Tuesday, 31 December 2013

"Gothic: the Dark Heart of Film" (ed James Bell, BFI 2013)

This newest addition to the groaning shelf of books about Gothic was my birthday present from Ms Formerly Aldgate. It is by no means an academic book, rather a survey for the interested layperson, although decorated with weighty names such as those of David Punter, Marina Warner, and Sir Christopher Frayling, as well as writers on movies - Ramsay Campbell, Kim Newman, and the inevitable Mark Kermode - and, er, Charlie Higson and Reece Shearsmith. Many of the essays are very sparky, perhaps precisely because they're liberated from the necessary shackles of an academic framework (you sense that some of the contributors are somewhat enjoying a guilty pleasure), although a few decline a bit into lists of movie titles; however even then one of the chief virtues of such a work is surely that it encourages its readers actually to go and watch some films. I think more credit than is given is due to the book designer, who appears to be a gentleman (or perhaps lady, I don't know) called Chris Brawn, as it looks very good indeed, as one should expect from a book about film. The decorated initial capitals are quite witty. THERE ISN'T AN INDEX.

Monday, 30 December 2013

New To Me

Easily my most unexpected Christmas present this year was this offering from Ms T. What is it, you may ask: an astronomical accessory? a container for a religious relic? Neither guess would be entirely wide of the mark. It is in fact an example of a class of object I didn't even know existed: a fob watch stand. Having a pocket watch is not enough, I'm afraid: the industrious gentleman also possesses a stand whereon to place his timepiece so he can see the time at a glance while beavering away at his desk, answering the day's correspondence and checking his investments. Actually I'm not sure how accurate a picture this really is, as idleness rather than industry is surely the truer mark of the gentleman.

Anyway. This example is very simple but rather elegant and appears to be made of bakelite, and I am almost unreasonably pleased with it.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Sacred Journeys - an Insight

I've just finished reading Sally Griffyn's 2000 book Sacred Journeys, which I bought years ago (probably not long after it came out) as it had a chapter on holy wells and seemed to promise a certain insight into the habits and thinking of modern paganism. And it does not disappoint in this respect. Paganism (or at least Ms Griffyn's version or vision of it) emerges as a sort of means of self-exploration and occasionally therapy, mediated through rituals, which are often self-defined, in which landscape plays a central part. Very often these ceremonies are built around a symbolic system which bears some relationship with what medieval people would have called the correspondences - essential resemblances linking elements of the natural world; north-black-cold-earth, for instance. This imagery is then built into the ritual life of the pagan practitioner to provide ways of pondering and dealing with important occasions in life. 
What makes it more than just a means of externalising an internal psychological process is the conviction that the earth, the elements, and human beings are bound together by an 'energy' which can be concentrated on, channelled and occasionally even sensed physically, as when Ms Griffyn reports feeling standing stones throb or hum. This earth energy means that the impressions and feelings the pagan practitioner experiences interacting with the natural landscape are connected to something real and objective: the earth is something that can actually be communicated with, not just used as a means of interpreting oneself. 
Of course I don't go along with this, but I'm pleased to have it laid out in such generous detail. It does lead me to reflect how religious practice, including the practices of Christians, presumably always looks fairly loopy to someone who isn't 'within the system', but to the people who are inside, it 'works', and this 'working' itself becomes a form of validation. Religious and non-religious people alike could do with remembering this.

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Storm Past

The parish, and indeed the whole area, awoke on Christmas Day to another power cut, apparently due to a tree falling onto power cables about ten miles away. This wasn't as serious, as far as the church services were concerned, as it would have been on the evening of Christmas Eve; we lit the Lady Chapel with candles for the handful of souls who attended the 8am service, and gave people hand-held candles for the 10am (not that there was a huge number of them), and enjoyed the playing of the piano rather than the organ. It was fine.

Of more interest was whether the traditional Christmas Day lunch for those who would otherwise be on their own at the Baptist Church in Hornington would go ahead. It did, so imagine access to gas ovens must have been possible. The lunch usually concludes with the Queen's Speech, for which the electricity came back on again at 2.20pm, thus demonstrating once again the hidden power of the Monarchy even in our democratic age.

