Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Hargrave church, Suffolk - open. Five other Suffolk churches - locked.


Yesterday a friend and I went on a trip visiting churches in west Suffolk (and straying over the border into east Cambridgeshire). The final score was:

Churches visited: six

Churches open: one

Churches displaying passive-aggressive notices telling visitors to go away: one

The good news first. Hargrave church gets a parsimonious eight lines in Bettley/Pevsner, but it's not only open - a rarity in these plague-ridden times - but rewarding to visit. To start with, like many of my favourite churches it's hidden away down a leafy little track (you have to leave your car and walk the last bit). When you arrive the view above greets you, which is I think you'll agree most attractive. Pause first to enjoy the colours and textures on display (all the better for the bright sun, the luminous blue sky with dapplings of white cloud, and the framing of early autumn foliage). The rich red brick tower, with a stair turret, stubby pinnacles and diagonal buttresses, dates either from 1460 (Historic England), Tudor times (Bettley/Pevsner), or, more precisely, the early 16th century (Statutory listing). The latter must be correct. 

Then the rendered nave, with limestone and squared flint buttresses, and the flint chancel. The chancel is 13th century, but so restored that hardly anything original survives. The bifora (two-light window) in the nave is, like the coeval tower, made of brick. The drab slate roof is a disappointment, but you can't have everything.

The south doorway is very simple late Norman, say about 1200. If I remember correctly, the notice on the door effectively says that the church will remain open no matter what.

Walk through the door and you find yourself in an atmospheric interior, full of light (there's no stained glass). There's a friendly-feeling clutter of objects: an organ that once was perhaps the pride of a 1970s sitting room, a tubby Victorian heater in the 1868 north aisle, the old Commandment boards (previously on the wall in the chancel) now propped up by the chancel screen. There's even (maybe not quite so friendly-feeling) a cardboard box of human skulls and other bones on the window ledge under the tower (presumably recently dug up and awaiting a decision what to do with them). 

The seven-canted nave roof is a fine sight; it's now ceiled with 19th century ribbed panels. 

Bettley/Pevsner don't even mention the 15th century font, which is not, it's true, out of the ordinary, but surely it, together with its pleasing Victorian cover, deserves a look.

Not out of the ordinary, except this one of the eight panels. They're all identical, with a simple shield inside a quatrefoil, but on this side the shield has a distinct lean, as if about to topple over. Why? Was it just a mistake, or is there some arcane reason behind it?

The star attraction of the church is the 15th century chancel screen. From the nave it looks a bit shabby and much patched up, though attractive enough. You look at it before you walk through it into the chancel, and because screens are virtually always designed to be seen from the west rather than the east you hardly think it worth giving it a second glance from behind. However, if you fail to do so you're missing a treat. 

In the spandrels are low-relief carvings, all quite spirited and engaging. The first one, on the left, shows a fox anticipating a tasty meal as he's just caught a goose, and some foliage.

The next one has an eagle, and a wyvern.

Here are two flat fish, and two wyverns. All the authorities I've consulted agree that a dragon features o the screen; however, all three of the dragon-like creatures look to me like wyverns as they have serpentine bodies and only two limbs (plus their wings), whereas dragons are four-legged.

The next shows a Pelican in her Piety (a symbol of Christ), and a unicorn. (A poor quality photo - sorry. At least it gives me a good reason to go back.)

A man (presumably a Turk) wearing a turban (you have to tilt it 45 degrees to easily make him out), and more foliage.

All this amounts to a wonderful gallery of late medieval folk art. But why is it on the back of the screen? A mistake during a restoration? This explanation doesn't really convince because if you look at the cusping at the bottom of the main arches on the front of the screen, it's more elaborate on the front, and looks as if it's always been intended to be on the front. Maybe the vicar at the time, who probably paid for it (he would have been responsible for the building, contents and upkeep of the chancel), decided on a whim that he wanted something to look at while he conducted services. 

The rood beam, decorated with zigzag and billet moulding, also survives. On it once the rood would have stood - statues of the crucified Christ and attendant figures. 

