Saturday 26 October 2013

Bury St Edmunds - A Tale Of Two Churches

Lets start with what we know about St Edmund. Virtually nothing. There are no contemporary accounts of his life. Everything we know about him was made up years after his death. 

He was born, it's said, in about 841 AD, the son of King Aethelweard, about whom we know even less. At the age of 14 Edmund succeeded his father as King of East Anglia. In 869 AD Britain was invaded by the Great Heathen Army of the Danes. Edmund refused to renounce Christianity and was put to death on the orders of one Ivar the Boneless. 

What you really want to know now - what I really want to know too - is how Ivar got his nickname. He was known to have been a berserker, a group of warriors who got themselves into a trance with the aid of hallucinogens, before they went into battle. But no one knows for sure why he was described as "boneless", though you can be sure that there's been plenty of speculation!

Just to make sure that Edmund learned his lesson he was beaten, shot full of arrows and then beheaded. The head was thrown into the forest but his followers found the head with help from a wolf that could talk. Not only that but it spoke Latin! "Hic, hic, hic!" it cried. ("Here, here, here!")

Despite his unhappy end and unlikely story he became a cult figure after his death and pilgrimages were made to his visit his shrine. By the tenth century a household of Benedictine monks had been founded and a church built on the site by King Canute, no less. By the medieval period St Edmund was widely regarded as being the patron saint of England. The abbey, as it now was, became the most important, and the richest, pilgrimage site in the country. A huge abbey church was built. A model shows how grand it was... 

....but gives no idea of its size. The county's largest parish church, the huge wool church at Lavenham (which you can see here), would have fitted in four times over with room to spare. Now little remains.

By the time Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539 the monks owned much of Suffolk and had become very wealthy indeed. But, during the two hundred years before that, the monks had become corrupt and extremely unpopular. Monks were killed and buildings were damaged  in riots by the townspeople. In 1327 the Abbey Gate was destroyed and had to be rebuilt.

The Abbey Gate led into a huge courtyard surrounded by grand buildings. Today it survives as Abbey Gardens, a well-maintained public space.

You can wander among the flowers or explore the ruins at your leisure, and all without charge. 

These huge rubble cores are impressive, though nearly all the best building stone has been plundered for later building work. Just tantalising glimpses remain to give some idea of its former grandeur. If you look high up on that tower of rubble you'll see a small remnant of finished stone giving the suggestion of the base of an arch. No need to strain your eyes; I'll help you out...

But behind the ruin you can't help but notice a soaring church tower...

But that church tower is not all it seems as we shall discover. There's been a church on the site since at least 1065 - but not this one. It was started in 1503 but much altered in the Victorian era.

There's a rather elaborate font designed by George Gilbert Scott in 1870, though the cover and the decoration was added later.

In 1914 the church became a cathedral for the new diocese of Ipswich and St Edmundsbury. (Don't ask me why Bury St Edmunds suddenly becomes St Edmundsbury.)  It was decided that cathedral status demanded more building; transepts, a tower, that sort of thing. From 1943 to 1988 Simon Dykes Bower was the architect. He was a controversial figure in that he championed the Gothic revival, which had become deeply unfashionable since its heyday in the Victorian era. However it allowed continuity of style with earlier work.

But the tower, yes the one we saw earlier from the ruins, was not built until this century (between 2000 and 2005. There's some wonderful decorating - painting and gold leaf - which, being brand spanking new, is rather bright and colourful. 

The organ's a bit special too...

So we CAN still build these things! All it takes is time and money.

I'm going to have a cup of tea and a piece of cake in the Cathedral refectory (which won't take much money at all), then I'm going outside to take another look at that tower.

Take care.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Window Wonderland

Being away from blogging for a year hasn't changed the old boy. He still can't resist pointing his camera at other people's windows. So here's a little selection that mainly concentrates on reflections. Some taken in the city and some in the countryside.

Take care.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Wool, Wizards, Nursery Rhymes and Narcotics.

Not to mention wood-carvers, antique dealers. pargetters, romantic roses
 and weathered wood. All encountered on a stroll around Lavenham.

The door of the Guildhall,
Note the elaborate carving of the wood all around the door.
There's a Museum inside dedicated to preserving Lavenham's history.

The most photographed lady in Lavenham.
Spinning has always intrigued me.
"Practice is all it takes," she assured me,
"my first effort produced yarn thick enough to haul The Queen Mary!" 

Upstairs a loom showing the range of colours available.

There were many items displayed recording the history
of the towns buildings and its people.
But wool was what made the town special.

From the upstairs room of the Guildhall
you could look out on to the Market Square.

