Thursday 8 November 2018

Messing about in church: the sublime AND the ridiculous

North west Norfolk. You tend not to expect too much from churches in this small corner of the county. There are undeniably some real masterpieces, and a good number of truly pleasant churches, but the closer you tend to get to the Sandringham estate the more likely it appears that the churches will have been heavily restored. Restored to death. Like Sandringham church itself, they suffer almost from too much attention. Too many well meaning restorations. Too much money lavished on the gilding and stained glass. They almost glow in the dark, and in many of them even the most modest medieval survivals are a bit of a novelty.

I am sure that it was - and is - all very well meant, with many dozens of private benefactors spending vast wads of cash purely to glorify God etc. I am also sure that it is entirely a coincidence that it largely only takes place in these few churches clustered around the Queen's Sandringham estate, and not in the many hundreds of other churches across the county. Churches that would be only too grateful to accept a hefty donation or two, in the hope of keeping the rain from entering through the roof, or replacing an ageing bell frame. Instead this small pocket of churches does seem to have rather a large proportion of the country's gilding on show. Quite possibly the country's.

It is therefore a really quite refreshing change to walk into a church like Wolferton, only a stone's throw (gilded stones are optional) from the Sandringham estate. The outside of the church is typical of this area of the county, with liberal use of the gingerbread coloured carrstone, and the well tended churchyard that just begs to be visited by royalty. It all feels just remarkably 'neat'. It is therefore a wee bit of a surprise to wander in through the porch and find a church that still has so much of its medieval past on show - amongst which are some truly remarkable items.
Wolferton. The repainted doom. Just put down the paintbrush, and step away from the wall with your hands where I can see them...

Admittedly the church has been restored in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century's, and many may find some of the Victorian fittings a little heavy and cumbersome. The church may also be the perfect lesson in exactly why you shouldn't let early restorers of medieval wall paintings actually try their hand at full restoration, and the repainted Doom above the chancel arch is truly a sight to behold - if not entirely for all the right reasons. However, even this has a certain charm, having been recreated so many decades ago that now, as the colours begin to fade a little, it doesn't even feel 'too' out of place. Okay, it does - but I'm trying to be nice here. Even the Victorian font cover is a fairly good pastiche attempt at recreating a medieval marvel, and if you don't look too closely it really has a charm of its own. You might have to squint a bit.

However, as restorations go, I have seen far, far worse. They may have 'embellished' - and how they did love that word - but they didn't feel the need to create a clean slate upon which to build. What was of value from earlier times they tended to leave alone, or at least repair as best they could. A few things may well have been embellished, but not overly so.
The true secrets of this church take a little time to discover, and most are concealed in the woodwork. Close examination of the carved timbers in the roof is a good way to while away half an hour, and although there has been much restoration done even here, it has been done sympathetically and with a certain style. The timber screens though are what the guidebooks will direct you to examine - and rightly so. In the chancel arch are the remains of what was once a very fine fifteenth century rood screen, with the painted figures of saints - now sadly bedraggled - still clear to make out. To the north of this is another very fine fifteenth century parclose screen, that once separated off the east end of the north aisle as a separate chapel. The carving is still crisp and clear even after more than half a millennia, and although the pigment has now all but gone, it still feels an imposing sight as the sunbeams highlight the intricate carvings.

Wolferton. South aisle parclose screen.

However, in my eyes, the real hidden gem of this church lies not in the north aisle, but to the south. Here can be found yet another parclose screen, that separates the eastern end of this aisle off to form yet another chapel. Although the church records suggest that the man who created this chapel died in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the screen was already well over a century old by that time. It's exact date is unknown, but the style of decoration and carving would suggest the middle two quarters of the fourteenth century - a fifty year span bitterly and irrevocably divided by the terrible destruction and human decay known today as the Black Death. My own feeling is that it sits in the two decades after the coming of the pestilence; when church decoration and manuscript illustration reacted to the near destruction of the known world with an outburst of ingenuity, humour, quirkiness and, upon occasion, elements of downright blasphemy.

Wolferton parclose screen detail.

And that is what is captured in this screen. A moment in time - when a resigned population took stock of what God had sent their way, and what the church had failed to protect them from, and carved, painted and gilded their own reactions to events in the very fabric of the church itself. A stark irreverence combined with open elements of humour and parody. Fat friars and stupid priests, lecherous monks and harlot nuns, green men and grotesque beasts - all thrust into the very body of the church. Gone is the quiet reverence, and instead flows out a stream of self expression that obliquely questions the very structure of the church and the society in which they lived.

Wolferton. Laughter and misery?

