I’ll probably become exceedingly boring, but I never stop marvelling at the incredible heritage we have in the UK, in the shape of our parish churches. Take yourself off to practically any out-of-the-way rural village, and the chances are, you’ll find it has an old church full of the whispers of ages gone by. Despite the changes in population and church attendance, many of these are still well used, which is why they continue to be maintained and which is why we’re still able to appreciate the vast amounts of art and history these buildings contain.
This weekend, I found myself in the small village of Totternhoe near Dunstable, Bedfordshire, visiting the church of St Giles.
I get the feeling that St Giles is well-loved. As you approach through the beautifully maintained churchyard, you get a sense that this is a church still playing an important part in village life.
I sat and admired the exterior of the building. Although a church was built there in the 12th century, nothing of that building survives. Today the chancel is probably the oldest part, dating to the 14th century, the porch and tower from the 15th century and the rest from the early 16th century. Some of the walls have that slight out-of-trueness that always makes me happy – I’m sure the masons intended everything to be perfectly straight, but I can’t help thinking that a certain degree of incline adds a lot of character.
Inside the church, you can’t help but have your gaze drawn to the stained-glass window in the east end of the chancel. It was installed in 1971 and depicts the Tree of Life. (Sadly it defied my attempts with the smart phone to take a good picture, suffice to say it was very blue and yellow – the yellow hasn’t translated here).
Not I suspect to everyone’s taste, but certainly different and imposing.
In total contrast, there is one window in the nave containing repositioned fragments of glass – for some reason I found this almost as compelling, perhaps because there is now no way to know what the original windows they came from, would have looked like.
Apart from the east end window, my favourite thing inside the otherwise starkly whitewashed building, was the carved figure on the pillar above the pulpit, holding a rebus (a pun on the name of the family who owned the advowson of St Giles in the 15th century) – their name was Ashwell and the carving is of a figure holding a shield depicting an ash tree and a well. There are more of these carved into the roof, but the light was too poor for my camera to cope. Evidently the Ashwell family wanted to trumpet their position to all comers.
I love this fifteenth century style of carving. Having spent untold time with my girls trying to create a curly hairstyle, I find myself intrigued to know how they managed it all those years ago, without the aid of heated rollers or curling tongs – or perhaps they did use hot tongs – whatever, I’m impressed.
After strolling around inside, I went out again and walked all around the church, and was struck that this is a place where the exterior of the windows shows as much character as the interior, in fact I found the shapes of the windows more exciting from the outside.