Stoke by Nayland

Tree of Jesse Door


This church is amazing, and is the community hub of the town. There’s a weekend of concerts there THIS weekend. Children from local primary schools, amateurs and young professionals. Everyone enters the church via that Tree of Jesse door. I love Suffolk’s churches. And they are used in an imaginative way and ensures their survival. 

Tewksbury, Crickley Hill, Churchdown

Whilst teaching on the Junior Choral Course, we’ve been able to leave campus in the early morning to take in some of the stunning local scenery and architecture. Wednesday to Tewksbury Abbey, and this morning to sunrise at Crickley Hill, where we read poetry of Gurney and then journeyed down through the valley to Churchdown. The church of St. Bartholomew rises above the valley floor and affords a spectacular view from the East end back to Crickley. Here are some photos. 

The View from Churchdown

Sunrise at Crickley

Lady Chapel at Tewksbury

Tewksbury Nave

Two Years

After two years of study at Trinity, I’ve now finished and got the results. Two years of:

Nerves, self-doubt, exhilaration, comradery, joy, fear, lessons, coaching, cycling, teaching, tears, laughter. 2 lessons a week, coachings, language classes, dietary situations, gardening, 6 operas, 20 miles cycling a day, tours, Shanghai, USA, Switzerland, learning lyrics, recording, conducting. Singing with amazing pianists from all over the EU- Portugal, Italy, Holland, Germany, Austria, France, UK. 

I’ve moved house and married the most wonderful woman I’ve ever met. Become an uncle. 

Thank you to Sophie Grimmer and Helen Yorke, Rianka, Edgar, Francesca, Ashley and everyone at Trinity for two amazing years. Here’s to more amazing music in the years to come. 

King Charles Court

Tetbury: St. Mary the Virgin

The Annunciation as you enter the west doors

New internal west door, recently blessed by the Bishop

Semi-cloister

Planting by the East window

Wild Flowers in the churchyard

The local bookshop


Tetbury is a lovely village. The church is everything a village church should be: a community hub and, visably, remains the active spiritual centre of the village. There is a very active and loving community of volunteers, a heritage exhibition of the town back to its founding in the 7th century, and a choir. The church also sponsors a choral scholar and an organ scholar. 

The church was rebuilt in the 18th century, early neo-gothic. Impressive array of box pews, if that’s your thing. New art by the west door, a new door. Quite arresting as you enter, for either good or bad reasons. It’s an inspiring community with a strong sense of mission. The fact that the nearby bookshop plays Bach on the stereo and lets you sit and browse for as long as you want is a definite bonus. 

The churchyard is a haven of wildlife. It’s partly carefully maintained, with straight edges and careful, often interesting planting. Around the north side, nature is set free and wild flowers and garlic is in abundance. It is a place where families spend the afternoon on a May bank holiday; it is blissful. 

Should the Rural Church Last?

The eccentric interior of Hampnett Parish Church, near Northleach.

The eccentric interior of Hampnett Parish Church, near Northleach.

The door creaks open (if the dam thing is unlocked, or you have to wade through the puddles to the key-holder’s cottage) and you descend into the damp, unlit gloom. I love that feeling. Your mind is racing, but so it your body: hit by the chill, nostrils inhaling the moisture, eyes peering through the gloom, you reach for the information board on the side-table to work out why this font or that rood is so special. Well, it looks OK I suppose. Or is there a spirit in one of the pews?

John Spence has recently warned us that regular worship in England’s 10,000 rural churches could soon be a thing of the past. One cannot but help agreeing with him. When out of London either walking or cycling, I visit around three to five of these churches each time. Some, in posh areas of the Cotswolds, say, are plush. They might even have under-floor heating. Others are more what you’d expect: musty, cracked, damp. Last paid the parish share in 2012, by the look of softening A4 on the notice-board in the porch. Should they linger? They need money to do so, and where will it come from?

Why were these churches build in the first place? Can we imagine the time? We have Norman churches, ambitious and sometimes ridiculous but well-meant aristocratic extensions, Victorian grandeur. Was any of this building questioned? Were there protests at the building of the great cathedrals? Quite the reverse; the labourers who died building them did so believing that they were dying for something out of this world.

We don’t believe now, really, in England, do we. That’s not meant pessimistically at all. The inquisitive mind is always seeking something, and is now readily distracted whenever a dangerous searching moment arrives. Hey, some people are prescribed drugs to prevent such feelings, thanks Huxley. Did people believe when these churches were built? Did the average farm hand question his existence when the church was going up in 1242? There must have been a hell of a lot of time for reflection, then. You don’t need words to reflect, it just happens: some people write it down now and blog it, thanks Apple.

I imagine with no difficulty the modest outcry from the village population in the Lincolnshire Wolds, say, when the church closes, and picture it petering out like when the pub closed. What would we do at Christmas? Watch Downton in the morning, too? There might have been a similar reaction when they put the thing up.

I don’t know why I visit these churches. I have a magnetic attraction to them. I stare at the gravestone of Mr. Whatever and ‘Judith’, wife of the above, with no obvious reason or outcome that could be measured in a productivity survey. I may sit in one for an hour, or get bored and leave after two minutes. I don’t know anything about the architecture, even if I read about it. It’s not important to me, like I don’t particularly care if a chord in a Wagner opera is a German 6th or an Italian 6th. I love these places as they create room for meditation. A place for a spiritual connection that is needed by all of us, if we cared listening to our bodies once in a while. And how lucky that they are there and free to go in!

So will it be a bad thing if, in ten or twenty years time, country churches have a different place in the English consciousness? Not as an elaborate and expensive and impractical location for a screeching Christingle service, not as a cold and embarrassing delay to Christmas lunch, as dad awkwardly navigates through that high section of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, with Agnes’ 4-foot flute tweeting out of the haze to the west? What if they were welcomed as a sacred space (with an even smaller ‘s’), encouraged for use, for music, for dance, for quiet, for noise, for parties, for feasting, for silence and solitude? Why not? Look at the heartwarming work of the Churches’ Conservation Trust’, or even at Anna Walker’s idea of ‘Festival Churches’.

Seeing a church hijacked by Winkworth for ‘development’ (carving up and installation of endless, solar-powered atmospheric blue lights), as has happened recently near Clapham Junction station, makes for a sorry sight and an ever-more dull existence of going on Netflix. You can do that at home, can’t you!

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Interior of St. Mary Magdelene, Sherborne. Visited 15th February 2015

St. Margaret of Antioch, Margaretting

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.

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Stinsford Parish Church

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DSCF0977 Stinsford Ceiling

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!

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St. Margaret’s from the south

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).

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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.

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Scout Leader, Organist and Choirmaster (with my father’s reflection…)

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The south porch

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!

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Weak winter light streams in through the windows

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The crib

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Festive flowers

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View from the tranquil churchyard