Outside Churches

Click to a larger version of Farringdon Yew, Hampshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Farringdon Yew, Hampshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Ancient yews are a common feature of churchyards and many are reputed to be older than the buildings which keep them company. Scientific research, by the Conservation Foundation and others, confirms that many yews are certainly pre-Norman, some date back to the founding of the site by an early saint and a few venerable ancients are pre-Christian. Churches were often built on pagan sacred sites, and multiple layers of belief and practice - burial mounds, standing stones, wells and sacred trees - may be found in churchyards. This split and hollow yew, at the foot of the tower of All Saints, has been dated to AD 500 or older, the Victorian headstone a mere youngster in comparison. The yew ring of 30 feet (9.14m) sits on a slight mound, largely of its own decay on which it has fed to keep it quick and green. Evergreen and capable of great age (1000+ years easily), yews are often seen as symbols of the everlasting life of the soul, and their branches used as substitute palms on Palm Sunday. But their foliage can prove fatal to humans, and to the stock - especially cattle and horses - which seek shelter and a quick snack from their boughs. Remarkably, the taxine alkaloids which can bring on heart failure are used pharmaceutically to slow the advance of certain cancers.
Click to a larger version of Iffley, Oxfordshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Iffley, Oxfordshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

The west front of St Mary the Virgin’s church on the outskirts of Oxford, is a showpiece of late Norman (1170) Romanesque style and carving. The concentric recessed bands of stone around the door and windows are called ‘orders’. The bold geometric mouldings have fizz and zing, and the rich texture of light and shade seems to pulse and shift. The main decorations here are chevrons (continuous V-shapes forming zig-zags) and beak-heads (stylized heads pointed like vampire teeth). The semicircular hood-mould above the doorway bears signs of the zodiac, and the upper windows are flanked by slender shafts topped by cushion capitals from which the top arches spring. Norman sculptors used an axe to cut simple shapes, a hammer and chisel for more detailed work requiring undercutting, but, whatever the implement, they rarely resisted the chance to give exuberant life to plain stone.
Click to a larger version of Wendron, Cornwall (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Wendron, Cornwall (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

St Wendron is thought to have been a man, but was treated in medieval calendars as a woman so the dedication here is to St Wendrona. The church of granite blocks dates mainly from the 14th-15th centuries. Both its porch and three-stage tower are graced by pinnacles. The churchyard entrance has a 17th-century lychgate with a parish room above. Once used for parish business and records, the room has a fireplace and external entrance steps. Lychgate rooms were also put to use as vestry, village school and Sunday School. The city of Lichfield (Staffordshire), owes its name to a terrible battle there as ‘lych’ is an Old English word for corpse. Lychgates gave shelter to the deceased and mourners until the funeral procession was led into church by the priest. Under the archway can be seen the stone support where the coffin of those who could afford one would rest, or the body wrapped in a shroud of wool or linen. Two who passed through this gate in 1861 and 1868 were merchant Thomas Johns of Porkellis and his slave, Evaristo Muchovela from Mozambique, who died seven years after his master aged 38. At Thomas’ request they were buried in the same grave at Wendron. “Here lie the master and slave side by side within one grave, distinction lost and caste is o’er, the slave is now a slave no more.” Legally speaking Evaristo had become free the moment he set foot on British soil.......
Click to a larger version of Greenwich, London SE10 (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Greenwich, London SE10 (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

In 1710, at midnight during a storm, the nave of Greenwich church collapsed, fatally undermined by its burial vaults. The parishioners petitioned Parliament for a new church. Partly out of this came the 1711 Act for the building of ‘fifty new churches of Stone and other proper materials, with Towers or Steeples to each of them’, all paid for by coal tax. Nicholas Hawksmoor was responsible for six of the new churches including St Alfege’s at Greenwich, built 1714-18 out of shining Portland stone. It is a huge hymn, or ode more likely, to classicism. Inspired by pagan Roman temples such as that to Baal/Jupiter at Baalbeck (Lebanon), its four-square ground-plan is made into a nominal cross by the addition of central vestibules projecting at north and south. The east front has a portico with Corinthian columns, Tuscan (square) pilasters, and doors leading into the side aisles. Above is a plain pediment with a very neat semicircular bite take out of its triangle. Quadruple urns add the finishing touches. Hawksmoor’s interest in classical forms, arcane geometry and esoteric symbolism have caused some confusion over his beliefs and motives. There is enough mystery in his life and churches to have provided Peter Ackroyd with a wonderful subject for his 1985 imaginative and macabre best seller ‘Hawksmoor’.
Click to a larger version of Come-to-Good, Cornwall (Religious Society of Friends): photo © Mick Sharp

