Although I have visited numerous churches over the past months, other musical activities have imposed restraints on my time, preventing me from writing about and photographing them. One of the highlights of the last six months was my second visit to St. Michael’s Church, Stinsford. This involved a stay at Yalbury Cottage (http://www.yalburycottage.com), one of the best meals that I had all year, and a long circular walk from the cottage westwards along the Frome to the church, and tracking back round towards Puddletown Forest, taking in all of the Thomas Hardy curiosities along the way. It is wonderful that such an author can, through his poetry and novels (which are not depressing!) leave such a positive mark on this magical corner of the country, and it is heart-warming to see the church in such good repair.
Another church, which has withstood the strong easterly winds extremely well, is one in my native Essex. One would think that St. Margaret’s Church, Margaretting, would be largely forgotten. My father and I visited on the morning of Christmas Eve. Like many churches, it was probably built near a (now absent) manor, so stands some way from the village. Moreover, the London to Norwich main line now runs between the church and the village, for which purpose a level crossing has been constructed serving only the church and the former rectory: with trains three minutes at peak time, opportunities to cross the tracks are few and far between!
Before you do so, collect the key from the cottage on the left (1 Margaretting Hall Cottages) before the crossing. The key is a fantastic article in itself. On entering the church, all the sounds of the A12 disappear and you are plunged into stillness and peace (with the occasional rumble of the Norwich Express). Beyond the quire screen, the east wall immediately grabs your attention. Such intricacy of detail is rarely seen, and it is covered in pargetting (as Simon Jenkins says, more common on cottages than in churches): here are the Magi paying homage to Christ (I recently enjoyed this article on the subject).
The wooden ceiling of the quire and the nave on the north and south aisles are beautiful and in incredible condition. The east end is, as is regrettably common in churches associated with former landowners, adorned with plaques to the fallen of the 1st and 2nd World Wars. What is apparent from these, however, is the bustle of the church’s community over the last century. One plaque is dedicated to a former Scout Leader, Organist and Choir Master, and another to a former chorister, killed towards the end of WWII. Inscriptions at the back of church show a run of vicars from 1328 until the present day, and the church is still very much alive. The Christmas Crib is immaculate, the tree ornate, the organ, built under the famous wooden tower, giving the appearance of tuning and care, and wooden development in the south porch showing a love from the community and optimism for the future. I have learnt from subsequent research, that this porch has won a design award from the diocese of Chelmsford.
The winter sun was streaming in through the south-facing windows. I have no doubt that there would be a caring congregation in attendance at the 11.30pm midnight mass.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
(Tennyson, In Memoriam)
Happy Christmas to all!