A churchy afternoon…

In which we don’t go far, but visit four churches in the heart of England…

The wonderful thing about being a history junkie living in England, is the prevalence of parish churches. Every one of them is a little time capsule, telling stories about our national, regional and very personal histories. I love looking at them for what their architecture tells us about their building history and then going inside, or walking around the graveyards and seeing the human histories remembered in tombs, memorials, windows and simple graves.

At the weekend, we visited four churches, all fairly close together in the Warwickshire/Worcestershire borders. Each very different in character, and each a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of our past. None is particularly exceptional, but that’s the wonderful thing about them, wherever you go, a fascinating journey into history is waiting for you.

St Mary, Ullenhall, Warwickshire

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This was our first stop. A strange little church, with a mix of architectural styles that can mean only one thing – Victorian! It was designed by John Pollard Seddon and built in 1875.

You need to walk around the outside to get a full impression – the rear is much prettier than the front, but you can’t tell from first glances. For me the clock face up on the odd little spire was the best bit.

St Mary Magdalene, Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire

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Tanworth-in-Arden is one of those perfect villages where you imagine Miss Marple would feel at home, wisteria and hollyhocks around the doors. And the church lives up to that ideal too, standing right in the centre of the village.

There were people rehearsing in the church so we didn’t have a proper look around inside, but the cool interior felt serene.

Outside an unusual monument butts right up to the side door, but I couldn’t read the inscriptions, so I don’t know who it commemorated. One face appears to have had a new piece of stone inserted – it’s obviously still important to someone.

I didn’t know at the time, but Nick Drake’s ashes were interred in the churchyard and somehow that seems to fit well with the character of the music he left behind.

St Leonard’s, Beoley, Worcestershire.

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This is another church close to a big town but hidden away on the side of a hill. A huge mixture of styles reflecting the age of the church, but I couldn’t help feeling that the hand of the Victorian renovator had been a bit overpowering.

There is a chapel to the left of the chancel – the Sheldon Chapel – built in 1580 for a recusant family, which was a peculiarly oversize attachment. I always want to see the faces of these effigies, but it was very difficult to get into a suitable position. I held the camera where I thought it should be and hoped.

This whole area, Worcestershire and Warwickshire was deeply embroiled in the turbulent religious times and politics of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, with many characters involved in the Gunpowder Plot living in the region, so it wasn’t a huge surprise to find the chapel there.

When we came home and I looked up Beoley, I found this lovely story which connects Shakespeare with Beoley – if you have a few minutes have a read and see what you think.

St Mary the Virgin, Hanbury, Worcestershire

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Now I must admit that I am not an impartial visitor to Hanbury. I spent the first twenty years of my life very close to Hanbury and it has a special place in my heart. That said, I’m sure anyone would find it a fascinating if not classically beautiful church.

The Vernon family who built and lived in Hanbury Hall (now managed by the National Trust) are closely connected to the church, with many of them buried in the Vernon Chapel. I rather like the marble figures in all their finery. I especially liked the juxtaposition of medieval door with the marble statue.

However, the very best thing about Hanbury is the position of the church itself, perched on top of a hill, with wide-open views across to the Cotswolds and Malvern Hills. Long before the church was built, there was an Iron Age hilltop fort there. Later the Saxons built a monastery on the site.

It’s exactly the sort of churchyard where you could sit and contemplate life the universe and everything.

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 A truly enjoyable afternoon of exploring.

 

Bath Abbey, Bath.

Treasure hunting in the abbey.

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I was going to start this post by remarking that the now standard request for ‘voluntary donations’ when entering religious institutions, is handled better by some cathedrals and the like than others, and that for me Bath Abbey hadn’t got the welcome and the request in balance on the day we visited, but then I decided that perhaps we were there on a particularly busy, cold and grey afternoon and that the welcomers were overdue a tea-break. Maintaining a welcoming attitude can’t be easy, especially faced with crowds of tourists intent only on ticking off the major attractions, it’s enough I’m sure to make even a saint a touch frosty.

Still, you shouldn’t let that put you off, because Bath Abbey is full of glories, small and large, that are certainly worth spending some time to explore.

You can spot one little quirkiness for free, because it’s on the outside of the abbey. Look either side of the west window and you’ll see a variety of angels climbing up and down ladders.

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These angels commemorate a dream of Bishop Oliver King at the end of the fifteenth century, in which he saw angels climbing ladders to heaven – as a result, Bishop King went on to have the crumbling Norman ruins replaced and founded the building we see today.

Once inside, it is quite a surprise to find such a large, light and airy space. Even on a dull afternoon, the magnificence of the east window was overwhelming. Many of the visitors went straight to the pews to sit and enjoy the stained glass extravaganza.

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I took better pictures, but include this one here, because if you zoom in, can you see what the chap behind the altar is doing?

As if the window wasn’t enough, a look up to the roof and you get another feast for the senses…

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Fan vaulting to die for.

The stained glass windows all around the abbey are gorgeous – just a couple of examples here as my phone camera doesn’t do them justice.

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The glass in these extremely tall windows is particularly remarkable for me, because the men who made them knew that they would never really be seen again properly once set in place.

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I generally find myself attracted to the memorials in these places and this one caught my eye – this chap was cavalier during the Civil War, but it obviously didn’t stop him indulging in family life – three wives and nine children by my reckoning – it must have been that moustache! He lived to see the Restoration at any rate.

