Archive for May, 2013

Number Four on Britain’s Top 10.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 4, 2013 by drmiller1960

Sorry it’s been a while since the last blog—my damned day job keeps rearing its ugly head!  But now that I’ve had a chance to sit down and write, I shall proceed with no further ado; I know you’ve been waiting for the latest instalment with bated breath.

4.  Churches

I am hardly unique when I say that 9/11 will be forever seared in my memory; who could forget seeing those images of that crystal sky, the plane, the towers, the impact?  The horror was magnified by personal events:  my husband’s co-worker, a young and seemingly healthy man, had a stroke.  His wife, who had remained in the States, came over after my husband called.  She stayed with us and we remained with her as her husband died.  A couple of days later my mother-in-law called, to tell me what was happening back home.  Life was suddenly tenuous, and I was all too aware that I was out of my depth, out of my country, and out of my mind with grief and fear.  My usual reaction to chaos is to try to  impose order, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that every single sheet, tea towel, and cloth napkin in the house was ironed to within an inch of its life that afternoon.  But I eventually ran out of things to organise, so I went out for a walk.

At the time, we lived on Minster Yard, right across the street from Lincoln Cathedral.  I hope sometime that you get the chance to go to Lincoln, if you haven’t already had that privilege.  The medieval center is exquisite, with the cathedral dominating that corner of the world, radiating its assurance and beauty like a benediction.  But that day, I received something more.  Turning left, instead of right, I went on a circular path that led me down Viking paths and Roman roads and  past a Norman castle and shops that saw John of Gaunt ride by, until finally I found myself in front of the cathedral.  At a certain angle, the autumn sun turns the limestone into gold.  I touched the front wall, and it positively thrummed with light and energy.  That’s when it hit me:  all these things I had walked past were testaments to our ability to survive the most horrific disasters:  plague, war, famine.  And we’d make it again.

History isn’t merely the recitation of catastrophe: it’s a hymn to our steadfastness and endurance.

It was that moment when history ceased to be an abstract academic interest and became something deeper and more personal.  And nowhere does that personal history speak more clearly to me than in the churches that dot the towns and villages across Britain.

Don’t worry—I’m not turning all holy on you.  But if you know how to read a church (a wonderful friend taught me how to do it), you can track the impact of history upon the people who built it and lived their lives around it.  Your average parish church (unless it was rebuilt by the Victorians, who liked to tidy things up a bit too much) is a hodgepodge of architectural styles that can range from before the Conquest up to the present day.  It isn’t unusual to see an Anglo-Saxon tower (recognisable from the ashlar edges, squint windows, and sturdy double-arched windows), a Norman porch (dog-tooth decorations on the round arches of the door), and a Perpendicular lady chapel tacked onto an early English gothic nave.  Right there, you see the progression of time.2013-03-24 14.23.53

But, my glory, what wonders you see inside!  I’m not talking about the obvious grandeur of the pillars and (usually Victorian) stained glass; what I love are the small miracles that survived.  Edward VI and his commissioners did a pretty good job of eradicating much of Catholic England (most people blame Oliver Cromwell, but the sanctimonious little prick got there ahead of him nine times out of ten).  Stained glass was shattered, statues beheaded, and relics of beloved saints thrown out with the rubbish.  While a good number of people agreed with these changes, I don’t think you should underestimate the trauma the average person felt (The Voices of Morebath by Eamon Duffy is an excellent book on the subject).

The Bishop’s Eye, Lincoln Cathedral. Once shattered, the glass is a patchwork of the shards of different windows, pieced together in the 18th century.

But every once in a while you see where that average person took a stand:  statues of saints hidden away and brought back out in safer times; shards of stained glass lovingly placed back into their tracery, like huge, abstract jigsaw puzzles; saints, covered for centuries, finally reappearing through the carelessly applied whitewash; the forbidden rood screen at St. Edith Coates defiantly surviving Henry VIII’s edicts.  These are the triumphs of ordinary men and women, and I love them for what they reveal about these obstinate, sturdy people.

St Edith Coates by Stow, with pre-reformation wooden rood screen.

Before moving onto numbers 5 and 6, I’ll give you a mystery to ponder.  St Mary le Wigford in downtown Lincoln, only yards away from the train station, has an Anglo-Saxon tower.  On the top of the east facing wall, is a double arched window; there is a small pillar, and on top of it is a stone capital.  It is unfinished.  Why?  Did the mason fall from the tower?  Did they run out of money? Was the mason killed at Hastings?  If anyone knows, please don’t tell me—I want to keep on pondering.

St Mary le Wigford, looking at the west face of the tower.

Goodness!  That was long.  Looks like driving and The Archers will have to wait a bit longer.