So Hargrave was the only one of the six churches we visited that was open. Actually, that's not quite true; the door of one of the others was wide open, but a meeting (not a service, I don't think, as they were holding clipboards) was in progress and they turned us away. Maybe they were discussing confidential issues, and they told us which days the church was open to visitors, so fair enough. One church I've visited before and found open in the past was locked this time, presumably as an anti-Covid measure.

Most of the locked churches had a sign saying when they were open 'for private prayer'. As I said when writing about Norton church recently, I'd have thought that a simple 'open' would do without specifying what it's open for, but, again, fair enough. However, Ashley church, just over the border in Cambridgeshire, displays this sign:

The first thing to point out about it is the amusing typo (maybe they mean 're-election'? - perhaps they're expecting a visit from Donald Trump). But, much more importantly, there's the attitude displayed, the tone of voice implying the very opposite of hospitality, welcome and friendliness that we might expect to find in a church. I particularly admire the way that the word 'only' is in capitals, underlined AND in italics, to drive home the point that people who just want to look around, and indeed anyone who's not a member of the right 'club', can piss right off. (Are they implying that non-believers are more likely to have the virus than believers?) More generally, the C of E has made a complete hash of the lockdown and its aftermath: surely there can be few safer places than country churches, and surely there's rarely been a time when churches were needed so badly.

It was understandable in the early days that everyone was nervous and over-reacted; it's obviously good to be safe rather than sorry. But surely there's no good reason now why most churches - certainly country churches - should be locked most of the time (which the great majority of them still are). The chances of more than one person (or small party) visiting a church simultaneously is small, and even if they do there's plenty of room for them to keep out of each other's way. The possibility of the virus being spread in these circumstances is remote. Surely churches should be open as often as possible, to provide comfort or just interest to believers and non-believers alike. When so many other places are shut, or hard to access, churches should be places everyone can go, to pray or be quiet or just have a refreshing, inspiring look around. The C of E has washed its hands (or applied bucketloads of sanitiser) of its responsibilities to the nation in this time of crisis. They had a chance to, in a small way, make churches visible or even important to people who don't normally visit them - why not a nationwide campaign with the slogan 'We're open!'? - and they blew it.

I think everyone who knows me would agree that I'm a pretty mild-mannered sort of chap, but, as you might be able to tell, this notice really made me cross.

Saturday 26 September 2020

Norton church, Herts - a memorial to Ann Cole, who died before she was born

'Norton' - meaning 'north settlement' (that is, a place north of somewhere else) - is one of the commonest English place-names. There are at least a dozen places called simply Norton, plus many others which use the name as part of a longer one, such as Norton Disney in Lincolnshire, and, in Somerset,  Midsomer Norton (which sounds magical, as if the dahlias and sunflowers are always in bloom and there are light, balmy evenings all the year round, but in fact is dismal, being brooded over by slag heaps). 

Hertfordshire's Norton is one of the three ancient settlements subsumed by Letchworth Garden City (the others are Willian and, of course, Letchworth). It retains something of a village feel, with plenty of surviving pre-1903 (when the Garden City was founded) buildings. I particularly like Croft Lane, which combines genuine older buildings with some superb Arts and Crafts-influenced early 20th century houses.

As is the case in very many places in England and elsewhere, the church is by some distance the oldest building (though it's been much altered over the centuries). As is also the case in many places, the church has Norman origins. The chancel arch dates from c.1100; its antiquity and simplicity endow it with a certain presence. It's extremely plain: the arch isn't even chamfered, let alone moulded, and the imposts (the horizontal mouldings at the springing of the arch) are as rudimentary as can be. Curiously, they have a little channel apparently cut into them about half way along; was this perhaps to accommodate a chancel screen?

A word of praise here for the spartan but attractive light fittings, something churches so often get wrong.

A fairly unusual feature is the opening over the chancel arch. It's even plainer than the arch, having no imposts, and round-headed; could it be Norman too? Being high up it's of course hard to inspect and thus the age of its masonry is difficult to assess; from the ground it looks distinctly less ancient than the chancel arch. Neither Pevsner/Bettley, nor the statutory listing, nor the Victoria County History, nor the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments even mention its existence, which implies that they think it's obviously modern and of no interest. If it's not a window that was once above a much lower early Norman chancel roof, however, what is its purpose, and when was it inserted? 