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Sadly I managed to miss finding out who these two below were, but I was struck by their attitude – almost as if they’re just thinking about getting up and deciding what to do this morning… rather a relaxed and gentle pair don’t you think…

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But perhaps my favourite little gem at Bath Abbey, was the carved musical angels either side of the choir (I couldn’t get close enough to take decent pictures – this is the best I could do – hope it gives you a flavour).

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I think if you zoom in you can get a better look at what they’re playing.

So there you have it – Bath Abbey, not at all what I expected from the outside, like opening a great-aunt’s jewellery-box and finding it full of quirky treasures.

 

 

-)o(-

*The man behind the altar is ironing the altar cloth – I wonder if he does his own shirts…

St John Baptist, Claines, Worcestershire.

Stained Glass extravaganza…

The churches we visit on ringing tours vary enormously in their character – I’m not talking about their architectural heritage – I mean the feeling you get when you walk through the door – a bit like when you meet somebody for the first time and you get that sense of either liking them or not, or intuitively sensing something about them – that’s how I react to churches, they’re not all the same – each has its own personality.

On Saturday, the last tower of the day was St John Baptist church at Claines, Worcestershire.

Maybe it was because it was the last church of the day and I was feeling sleepy, but once I walked inside I felt warm and snuggly. The lighting was low, but it was the windows that immediately seemed to wrap themselves around me, like a huge, intricate and gloriously luminous coloured quilt.

Nothing really special or different to the stained glass you’ll find in hundreds of other churches, but taken together, it felt luscious.

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Every little nook and cranny filled with coloured glass. I sat in a pew and soaked up the warmth.

I loved it.

After the ringing, we went to the pub (its traditional for ringers), which turned out to be quite literally in the churchyard. If you find yourself in Claines, go and have a pint at The Mug House it is the quintessential country pub – over 700 years old and still serving excellent beer.

 

I didn’t take any pics of the church proper, but follow this link for some lovely shots on the Hibbitt family website.

 

 

 

 

 

-)O(-

 

All Saints, Turvey, Bedfordshire

Looking into faces from the past.

We were having a churchy day out yesterday, and amongst others, visited All Saints, Turvey.

The wonderful thing about visiting churches is that although they are all there to serve the same purpose, once you step inside, you realise that they are all different. I like to wander around, soaking up the atmosphere, trying to decide what I like or dislike about them, trying to sense their personality.

All Saints Turvey would be a fairly typical wealthy village church, where it not for its collection of tombs – and it was these that fascinated me during my visit.

The first was the husband and wife tomb of Sir John Mordaunt (died 1506) and Edith Latimer.

The tomb sits on a plinth which makes taking photos quite a challenge. Whether to deter this, or just out of expediency, a load of plastic chairs had been placed around the tomb – but I carefully rearranged a few to try to get a closer look.

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It seemed to me that more attention had been paid to carving Edith than John – look at the detail in her headdress.

But what I loved, were the little characters surrounding them, especially the little dogs tugging at Edith’s skirt.

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I’d be surprised if she’d have been happy to have them doing that if she were alive.

The one thing that was rather alarming, was the face on Sir John’s helm (under his head)

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Enough to make you run away screaming. Sir John fought at and survived Bosworth and Stoke – so perhaps his helm was effective.

It looked very much as if the tomb had originally been painted – I’d love to have seen it as it was intended to be seen.

Strolling further along, I found the grander tomb of John, the second Lord Mordaunt (died 1571) and his two wives, Ellen Fitz Lewis and Joan Farmer.

This was interestingly arranged with him oddly elevated above both ladies – all looking unpleasantly cramped.

I must say, if I was going to spend eternity lying next to my husband’s other wife, I wouldn’t really want him practically on top at the same time – a menage a trois Tudor style perhaps…

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I couldn’t make out who was Ellen and who was Joan – obviously whoever carved this tomb didn’t much like doing the hands…

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John was so inaccessible I couldn’t see his expression, but I have a nasty feeling it was smug.

This type of tomb brings home the transitory nature of life – here were three people, evidently famous in their own time – well-known in the region and wider, and yet all we have now is a little card with details of the man and nothing about either of his wives. It makes me want to know who they really were – their personalities, likes, dislikes, history, hopes, disappointments – everything!

And then of course you can’t help wondering about the thousands of other people, just like us who have no memorial.

But I digress…

Across the aisle from that tomb is another, this time of John first Lord Mordaunt (died 1562) and his wife Elizabeth Vere.

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I’d call those expressions inscrutable.

All Saints has other faces

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Brass memorials hidden under chairs. And medieval paintings on the wall.

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These I adore – I’m sure the artist wanted us to contemplate the image, but I want to contemplate the artist – who was he, what was his? life like, how did he live, when, where…

So after wandering round, the overriding impression I took, was of real people, with real faces, albeit rendered with varying skill. I have images in my mind of them all getting up when we left, comparing notes on us. I hope the ladies will forgive me leaning over them – I just wanted to see their faces better. And then it occurred that as many of them are closely related, they might in fact not get on together – imagine the potential for arguments! Not to mention having little dogs ruining your dress or working out which of the numerous Johns is being addressed.

I left them to it and went back out into the sunshine for a walk around the church – and look what I found tucked away behind it.

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The most peculiar mausoleum I’ve ever seen – the Higgins Mausoleum – Why oh why, would a fireplace be built into it?

There’s more about it here.

All Saints Turvey – not at all what I’d expected.

For more information

I’m going to admit to not yet having read everything on this link – but it’s exactly the sort of thing guaranteed to draw you in and result in you spending too much time asking even more questions! Brilliant.