All of this is captured in the parclose screen at Wolferton, in minute detail, but you have to look for it - and once you start to see it you simply can't stop. The more you stare at the screen, and its truly exquisite and tiny carvings, the more you become aware that the screen itself - or at least the dozens of leering faces that are hidden away in its decoration - are staring right back at you. Tiny imps carved into the head rail, green men with protruding tongues where ball-flowers might usually rest, leering grotesques of faces peering through the tracery. The screen is alive with a vibrant community of tiny faces. A chubby cheeked man rolls his eyes and pulls a face high up on the screen, whilst a near neighbour side-eyes the grinning demon carved a few inches to the right of him. It is the world made small, and a canvas for a wood carvers caricatures. It is, in my own humble opinion, a masterpiece - and the craftsman or craftswoman who made it a complete genius.

Wolferton. Parclose screen detail.

Exactly who they were we will probably never know, as no records relating to the screens construction survive. They are lost to us. I have only seen one other screen that is, without question, the work of the same craftsman - and that is to be found over thirty-five miles away in the south aisle of Mattishall church. It too is a work of art, but it lacks the humour and humanity of the carvings at Wolferton. For me the person who carved this screen is someone I'd really like to get to know. Someone I'd be happy to spend some time with. They were, in my own humble opinion, a wee bit good.

Wolferton. Parclose screen face, top rail.

You may be able to tell, but I rather rate this screen. The fifteenth century screen in the north aisle is good - a technical achievement of symmetry and rather orthodox carvings - but the screen in the south aisle is a thing of wonder. It has life. It has passion. It has humour. It has the story of an entire community, and entire congregation - the good, the bad, and the downright daft - locked within its tiny carvings. It tells a tale, and who, after all, doesn't like listening to a good tale. And yet, it may not be a tale that really belongs in Wolferton.

Wolferton. Parclose screen, top rail. I know how this one feels.

The thing is nobody quite knows where this fourteenth century screen comes from. It certainly shouldn't be from Wolferton itself, as the church suffered a devastating and massive fire in the fifteenth century, with the deep pinking of fire damage still evident on many of the stones. And it was a very big fire indeed. The upper levels of the south arcade still show bright pink, where the stones have been superheated, whilst the piers below, including that which the screen now abuts, were so badly damaged as to require almost complete replacement. If the screen had been in the church at the time it would have been turned to nothing more than a heap of ashes - unless of course this master craftsmen also managed to make his screen, not only sublimely beautiful, but fireproof as well. I expect even he had his limits though.

Oh, and there are also some nice mason's marks and a few compass drawn bits of graffiti there too. Just saying.

Friday 2 November 2018

Getting your kit off in a Nottinghamshire church: why attitudes have to change

So a couple of weeks ago the local mums of East Markham got their kit off. The ladies of the village were to be found hanging around in the fields, wandering through local orchards, and even propping up the bar in the local pub - all in what can best be described as 'a state of undress'. And why were the good ladies of this Nottinghamshire village getting all 'cheeky' in the church? Is this a normal activity for the locals? The answer is that they were putting together a charity naked calendar.

You've all seen the sort of thing, made famous by the blockbuster film 'Calendar Girls'. Where local ladies come together to produce a photographic calendar, largely featuring them and little else (particularly noticeable is the lack of clothing), to raise money for a good cause. It is to be praised. It is to be considered most commendable. A local community coming together to raise money to help good causes. However, what makes this particular calendar so different is that it is designed to raise money for a cause that didn't even exist a month ago.

On the night of October 5th the church of St John the Baptist in East Markham was only one of the latest churches to be targeted by criminals intent on stripping the lead from the roof. Over four tons of lead was stolen that night, netting the thieves approximately £3500 in scrap value - at best. However, their crime has had a far higher cost for the parish itself, with repairs estimated at upwards of £50,000.

Damage to East Markham church roof. Image copyright: Tom Freemantle

Sadly, the villagers of East Markham aren't alone in having suffered at the hands of these vile little shits. This year has been a slightly busier year than average for metal theft from churches. Not massively so, but slightly busier. A quick trawl of the news feeds produced stories about lead theft at the following churches:-

Gamlingay,Houghton ConquestLindsayWilloughby WaterleysSudbury (Derbs)WilsfordSwarbyKelbySt James, BristolSt George Colegate, NorwichBarton upon HumberPewseyMeltonTwyfordTilton on the hillWhitwell (Leic)GlastonBorough on the hillEmpinghamEdith Weston

This isn't a comprehensive list, just what turned up on a quick Google search - it also only covers the LAST SIX MONTHS. The damage has been estimated in the millions of pounds in last six months - and yet the criminal gangs have likely only netted a tiny fraction of that value illegally selling on the lead as scrap. Approximately 5% - 10% of the costs of the damage they cause. Not exactly the most cost effective of criminal enterprises. Let's face it, they'd make far more cash repairing church roofs than stealing the lead from them.

