An unusual feature

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.

Plague and graffiti

MANY ENGLISH CHURCHES REMAIN closed much of the day since the outbreak of the covid19 pandemic. During our recent roving around the countryside, we have found this to be the case and as a result have not been able to enjoy exploring the often interesting historic and architectural features within country (and urban) churches.

Drawing of Old St Pauls Cathedral in the church at Ashwell

When we arrived in the attractive Hertfordshire village of Ashwell near the town of Baldock that lies between London and Cambridge, we were pleased to discover that the Church of St Mary’s (Ashwell) was open. Despite the dustiness created by building works that were in progress, this church contains much of interest. In fact, the builders have uncovered remains of structures that existed possibly prior to the present church’s construction in the 14th century. These remains were revealed to us by a kindly lady, ‘M’, who helps run the church’s administration. She pulled aside some heavy plastic sheets to reveal where the builders had dug beneath the floor.

After viewing the excavations, M drew our attention to the west end of the nave, beneath the bell tower. The north wall of this section of the church has graffiti scratched into its wall. This is not the work of modern vandals but that of people living as long ago as the 14th century, a time of plague, pestilence, and much mortality (the so-called Black Death was at its peak from 1347 to 1351).

Some of the graffiti is in the form of inscriptions in Latin. According to a useful booklet, which we bought at the church, “Ashwell Church. Mediaeval drawings and writings. A Guide” by David Sherlock (publ. 1978), the inscriptions when translated include the following (to quote but a few):

“Just the first plague was in 1349”

“In 1349 there was plague and in ‘50”

“1000, three times 100, five times 10 [i.e. 1350], a pitiable, fierce violeny (plague departed); a wretched populace survives to witness (to the plague) and in the end a mighty wind, Maurus, thunders this year in the world 1361.”

Maurus refers to St Maur (512- c584), a disciple of St Benedict of Nursia. St Maur’s feast day was the 15th of January before 1969 and is now the 22nd of November. According to an article in the Irish Times (16th of January 1998):

“The late 1300s in Ireland were remarkable for the abundant rainfall, and also for a succession of fierce storms which caused frequent and widespread devastation in countryside. One of the worst of these, St Maury’s Wind, occurred on January 15th, 1362, and caused great damage, particularly in Dublin.”

These storms were most likely to have been the same as those recorded on the wall of Ashworth Church.

Fascinating as the inscriptions are, even more interesting is a drawing incised in the wall close to them. Although it is not known when it was drawn, it was probably before 1630. It is a detailed sketch of the old (pre 1666, Fire of London) Gothic St Pauls Cathedral in London. It depicts the old church before Inigo Jones re-faced it in 1630. The drawing includes the spire, which was destroyed by lightning in 1561. One authority has suggested (tentatively) that the drawing might have depicted Westminster Abbey, but this is unlikely even though Ashwell Church was under the control of the Abbott of Westminster until The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. The drawing in Ashwell has many resemblances to illustrations of the old St Pauls made in about 1550 by the Flemish Anton Van den Wynegaerde (1525-1571), and in 1616 by the British artist John Gipkyn (active 1594-1629). It is unlikely that whoever drew the image in Ashwell would have seen either of these pictures.

In addition to the image of St Pauls and the plague inscriptions, there are many other examples of mediaeval graffiti in the church at Ashwell. If our cousins in Baldock had not recommended us to visit nearby Ashwell, we might never have seen the fascinating graffiti described above. It was particularly poignant to see the souvenirs of plague that occurred so long ago during the current era of plague that is disturbing our lives so much.

Preaching prejudice

BLOG XMAS St Georges Day_1024

 

MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS have passed since I spent Christmas very enjoyably with my good friends, ‘X’ and his wife ‘Y’. After breakfast on the morning of Christmas Day, all of us except the housekeeper, who considered that most churches were not sufficiently devout for her to attend, used to set off for the pretty church in the nearby village of ‘H’. Some of the party, including Y, travelled by car but I joined X and some others, who preferred to tramp the mile or so across the countryside that separated the house from the small hill-top church. We occupied more than two complete bench-like pews in the small, crowded edifice.

The service was traditional with Christmas carols. When it came to the singing of “Come all ye faithful”, X sung it loudly in Latin whilst all around him the rest of the congregation were singing it in English. Like him, I was introduced at private school to the Latin version, which commences with the words “Adeste fideles…”. Once, when Y was bemoaning the use of English instead of Latin in church services, someone pointed out to her that unlike the rest of the congregation, she was in no position to complain because she only attended church at Christmas and for christenings, weddings, and funerals.

The Christmas morning service at H, which was held for families with young children, included a sermon. The vicar of H started his sermon something like this:

“Christmas is a happy time of the year for everyone apart from the Jews. However, there is one exception. And that exception is Lord Sieff, the Chairman of the Marks and Spencer’s retailing firm.”

