Friday, 6 April 2012

The Village Church

From the number of church-related posts on "By Stargoose And Hanglands" you might get the idea that I'm a person of deep religious conviction. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I find the buildings - their architecture, history and spirit - endlessly fascinating. Although they stand as monuments to continuity through the ages they are constantly changing. In my local church some of the evidence for this has been documented by the  Meldreth Local History Group whose website is full of interesting information about the village.

I'd gone in to take some photos of flowers in the churchyard. But lets take a peep inside.

It's easy to think things have always looked this way but lets think for a moment. Constructing a building of this size was a huge undertaking for the villagers. Is it likely that they would leave it standing empty and unloved for all but a couple of hours a week? No, all kinds of activities took place within its walls and many items were stored there.

Every parish had a chest in which documents relating to births, deaths, marriages and other legal papers were kept.

In the tower these large hooks hang on the wall. They originally had long, wooden handles and were used to pull thatch off the roofs of cottages in the event of a fire. The church provided a safe, central  location where they could always be found. Similar ones are to be found in St Bene't's Church in Cambridge which we visited some months ago.

The greatest changes, and the greatest destruction, in our village churches took place in the name of the Reformation. The fragments of 14th century glass of the figure of St John are all that remains after the visit of Wm. Dowsing and friends in 1644. He reported that they had destroyed "60 pictures in the church, a cross on the steple and 2 pictures of Christ". The wall paintings which were a feature of Medieval churches were painted over soon afterwards. Parts of these have been uncovered at Meldreth but it's difficult to make out St Christopher and St Margaret of Antioch who are supposedly depicted.

The rood screen which supported a gallery also perished during this period. The screen which can be seen in the second picture was constructed from what was left. As the picture above shows the roof timbers were also richly painted in the past. How different our churches must have looked in those days.

Were the finials on the choir stalls in the chancel also painted at one time?

The font dates from the 15th century and would once have stood near the door as it does in many other churches, apparently to emphasise its symbolism as an entry into the church.

Music in churches was once provided by village bands consisting of a wide variety of instruments such as clarinets, serpents, bassoons and recorders as well as fiddles and bass viols. To get an impression of the versatility of these musicians one should read Thomas Hardy's "Under The Greenwood Tree". There is mention of the musicians gallery at Meldreth as late as 1845 but, across the country, during the Victorian era, these bands were swept aside in favour of the now ubiquitous organ. 

As I left the building I glanced up into the cobwebby roof of the porch. There, neglected and forgotten, alongside a swallow's nest, was an ornately carved wooden roof boss. What comings and goings must it have witnessed over the years?

Take care.


  1. Thank you, John, for the tour and the history lesson. It really is a shame what the Reformation iconoclasts did to churches and church art. But to have what remains is still a gift of beauty and continuity. Jim

  2. Playing a "serpent?" Sorry; I'm just not at all familiar with that instrument. Rather than bother you, maybe I should just look at Wikipedia, though, John.

  3. It's terrible what the Reformation did to beautiful story-telling items in the churches. Martin Luther never meant for any of this but the townspeople just went nuts!!!!

  4. A lovely photo essay--I, too, not a churchgoer, but find so much to ponder in old churches. We visit all we find on our travels.

    Paintings and color on the walls--exciting to think about--I grieve for all the art lost in the reformation, wars and revolution. Reminding myself that nothing lasts forever.

  5. A beautiful perspective your first photo John with the wild flowers in the foreground . Now there's a surprise with the white interior…it's quite uplifting. Gracious chandelier with candles (electric now?) So the chest was a filing cabinet then. Imagine having to de-thatch a roof during a fire! Lovely to see the swallows still can make their home there, and get away with it. Especially at the porch/entrance I might imagine they create quite a mess. Take care back :)

  6. Fascinating look at this beautiful church and surroundings. Always lovely to see spring flowers in a church yard :)

  7. Beautiful pictures, John. I love the stories that go into each picture. So much history inside these old churches.

  8. It's interesting that the church was more than just a religious institution way back when. I can understand why church architecture and history could be interesting even to a non-churchgoer. :)

  9. Hi John, so sorry to have missed commenting on so many of your very enjoyable posts. I am struggling to keep up! I read them all last night but it got too late to comment....and now I'm even later tonight!

    Anyway you have had some lovely outings and taken some lovely Springtime photos too. All the Spring flowers look so pretty, I haven't seen any Kingcups or Cowslips yet this year.

    Sorry to read you were unwell, I do think you should mention it to the doctor, you can't be too careful! So nice that people helped you, that sort of thing restores your faith in human nature!

    I'm dying to know whether you won any money on Blackthorn Winter :-)

  10. Beautiful images as usual, I find your church posts fascinating to see how the faithful worshiped before me.

  11. I know where you're coming from here - I often wonder if people will mistake my religious tendancies by the frequent appearances of churches and stained glass in my blogs (It might be even worse if they could see my personal stash of photos - only a small percentage of the church pictures are making it to the net). They are though a very important stash of historical and architectural information and often the only real point of contact with parts of the past.

  12. Old churches are fascinating to me, like this one, but I don't attend church normally. One can appreciate the beauty of God without the dogmas of the church.

  13. Hello John, I just stumbled across your blog, and I'm so glad that I did. Your photos are charming and the captions are so informative. Thank You. I probably will never make a trip to the UK, but I dream of your beautiful countryside. It's a mixture of knowing that my roots are from there and of falling in love with the wonderful stories written by James Herriot. I'm looking forward to following your blog journal and seeing all your sensational photography.
    Your newest blogger, Connie :)

  14. Well, John, you have come up with another thoroughly mesmerizing post about England and a bit of its history. I was so interested in reading the text that I almost forgot to look at the pictures! Your first one, with the flowers in the foreground and the country church in the background, is a real beauty.

    Hope you are on the mend.

  15. Each time I'm in the UK, I get fascinated by all the magnificent old churches you have. Even the tiniest village seems to have at least a minor cathedral. I hope they have been able to take proper care of them, since you form an important part of your cultural heritage.

  16. England is full of pretty country churches and this must be very typical. So much history and not many people know about it. Even wandering inside, many folks would just take a quick look and pass on. I love the way you explain the background and make us pause and look. There's probably equally as much to find in the churchyard by the looks of it - history in wild flowers!

  17. Makes me wish the bird could tell us what its seen : ) Love the photos!

  18. Thank you for all your interest. To answer a few questions:
    The serpent - a primitive wind instrument sounding somewhat like the bassoon, but looking like, well, a serpent. Wikipedia will explain all and Ive even seen clips on YouTube.
    Wall paintings - this used to be the norm and were probably a "teaching aid" when many of the congregation could not read.
    Chandelier - no, it still uses candles though there is electric in the church too.
    Blackthorn Winter - yes, I should have put a bit more money on it!
    James Herriot(!) - Welcome, Connie, I'll try to look out for some photos of the back end of cows!


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).