Come-to-Good, Cornwall (Religious Society of Friends): photo © Mick Sharp

George Fox (1624-1691) was born into a time of religious and political upheaval which included the Civil War, execution of Charles I, establishment of the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and, in 1660, restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. Many nonconformist ‘cults’ such as the ‘Ranters’, ‘Diggers’ and ‘Levellers’ sprang up to challenge established ideas about God and society. This brought them into conflict with monarchists and republicans alike, and led to the passing of the Blasphemy Act in 1650. At this time, Fox, who believed that ‘no one stands between God and man save Jesus Christ’, was an itinerant, dissenting preacher. Brought to court in Derby on a charge of blasphemy, Fox told the judge that he should ‘tremble at the word of the Lord’; the judge responded by calling Fox and his followers ‘Quakers’. ‘Friends in the Truth’ felt they were reviving the primal Christianity of the Gospels, in which people had direct personal experience of the creative loving power - ‘in all people and the world around’ - which is beyond all names, but which some call God. In life, and in the silence of their meetings, Friends leave themselves open to the ‘leading of the Spirit’, listen to its ‘promptings in their hearts’ and speak as they feel moved. The Friends Meeting House at Come-to-Good is made of whitewashed cob under an open-timbered thatched roof. The simple, eloquent woodwork and plain furniture define the space and are clothed in light. According to the journal of Thomas Gwinn, one of a group of 15 Friends who raised a subscription of £53-8s.6d to have it built, their first meeting here was held on 13 June 1710.
Click to a larger version of Soar-y-Mynydd Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Ceredigion: photo © Mick Sharp

Soar-y-Mynydd Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Ceredigion: photo © Mick Sharp

Other missionary Nonconformists were also at work. John Wesley (1703-91) and those inspired by his ‘Holy Club’ were preaching out of doors all over Britain, but it was the severe wing of his Methodism movement that was particularly embraced in Wales. Calvinistic Methodists followed French theologian John Calvin (1509-64) who had a mission to return the Church to its original purity. He declared the Bible to be the only rule of faith and that only faith, not supernatural intervention, could reduce Divine punishment. According to Calvin, humankind had been denied free will by the Fall of Adam and that some were born predestined to either salvation or damnation. There were many shades of belief in Methodism and after Wesley’s death the movement splintered. Revivalist preacher Hywel Harris, known as ‘the father of Welsh Methodism’, came to speak at a farmhouse near this spot in 1740. In the 1820s, inspired by the memory of Harris’ evangelical work, Ebenezer Richards, Methodist minister at Tregaron, had Capel Soar-y-Mynydd built to serve the scattered upland farms. Adjoining the south end of the chapel is a house where visiting preachers stayed, to the NE is a separate stable. Some 20 people were buried beneath the spongy turf in the period 1830-60. The chapel doubled as a school until the 1940s and Methodists from other chapels come with their ministers to worship here. Situated above the Afon Camddwr by Llyn Brianne reservoir, the chapel is reached via the old drovers’ route between Tregaron and Llanwrtyd Wells. A contender for ‘the remotest chapel in Wales’, it is a remarkable testament to faith and resolve.
Click to a larger version of Killean Old Parish Church , Kintyre, Argyll: photo © Jean Williamson

Killean Old Parish Church , Kintyre, Argyll: photo © Jean Williamson

The ruined former parish church of St John’s dates back to the 12th century. In the 1800s its 15th-century north aisle was taken over by the MacDonalds of Largie as their burial-chapel. In the graveyard, a farmer and two-horse team forever plough the land, while a sailing ship endlessly ploughs the waves. Margaret Stewart had the headstone on the right erected to the memory of her husband, ‘Donald Mackinnion late Farmer at Laigh Gortanfaull who departed this life on 23rd September 1810 aged 79 yrs’. A sailor named William erected the other stone in memory of his father Alexander McKinnon, presumably also a sailor, who died in 1788 aged only 42. The inscription ‘Walk by this &c’ refers to a group of epitaphs asking passers-by to reflect on the fact that they too will become like the deceased, just as the departed was once like them. The overlapping square and compasses symbol in this context most likely refers to charts and navigation, but it is also very similar to the emblem used by the Freemasons. Other symbols found on Scottish headstones referring to occupations include powder-flask, gun, fishing-rod, a grouse and a pointer dog for a gamekeeper; an apron, chisel and maul for a stonemason; and a harp for a musician.
Click to a larger version of Melverley, Shropshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Melverley, Shropshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

According to the church guidebook, there has been a Christian place of worship in Melverley for about 1000 years. There was a Saxon hermitage on the east bank of the Afon Vyrnwy just north of its meeting with the Severn. In 1141 there was a wooden chapel here, but it was burnt to the ground by Owain Glyndwr during the Welsh uprising against Henry IV: the Vyrnwy forms the boundary between England and Wales and, until the bank was remodelled in 1990-92, its floodwaters used to reach the west end of the church. By 1406 the present church of St Peter had been built using local oak, its timbers held together by pegs and in-filled with wattle and daub. The bell-cote and porch were added in 1670. Porches were important village meeting-places, and in earlier times parts of the ceremonies of baptism, marriage and churching (a postnatal thanksgiving service) took place ‘at the church door’. Much village business was transacted in the porch with oaths witnessed by the priest, disputes aired and settled, plans and bargains made. Public information was displayed in the porch and its seats, out of the wind and weather, were handy for social chats and other purposes. Some porches were graced with upper rooms used as guild chapels or private chantries where prayers were said for the souls of dead benefactors. Others served as schools, libraries, stores for the parish documents and weapons, or as watching chambers from where a priest or sexton could keep an eye on the church, inside and out.
Click to a larger version of Burrow Mump, Somerset (National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Burrow Mump, Somerset (National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