If it looks a bit spooky maybe it's because it was the scene of
a Vincent Price film, "The Witchfinder General".
More recently that scallywag Harry Potter showed up
to film in 2010.
Also the last episode of the TV series "Lovejoy"
was filmed here. The title?
"Last Tango In Lavenham"

All these crooked buildings have led to speculation that the rhyme 
about the crooked man who lived in a crooked house has
its origins here. No real evidence for that.

However the lady who wrote "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" did live in Lavenham.
Her name was Jane Taylor and she lived in Shilling Street
during the nineteenth century.
A star is also featured strongly in the arms of the de Vere family, 
who left their mark all over the place in Lavenham,
particularly on the church.

 The decorative plaster-work on the walls in the two pictures above
is called "pargetting" and is often seen in this area especially in the nearby town of Clare.
We may well go there one day.
So if you know someone with the name Pargetter you now know 
what their ancestors got up to.

Marvellous textures in the weathered wood
 on the side of some of the buildings.

I don't see why I shouldn't show you some roses
Don't they look good against the painted plaster?

And some folks could spend a lot of time looking for bargains
in this shop.
Room after room stretched back from the narrow shopfront,
all full of antiques and curios.

See what I mean?

Meanwhile back out on the street here's The Swan Hotel.
Much loved by the ladies of The Women's Institute and 
the kind of place where you could safely take your granny.
Now in my first post about Lavenham I made a throwaway comment
wondering whether the wealth of the town was based on narcotics.
I thought I was being silly.
But believe it or not the notorious marijuana smuggler,
Howard Marks - alias Mr Nice - was 
arrested in The Swan.

Take care.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Lavenham - A Church Built From Wool

Lavenham church sits on a low hill overlooking the town. But even so it's not easy to spot from down in the town as you lose your bearings amid a sea of half-timbered walls. However I thought I remembered which way to go and stumbled hopefully onwards until I rounded a corner and.....

Once the wealthy wool merchants of Lavenham had built themselves the fine houses we looked at in my last post they turned their attention to other matters. Medieval Christians strongly believed that when they died they would spend time in purgatory atoning for their earthly sins before they would be allowed into heaven. However this period could be shortened by doing good deeds. That was the reasoning behind the religious guilds which helped others in their time of need. It also inspired a great wave of church building wherever their was money to spare.

The building, or rather re-building, began in 1486 and was finished by 1525. By the time they'd done there was little left to see of the earlier building which was consumed by the grandiose reconstruction. It's really too big for the size of the town and its tower, at 141 feet (43 metres) is the highest of any village church in England. It could almost be a cathedral. Similar huge churches are to be seen throughout this area, all built with proceeds from the wool trade and called "wool churches". The importance of wool is remembered in the church kneelers..

In contrast to Lavenham itself which, as you've seen in my last post, is full of variety, eccentricity and downright quirkiness, the church's architecture is all elegance, balance and perfection. As such it stands rather cool and aloof above the bustle and energy of the the town which gave birth to it. But as a monument to the late Perpendicular style it is without equal.

The tower was probably the work of master mason John Clerk while the rest of the church was designed and built by John Wastell who also was responsible for Great St Mary's in Cambridge and St Mary's in Saffron Walden which bear many similarities. 

Virtually all of the memorial brasses have been removed from the church, not by Reformation zeal but rather by the greed of eighteenth-century metal thieves - there's nothing new in this world! The tiny brass above has been spared either through lack of value or perhaps due to a soft-hearted felon. Why do I say this? Because it commemorates the brief life of Clopton, (the son of Sir Symonds D'Ewes), who departed this life in 1631 at the age of just 10 days. If you look closely you'll see that the brass depicts the baby in swaddling clothes. There is also a fine carved screen, a memorial to the builders of the church.

The east window has a fine stained-glass depiction of the crucifixion. Flanking Christ are The Virgin Mary and St John, and on either side of them are St Peter and St Paul after whom the church is named. St Peter (left) carrying a key and St Paul a sword.

There are also THREE royal coats of arms. All Church of England churches are supposed to have one - the reigning monarch being nominally the head of the church - but three is exceptional.

A story is sometimes told that John de Vere, the lord of the manor, was a supporter of Henry, Earl of Richmond, in his dispute with Richard III. After Richard's defeat, at the Battle of Bosworth, de Vere suggested to the townspeople  that they might like to rebuild the church in celebration. "Jolly good idea!" they all said and so the present church was built. All sounds a bit far-fetched to me.

Whatever the motives of those who rebuilt the church - and they certainly weren't shy about it; their coats of arms are all over the place - the result is a pure and unspoiled example of the architecture of its day.  The flowers and produce displayed in readiness for Harvest Festival adding a welcome splash of colour. 

Now I'm off to have another look around the village/town and maybe I'll pop into the Guildhall and see what happens in there these days.

Take care.