Thankfully I was able to scoot out before that. However by then I had a headache so penetrating I was wincing and biting my lip on my way back to the car. I put it down to tension, but several cups of coffee at a friend's house back in Lamford demonstrated it was mainly down to lack of caffeine ingested over the last couple of days. On Boxing Day, therefore, I did what I'd been threatening to do for ages, and bought a little camping stove so that, in the event of future power cuts and for the preservation of my health and temper and the spiritual wellbeing of others too, I can still have tea.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

UnBearable 2

Yesterday was characterised by storm and tempest, just the same as it usually is on the day I devote to delivering church Christmas cards and taking communion to people who won't be able to get to church today or Christmas Day itself. I didn't want to throw the 'youth club' out of the church into the wind and rain, but with three separate complaints about their antics from different quarters I had to do something. They were all congregated around the sofa in children's corner when I arrived though three of the younger ones were tearing around the building. I read the Riot Act and warned that one more complaint would have them all thrown out wholesale, regardless of who was actually causing the havoc (and of course as in the Garden of Eden every one of them tries to blame someone else).

Then just before 4pm the power went off across the area, and that meant the church had to be emptied no matter what the weather was like outside. The Rectory had its electricity back on by 5, although the whole postal district went down again in the small hours and wasn't reconnected until about 1.45. There is standing water everywhere and the roads have been nightmarish; the Co-Op opposite the church has had to throw away all its chilled and frozen stock. But at least power was restored, and we were able to go ahead with the chaos that is the Crib Service as usual, packed out with over 300 people.

Just to add to that, I came back to church about 3pm to check the power was indeed on and found that at least one of the water extinguishers had been set off, soaking the floor, the font was blocked with crayons (I'd emptied it to prevent water fights), baubles off the Christmas tree were smashed and there was damage to the reredos behind the high altar - how that was managed I can't imagine.  I suppose the problem is that the church is a unknown space to these youngsters: a place where rules are unclear and where, in consequence, there aren't any rules. The answer is to educate them, but I'm not sure I have the time or the aptitude. Anyway, it seems that I will have to lock the church outside service times for a while, until the miscreants go away.

'You do seem to get stressed,' commented Ms Formerly Aldgate, and it's true that things have got a little on top of me at various points and my temper has not been of the mildest.

Still, we survive. Forward to the Midnight, to smoke and Merbecke!

Saturday, 21 December 2013


If this bear seems, as he does to me, to have a somewhat sceptical expression - 'So you say', it appears to me he's thinking - it may be because of the experiences he'd undergone not long before this photograph was taken. I came to church to say Evening Prayer and lock up on Monday evening and discovered that the bear, who normally sits at the back of church in the children's area, seemed to have undergone an unexpected full immersion baptism. At least, that was the deduction I drew from the facts that he was remarkably wet, the font was the only source of water immediately apparent to the casual onlooker, and that the remaining font water was lower in level and grubbier in appearance than it had been earlier in the day. Events hadn't stopped there: to all appearances the bear had then gone on a triumphal progress around the church, to judge by the pools and splatters of water here and there, and the damp patch in the midst of the main altar.

The teenagers who have lately taken to hanging around in the church porch and who we jocularly refer to as 'The Youth Club' denied giving the bear any assistance in the regenerative sacrament, despite having been in or around the premises all afternoon. Whoever was responsible had midway through the proceedings seen the immediate problem of soaking a teddy bear in water and decided to try and mop up the moisture with copies of the diocesan newspaper, meaning, as a former churchwarden confided to me, that at least someone found a use for it.

The bear came home with me and spent the next day or so drying out in my boiler cupboard, a less spiritual and certainly not as interesting an environment but possibly a more practical one. Than being dunked in a font, I mean.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas Jollity

... or something like that. Our friend DiamanteQueen, who assembles amazing Gothic adornments for the person or the home, recently came up with a range of Christmas wreaths and I decided to buy what she described as the 'Steampunk' wreath. There isn't really that much Steampunk about it apart from a cog or two; but then nor is there a great deal specifically Christmassy apart from the tinsel and a bauble. Rather it has an Autumnal feel with the purple and brown leaves, and I was delighted with it. My friend Ms Formerly Aldgate, spotting the tiny wooden teacup, summarised the theme as 'Time passes, people die, and everything stops for tea'.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Not All It Seems

I am thinking about where to go on hols this year, and thought I might like to try Norfolk as I don't know very much about it at all. Looking on the online lists of available cottages The Coach House at Tatterford Hall near Fakenham appeared to be quite fun. It's set in the Hall gardens and looks out over a statue, small formal garden and little gazebo. It's built in the same brick-and-flint style as the Hall itself.

