Go to Rochester

It’s not actually that far away. I made sure that the wind was behind me and flew there in two hours. I even tracked myself: https://www.strava.com/activities/1117071900

On the way – industry old and new, historic roads, Dartford Parish Church, cobbles and awkward one-way streets, Dickens’ country pad Gad’s Hill (where he died), his old parish church in Chalk. Followed by Rochester Cathedral, Castle and Chatham Docks. What’s not to like?

 

 

Clockwise from right: Chalk church nave, Rochester Castle, the Catalpa Tree outside Rochester Cathedral, the West front of Rochester Cathedral, Chalk church tower (which can be seen from miles away!)

Driving to Birmingham 

The wheeze to Birmingham from London up the M1 can be more interesting than it first appears on google maps. First a stop at Coventry Cathedral. Moving for obvious reasons, I cannot help but feel staggered by the enormous Sutherland tapestry, moved to disbelief by the Cross of Nails, stunned to silence in the Chapel of Unity. It’s invigorating, frustrating, challenging, inspiring. The cheesy American Diner Café thing underneath is also bearable. 

Sutherland Tapestry from the Choir Stalls

View from the Nave of St. Michael


Twenty minutes up the road, through all sorts of industrial estates, and you stumble upon the enchanting and mystical village of Berkswell. According to legend, it was founded when the Saxon leader Bercul was baptised here in the 8th Century. The well, in which he was dunked, remained a source of fresh water until the late 1930’s. 

The view as you approach St. John’s Church from the east is quaint and nostalgic. A Norman chancel to the right, timber school room above the porch, and Dutch gable to the left of the Well House. 


The interior, albeit dark, is reminiscent of an Oxford Movement interior, without the gold leaf and lace. The Nave rises up three blocks of steps up to the Norman arch, into the intricately chiselled and carved chancel. I was the only visitor, and didn’t turn on the lights. The lack of any 21st century additions (yellow floor tape, plastic signage) enabled a true aura of mytique. 


Visitors seem truly welcome here. You don’t feel part of a tourist trail; every part of the church is open without supervision or even CCTV (so far as I could see). This level of trust in visitors left me feeling truly grateful to the church community who tend to this magnificent building. The famous crypt beneath is open, without entry fee. Whether the burial place of St. Mildred or not, the rib vaulting in the octagonal chamber is stupefying in it’s beauty. It is a place of true tranquility. 


I absolutely love this church and am so happy to have been able to visit it at last. And whatever you think of the extension outside, the journey from Norman architecture to the 21st century left me feeling truly optimistic about this community of worshippers. 

Life & Death, Old & New

St. Peter and St. Paul, Kedington

I had the time before a concert on Friday to pop into this sublime building. It is quite simply breathtaking. The Victorians have had their inevitable say in the renovation in the 19th century, but the whole atmosphere and feel of the interior remains remarkably unspoilt. The first part of the church to capture my attention is the children’s school pews at the back, complete with peg hooks. It is like nothing I have seen before in a church, and reminds one that churches always were hubs of community, not merely a ceremonial building used for Sunday Mass. A Minstrel’s Gallery lies between these two sets of pews, that were designed to segregate children by gender. The Master’s seat looks ominously on. One doubts that the lessons were that dynamic.

 

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Children’s School Pews

The church is lit by some bizarre skylights that would be at home in a barn. These are a product of the 19th century but are effective and not too clumsy. They’ve also been beautifully restored. The whole interior, in fact, is tasteful and has not been tampered with or spoilt, as have some famous churches in Suffolk (Framlingham comes to mind). The Barnardiston pew and tombs are untouched, and remind one of Dennington nearer the coast. It is gloriously cluttered. The font lurks awkwardly near a pillar on the north side. Betjeman may have called this a ‘village Westminster Abbey’; it comes with the added delight of a complete lack of insensitive tourists, no entry fee and a feeling of proximity to the past that the Abbey cannot achieve nowadays. It is a well-worn space, and is approachable because of that.

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Font, Nave, Skylights

The village is also delightful. The church seems a hub of the place still. It lies near a brook with a charming meadow path near an old watermill. Pub, shop, new building lie next to 18th century cottages. Beautiful but not affected. This one is a must-see.

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The approach to the Nave. This church is OPEN! Hurrah! 

Reflection 2015

End of year, time for reflection. A year of rehearsals, running, concerts, brompton, tube, lessons, reflections, reading, chaos, learning, mountains, operas. An engagement, planning, excitement. Stress, breakthroughs, new birth. Year goes quickly, starts Norfolk ends Northumberland. One more Dickens to read. 2016 is marriage, new starts, ending and beginning new. I can’t wait.

