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.
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