I was horrified by this and sat fuming throughout the rest of the service. When it was over, we shuffled towards the door where the vicar was receiving greetings from those who had attended. One by one people wished him ‘Merry Christmas’ and hoped that he would enjoy his Christmas meal. When I reached him, I refused to shake his outstretched hand. I said:

“Even if I had not been born Jewish, I would have found the beginning of your sermon to be in the worst of taste.”

The cleric did not reply, but Y, who heard me say this, told me afterwards that I had said the right thing.

Writing this many years after that memorable Christmas service, I cannot imagine what was going through the vicar’s head when he composed the sermon. If a man of the church, which encourages brotherly love between all men, can say those words about Lord Sieff and the Jewish people to his congregation and, more recently, a prominent cosmopolitan, expensively educated personality in British politics has characterised black Africans as “‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’”, gay men as “bumboys”, and women wearing hijab as “looking like letter boxes”,  is it surprising that so many people in Britain harbour prejudice in their hearts, even if they do not always express their feelings openly?

Onion on top

ONION DOME SMALL

This piece, which is about onion shaped domes on some churches, was inspired by a chance discovery of a photograph of a church (see illustration) that I took somewhere in Slovenia about twenty years ago.

In the summer of 1975, I accompanied my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, and his wife, Margaret, both now no longer living, on their annual drive from Buckinghamshire in the UK to Platamon on the Aegean coast of northern Greece. It took about nine days in their Land Rover, which was towing a caravan that was to become their home in Greece for up to two months. Robert, a well-regarded physiologist, was also a keen naturalist as well as being interested in many other things. This excerpt from an unfinished biography of the Harkness’s that I began writing over a decade ago illustrate one of the varied interests that kept Robert happy.

Soon after we left our camping site on the following morning, we crossed the River Rhine and entered West Germany, where we began driving along its Autobahns. After some hours, we spotted the first of the many onion-domed church towers typical of southern Germany.

Robert speculated that there must be a line of places north and west of which it is almost impossible to find onion domed church towers. This idea made him think that there must also be an olive line north of which no olive trees grew, and a ‘karpousi’ (καρπούζι: Greek for watermelon) line below which watermelons grew. Original as this might seem, Robert’s concept of boundaries based on the presence of this or that particular item was apparently proposed earlier by a French author – it might have been Stendhal – who was writing about those nations whose inhabitants favour eating Brussels sprouts.

Islands of worship

IN HYDERABAD, BOMBAY, and Calcutta I have seen mosques or large dargahs (mausoleums) located on islands in the middle of roads. Traffic flows on both sides of the places of worship like river water flowing around a rock.

I mentioned this to my wife, who reminded me that London has at least two churches that stand on islands around which traffic flows. Two of them are on the busy Strand: St Clement Danes and St Mary le Strand. This got me thinking about other places where a place of worship stands in a position that forces traffic to move around it. Only one place springs to mind as I write this. There is a small church in a street leading off Syntagma Square in Athens (Greece) that stands on an island in the middle of a street ( or, at least it did when I last visited the city in 1980).

Why are these places of worship on traffic islands? Maybe, the shrines were built before roads were laid out or perhaps a road was widened leaving the holy places stranded in the middle of the enlarged thoroughfare.

Around the market with Mansour

I CANNOT COUNT the number of times I have passed Johnson Market on my way between Koramangala, where my in-laws live, and central Bangalore. The market building stands close to the busy intersection of Hosur Road and Richmond Road. Recently, I went on a guided walking tour of the area around Johnson Market. It was led by my good friend Mansour Ali, who runs a great organisation called “Bengaluru by foot” (www.bengalurubyfoot.com). I had visited Johnson Market several times before on my own, but Mansour’s tour enhanced my experience of it and its surroundings.

Johnson Market was built in an indo-saracenic style in the early 20th century on the site of stables that housed horses, which were imported into India in 1824 from Persia by Aga Ali Asker who was born in Shiraz in 1808. Some of the stables still exist, incorporated into the structure of the market halls. Ali Asker was one of several brothers. While the rest of ghem returned to Persia, he stayed in in Bangalore where he died after carrying out much valuable public work. One of his grandsons, born in Bangalore, was Sir Mirza Ismail (1883-1959), a great Indian statesman.

Johnson Market is for selling food. In addition to vegetables (including exotic vegetables like Chinese pak choi), there is a wonderful fishmongers shop and a beef market.

Near to the market, stands ‘Koshys Automatic Bakery’, which was the first mechanised bakery in the city. A stall beside it sells bread, cakes, and delicious filled puffs.

At both ends of the long building housing the Islamic Educational Board of India on Richmond Road, there are gateways leading to Muslim shrines well hidden from the road. One of them is a Sunni shrine, and the other is Shia/Sufi. Soon after the birth of Islam believers in this religion split into two main groups: Sunni and Shia. The majority of Muslims in India are Sunni, a small minority are Shia. It happens that there is a concentration of Shia establishments close to Johnson Market. This might be because Ali Asker and his descendants, many of whom had homes in the area, were Shias. Each of the shrines or ‘dargahs’ are peaceful enclaves, which although close to the main road, feel far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The leafy shaded Mysore Tobacco Company compound is across Richmond Road facing the two dargahs. Surrounded by trees and luxuriant foliage, the main building is a delightful example of colonial Bangalorean domestic architecture. Its windows are partially covered with monkey top woodwork. The large front porch is rich in wooden latticework and rustic carving that hints of idealised quaint country cottages in far-off England.