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Tickencote, St. Peter’s

What remains constant: our museum of weathered stone spread throughout the land. Damp, decaying. Corrugated iron parish halls, donation boxes emptied daily, visitors’ books with joke biros, faded informative wall displays, the past and future.

 

Summed up for me today in one of the last church crawls of 2015. Drive up M11 A1, Beatles music, Today programme, exit and roll downhill. Symmetrical building well-pointed, smooth, sand coloured. Looks 18th century. Chaos of A1 pressing through our ears, church stands stoical, disinterested in 4×4 aggression. Round from south to north, open bird-door like a fruit-cage, scape it along the stone. Even with prior knowledge, nothing can prepare for the breath-taking sensation if seeing that arch up-close. Preserved through the centuries, heart-breaking and warming. A feast for the imagination. Tickencote; don’t drive up the A1 without stopping there one time.

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Norman Chancel Arch at Tickencote

 

Further up the A1, north of Newark and Lincoln, trip down memory lane to Clumber Park. Warm breeze, hundreds of people with mud. In 2010-11 I volunteered in the kitchen garden digging some things. Garden closed today, tearoom open. The chapel is something else. 1880’s unfettered Anglo-Catholicism. Sandstone and spire, a testament to a rejuvenated spirituality of a time of rapid change. The house is gone, tourists and geese reign here. Not in the chapel, however. What peace and what grandeur. 2015 can end with respectful hush.

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Clumber’s Chancel and High Altar seen through the rood screen.

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Interior of Bag Enderby, St. Margaret’s. Visited 13th December, Lincolnshire Wolds. One of my favourites for its stillness and simplicity. Font also well worth a look.

St. Laurence, Morland

The church of St. Laurence in Morland is remarkable in two ways: firstly, the building is if profound historical interest and secondly, the group of people connected with the church are without doubt as impressive as the building itself.

 

Morland Church from the South-West

Morland Church from the South-West

The stumpy tower that seems to be sinking into the grassy banks of the churchyard was build before the Norman conquest of 1066. There is no trace of an original building that may have been attached to the tower; the present building dates from the following century.

Morland Church from the North-East

Morland Church from the North-East

The nave, chancel and the transepts have not escaped Victorian interference; the redecoration was, however, made with taste and without an abundance of stained glass, leaving the church, whilst it is firmly enveloped by the grassy banks to the south, with a light and airy feel. The J.J. Binns organ from the 1920’s still functions, so I am told, as it did when it was built, and it has required little maintenance.

 

Topiary in the Churchyard

Topiary in the Churchyard

Enough of the building: it is only there, after all, to serve its congregation; and what a congregation has worshipped there over the years! I first entered the church at the age of 11 for the opening service of the 29th Morland Choristers’ Camp. The camp was founded in 1971 by the then Vicar of Morland, Canon Gervase Markham, as he was determined at the time to keep younger children, especially boys, interested in their church choir. Canon Markham sadly passed away in 2007 at the age of 97, but the camp still takes place every summer, attracting a very loyal following of around 100 children each year.

 

In 1999, my first camp, I was seated nervously in the church with one sole friend and dozens of strangers, when the opening sentence of my first said BCP service boomed out from the chancel: ‘O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: let the whole earth stand in awe of him.’ (Psalm 96, vs. 9) Rain pouring down without, utter silence within, I was spellbound. Over the next years, I got to know the community of Morland church through the choristers’ camp, and visited the church with many fond memories as recently as last week, when I went to co-direct the ‘Taste of Morland’ weekend, a pre-camp singing weekend for KS2 children.

 

Canon Gervase Markham

Canon Gervase Markham

Back to the Canon: a brief summary of his life here would never do him justice. Articles such as this, from 2006, will do him much more than I ever could: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hometruths/gervasemarkham.shtml. A man of endless energy and enthusiasm, after his ‘retirement’ from parish ministry, he proceeded to read as many books as possible in the original language, build dry-stone walls in Morland house (he was part of a long line of Markhams, four of which were Sheriffs of Nottingham), further develop the choristers’ camp, alongside a life as a visiting preacher and canon of Carlisle Cathedral and always replying to his correspondence with a fountain pen and ink. This, after an active life as a parish priest and serving as an army chaplain during WWII. Quite an act to follow!

 

David Jones equipped with Hamster Cage during his sermon

David Jones equipped with Hamster Cage during his sermon

Remarkably, he has been followed by some most distinguished individuals: The current vicar, the Revd. Stuart Fyfe is a man of huge energy and a passionate member of the community (and a fine tenor) and the choirmaster, David Jones, is an exceptional being: he runs his own empire a mile to the south of Morland in Newby, where he runs a campsite and has a converted barn, from which he organises numerous events listed here: http://www.newbyendfarm.co.uk/activities.html. It is certainly not usual for an old farmhouse to host an arts festival, a Scottish dancing weekend, a week of folk dancing, two singing events and to be equipped with a two manual pipe organ, two harpsichords and two grand pianos.

