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Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Windows into England's Past

Been feeling a bit blah, but I'm on the mend, in fact, practically as good as new!  With the blazing weather we've been having, I'm glad not to be cycling all day, and it's been really nice doing absolutely nothing in London.

In the idle moments,  I've been looking through my photos, and see how I keep coming back to pictures of parish churches.  I'm not particularly religious, but for me the fascination of these churches is the startlingly authentic glimpses they can give into life in the past. Yes, The Past, that foreign country when the same sun shone upon the same places, but the world was so very different ....


(Here's the parish church at Aldbourne, Wilts, presiding over a fete on the village green).

Parish churches can easily date back to a thousand years on the same site, and although they've usually been changed drastically over that time, some things do hint at great age. Huge yew trees, for instance, traditionally a sacred plant, are very long lived.   Many modern churches don't think to plant them, but an old church will usually have them, harking back to times of pagan tree worship, and their dark, often-clipped shapes are very characteristic.  Here are the steps leading up to the yews at sunset in Shobdon, Shropshire.



You don't always find a church that tells its history quite as much as that of Covehythe, in Suffolk.  Here, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the local people acquired a bit of old abbey to use as their church. But they couldn't look after it, and built a smaller, humbler church inside the grand abbey ruins.   Can you see it, with its rustic thatched roof, behind those grand ruined windows?     It's an unusual sight, and will one day be covered by the sea, as the coast at Covehythe is being eaten away and the road past the church now ends at a cliff top.




You'll often find bequest and charity boards hidden away in church towers, like these, in Turville, Bucks. which not only details benefactions to the church itself but also to the local poor.

Looking after the poor was an important duty of the church.Here, in Nynehead, Somerset, is the churchyard's "poor table."     Offerings for the poor of the parish, or sometimes poor travellers, would have been laid out here. Poor travellers needed to show a certificate to say they were being sent back to their home parish, which  generally meant they had been "deported" for their own folk to look after them.  How glad some of them must have been to be directed to this stone.


Usually the church is either next to or actually in the grounds of the local "Big House" where the lord of the manor lived, as here, also at Nynehead.


There will usually be imposing monuments to the important families who lived at the Big House.My favourite monuments are usually the highly realistic Elizabethan ones.  I feel I might recognise this man if he bounced through the door - brisk, clever, a bit arrogant but full of life would be my judgment, which is a strange thing to say about someone who's dead. He's hidden away in what looks like the broom cupboard of the church at Pitminster, by the way - and I do wonder why!


You'll also see coats of arms, hatchments, hung in many old churches, like these up in the roof in Clandon, East Sussex.  These painted boards would have been hung over the door of an important person's house after he died, and they show his coat of arms.   After a decent interval, the might be put into the church for permanent display.



Sometimes you also see Royal coats of arms, which might represent the village's political views, though this one in Culmstock, Devon, from 1800, is probably just loyal. I think it's a beautiful bit of folk art.

There are often odd carvings on church pew ends or, as here, on misericords under the choirstall seats. Misericords are often subversive and mischievous and may show comic scenes of domestic life or  people getting up to no good, although I think this character, in Faversham, Kent, is only having a bite to eat and a drink.


Many very old churches were modernised by the Victorians and their quaint features removed.  Even so, I don't despise the Victorians and those who came after.  Anyone who has visited one of my favourite churches, in Huntingfield, Suffolk, can't fail to be overwhelmed by the roof which took 23 years to paint by its creator, Mildred Holland, the wife of a Victorian vicar. This is just a tiny part of it.


The parish church will also hold examples of modern work - these horse-themed kneelers from St. Ippolytts  in Hertfordshire, refer to the church's most unusual Horse Blessing service every year.


I could go on, and on. But I won't, because I don't like making my posts too long.   The fact is that there is SO MUCH interesting stuff in English parish churches, and such a variety of it,  if you care to look and find out about it.  You could spend a lifetime on it, and some people do.  

I know how expensive these old buildings are to maintain and the burden of it falls upon the villagers, and so I always give a donation every time I visit a parish church.   I feel this is part of our heritage that is worth paying for.

46 comments:

  1. These are lovely, Jenny - and I actually recognised Aldbourne before you told us where it was.

    As well as the churches, you can also find (round here, anyway) some very old paths across the fields that people would have trodden every Sunday morning. When I walked that way with the children we used to pretend we were wearing posh frocks and had to hold them up out of the mud!

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  2. Like you, I have, and always have had, a love of churches. I recall staying in Warboys (at the time I think it was the largest 'village' in England) where the Rector was the father of a very close friend. I was in the church with the Rector when some americans came in. They were asking him about it. Parts are Anglo-Saxon and he was trying to get this over to the Americans. He eventually told them that when Columbus discovered America the church on that site was nearly twice the 'age of the discovered America'. Somehow it put it all into perspective.

    Living (part time) in NewZealand I love the expeditions that Pauline (N Z Blogger) and I make each year in Northland often seeking out the Churches. Occasionally we find 'really old' ones (ie perhaps 150 years old at the very most). They tell so much about the social history of what is a very young country in terms of human settlement and very very young in terms of Christianity.