The embanked River Parrett flows past the mainly natural mound of Burrow Mump rising above a network of fields and drainage channels in the seasonally flooded Somerset Levels. The raised peat bogs, which stopped growing around AD 400, have been actively drained and cut for fuel and other purposes since at least Saxon times. A block of peat cut by hand is called a mump, and so is a grimace. In common with many distinctive mounds and ‘high places’ in Britain, the Mump is dedicated to St Michael: militant archangel and scourer of former pagan sites, weigher of souls and heavenly fighter against devils and dragons. Burrow Mump is reputed to lie on one of the most important British leys, straight lines of energy marked by ancient sites. The St Michael line runs from St Michael’s Mount (Cornwall) to Lowestoft (Suffolk) via Brent Tor (Dartmoor), the Mump and Glastonbury (Somerset), Avebury (Wiltshire) and Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk). The church remains are from an unfinished rebuilding, started in the 1720s, of a chapel dedicated to St Michael and described in a document of 1633 as ‘medieval’. There was a Norman castle on the summit before that, part of the conical hill has been enhanced and fortified and there is a tradition that it was occupied as a defensive position during the Civil War. As well as a haunt of one of the chief princes of the heavenly host, Burrow Mump is home to a WWII memorial to the Somerset dead.
Click to a larger version of Eyam, Derbyshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Eyam, Derbyshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

If you’d like to know the time in Mecca, Jerusalem, Rome, London or Panama and others, go to St Lawrence’s church in the village of Eyam and wait for the sun to shine. Above the priest’s door, on the south wall of the chancel, is a splendid sundial with signs of the zodiac, place names, lines and numerals allowing calculations to be made about the time in other parts of the world as well as in Eyam. It’s date is 1775, the names of the churchwardens William Lee and Thomas Froggat. The inscription: Induce Animum Sapientem, very roughly translated, exhorts us all to cultivate a wise (enquiring) mind. Simple scratch dials or Mass clocks can be found carved on buttresses or door jambs on the south sides of churches. Numbered lines radiate from a central hole in which a gnomon was placed to cast a thin shadow onto the dial. The lines were roughly calibrated to show key times such as midday, and to indicate the start and duration of services, especially the Mass which was usually said around 9am in medieval times. As with the monastic system of hours, or the Saxon ‘tides’, the unit would vary in length depending on the time of year. To make its readings accurate all year round, the Eyam dial has an angled gnomon aligned to the pole star and it is calibrated for Eyam’s exact latitude. When a vertical dial faces exactly south, the top horizontal line will indicate 6am and the central vertical line noontide.
Click to a larger version of Ruthin, Denbighshire (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

Ruthin, Denbighshire (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

The approach to the south porch of St Peter’s church leads through ornate wrought-iron gates made by the celebrated Davies brothers (Robert and John) of Bersham ironworks, Wrexham. Work started on the gates - a central pair supported by piers with a smaller gate at each side - in 1720, they were erected in 1727 and restored in 1928. Topped by a panel or ‘overthrow’ of elaborate scrollwork, the gates are painted black with white serpents, gold shields and other heraldic symbols: the cherub has a child’s head, signifying purity and innocence, and wings indicating its spiritual nature. The work was paid for by the Myddleton family who, in 1733, had their own set of magnificent Davies’ gates made and fitted at Chirk Castle.
Click to a larger version of Aberdaron, Gwynedd (Church in Wales): photo © Jean Williamson

Aberdaron, Gwynedd (Church in Wales): photo © Jean Williamson

The church of St Hywyn communes with the sea at the end of the Lleyn peninsula. Built at one of the embarkation points for pilgrims to Bardsey Island, its history goes back to at least the 7th century AD. The earliest remaining fabric is from the 1100s with additions in the 14th and 16th centuries, and a major restoration in the 1860s. It has a distinctive ‘double-aisle’ or ‘double-nave’ layout. Amongst other historic ‘treasures’, St Hywyn’s has a fine array of headstones in its salt sprayed churchyard. There is a fine tradition of carved slate in Wales and the same bold funerary symbols are seen again and again. A weeping willow tree for lamentation and mourning, or sometimes just a bough as a substitute palm branch signifying resurrection and immortality. Laurel leaves and wreaths also symbolise victory over death. Pairs of hands clasp or shake; male and female (look at the cuffs) denoting the partnership of marriage, a farewell and reuniting in death, and the ultimate union with God. Stone ivy grows on stone, indicating faithful memory and often the living plant joins in to reinforce the message. A book can be the Bible standing for the word of God, faith and wisdom, but may also be a more personal book of life: closed and final, or open with entries wiped clean by death, blank to show there is no more to write.

Follow me on: Facebook Jean Williamson.