Morland Beck, by Newby End Farm

Morland Beck, by Newby End Farm

I am utterly in awe of this parish, and long may it continue to flourish.

Morland beck from within the grounds of Morland House http://www.morlandhouse.net

Morland beck from within the grounds of Morland House
http://www.morlandhouse.net

St. Mary’s, Warwick

St Mary’s Church is in the centre of Warwick and, like Warwick itself, oozes history from its walls. It is easily reachable in a few hours from London by train from the delightfully antiquated Marylebone Station. If you’re coming by bike, Warwick is on National Cycle Route 41, and a ride from Stratford-upon-Avon is very possible indeed. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be an option of making the trip up the Avon by boat, although the Avon can be packed with many Shakespeare pilgrims in the summer.  A short walk from the station up the hill towards the castle and though a medieval stone arch will get you to the main street, and St. Mary’s lies off a side street, reachable by a few hospitable ale houses that lie temptingly along the route thereto.

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The ensemble Stile Antico in rehearsal in the nave

The church has a rich cultural and music history that is immediately apparent when one enters the building. The nave is commodious and narrows for the quire and the chancel. The difference between nave and chancel is marked, as the nave and tower were destroyed in the Great Fire of Warwick in 1694 and rebuild shortly afterwards. Modern oak choir stalls have been permanently erected in between quire and nave, which is undesirable although perhaps understandable. A glance north from this central position will afford the viewer a glimpse into the Chapel of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, a regiment that was evacuated from Dunkirk and were among the first to land in Normandy on D-Day, 1944, alongside many other conflicts.

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The Chapel of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment

The principal historic interest of the building lies, however, on the northeast side of the building.  Directly before the high altar lie the remains of Thomas de Beauchamp, brother to Queen Catherine Parr, and is was his ancestor, Roger, who founded the church in the early 12th century. The only surviving section of the church from that era is the crypt, and I did not lamentably have the time to visit it whilst in the church. To the East lies, however, the impressive and surprising Beaumont Chapel, currently closed for restoration due to structural complications. A view of the interior can nevertheless be obtained by peering through an opening of the adjacent ‘Dean’s Chapel’, itself a remarkable and tranquil space with a beautiful stained-glass window depicting Mary Magdalene encountering Christ in the garden after his Resurrection.  The Beaumont chapel contains tombs of the family, alongside an ornate wall mural.

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The window of the Dean’s Chapel, installed in 2001

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The Beauchamp Chapel, as viewed from the Dean’s Chapel

The choir is directed by the organist Thomas Corns, a polished and talented organist and a former organ scholar of Jesus College, Cambridge, and of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The church boasts a choir of boys and men, and a separate girls’ choir; both are reviewed very positively on their recent recording, ‘Music for our Lady’. A glimpse of the music list was encouraging due to its ambition and variety and a visit to this church for a service and its surroundings is certainly highly recommended.    

St. Peter and St. Paul, Yalding

I visited the village of Yalding on the 22nd March to sing in a concert. It was a delightful spring day and the walk from the road to the north door of the church, though short, was spellbinding. Worn-out cobbles formed the path walled in by a high bank, in which is lodged the entrance to a family tomb.

Family tomb approaching the North door

Family tomb approaching the North door

The church itself dates from the 13th-15th centuries, is a grade I listed and is very much alive today. The interior feels dominated by pillars that divide the nave into a central, north and south aisle, although one can still peer through the gloom to the high altar in the chancel at the east end. An area in the northwest corner of the church, in between two pillars in the North Aisle, was concerted in 2003 into a choir room, toilet zone and kitchen/bar, and has been done with great taste. During my concert there is was a pleasure to see the church alive with people young and old, the bar being a very welcome feature for some, for whom the choral music was perhaps a little mesmerising.

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A singer from the Fieri Consort during rehearsal

 

A walk around the church afforded much pleasure. Spring was starting to show itself in between the grade II listed tombs, and the blossom on the two magnolia trees, whilst not an extraordinary sight in mid-March, provided a delightful contrast with the grey headstones and flourishing greenery. The prospect from the south side of the churchyard over the River Beult was truly a sight to behold, thankfully now flowing normally after the terrible floods that blighted the residents of Yalding over the recent festive season.

 

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Magnolia bloom in the churchyard

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Panorama of the southern prospect

Yalding is a delightful village with two pubs, Indian restaurant, library and post office, and I encountered many hikers exploring the Medway valley during my time there. The community was as friendly as one could ever wish and the view of such history, greenery and a blue sky brushed my the tops of many Kentish oast houses bade for a delightful afternoon and evening.

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