After I'd finished the first version of this post I contacted James Bettley, the author of the 3rd edition of the Hertfordshire volume of The Buildings of England (colloquially known simply as 'Pevsner'), to ask him about this opening, and he was kind enough to reply. At first he could say only that, despite some research having been done, nothing was known about it. The only, very tentative, point he could make was that it would have provided a view from the rood screen into the chancel.

However, after a handful of emails back and forth he wrote to say that he'd found an illuminating photograph dating from c.1895 in the Historic England archive, reproduced above. It shows that at this date there was no opening (there's a framed royal coat of arms over the chancel arch, and beneath that a scroll painted on the plaster). The obvious conclusion to jump to from this evidence is that the opening dates from the restoration of the church in 1908-9, by Walter Millard.*

But that doesn't really make much sense. Bettley suggests, and I concur, that it's extremely unlikely that Millard would have introduced such a feature. Why would he have done? It serves no function, and would simply have added to the expense of the restoration. A much better explanation is that an opening over the chancel arch existed at some earlier date (either as an original, Norman, feature, or one added later). For some unknown reason, it was subsequently blocked, and in 1908 Millard found it and decided to open it up. 

This adds to our knowledge of the church's story, but doesn't answer our initial questions. We still don't know when or why the opening was first made. And now we also don't know when and why it was blocked, and why Millard made it look Norman - did he do so because he could tell that it was originally from that period, or, if it was post-Norman, simply because he thought a round arch would be a better stylistic fit with the existing chancel arch?

There's one more puzzle. You'd have thought that the discovery and reinstatement of an ancient window (if that's what it was) would have aroused interest in and comment from local antiquarians. However, no sign of this has turned up yet. There's no contemporary reference to Norton church on the contents page of the East Herts Archaeological Society Transactions, and the transactions of the St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society (their website is down as I write this) don't seem to be available for that period. Perhaps something will be found. (At the moment access to the Herts County Record Office is awkward because of the virus.)

For what it's worth, my guess - and I admit this is pure speculation, albeit plausible speculation - is that the original Norman chancel was much lower than the nave, and that there was a window over the chancel arch to provide more light in the nave. Perhaps it was smaller than the opening made by Millard. In 1814 the current chancel was built on a bigger scale, which rendered the window functionless, so it was blocked. A little less than a century later it was found by Millard, who thought that, although doing so would serve no practical function, reinstating it would add antiquarian interest to the church.

The rest of the church, except the chancel and south porch, is an early 15th century rebuilding of the original Norman structure, and has in turn been much restored, particularly by Millard. The chancel and south porch were added, as stated above, in 1814, not a date at which much church building was going on in most of the country. Why the work was carried out in Norton at this particular time I don't know. I suspect that the tracery of the chancel windows was renewed in the 19th century, or by Millard, as it's much too archaeologically accurate (that is, too much like genuine 15th century windows) to have been built in Georgian times. The outer doorway of the porch, presumably of this date, combines Gothic and classical elements, and is rather handsome. 

There are some 15th century benches, much like those in, for example, Caldecote and Wallington.

The font is 13th century (RCHM), early 14th century (statutory listing), 14th century (Pevsner/Bettley), or 15th century (VCH). The bowl is plain (except for much graffiti, which I didn't look at properly), while the base (which looks too thin) is decorated with quatrefoils and simple shapes that would be found in the tracery of a late medieval (hence certainly not 13th century) window. 

The two doors which once lead to the long-vanished rood loft survive; the lower one still has what looks like its original door.

The pulpit, with a tester (a canopy intended to reflect the sound of the speaker's voice down to the congregation) is 17th century (the VCH specifies Jacobean, but it doesn't look elaborate enough to be that early). The stairs are a nice job by Millard.

There are two enjoyable baroque wall monuments, one on either side of the chancel arch. I call them 'enjoyable' because I'm heartlessly looking at them purely aesthetically and historically. When I read the inscription of the one on the left such a judgement crumbles to dust. It records the deaths of the three daughters of Thomas and Katherine Cole of Radwell (why the memorial is in Norton, then, I don't know, except that Katherine was the daughter of Richard Cleaver of Nortonzbvry, as it's spelt). The first daughter, named Katherine after her mother, died in 1649, aged 27 weeks. Later the same year their second daughter, also called Katherine, was born, followed in 1652 by Ann. 