Now I like to have a bit of a check before I book a completely unknown holiday cottage, just to see what the surrounding topography is like, and the wonders of Google Earth allow you to do this. Streetview has no images for the Hall itself, but of course you can look up a satellite view and this is what it looks like:
The Coach House is just to the lower right of the Hall, on the south side of the drive which is the whitish area right in the centre of the photograph. So far so good.

I noticed that there was an older image from 1999, so inquisitively I clicked on that. Rather to my surprise, in this earlier photograph there is no Coach House:
Surely not, I thought. The area where the Coach House should be is a bit dark and obscure so I couldn't be completely sure that there wasn't some kind of building there which has been subsequently built up and altered. I decided to check on the old Ordnance Survey maps held on British History Online. Here's the relevant image. It's only a tiny bit of map, so the resolution is a bit chunky, but you'll get the idea. 
Not only is there no Coach House, there's no Tatterford Hall itself. None of it exists. The only coach the Coach House has ever seen will have been one that pulled into the drive by mistake. Somehow had I booked this, I'd have felt cheated. 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Goth Walk 31: Tell Me Strange Things, the enigma of Fr Montague Summers

We went walking again on Saturday, about 25 or so of us, starting at the Chequers in Duke Street, St James's, and concluding a couple of hours later at the British Museum, to chase down the life of that strange, perplexing and contradictory character Montague Summers, writer on the theatre, the Gothic novel, and most notoriously aspects of the occult. It was fun despite the stress of being somehow separated into two groups by the near-impenetrable crowds of shoppers around Regent Street and having to spend ten minutes or so getting back together again! I was I must confess on the brink of throwing down my book and giving up, and have never been so relieved to see any group of people as when I glimpsed my missing colleagues halfway down Argyle Street. Will I do it again? Well, every time I tell myself No, and am persuaded otherwise by the exhilaration of entertaining people - provided they are entertained. I have an idea for a walk about the Gordon Riots, but it will take a long time to summon up the energy to do it.

Photo by Mr Marcus Tylor.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Move On, Please

On Thursday (my day off) I had the radio on as I usually do and caught (bits of) the morning 15-minute drama on Radio 4. This week it's been another series of HighLites, a comedy series about a pair of incompetent hairdressers in a Northern town whose almost complete and sometimes criminal disregard of professional standards is covered up with bluster and bravado. This run of episodes features the elder hairdresser Bev's attempt to moonlight as a wedding organiser. In Thursday's excerpt, Harriet, the vicar, calls in for a trim and finds herself somewhat at odds with Bev as to the arrangements for the forthcoming nuptials. 

Oh dear. Harriet may have a Yorkshire accent rather than the singsong Derek Nimmo intonation one typically associates with comedic vicars, but in all other respects she could have stepped out of All Gas And Gaiters or in fact any media representation of the clerical state from as far back as the 1950s. She affects shock at ordinary human doings; she quotes very, very familiar verses from the Bible at people who have no interest in having the Bible quoted to them with the sort of simpering condescension some adults direct at children, and with the implication that the Scriptures are a collection of wise saws from the same stable as Aesop's fables. She resembles no vicar I have ever, ever met.

That's just depressing. I find the ideas the author has about how weddings work actually worrying. In the show Bev and Harriet come to verbal blows over the vows Bev has devised for the ceremony, some of which are drawn from The Lion King. 'I can't allow the ceremony you have designed to take place in my church', Harriet flusters. What gets missed out is that she can't not because of any issue of conscience, which is what the drama suggests, but because it would be against the law. The marriage service, including its vows, is a legal ceremony whose wording is not allowed to be changed by anyone, whether clergy or not. You could argue that depicting women vicars as just as much idiots as the men is a step forward for equality; but misrepresenting the fundamental assumptions behind the business of marrying people shows an ignorance which is truly contemporary. Everything's basically a matter of individual preference, isn't it, so how can church weddings be any different?

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Secondary First

I'm used to taking assemblies at the infants school. I wasn't at first, but that's not too much of a problem now. I know the format: make sure they're not completely passive, ask them questions they can answer, try to have a Thing for them to look at (not always possible), tell a story and say a prayer. It's OK. Really.

On Tuesday I engaged in a different-order school visit. At church we have a pair of home-made posada figures which for the last couple of years have made their way around various houses in the village. This year it was arranged, quite without my involvement, that they should visit the local secondary school, Widelake, and stay behind the reception desk for a day or two. It was further suggested that I should go in and talk to the children about them.

