When I'm out for a walk I find it difficult to pass by a country church without having a look inside. More than any other places they preserve our ancient past. Elsewhere whole buildings get destroyed and rebuilt, but there is a great reluctance to change anything to do with churches so layer upon layer of history is allowed to accumulate here. A lot of photographs accumulate on my hard-drive too, so here are just a few of them from various churches I've peeped into.
High up in the chancel of St Mary's church in Guilden Morden I spied this fine angel, which may be medieval but is more likely a more modern replacement as the medieval ones don't usually look very much like our modern idea of angels. It's a fine piece of carving whenever it was done.
The Cambridgeshire fenlands are dotted with little churches that are superficially like this one at Chettisham. They were just big enough to serve the sparse population and rarely have towers or stone spires. Most of them date from the nineteenth century, but not this one! The clue is in the very narrow windows that let very little light in, these indicate a much earlier date.
Go into any church in England and you'll almost certainly find some sort of organ. It may be like this one at Pirton, or they can be huge monsters with multiple keyboards or tiny harmoniums. And you might find them in any part of the church - in the chancel, at either end of the nave or filling a side chapel. For, even though they seem so much part of the church, they are a Victorian innovation and had to be fitted in whatever space was available. Before that music was provided by a band of musicians sitting in a gallery at the west end of the church. Occasionally the gallery still exists, but the days of singing along to fiddles, cellos, serpents and other curious instruments have gone forever.
(It's actually a lot more complicated than I thought. See the comment from Billy Blue Eyes below).
"In memory of Polly and Cornelius Smith, the beloved parents of Gipsy Smith". Rodney "Gipsy" Smith was born in a "bender" (a tent) in a Romani encampment in Epping Forest in 1860. While he was still a child, his mother Polly died of smallpox near the village of Norton in Hertfordshire and was buried in the churchyard. Her husband Cornelius became a practising Christian after listening to a prison chaplain on one of his many spells in jail. At the age of 16 Rodney also converted and spent his life being an evangelist in both Britain and the USA. Presumably he paid for this gravestone to his parents. Gipsy Smith's ashes were scattered at his birthplace in Epping Forest where there is a memorial stone.
In Wiggenhall St Mary stands this old collection box adorned with graffiti dating from 1779 and 1796.
Woodcarving of a somewhat more artistic order was on display in Cockayne Hatley church which we visited a couple of years ago. Henry Cockayne Cust became the vicar there in 1806 and decided to renovate the building. I think it's safe to say he got a bit carried away with the project and bought so much carved wood that he could scarcely fit it all in!
This more modern piece of art was in St Margaret's, Kings Lynn. A steel globe is suspended on thin wires and bears little holders where you can light a candle for world peace.
Up in the gaudily painted rafters of St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds is a carved wooden angel that gives some idea of what our churches may have looked like in the Middle Ages. It is, of course, fairly recent, carried out by the architect Stephen Dykes Bower who was determined to continue the Gothic Revival into the twentieth century despite a good deal of criticism from his contemporaries.
This unusual building is a church too, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the town of Knebworth in Hertfordshire. He was married to Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton whose father owned nearby Knebworth House and was a former viceroy of India. Sir Edwin also designed much of New Delhi. Sometimes it not what you know but...…..
The above tranquil scene is in the village of Magdalen. The brick enclosure in the foreground is really nothing to do with the church at all, but nonetheless shows how central the church was to everything that went on in English villages. It's actually a cattle pound where stray animals would be kept ("impounded") till their owners paid a small fee to retrieve them. Often things which have little to do with religion are preserved simply because they are connected in people's minds with the church.
If you were wealthy in medieval times you might be buried in a stone coffin and they often come to light when building work has to be done around churchyards. It puzzles me how such a heavy casket could be manhandled into position and lowered into the grave. This one was standing outside Crowland Abbey.
And sometimes our ancestors motives are simply beyond our imaginations. Carvings like this are usually called grotesques and always seem to be high up on the walls, either inside or outside. They are usually explained as being representations of evil, but this one just looks plain silly!