However, cruelly, Ann died in February 1653, aged five months. At first sight, the record of her birth and death seems to defy sense. She was born 12th September 1652, and died 15th February in the same year. What? She died before she was born? But it's not a mistake; it's simply that the Old Style calendar was in use, and in fact she died in what we'd call February 1653.** Less than a month later, in March 1653, the second daughter Katherine 'left this life', aged three and a half. It's unclear whether Thomas and Katherine had any more children. 

The monument on the right is, thank goodness, not traumatising. It commemorates the deaths of William Pym, aged a ripe old 71, in 1716, and his wife Elizabeth, aged 68, in 1734. The shield on the top bears three five-pointed stars, three owls and three cross crosslets. (I've read that Francis Pym, the moderate Tory politician prominent in the 70s and 80s, was descended from William and Elizabeth. Maybe Barbara Pym, one of my favourite novelists, was also related to them.)

I lived ten minutes walk from the church for thirteen years but have been inside only twice, despite often, ever hopeful, trying the door. Once was on the biennial Norton walkabout, when local residents open their gardens one Saturday to raise funds for the church. The other was earlier this week; I'd been passing a few weeks earlier and casually stopped to stroll around, and noticed that there was a sign saying that the church is 'open for private prayer'*** on Thursdays from 1.30 to 3.30. Thus, paradoxically, at a time when many places are closed much more often than they were before the Covid crisis, Norton church (and others) are open much more frequently than usual (in Norton's case two hours a week, as opposed to zero hours a week in normal circumstances). 

The church is obviously loved and cherished by its parishioners, and while it's not a major church a visit is certainly worthwhile and rewarding. I hope that the practice of opening it regularly, albeit for just a few hours, will continue even when we can finally get back to something like our old lives. 

(Updated 11th Oct 2020)

* Walter Millard (1854-1936) worked as an assistant to William Burgess and G E Street. He had his own practice in London from 1883. From about 1914 he lived in Hitchin. He also restored St Mary's, Letchworth, and designed the war memorial in Hitchin.

** The Old Style calendar assumes that the year begins on March 25th, whereas the New Style, in use today, of course makes the illogical assumption that the year begins on January 1st. The monument states that the first Katherine died 3rd March 1648, and the second Katherine on 12th March 1652; I've 'translated' these dates to 1649 and 1653 respectively in the New Style.

The New Style wasn't officially adopted in Britain until 1752, when the Gregorian calendar finally succeeded the Julian. (I say 'finally' because much of Europe had been using it since 1582; not for the last time Britain was reluctant to toe what it saw as the European (and in this case Roman Catholic) line, despite the impracticality of standing aloof.) However, the New Style was widely used for at least a century before the official changeover. Samuel Pepys, for example, writing his diary in the 1660s evidently accepted that 1st January was the beginning of the year.

*** 'Open for private prayer' is not, I'm sure, intended to imply that visitors who enter for other purposes, such as wanting to sit quietly, or to look around, are unwanted. Certainly the lady who was in attendance when I visited was very welcoming. But the wording might put some potential visitors off. Surely a simple 'open' is sufficient.

Looking west

Three tiny but tubby ponies grazing in a field opposite the church

Thursday 24 September 2020

Stevenage church, Herts

 The church of St Nicholas stands on the edge of what is usually called 'Old Stevenage'; surely the post-war new town should be called 'New Stevenage' and the original settlement, which existed for a millennium before its upstart neighbour was thought of, declared an epithet-free zone and have the sole right to the title 'Stevenage'.

The view from the south-west is particularly appealing; the multiple embattlements create a touch of grandeur silhouetted against the sky. Moving from left to right in the photo at the top of the page we have firstly the south transept, built by Thomas Smith* of Hertford in 1840-2. Next is what was originally an organ chamber, built in 1914-16 by Sir Charles Nicholson, 2nd Baronet, and Hubert Corlette. Behind this are the upper stages of the tower and the recessed spire** built (on a Norman lower stage) in the 15th century. The next projection is the 14th century south chapel, and then the chancel from the same century terminates the vista. 

