Charnock, Kolkata, Chennai, and granite

THE CHURCH OF ST MARY in Fort St George in Chennai (Madras) was constructed by 1680, when it was consecrated. It is the oldest Anglican church east of Suez.

The church contains a memorial to the founder of the famous American Yale College – Eliahu Yale. He had been Governor of Chennai’s Fort St George, where the church is located, between 1687 and 1692. He had also been the vestryman and treasurer of St Mary’s church.

The font within the church is made of a form of black granite known as Charnockite. This stone is named after Job Charnock (c 1630-1693). A member of the British East India Company, he is credited with founding a British settlement at a pre-existing village on the bank of the Hooghly River. Although the place had already been settled long before his arrival, Charnock’s establishment grew into what is now Kolkata (Calcutta).

In about 1678, Job entered a romantic relationship with a Hindu woman, whom he called Maria. They produced a son and three daughters. The daughters were baptised in the font in St Mary’s in Chennai in August 1689. A few years later, Job died. His funerary monument is in Kolkata, where he passed away. Like the font in Chennai, Job’s tomb, which is housed in a mausoleum in Kolkata, is made of Charnockite. This form of granite can be found in the south of India. It was local to Chennai but far from Kolkata. This type of rock was first described in Tamil Nadu and was named in honour of Job Charnock.

Apart from the font and the memorial to Yale, the church of St Mary’s has many fascinating sculpted monuments to Britishers who died in India or on their way to or from it.

Missing on a flight over the Atlantic

ST COULOMB MAJOR is a small town in north central Cornwall. It has a beautiful gothic parish church, St Columba, which dates to the 13th to 15th centuries. Inside, on the north wall of the church, there is a memorial plaque that caught my eye and roused my curiosity. It lists 18 people, members of the Royal Air Force (‘RAF’) along with their ranks. The plaque was place in memory of:

“Members of two crews of No. 42 Squadron Royal Air Force missing on a flight over the Atlantic. January 11th 1955.”

I was both horrified and intrigued by this.

Both ‘planes that were lost were Shackletons. At 10.14 am, Shackleton WG531 took off from RAF St Eval to commence a routine 15-hour patrol over a part of the Atlantic. At 10.20, Shackleton WL743 took off from the same airfield to join WG 531 on patrol in the same area. At 20.00, the two planes were 85 miles apart. At 20.58, a ground-based radio operator tried to make contact with WL 743, but was unable to do so. This was not cause for alarm because contact was often difficult when planes were at normal operating altitude.

After both aircraft failed to return at the expected time, a search and rescue operation was launched. An extensive search failed to discover either of the aircraft or any bodies of the crew members. In July 1966, one of the engines of WL 743 was caught up in a trawler’s net. Despite a thorough board of inquiry, no plausible explanation of the planes’ disappearances was provided.

St Coulomb Major is 4 miles southeast of RAF St Eval (as the crow flies). There is a church, St Mawgan, between these two places, but that in St Columb Major is larger. Maybe, that is why the memorial to the airmen is where it is. Apart from the RAF plaque, the church contains many other items of interest including its font (c. 1300), which has several faces carved on it.

The lepers’ doorway

RAINHAM IN THE London Borough of Havering, but formerly in Essex, has an attractive and venerable parish church: St Helen & St Giles. Helen (c247-c330) is mistakenly believed to have been British. Probably born in Asia Minor, she was mother of Constantine the Great. Giles was a 7th century saint of Greek origin. Much of the body of this building was constructed in the 11th century. A small doorway on the south side, which has a fine carved stone Norman arch, was added in the 12th century, and is known as the Priest’s Entrance. The main entrance is via the South Porch, which was restored or recreated in 1897. As with so many old parish churches, Rainham’s is filled with interesting features, some of which I will describe.

View through the squint (hagioscope) in Rainham parish church

The simple stone font bowl is from the 12th century. Almost as old as the church, it stands on a carved stone pedestal, created in the 15th century. The nave is flanked by sturdy square columns that support semi-circular arches typical of the pre-gothic era. The arch above the chancel has geometric carvings (chevrons), a fine example of Norman architecture. At the southeast corner of the nave, there is an old wooden door, covering the entrance to a spiral staircase that used to lead up to a no longer existing gallery. The door was originally located in the above-mentioned Priest’s Entrance, and was constructed in the 13th century. On the floor near this old door, there lies the black gravestone of John Harle, who built nearby Rainham Hall in the 1720s. His wife and son are also buried beneath it. Near to the grave, there are a couple of memorial brasses set in the floor.

