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Posts Tagged ‘Churches’

So – yes – swallows but no amazons (poetic licence – read ‘fat people’) (and very few pigeons either, for that matter).  I guess it goes with the territory.  Because despite the charming ministrations of mine hosts at The Heights, just outside Keswick – Barry serving up delicious local ales (the pale Loweswater Gold and the “smooth coppery” Skiddaw bitter from the Hesket Newmarket Brewery) and the agonies of decision each night over Van’s generously proportioned vegetarian platters (but always choosing chips – hey, we were on holiday) my weight remained the same on return as when we’d left.

Weather: we’ve had worse; four seasons in one day, and all that.  The man in the newsagent’s in Keswick said he’d lived in the Lake District 20 years and it had only rained twice – once for 12 years, and then for 8.  But in the main we stayed dry, if cold, mostly; got hailed upon briefly a couple of times, but come the worst downpour there was a church porch to hand (it’s a miracle!) and the right clothes can work wonders (or at least help a lot).

Sean, the leprechaun in the Sat Nav, tried to lead us almost down the garden path on our way to Coniston.  Picturesque though it may be, we knew we didn’t need a detour via Grasmere village – he was on to charge his batteries – but thought we’d give his way a go anyway until this helpful official sign (‘Do not follow Sat Nav‘) re-affirmed our faith in our own devices.  The photo is out of focus and looks a bit weird because it was taken from the top deck of the magic 555 bus (Keswick to Lancaster via Grasmere, Rydal, Ambleside, Windermere, Kendal – best bus ride in the UK?) later in the week.  Anyway:

  • street art in the subway in Keswick (unlikely though the existence of such an urban thoroughfare may sound).  Don’t know how official it is.
  • the brilliant little Ruskin Museum in Coniston: as well as beautifully presented local history, there’s a John Ruskin Gallery that was well worth spending time in (and I say that even though we’ve been to Brantwood, JR’s Lake District pad twice previously).  Ruskin is one of those forgotten Victorian visionary giants – he achieved and produced so much in art, literature and social thought – whose time surely must come again (and one of these days I’ll expand on this).
  • and a joy to discover in the Ruskin Gallery that along with much else John Ruskin had his own lithophone – a sort of xylophone for giants, the sound coming from local rocks being struck.  JR’s was a bit elementary, but there’s a quadruple-decker de luxe in the fascinating and wonderful old-style Keswick Museum (you can even have a play) with a surprising history that gives the notion of hard rock music a different dimension.  (For more on lithophones and their history – Royal Albert Hall concerts, international acclaim – check out here and here).
  • and while we’re on the music, another day we walked to the lovely neat little church that is St John’s in the Vale (in … St John’s in the Vale), there to find a well spring that, in its channel a few feet away from its grotto, makes – at least when we were there – the water equivalent of wind chimes.  Another little bit of Lakeland magic.
  • But back to Coniston.  I could be less interested in Donald Campbell’s spectacular demise in failing to break the world water speed record on the nearby lake (as late as 1968, I was surprised to discover) but the museum’s new Bluebird Wing is impressive in its breadth of coverage.  I didn’t know, for instance, that Donald’s dad Malcolm’s record-breaking cars – all called Blue Bird – took their name from an operatic fantasy of 1919 based on an earlier play by Maurice Maeterlinck called The Blue Bird, the sort of high culture/technological crossover rare these days.  And that Donald chose to call his vehicles the one worded Bluebird to proclaim he was his own man.
  • more Ruskin in Kendal’s very fine Abbot Hall Art Gallery, and a couple of George Romney’s best (well, two I recognised, which did indeed stand out).  Great little gallery.  The older stuff displayed in Georgian domestic splendour downstairs and, upstairs, when we were there, a celebration of the Gallery’s 50 years’ existence, showing favourites from its very decent collection of post-war and contemporary British art, nay painting.  Hung on walls – hurrah!
  • the Kendal Parish Church was a surprise, both in its size – five aisles – and some decent early twentieth century stained glass windows, my favourite being the rare use of greens in this one
  • and back up the hill, outside the impressive Brewery Arts Centre complex (every town should have one) this further refurbished warning of time’s winged chariot (not that there was much prospect of a Leyland lorry taking off from the brow of Shap, where it was originally proudly installed.
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All Saints, Wing

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 JenkinsEngland’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.

