Is there another word for church spotting? I haven’t found one. I know those following the once noble pursuit of trainspotting became gricers at some stage (though I’m not sure that ever really worked – Gricing? What’s that? Oh, trainspotting), while birdspotters are fairly well-known as twitchers. So church spotting it is – to a backing track of Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing; I just Googled the title to check if it needed an apostrophe, only to discover it was originally an Iggy Pop song, co-written by David Bowie – I did not know that; it’s been a learning week or so.
Anyway, a friend is working his way through the high scorers in Simon Jenkins‘ England’s thousand best churches (revised, 2002) and was good enough to ask me along on the North Bucks run. As a humanist, nay atheist (or should that be atheist, nay humanist) I see no contradiction in being interested in churches. As an accumulation of social, historical, cultural, artistic and architectural endeavour they can’t really be beat. As documents in stone and glass, in the best (and indeed most of the rest) there is a sense of reverence – stillness, quiet, but let us not forget the bells, the organ – that cannot be denied for all that “I know that my redeemer liveth” stuff (I note you redeem when buying stuff in iTunes these days and I think that’s what you used to do with full books of Green Shield stamps). A sense of reverence, as I say, but also the absurd, like those often hideous family monuments to the local rich power in the land. But there is something there, in the proportions if they’re right, their geometry, you feel the – for want of a better word, and without bestowing any Platonic qualities on it – spirit of the place, of time passed, a power and a peace. Not the most original set of thoughts, I’ll admit, but, well, churches are great at being … churches.
And, of course, in England the local church is there on a cultural par with the notion of the village green. In the book group book I’m reading at the moment (of which more in another post) – Evelyn Waugh’s A handful of dust – there’s a delicious bit where the ex-colonial vicar, back in a Berkshire parish in his dotage, continues to use unedited the sermons that served him well enough in the Tropics, at Christmas:
“How difficult it is for us,” he began, blandly surveying his congregation, who coughed into their mufflers and chafed their chilblains under their woolen gloves, “to realise that this is indeed Christmas. Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered against the drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of an alien sun; instead of the happy circle of loved faces, of home and family, we have the uncomprehending stares of the subjugated, though no doubt grateful, heathen. Instead of the placid ox and ass of Bethlehem […] we have for companions the ravening tiger and the exotic camel …
And the first sketch that springs to my mind from Beyond the fringe is always Alan Bennett at the pulpit sermonising from the text, “But my brother Esau is an hairy man.”
What made a particular impact on me last Thursday was seeing such a variety of styles of church building in the one afternoon. To the extent that churches are always works in progress it’s a simplification to say it, but as it happens we visited three churches in chronological order. First off was Anglo-Saxon All Saints, Wing – that’s the photo at the head of this post, that dark semi-circle to the left of the group of gravestones is the sadly locked entrance to crypt – I feel ‘holiest’ in crypts. At Norman St Michael’s, Stewkley, we presumed to go through an open door and climbed the narrow stairs to the bell ringer’s floor in the tower, and were lucky enough to be entertainingly talked through the elements of campanology – thanks. The remote, splendid and crumbling All Saints, Hillesden – “the cathedral in the meadows” – was built in, I can now safely say with confidence, the Gothic Perpendicular style. I say ‘with confidence’ because I have benefited from reading the Ladybird Book (ah, youth!) illustrated above, which Chris reckons is the best introduction to the subject going, and having learnt a lot in a very short time, I see no reason not to concur. He’s also got me re-evaluating the life and works of Dire Straits and more particularly Mark Knopfler, but that’s another story, save to revel in just how great a twist on the theme his Romeo and Juliet is (“Hey, la, my boyfriend’s back“) and to fall back in wonder at how you can write a Song for Sonny Liston and make it work; it’s the restraint in the voice and the story telling that catches the emotions.
Finally, further proof that in telly-land Alison Graham rules! This is precisely why I will not watch Julian Fellowe’s Downton Abbey. From Radio Times, last Saturday’s episode:
is so packed with misery and emotionally crunching scenes that you either (a) run weeping into your living room curtains or (b) stare dry-eyed and open-mouthed as you wonder at the gall of a man who is so mercilessly manipulative.