norway, where he was planning a giant peace monument to honour the Norwegian statesman and Nobel Peace prize winner Fridjtof Nansen. In Norway, he worked on this project and made a living creating and selling artistic ceramic works, alongside the Norwegian ceramicist Eilif Whist.
When the Germans invaded Norway in spring 1940, Blensdorf and his children fled to Scotland. His wife, Ilse, remained behind, saying that she was a follower of Adolf Hitler. Following his arrival in the UK, Blensdorf was once again interned as an ‘enemy alien’. Along with many others, including a good number of men with artistic talent and German nationality, he was interned on the Isle of Man (from 1940 to 1941). His children were placed in a couple of orphanages. While interned, he, along with fellow artists, were allowed to satisfy their creative urges and even to sell their creations. Using whatever materials he could find during this period of scarcity, Blensdorf’s creative output was impressively large. For the first time in his life, he had plenty of time to undertake artistic work in the absence of anxieties such as he had experienced before arriving on the Isle of Man.
Blensdorf was released from internment in 1941. He went to live with an Austrian couple, the Schreiners, whom he had met in the internment camp. They lived in Charlton Musgrove in Somerset. With him, the Schreiners planned to set up an art school, but this failed for financial reasons. Ernst remained in Somerset. His first job was teaching pottery at a school in Bratton Seymour. It was here that he met his second wife, Jane Lawson. They married in 1942 and moved into a house near Wincanton, where they were joined by his children. Blensdorf taught in various schools in Somerset including the King’s School in Bruton.
In 1943, Blensdorf and his family bought a run-down 17th century house close to Bruton. Gradually, the house was restored and improved. It remained his home for the rest of his life. Although he exhibited often and in prestigious venues, Blensdorf never realised the great reputations that other artists, such as Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Anthony Caro, and Barbara Hepworth, gained in the UK and beyond. For this reason, seeing his work for the first time during my first visit to the lovely Bruton Museum in July 2021, was a wonderful surprise and an exciting eye-opener. In one corner of this small museum, there is a large glass cabinet that contains examples of Blensdorf’s sketches, ceramics, and sculptures. When I told the lady, who was looking after the museum, how much I liked what I had seen of his works, she told me about the crucifix in the local church, which fortunately I was able to see. She also sold me a copy of a well-illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of his works that was held some time ago in the Bruton Museum. It is from this publication that I have extracted much of the information above. Bruton is a gem of a town. Visiting its museum is a ‘must’ because not only does it allow you to ‘discover’ the works of Blensdorf but also to see a display of artefacts relating to the author John Steinbeck, who lived close to Bruton between March and September 1959 … but that is another story.
THE CHURCH OF St Mary’s in Cornwall’s western town of Penzance overlooks the harbour and much of the town. Its site has been a place of worship since at least 1321, when there was a chapel on the spot. Between the 2nd and 4th of August 1595, Penzance, along with Newlyn, Mousehole, and Paul, was sacked by Spanish forces under the command of Carlos de Amésquita. After causing much damage, Carlos celebrated mass in the chapel of St Mary at Penzance, an edifice he had spared from destruction.
The chapel was enlarged in 1662-1672 and then again in 1782. Until 1871, when a new parish was created, the enlarged chapel had been a ‘chapel of ease’ for the parish of nearby Madron. Reverend Thomas Vyvyan began replacing the old chapel with a new church in 1832. Its architect was Charles Hutchens (c1781-1834), of Torpoint near Plymouth. In August 1832, the old chapel was demolished, and worshippers used a temporary wooden building whilst the new church was being constructed (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1220507). The new church, gothic revival in style, was ready for use in November 1835.
The church’s interior was damaged by fire caused by an arsonist in 1985 but was restored the following year. Being built of granite, the church looks older than it is at first sight. However, the design of its windows is typical of gothic revival. Inside the church, there are features that exemplify the very best of the gothic revival style, which reminded me of that masterpiece of the style, Strawberry Hill at Twickenham (near London). Having been restored after the fire, they are looking in superb condition.
I am glad that I climbed the several staircases that ascend the steep slope from the seashore near Penzance’s art-deco Jubilee Bathing Pool to the church. For those who prefer not to climb, the church can also be accessed by walking down Chapel Street from the central shopping area of Penzance. However, after seeing the church you will have to climb back up to where you started, but on the way, you might pause to look at the Chapel Street Methodist Church, with its odd but harmonious mixture of architectural styles, built in the mid-19th century. Or, if you have had enough of ecclesiastical architecture, you could drop into The Turks Head Inn for some refreshment spiritual or otherwise. The pub’s name reflects the fact that Cornwall used to be raided by Moorish pirates, who captured some of the locals and made them enter slavery, but do not let that put you off entering the place. Oh, and whilst you are on Chapel Street, do not miss seeing the unusual Egyptian House near the top of the thoroughfare.
MANY SMALL PLACES in East Anglia have disproportionately large churches. Cley-Next-The-Sea (‘Cley’) is no exception. Its parish church of St Margaret of Antioch is one of the largest in northern Norfolk. It stands atop a hillock, which used to be an island only reachable by boat. The boats that reached Cley were not only those of locals but also foreign vessels bringing valuable cargos to Cley. According to Marjorie Missen, who has written a detailed guide to the church, it was at Cley:
“… that strong links were made with Hanseatic traders and it was in some measure due to their wealth that today we are able to wonder at the size and magnificence of St Margaret’s.”
Without doubt, this church is both impressive in size and contains much of remarkable beauty. Most of the church was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its external walls are of flint with stone dressing. Amongst the things that caught my eye during our first and, as yet, only visit to the church were the beautiful, vaulted ceiling of its south porch; the stone carvings on the 15th century font: they depict aspects of the Sacrament; the wood carvings on some of the choir stalls (miserichords); and stone carvings of musicians on the tops of columns lining the nave. However, what first attracted my attention to this church was part of its exterior.
A roofless gothic structure projects from the south side of the church at the place where one would expect a transept. This structure is affixed to the main body of the church but is blocked off from it. Once upon a time, this might have been accessible from within the church when or if it it formed the south transept. I have so far been unable to find any definitive explanation for the abandonment of the south transept and its decay. Ms Missen wrote:
“The large scale work on the transepts and nave are unlikely to have begun before about 1315, or even later. Although the transepts have been in ruins for some centuries the delicacy and tracery of the south window can still be appreciated.”
Interesting as this is, it does not provide any reason why the south transept and the north have been blocked off from the church and allowed to become dilapidated. It has been suggested by Simon Knott (http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/cley/cley.htm) that the transepts, whose construction began in the early 14th century, were never completed because of The Black Death, which reached Norfolk in 1349:
“The most beautiful is that in the south transept, elegant lights that build to a cluster of vast quatrefoils. This was competed on the eve of the Black Death, and is probably at the very apex of English artistic endeavour. But I think that it was never filled with glass. I can see no evidence that the transepts were completed in time for their use before the pestilence, or that there was ever a need to use them after the recovery from it. And, then, of course, the Reformation intervened.”
This seems a quite reasonable theory. Yet, it is only a hypothesis, and so the mystery lives on. Is the south transept a ruin or an uncompleted building? That is the question.
MANY CHURCHES IN NORFOLK have circular towers. Actually, there are 124 of them in the county. Here is one example, St Mary’s in tiny Titchwell, near the north Norfolk coast. The small spire that tops the round tower dates to the 14th century. The foundation of this church was much earlier.
By the way, the name ‘Titchwell’ is derived from an Old English word meaning ‘ kid (young goat)’ and an Anglian word meaning ‘spring or well’.