Two colourful churches

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.

St Christopher painting at Bartlow

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.

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.

All that remains is …

OUR GOOD FRIENDS IN HERTFORDSHIRE always take us out into the countryside for a walk with their two friendly dogs. Invariably, we visit countryside that is both beautiful and contains something of interest. This time, we parked in the small hamlet of Thundridge (in Hertfordshire), which is located on what was once the Roman road, Ermine Street (from the Old English ‘Earninga Straete’). This thoroughfare linked London with York. We set off by walking along a small road named Old Church Lane. This soon becomes a footpath that runs alongside the River Rib, a tributary of the River Lea, which in turn is a tributary of the River Thames. The Rib merges with the Lea in the town of Hertford.

We walked past a vast field in which some grassy crop was growing. Far across the field there was a small wood. A church tower could be seen rising from amongst the trees. We followed another path towards the clump of trees and soon arrived at the tower. This tower and a graveyard is all that remains of the church of St Mary and All Saints (some call it ‘All Hallows and Little St. Mary’ and others ‘Thundridge Old Church’), which was demolished (apart from the tower) in 1853, when a new church was built in Wadesmill. The tower was constructed of flint and mortar in the 15th century. The rest of the church, now demolished, was built in the 11th to 12th centuries. A Romanesque archway now set into the eastern wall of the tower is the only visible remains of that former church.  Although this ruined tower might well appeal to those who find ruins romantic, it is in a bad condition with some of the structure covered with corrugated iron sheeting and other parts with graffiti. There are some plans to conserve it and others to demolish it to make room for new housing.

The reason that the old church was demolished was that the old manor house, which was close to the old church, was demolished in the 19th century. Consequently, the population of Thundridge moved nearer to the new manor house that was built where the church built in 1853 now stands.

Just before we reached the old church tower, we passed a field which had a long grass-covered trench running along it. This is the remains of a moat built long ago when Thundridge village was located near to the the old, now demolished church. The banks of the moat were liberally studded with mole hills. This moat is believed to have been dug in mediaeval times. What remains of it is ‘D’ shaped and encloses an area bounded by sides of approximately 660 feet north to south and by the same east to west. The moat enclosed the site of the former manor house.

Having seen all that remains of Thudridge Old Church, we retraced our steps to Ermine Street, crossed the fast-flowing River Rib, and then ate an enormous roast lunch in the garden of the nearby Feathers pub in Wadesmill, which is about two minutes’ walk from Thundridge.

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.

Arab or Norman, Hindu or Muslim…

The Normans took over Sicily from its Arab rulers. The early mediaeval church architecture adopted by the Norman builders shows the influence of Arab design.

In Gujarat (India), the Muslim invaders began building mosques in the style of local Hindu temples, just as the Normans built in the way that they found when they arrived in Sicily.