Close to Harle’s gravestone on the wall of the south aisle, there is a niche in the wall and below this, part of a late 12th or early 13th century piscina. This small basin was used by the clergy for washing sacred vessels used during a service. The nave receives natural light through several clerestory windows. In Rainham’s church, these are shaped like human eyes. Probably installed in the 13th century, their shape is extremely unusual in English churches.

The lady, who was kindly showing us around the church, pointed out a slit in the north side of the western end of the chancel. The slit, which passes through the thick wall, is not perpendicular to the wall. It runs from the northwest to the northeast. It is what is known as a ‘squint’ or a ‘hagioscope’. These were incorporated into churches to allow worshippers a view of the high altar when their view was obstructed by the walls of the side aisles in churches where the width of the chancel was considerably less than that of the combined aisles and nave.

Our guide suggested that the squint in Rainham’s church might have been used by diseased worshippers such as those suffering with leprosy. She believed that these unfortunates would have been admitted to the church by the small north door and confined to the northern aisle. By peering through the squit, they could glimpse the crucifix on the high altar in the chancel. Where or not this was really what happened, I cannot say, but I like the story.

We were extremely lucky to have been able to enter the church because, as we learned later, it is often closed. We happened to arrive when our self-appointed guide and her colleauges, all volunteers, were decorating the building with flowers.

Rhymes with freckles


THE HELPFUL FEMALE voice with a North American accent emitting from our mobile ‘phone was quite persistent in trying to direct us onto the A47 road, the most direct route from Swaffham to Norwich, but we chose to ignore the advice we were being given. Instead, we forced ‘her’ to change her instructions so that we could follow a far longer but more pleasant route via Watton and Old Buckenham. As we wound our way between the two last mentioned places, we spotted a church with a round tower, made with flint and mortar, topped with a newer octagonal structure. This was in a Norfolk village that rhymes with freckles: Breckles. The church is St Margarets in the parish of Stow Bedon.

Churches with round towers are a rare breed in England compared with those with square towers. There are only 186 of the rounded versions ( and some of them are in ruins. Of all the examples of this kind of church, the greatest number can be found in East Anglia, 131 of them in Norfolk.  Church towers were built to house bells and sometimes the items used in services (e.g., church vessels). It is unlikely that they were built as part of the country’s defence against invaders because many of them were built after the last invasion of England (

But why were so many churches with round towers built in East Anglia and relatively few elsewhere? The following (from provides one possible answer:

“It has been suggested that the main reason was the lack of suitable local building material. Square towers require strong stone cut and dressed into blocks at each of the corners. But there is no suitable stone to be found in East Anglia and to transport stone from another county was very expensive for a small parish.

The only locally available stone was flint. Flint is a small, knobbly stone which, although creates strong walls when set in mortar, is not suitable for tower corners.”

The round tower of St Margarets was built in the 11th century (, so could have been constructed either before or after 1066, when the Normans invaded. The octagonal structure on the top of the tower, the belfry, is late 15th century (  Restored in 1856, the nave and chancel were constructed in the 15th and 14th centuries, respectively.

The interior of St Margaret’s is attractively simple. The carved, probably highly restored,  wooden rood screen, separating the nave from the chancel, is one of the few decorative features in this small church. However, for me, the greatest attraction is the carved stone font, which is decorated with patterns and four carved figures standing in archways. The latter are carved in a simple, almost naïve or unsophisticated style, which made me wonder whether they date to pre-Norman times. Various sources describe it as being Norman.  Whatever it is, it is a lovely piece of carving. When we saw it, it was decorated with flowers and foliage as part of the church’s preparations for celebrating the harvest season.

Having seen this charming church, we were pleased that we did not obey the voice on our GPS app, but instead took a route that our electronic navigator was initially so dead against. The more round about route allowed us to find a lovely church with a round tower.