The visible history of the church begins in the earlier 12th century, when the lower stage of the tower was built. The west door and tower arch both have simple early Norman mouldings; the latter also has comically buttoned-up heads on the capitals. The second of the two above in particular looks as if he's primly pretending not to see some activity he regards as disreputable.

Looking east
Looking east
Looking west

The rest of the Norman church must have been considered inadequate for the parish's needs, because it was at least mostly replaced in the 13th century. The chancel, aisles and chapels were then in turn demolished or entirely rebuilt in the 14th century; the arches of the nave were replaced in the following century, and the clerestory added, but the 13th century nave columns were allowed to remain. Most of the roofs are also 15th century.

The oldest artefact in the church is the early 13th century font, which is plain and stands on four shafts with simply moulded capitals and bases. The 15th century wooden cover is much more elaborate.

Currently lying on blankets on the floor of the north aisle - presumably waiting for a more permanent position within the church - is this much damaged late 13th century effigy of a lady. Attendant figures - apparently an angel on her right (our left) and a priest on her left - support her by the elbows. 

Currently at the west end of the north aisle are these stalls with 14th century misericords, probably not made for the church (parish churches having little or no need for misericords) but brought from somewhere else, presumably post-Reformation. The first and third photos show misericords carved with oak leaves; the second a rather nightmarish, clown-like, boggle-eyed and monobrowed foliate head (apparently a later addition of c.1500); the fourth an angel with arms upraised in blessing. The fifth one is a poor quality photo; I tried to lift the seat to see what lay beneath, but it felt that if I exerted any force I'd break something, and not being keen to smash up an ancient and beautiful artefact I desisted. I put my camera on the ground and just hoped for the best, which turns out to be only minimally adequate. But you can at least see that the carving is of vine leaves, with some grapes.

The stairs under the tower leading up to the ringing chamber have been tree-ring-dated to 1360-82. Even allowing for how worn they are, they're astonishingly primitive. They comprise simply two long beams on which are rudely fixed (I don't know if they're nailed or pegged) equally rude very roughly shaped steps; there don't seem to be any joints anywhere. You can hardly call it carpentry. I must say I don't fancy risking my neck on them. Bell-ringing is notorious for working up a thirst; let's hope that the ringers wait until they're safely at ground level before quenching it. 

14th and 15th century screens

This niche for an image in the north chapel is also 14th or 15th century

Fragments of 15th century glass, inc. a monk

There are numerous examples of graffiti on various nave pillars, most of it probably medieval. How much of it was intended to have a significance and how much is just aimless doodling is anyone's guess. As in many churches, a lot of it seems to be the result of someone who's got hold of a pair of compasses for the first time and is delighting in the patterns that can be constructed.

Above the tower arch are two wooden charity bequest boards, the one on the left dated 1705 recording various sums of money donated to a variety of worth causes, and on the right, dated 1641, the founding of a  free school in the town.

There are some reasonably interesting Victorian stained glass windows:

The east window, by William Wailes, 1842. The four Evangelists

The chancel south window, also by Wailes, 1850. Noli Me Tangere

East window, south chapel (now the organ loft, making a good photo very hard), by F C Eden 1912. Te Deum

East window, north chapel, attributed to Clayton and Bell, 1858. The Agony in the Garden; the Betrayal; Ecce Homo; Christ Bearing the Cross

Two plaques in the south chapel (now organ chamber) tell an unbearably tragic story. The first records the death of Midshipman (that is, a young officer trainee) Ivon Fellowes in 1915, aged just 17. He was learning his trade on HMS Irresistible, which had been built in 1898 and thus was the same age as him. 

HMS Irresistible sinking, from Wikipedia, which has much more information

The ship was opposing the Turkish forces in the Dardanelles, but struck a mine and drifted into easy range of the enemy guns. Most of her 780 crew were rescued, but about 150 were killed, young Ivon among them.

In August 1918 his elder brother, Captain Rupert Fellowes of the Coldstream Guards, was killed leading his company into battle, aged 24. He died less than three months before the end of the war, having presumably survived some considerable time before then. Two brothers, two sons were lost. The futility, stupidity and catastrophic nature of the First World War in particular and war in general are brought home. Two further observations: the plaques take pains to thank God, and although the sons' father (a Rear Admiral) is prominently mentioned, nowhere is their mother thought worthy of inclusion. 