All Saints Church, founded by the Reverend Pettigrew (founder of Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton School for boys) and designed in Victorian gothic style by the English architect Robert Fellowes Chisholm and consecrated in 1870. It stands at the intersection of Richmond and Hosur Roads, and must have brought feelings of homesickness to Britishers living in pre-independence Bangalore. Stepping inside is like entering a village church in England. The garden surrounding the church contains a rich variety of plants, including a rather spindly olive tree, reflecting Pettigrew’s interest in botany. Tragically, part of this garden is under threat because the municipal authorities want it for use in the construction of a new metro line.

After visiting the church, Mansour took us to see another Shia dargah in a lane leading off Hosur Road. This shrine is connected with the battle of Karbala (600 AD) during which Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was slain by the caliph Yazid I. The shrine, which is revered by Shias, contains fine glass lamps and chandeliers which were probably made in Turkey over a century ago. Unlike mosques, where worshippers of different genders are kept separated, males and females can pray together in dargahs.

The Masjid e Askari is the only Shia mosque in Bangalore. Adjoining it, there is a recently built replica of a mosque in Karbala, the city close to where Hussain, sacred to the Shias, met his death. The replica, which is smaller than the original, is a beautiful construction with amazing mirror work mosaics in which words from the Koran are inserted in black tiling.

After spending three hours with Mansour, I felt that I had learnt much about the Shia branch of Islam and a great deal about a part of Bangalore which I have passed often without realising how interesting it is.

A French artist in London

Cocteau

 

The entrance to the Roman Catholic church of Notre Dame de France (‘NDF’) is on Leicester Place, a very shiort walk from London’s Leicester Square. Consecrated in 1868, the church occupied a circular building. After WW”, it iwas rebuilt retaining its ciricular plan. Today, when there are not services, amny of the pews in this lovely building are occupied by sleeping homeless people and a few other folk seeking a peaceful refuge in this busy part of central London.

The Lady Chapel on the north ‘side’ of NDF is closed off by transparent thick glass panels. This is no doubt to protect the frescos lining its walls and the mosaic by the Russian-born Boris Anrep (1883-1969) on the altar. The frescos were created by the French writer/artist Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) in 1960. These beautiful pictures represent the Annunciation, Crucifixion, and Assumption. At the feet of one of the Roman centurions depicted in the central fresco, which illustrates the Crucifixion, there is a self-portrait of the artist. Cocteau drew this three years before his death.

Many people visit Leicester Square every day, but few of them visit NDF. For anyone interested in twentieth century art, seeing this church, which is open daily from 9 am to 9pm,  is a worthwhile thing to do.

 

Address: 5 Leicester Pl, London WC2H 7BX

She sailed on a leaf

IVES

 

St Ives in Cornwall is one of my favourite places to visit in the UK. This charming, picturesque town straddles a shoulder of land separating two beautiful bays. One of its most endearing features is the quality of the light. The light has the same special quality as that which bathes Venice in Italy. Maybe, it is the extraordinarily light that attracted many artists to St Ives in the past and still in the present. As extraordinary as the light is, so is the story of St Ia after whom St Ives was named.

During the 5th or 6th century AD, St Ia was due to travel from Ireland to England along with several other Christian missionaries, many of whom were later to become saints. When Ia discovered that she had been left behind, she began praying and shedding tears. One of her tears fell upon a leaf floating in the sea near where she was praying. She noticed that the leaf began growing in size. It became so big that there was room for her to stand on it. Putting her trust in God, she set sail on the leaf, which carried her across the sea to Cornwall. 

After landing in Cornwall, she set up a small oratory. Sadly, she was killed at Hayle by a local chieftain. She was buried at what is now the town of St Ives, where the main church in the town is dedicated to her memory. St Ive’s Parish Church is well worth visiting not only to contemplate St Ia but also because it is a fine example of a 15th century gothic church. The church contains many superb features including a lovely café where you can enjoy tea or coffee and home-made cakes in a peaceful environment.

A carved Crusader

A life no longer,

Remember’d in timber:

Farewell, Crusader knight

 

 

14th century wooden effigy in church at Paulerspury in Northamptonshire, England

 

For more information about this rare mediaeval carving, see: History of Paulerspury

website from which this information was extracted:

Under the arcade between the chancel and the north chapel, on a freestone tomb panelled with cusped ogee blind tracery enclosing shields, are wooden effigies of a lady (c. 1340) and an armoured man (c. 1346-9), now placed side by side but not necessarily originally associated with each other. The male figure may represent Sir Robert de Paveley.  The monument was restored by Frederick H. Crossley of Chester in 1920, following a report on its condition by the S.P.A.B. in 1915