    I do not have a faith but I do believe that churches have such a pivotal role in the historical development of countries that they should be preserved for that reason alone.

    I loved your post as you may have gathered!

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed that...I too love visiting churches to get a handle on their history.

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  4. Before moving to the Cotswolds I lived very near to St. Ippolytts but had no idea about the horse blessing service.
    I too love visiting churches. We are so blessed in this country that every little village, hamlet and town you pass through has its own, usually, historic church and churchyard.
    There seem to be many theories surrounding the use of Yew in churchyards. I have read that it is thought that the yew was supposed to be a ready supply of wood for replenishing bows and arrows and the berries a source of poison for the arrows tips.
    They are also said to have been planted over the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead.
    The yews long life is a symbol of eternity and being toxic they were seen as trees of death.
    Great post Jenny.

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  5. It's wonderful that there can be so much history still evident for those who take the time to look. Virtually every little church in the country is a history archive.
    Some lovely photos here, too!

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  6. I LOVE this post!!! I would be exploring all of them I could if I lived in England. My ancestors came over from England, one of them in the late 17th century as a Quaker missionary, and I know where other Anglican clergy in my family tree are buried there, beside the churches in which they worked.

    Thank you for sharing!

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  7. Although I am not religious AT ALL, I think that I, too, would be fascinated by these living repositories of history. Thank you for sharing them, Jenny.

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  8. I love visiting old churches too! Sounds morbid but I love going thru the cemeteries that are adjacent to them. I enjoy admiring old tombstones, reading the inscriptions, seeing what kind of info might be inscribed on them. Think I might go visit one today.....

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  9. Jenny, you always tell interesting stories, and I agree the old churches are
    part of world heritage. I remember the very old St. Nicolas church near Woking, Surrey, built in 5th century. Great photos!

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  10. These are lovely photos, and gee whiz I too have been feeling a bit on the blah side myself, sure lots of it is that I need a bit of new unchartered adventure and some adult time! Been in charge of munchkins 24/7 for 10 days!!!! Yikes, but I made it!

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  11. Love old parish churches too, visited one out in Shropshire (can't remember exactly where) and they had a collection box for people to contribute to King Richard's ransom.

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  12. Mac looked it up and it was Hopesay, we were on a walk to Aston-on-Clun and we took a side trip down to Hopesay to see the donation chest.

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  13. I loved looking at our pictures and reading your descriptions of the old churchyards.

    Most if us are drawn back to the past because of curiosity and finding our connection to time gone by. I live in a historic part of the US. Churches and buildings go back to the early seventeen hundreds. This would be considered fairly modern compared to what you can visit in Great Britain or anyplace in Europe and Asia.

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  14. Occasionally I am a little jealous of all your precious bits of insular history, just there to be explored. Thank you for the trip. I especially enjoyed the photo of the parish festival on the village green. One hopes the children are absorbing and relating to their history.

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  15. You're right -- it is a bit of heritage worth paying for. I love that painted ceiling and the kneeling pads. Like you, I'm not that religious but I do adore beautiful old churches, the more history the better. I love this post, Jenny. thank you!

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  16. I always learn new, fascinating things when I visit your blog. The story of the parish churches is intriguing and the photos help bring it to life.
    These armchair travels that I've taken with you are greatly appreciated.
    Glad to hear that you're feeling better and "practically as good as new".

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  17. There's something about those parish churches isn't there? However, they are best viewed with the sun streaming through the stained glass window; somehow they don't have the same appeal on a cold wet winter's day. I enjoyed this post and agree with you that the bearded gentleman shouldn't be hidden away!

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  18. You always have the most interesting posts and pictures! I really should look at some of the history around here, but somehow, it just doesn't seem as fascinating!

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  19. I need to break my habit of spending too much time in London when I visit the UK so I can enjoy more of the countryside, including these wonderful country parishes.

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  20. I am not religious, either, but have always had a fascination for churches of all kinds from rural country churches to cathedrals. This was a wonderful, interesting post. :)

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  21. Old churches and old cemeteries are two of my favorite places to learn about people, just in general. They have so much character!

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  22. I think the YEW was used in the English Bow. That is one reason it was kept in churchyards.
    What a great post that was! So much to see!

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  23. There is so much history and beauty in these churches--thanks for sharing them with us.

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  24. Old churches breathe the atmosphere and history of the ages they have survived. This is a lovely post, Jenny and one to cherish. I am not religious either, but I feel sad that so many churches are going out of use. Who will care for them? As you say, they are monuments to our heritage. I love sitting in an empty church. I feel the aura of all those prayers. It's a good feeling.

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  25. Beautiful, fascinating post (says the shrine hunter from Japan). Horse blessing? I need to go Googling forthwith! ^^

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  26. so many cool little bits to find...ha, the one guy stuffed in the closet...hmmm....pretty cool architecture...we have very few truly old churches around here unmodernized....

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  27. Your photos tell an interesting story! Loved the idea of building a smaller church inside the ruins of a larger one.

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  28. Oh I agree Jenny, parish Churches give such an incredible glimpse through history.
    (23 years to paint? a labour of true love I'd say)
    Wonderful post Jenny.