St Nicholas' church is generally locked; I was lucky enough to arrive on spec on what turned out to be an open day held to celebrate a recent refurbishment, which had cost a little over a million pounds (see here). As you'd expect given the money spent on it, some radical changes have been made. It's in the nature of such things that some will disapprove, virtually regardless of the actual alterations, and want things to stay the same. (The refurbishment wasn't my top priority when I was looking around: I was more interested in the historical features, so any opinions I express here are provisional.)

Some churches become museums; Caldecote which I wrote about recently is an example. Clearly any alterations there (unless they were absolutely necessary to stop it falling down) would be wrong. But most are living buildings, in frequent use for their original main purpose. I'm a non-believer, but nevertheless I'd like as many churches as possible to remain open for worship. (This is partly for selfish reasons - I like visiting churches, and if I can get other people to look after them so I can enjoy them, so much the better - but also because I recognise how much comfort, support and inspiration many people derive from their faith.) There's always going to be some tension between the desire to preserve churches as historical artefacts, and the need to make them suitable for 21st century practicalities. 

The main alterations seem to be that the floor, which was previously uneven and breaking up in places, has been dug up and completely relaid, with underfloor heating; a mezzanine floor has been added in the south transept (the kitchen there, which I think partly occupies the original organ chamber, was I believe the result of a previous updating); the lighting has been renewed; six audio-visual screens have been attached to the pillars; most of the internal stonework has been given a lick of paint (leaving the stones with graffiti unpainted).

There was a survey made of the floor before it was destroyed, and an archaeological record was kept while work was in progress; some interesting discoveries were made, and some ledger stones have been preserved. Underfloor heating is very welcome, meaning that clumsy radiators aren't needed. A level floor is a major advantage for disabled people, but nevertheless inevitably some historical material would have been destroyed. The new floor, of Purbeck marble in various shades and sizes, would probably look fabulous in the kitchen of a newly built house; how suitable it is for a church I'm not sure. I think this will be the thing that neophobes will mostly focus on. I do think that it goes quite well with the set of 1964 benches by the Robert Thompson workshop (he is known as the Mouseman as he signed his work with a little mouse, 12 of which can be found in the church if you look carefully. I'm told that his benches are much more ergonomic and therefore more comfortable than standard pews). But I have a feeling that the coloured marbles will look horribly dated in a few decades; ideally, I'd have preferred the old floor to have been patched up rather than reduced to rubble and dumped.

The audio-visual screens are an intrusion (some will no doubt find them shocking), and I can hardly believe they're necessary; are the members of the congregation really going to be glued to their close-up detail rather than watching the slightly more distant reality? But at least they could presumably be taken down in an hour or so without much difficulty. The other changes seem to me to be a successful compromise, preserving most of the old and catering for the new. If the church is going to continue to be a living building - and, as I say, I hope it is - we have to accept that some new features will be introduced, which will sometimes mean the removal of older features. Churches have always worked like this, and will continue to do so until they become museums.

I've left possibly my favourite feature of the church till last. If there's anyone who has so much time to fill that they're regular readers of this blog they'll know already of my fondness for label stops and corbels. These are small, generally unregarded little carvings that, perhaps, were left to the whim of the masons - certainly, they rarely have any obvious religious significance. St Nicholas Stevenage has a fine set of label stops, though none of the authorities mention them, even in passing. Not Pevsner/Bettley, not the statutory listing, not the Victoria County History, not the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, not even the church guide book. They must date from the building of the arches over the 13th century pillars, that is, the 15th century (though it's possible that some have been recut). 

The range from the cute - the very modern-looking rabbit - through the comic - the snaggle-toothed, handlebar-moustached Terry-Thomas figure - to the imposing - the long-haired man wearing a badged hat and the ?woman with a ruff and what seems to be a jewelled headdress. A whole gallery of late medieval personages.

* I've written approvingly about Thomas Smith before; see my discussion of his work at Weston, for example.

** The base of a recessed spire is smaller than the tower top on which it stands, leaving an area which you could walk round should you choose.

Norman west doorway

Norman window in tower