Once I preached at the local private school at the top of the hill, but no matter how many hundreds of boys that involved they were the sons of gentlefolk and were serried in pews in a gigantic Gothic chapel while the restrained liturgy of Prayer Book Evensong lay like a comforting blanket over the proceedings. This was different. This was 500 or so teenagers in various states of disshevelment in a secular school, and what's more I actually see some of them round about the village.

It was fine, actually. I got the impression some of them were actually looking at my Powerpoint show about the Posada custom, about Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem and the difficulties they might face traversing the same territory today, though I'm not sure how much went in. But it was an entirely polite and sober affair. I even found it rather more congenial than talking to six-year-olds, if I'm honest.

Afterwards one of the teachers brightly informed me that there was a Mexican student in the school who'd be talking about Posada in one of the classes. Good, that would at least give an opportunity to correct the mistakes I'd perpetrated.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

There, All Better Now

Last year the General Synod met and threw out the draft legislation about consecrating women as bishops, throwing the entire Church of England into a convulsive fit of soul-searching and introspection, and the media into a rare degree of interest in the Church and its doings. The story was everywhere. A couple of days ago this November's Synod voted through a new draft provision with remarkably little dissent, and unless something unexpected happens it will proceed to be passed in July. The antis, by and large, professed themselves satisfied with the new regulations to order their relationship with putative future women bishops. Gosh. Naturally the media barely noticed, even though 'Church of England decides something sensible' is actually quite big news.

When I've met with my clerical colleagues lately I've noticed a curious and I think new commitment to the idea of the breadth of the Church of England as something good and God-given in its own right, something that contributes creatively to the life of the Church as a whole, way beyond the confines of Anglicanism. I am not quite sure how this has happened, although as it's just what I was arguing for last year I am very pleased indeed. I wonder whether it's anything to do with the example of Papa Francis in Rome, and a strange sense of openness and optimism flowing around as a result.

An Unwarranted Intrusion

Nobody wants phone calls from the police, still less before one's customary time of rising on one's day off. In those circumstances one's only consolation is that it probably isn't one they are after as they wouldn't have phoned up first. In the case to which I refer particularly, a week ago last Thursday, it was PC Blackley telling me there'd been a break-in at the church. It wasn't, as it turned out, much of a break-in, just the leaded windows in the vestry smashed and whatever was within reach grabbed and pulled out sometime over night; I'd wondered about the wisdom of keeping stuff in view of the windows but comforted myself that the window bars would keep ne'er-do-wells out, and didn't realise that the bars are in fact flimsy leads that are easy to pull out. So we lost, very unhelpfully, one of each pair of silver candlesticks, the low steel ones we use on a Sunday morning, and the rather elegant silver cross which I suspect is 1920s or 30s. I say 'silver': 'white metal' is a better description as they don't seem actually to be silver in anything but colour.

It was all horribly inconvenient and we are still using my Nan's old brass candlesticks as the nearest appropriate ones to hand. I spent a while hunting online for replacements and came up with nothing very suitable.

Then on Friday afternoon the police called again: having had 'information' they had visited a flat in Aldershot and removed a number of items they suspected were ours. So it proved. We don't yet have them back, but they are safe in a police station over there and will be heading in our direction soon.

I was surprised at the reaction the incident aroused. There isn't anything obviously more wicked about breaking into a church and robbing it as opposed to someone's home. From a human point of view, nobody clearly owns the church kit as such, and we're insured, aren't we? There is of course the issue that two of the candlesticks were given in memory of someone whose relatives are still active members of the church, but that's incidental. I suppose behind the outrage (which was even expressed by an atheist friend of mine) is the feeling that churches represent a group of people who, belief quite aside, are trying their hardest to live according to the very best ideals they can manage. To assault the church is to do injury to that idea, and anyone of whatever belief can understand that.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013


At Swanvale Halt we customarily sing the eucharist to the St Thomas Mass, which is a tolerably pleasant setting. It only dates to the mid-1980s, and was commissioned by former Bishop of Salisbury David Stancliffe when he was Provost of Portsmouth Cathedral, and is now very widely used - ours isn't the only church in which I've met it.

However for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve I've striven to return to an earlier and generally more splendid way of doing things, and have raised the question of using the old Merbecke setting of the Mass for that service, which again I'm very used to from other places. We say 'Merbecke' but basically all John Merbecke did in 1550 was to take the old plainchant melodies for the Canon of the Mass and bolt them on to the new English liturgy in simple forms so that the congregation could join in. I think the plainchant introduces an element of solemn and plaintive beauty, a raising of the soul in awareness of sorrow and of joy, which isn't present in some of the modern settings.