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  29. Although I do not belong to any organized religion myself, I do love visiting churches - especially when they have that "lived in" atmosphere to them. Ripon cathedral is one such example, there is always something happening in there, and it is a very active community. They have kneelers representing over 1.000 years of history, and I love walking around and looking at them, neatly laid out in chronological order.
    Have you ever been to Scarborough, to St. Mary's, where Charlotte Bronte is buried? They have a cake and tea stall in the church several times a week, and every time I was in Scarborough, I had to go and have some cake there, home-made by the kind elderly ladies manning the stall.

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  30. When I travelled to Europe, I visited churches which invited lots of tourism. Though I prefer simplicity to grandeur, I liked immensely to see the painting on the ceilings, light filtering thought the stained glass windows, ornate carvings and sculptures and imagined what people of the past come to pray for. Time has changed but I wonder how much our emotion changed. Either religious or not, I think many people are spiritual. Hope the parish churches be preserved for future as priceless heritage from the past as you wrote.

    Your blog is a window to the things in England, Jenny.

    Yoko

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  31. What a great post, so much history and interesting little details. I think our local churches are rather bland looking by comparison. I hope you'll share more pictures along this theme if you have them.

    Darla

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  32. I had no idea churches had poor tables to make offerings for the poor. As you say, the poor must have been very glad to see them. Now if I happen to see a large flat stone in a churchyard, I shall know what's it likely to be....

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  33. My gosh … when someone from Britain talks about heritage they are not joking. There is so much fascinating art and historical detail wrapped into centuries gone by in contrast to North America. And you have such a knack for bringing out little tidbits that make it all so interesting. You live in a land that inspires fairytales and princesses … and now you have a true new prince, George!

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  34. I share your affection for churches, Jenny. To me, they represent the triumph of hope over experience. I must make note of the church at Huntingfield, Suffolk, and try to visit it one day. Suffolk is one of my favourite counties.

    I also like visiting the larger cathedrals and churches, such as Canterbury (hopelessly over-run with tourists, of which I was one!) and St. Albans (much remodeled by the Victorians, but if it hadn't have been, it would probably have collapsed into a heap of rubble years ago).

    The sight of the surcoat of Edward the Black Prince hanging over his tomb in Canterbury is always moving. Though after 600+ years, it could probably do with a bit of a clean!!

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  35. I love the old churches to be found in England, and have greatly enjoyed exploring them on our occasional visits to the UK. A fascinating post Jenny, and I particularly love the ceiling in Huntingfield, which is absolutely gorgeous, as well as the kneelers, which look most attractive (and comfortable!).
    PS Thank you for visiting my blog.

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  36. I think the history saved in the old churches is perhaps their greatest role in modern times

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  37. never miss the church when visiting any village or small market town, it’s where the history is most visible. I love the atmosphere of old churches, particularly the small, eccentric ones.
    This is a wonderful selection here, a bit of every feature to whet the appetite of the visiting novice.

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  38. Greetings human Jenny,

    My human and myself, share your appreciation for the churches of England. The history, the architecture, the stories within and without.

    Your photos and your words capture the very essence. We are always in awe when we go out and about and see such amazing structures.

    A very good and hopefully better weekend to you.

    Pawsitive wishes,

    Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar! :)

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  39. I've studied churches since 1965 when I cycled round the Cotswolds photographing the churches and making notes about their architecture. And yet I had never come across, or even heard of, a Poor Table. One is always learning - thank you, Jenny.
    Sorry you've been feeling 'Blah' and glad you are on the mend.
    Kind regards
    J

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  40. The organist at our wedding has studied extensively, just about the different *organs* in our local parish churches. There's so much interesting stuff to discover!

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  41. I think that old buildings are what gives a city its character. That said, I understand that some properties are subject to 'chancel' -they must pay for the repairs of a church. I didn't know that such a thing existed. Did you?

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  42. Like you I also have a thing about churches. It started when I was living in Havana. There's a very well-known church near where I was born and grew up and I began to visit it in my early 20s. Over here I like visiting church grounds, walking along the graves and venturing into the building to find out about the history behind it. Your photos are beautiful. Many thanks.

    Have a good week.

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  43. Oh, I feel really homesick now! Lovely post.

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  44. What a wonderful and informative post, Jenny. Thank you. I enjoyed every word and learned a few things too. It is kind of sad to think of that one church eventually ending up in the sea. History goes such a long way back on your side of the Atlantic and it is always fascinating to think about and learn about.

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  45. I love the church buildings in England too.
    If you are ever in Eastbourne and happen to be near the Arndale Centre, make sure you go to see All Souls Church, it is just steps away from Marks & Spencer. We worshiped there one Sunday last year and it is a beautiful church with an active congregation with a strong sense of community. Richard took such great photos that they contacted us to use them on the church website!

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  46. The places are very historic. It is good to know that there are places where old buildings are still preserved. I remember planning a trip to a certain country where they also preserve old infrastructures. I searched the places through the internet. The buildings look good but they look a bit brittle on the inside. I really wanted to go visit the place but I don't want to take chances so I searched for travel insurance reviews just to make sure LOL. the ended up pretty well though.

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