Cynical, moi?

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All Saints Church, Leighton Buzzard, is a 3-star church in Simon Jenkins’ England’s thousand best churches; “The buzzard is no bird but a Norman prebendary,” he tells us.  Well worth a mosey around, the church’s graffiti is one of its particular attractions.  Famously there’s Sim and Nel having a domestic (to bake or to boil the simnel cake?) but as well there is a bird carrying no linguistic resonance with medieval officialdom: the etch of a heron you see above.  So when we meandered along the towpath of the Grand Union canal – built, of course, well after the graffiti was carved into the plaster – seeing a heron on the way to the Three Locks made for one of those historical frissons; the centuries melt away.

A few days later, again on the Grand Union, another kind of folk art enlivened a trek southward from Wolverton, near the remains of St Peter’s church.  Save a fair few moorhens and their cute chicks not a great deal of bird life to be seen on that trip, but we have seen kingfishers lately on the Great Ouse near Wolverton Mill.  And a breeding pair of Egyptian geese watching over seven Egyptian goslings.  Been a long time – years – since we last saw a kingfisher; that Gerard Manley Hopkins line, “When kingfishers catch fire” – first encountered but remembered from decades before I actually saw one – ever catching the moment to perfection.

If it hadn’t been that it was this month’s book group selection I probably wouldn’t have carried on with William Boyd‘s Restless (2006), but I did and the more I read the more intriguing it became and in the end I was gripped.  At first it was, Oh, here we go again, twin tracked here today (well, 1976) and there yesterday, revelations about what a relative did in the war.  Been there before.  And for a change, life in Oxford (and academe in Germany) in the ’70s with its post-’60s fallout, was more interesting than mum’s recruitment and spy school relayed in excruciating detail.  But Boyd’s skillful narrative pulls some interesting surprises – a compromised British undercover propaganda spy operation in the US pre-Pearl Harbour, the spectre of the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Iranian revolution in Oxford – and things happen (and just as importantly, don’t happen) that take us to a beautifully worked climax at the heart of the British establishment and a (for me at least) surprising and satisfying denouement, making perfect sense.  Don’t know how far this novel’s speculation is grounded in the facts, but the sense of the spy’s world and mindset lingers.  As they had to be for the novel to work, the two women, resourceful mother Eva/Sal (whatever your name is) and daughter Ruth (efficiently unfocused) are nicely drawn.  Good book.

And I’ve been working my way through the 1971 series of Public Eye – it started in 1965 and ran on and off for a decade – and it’s been a refreshing experience.  Strikes me that British tv is in a bit of a creative doldrum of late, but this is fascinating.  Alfred Burke nicely underplays Frank Marker, a smart but down at heel, taciturn and decent private investigator earning a crust from low-key jobs in the suburbs – fraud, credit checks, divorce, missing persons.  Indeed, a lot of the time not a lot happens; no guns, no car chases, hardly anyone gets hurt – it would never get made these days, more’s the pity.  There’s a lot of space – Pinteresque is the word that cannot be kept at bay – and it’s allowed to breathe.  Traffic noise, no music save the odd bar of a spare jazz theme air (it’s hardly a tune) – as I say, they don’t make ’em like this anymore, but the tales invariably twist like a good Roald Dahl short story (without the nastiness for nastiness’ sake), Marker’s poker faced moral streak somehow finding its satisfying way for that day – the importance of little victories.  It does have to be said that there is – Marker and his cop friend apart – a fair amount of dodgy acting on display, especially from the young things, that is symptomatic of that tv era.  Heartening to see and hear the Thames logo and musical motif, the 1971 series is doubly interesting because it straddles the change from black and white to colour television, and here it was not, episode by episode, a strict chronological divide either.

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