However, it isn't all about the money. Believe it or not, church roofs tend to be fairly fragile objects. They may have elaborately carved angels supporting massive timbers and hemmer-beams, but above that is nothing more than a few thin boards and a sheet of lead. Once the lead is removed the boards, and all the time opened gaps between them, are exposed to the elements - as is everything within the church below. One good downpour can cause further tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. More importantly, some of the damage can be beyond something that you can put an actual price on. Medieval wall paintings can be literally washed from the walls. Pigments that have survived in the parish church for centuries, with bright images of saints glaring down upon generations of the congregation, can be lost forever in a few good rain storms. Angels weeping real tears as their colours pool on the floor beneath them. And that is not even to mention the early graffiti often to be found on this lead - some of which can date back to the seventeenth century. This is not a victimless crime.

There are ways to protect churches from this crime - or at least limit the likelihood of it taking place. Roof alarms are seen as an effective method. However, even they rely upon someone being able, and willing, to turn out in the middle of the night to answer an alarm, with the potential for meeting a gang of metal thieves at the church. Something of an alarming prospect in itself for many of our more elderly churchwardens. In addition, it isn't much use having an alarm if the nearest company operative charged with answering any alarm call is actually several hours away from the site. And the thieves are getting wise to the alarms these days. A number of alarmed churches have had their rood lead stolen, with the alarm sensors carefully removed before the lead was stripped.

Other methods tend to be only seen as a deterrent that becomes effective only AFTER the lead has been stolen. Things such as CCTV recording, or marking the lead with 'smart water', may both help eventually convict the culprits and recover the stolen lead (which largely cannot be re-used), but they don't stop the crime happening in the first place. All a very sad state of affairs.

You cannot help but feel sorry for these communities, and the massive financial challenges that they suddenly find themselves facing, but to a certain extent many of these crimes are simply ones that should never have taken place.

The current advice being given out by heritage organisations such as Historic England is that if a church suffers a lead theft then the lead roof must be repaired 'like for like'. Where lead was taken, lead must be used to replace the missing roof. To some extent there is a good conservation argument behind this advice. Lead is hard wearing, has a long lifespan, and has been used as a church roofing material for many, many centuries. Conservation principles advise that all replacements should be as close to the original material as possible.

The problem with this approach, reiterated again by Historic England earlier this year, is that you simply make the church a further target for the lead thieves. Not only do you put valuable material back on the roof, but you do so for thieves that are actually experienced in stripping lead from that particular church. You may as well just leave the cash in the church porch. Indeed, it might even be cheaper in the long run. Harpley church in Norfolk, was attacked three times in four years. Icklingham in Suffolk - twice in four years. Dunton Bassett in Leicestershire - three times in five years. The list goes on and on.

The thing is that there are other materials that can be used to cover church roofs - ranging from various types of polymer coating, to cheaper metal alternatives - all of which have about zero scrap value to any potential thieves, and look pretty much like the lead roof that they are replacing. If used to replace a stolen lead roof they simply don't make further attacks worthwhile. There is no cash in it for the scumbag lead thieves. The question has to be, do such alternatives actually deter further theft? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Cowlinge church in Suffolk was attacked by thieves a few years ago, who managed to strip much of the lead from the south aisle roof. After a long debate with the authorities the church managed to secure agreement that the replacement roof would be lead-free, and tens of thousands of pounds was eventually spent repairing the damaged roof. Earlier this year thieves returned once again to this remote church, and again targeted the south aisle roof. They began to remove the roofing material from one corner, but upon discovering it wasn't actually lead, they fled the scene. Admittedly the aisle roof was damaged, but this time only to the tune of a few thousand pounds, rather than the tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage that had been caused previously. Lead-free roofs work.

Medieval Latin text graffiti from Cowlinge church, Suffolk

The problem is that the heritage organisations really don't like these roof coverings being used. Despite looking like a lead roof, they aren't the real thing, and their use reduces the historic aesthetic and significance of the building. A number of organisations and diocese are coming around to realising that the use of lead-free roofing materials does actually provide a long term solution for many churches. However, Historic England are less convinced. Whilst they 'recognise that in certain circumstances following theft like-for-like replacement would not be prudent', they still argue that lead should be retained wherever it is deemed practical.

Well times change, and everyone who spends a good deal of time in churches knows that they too are buildings of change and evolution. They have to be. As most heritage professionals and church archaeologists already accept, these buildings may be a fantastic resource for studying the past, but they also need a future. That future can only really be secured by the communities to which they belong. People like the naked mums of East Markham. And to do that these buildings need people inside their walls, they need facilities to make those people welcome, and most of all, they need a bloody roof.

If you would like to support the East Markham appeal, or buy a calendar of the East Markham mums in the nip, more details can be found here