Larkin: Church Going

Philip Larkin’s famous poem certainly provokes thought about the purpose of this blog. How long will parish churches survive? What do we look for when we go inside? Why do they attract tourists still? Why are all people silent and reverential inside, even if the building is empty? Larkin poses the problems and threats, but perhaps ends optimistically.

Dennington, Suffolk

Dennington, Suffolk

 

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on

I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

Another church: matting, seats, and stone,

And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut

For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff

Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;

And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,

Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off

My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

 

Move forward, run my hand around the font.

From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –

Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.

Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few

Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce

‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.

The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door

I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,

Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

 

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,

And always end much at a loss like this,

Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,

When churches will fall completely out of use

What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep

A few cathedrals chronically on show,

Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,

And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.

Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

 

Or, after dark, will dubious women come

To make their children touch a particular stone;

Pick simples for a cancer; or on some

Advised night see walking a dead one?

Power of some sort will go on

In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;

But superstition, like belief, must die,

And what remains when disbelief has gone?

Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

 

A shape less recognisable each week,

A purpose more obscure. I wonder who

Will be the last, the very last, to seek

This place for what it was; one of the crew

That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?

Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,

Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff

Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?

Or will he be my representative,

 

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt

Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground

Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt

So long and equably what since is found

Only in separation – marriage, and birth,

And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built

This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea

What this accoutred frosty barn is worth,

It pleases me to stand in silence here;

 

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

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.