What surprises me is that even the older members of the congregation here don't seem to recognise the Merbecke music. I wonder what was used here before the St Thomas Mass was brought in, and, even more, before the introduction of the alternative forms of service to the Book of Common Prayer in the 1960s. The Choir are convinced there won't be a problem singing the Merbecke, but the congregation as a whole will need some priming during Advent or it won't work. The Midnight should affect newcomers by beauty, and if the singing is thin and uncertain that won't be the case.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Remembering Again

Awfully late as usual, I know: we kept Remembrance at Swanvale Halt on Sunday 10th, though for a second year I had to be absent, much to my regret, leading prayers at the War Memorial at Hornington as Chair of the local branch of Churches Together. I hope a suitable layperson will come forward to do that job next year, although precipitate haste in this respect seems to be somewhat wanting.

For the last couple of years the children in Junior Church have come forward at the appropriate point to lay wreaths at our memorial in the church, but we decided that, as we can't guarantee there will be any children in the congregation at the moment, and as the ones we had never seemed especially comfortable with the whole experience, we would get grown-ups to do it. I asked Bill, a longstanding member of the congregation who served with the Navy in WWII, and Cora, a young Army wife from the Council estate who has no connection with the church other than the fact that she and her husband had their banns read with us a few months ago. Apparently it all went very well, and the fact that an elderly worshipper fainted during the Two Minutes' Silence and the paramedics had to be summoned didn't cause unreasonable disruption. In fact I wonder whether very many folk noticed.

I have to compliment the Poppy Appeal for their efficiency as I discovered on the Wednesday that we only had one wreath and had to order another. I couldn't get through on the phone and the only way of paying was using that archaic business of posting a cheque, a combination of not one but two near-obsolete processes. And the wreath arrived on Saturday morning.

A friend of mine complained on Facebook about the levels of 'poppy fascism' this year, remarking that, as far as she recalled her own childhood, the dragooning of the whole of society including small children into the observation of Remembrance is a relatively recent development. She tried to keep her daughter away from it only to discover that the whole infants school she attends had been marched to the War Memorial and said little girl, egged on by her High Tory dad, insisted that she should have a poppy though probably more for the colour than for any historical and emotional significance. I think my friend is right about the change in the way Britain thinks about Remembrancetide, but still maintain that it's possible to maintain a proper sense of decorum about the whole thing; recalling the deaths in war not only of combatants, but also civilians, and making sure that politicians are kept firmly in their place in Remembrance observances - permitted, perhaps, to lay wreaths, but certainly to do or say nothing else. In fact, I think that a sharper-eyed assessment of the reality of war is precisely what has allowed the emergence of the modern reverence for the rituals of the second Sunday in November.

I suspect Blackadder has much to do with it as well.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Forgotten Anglo-Catholic Artist

The other day I found a stack of devotional leaflets from the 1920s, 'The Passion of Our Lord According to Saint Mark', in a cupboard in the north vestry. They're interesting because they show the sort of liturgical experiments Swanvale Halt was trying out at that time (if indeed we did try it out, I shall have to check through the old service books), but also because of the illustrations.

This is obviously just what the Last Supper was like. Like Mass. Of course.  It's a surprise Jesus isn't wearing a maniple.

But this illustration of the Agony in the Garden is gorgeous.

The artist was Thomas Noyes Lewis, a very prolific painter and book illustrator of the late 1800s and early 1900s, who was born in 1862 and died in 1946. If you go searching online you can find quite a bit of his stuff, including illustrations of Nordic legends and good manly inspirational cards for young Scouts. However I expect even more people actually encounter his work without knowing it's his, as I discover I've done over the years. Here, for instance, is a lovely example from a booklet describing the rituals of the Mass for Anglo-Catholic laypeople, at least laypeople worshipping in churches which use the Book of Common Prayer according to the Percy Dearmer model.

This latter booklet is called Through the Veil: Communion Book, and in Noyes Lewis's determination to display not just what actually happens but the inner significance of what happens - so in this picture you see Jesus hovering over the altar as the veil is quite literally lifted to show the heavenly reality of our earthly acts - it's dotty to modern sensibilities, but rather moving.

I know nothing more about Thomas Noyes Lewis. I wonder how he discovered his faith, and got into the business of painting it.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Well Hidden

Given the extent to which Cornwall has been scoured and re-scoured by well-enthusiasts, you wouldn’t think there were old Christian holy wells yet to come to wider attention, yet accidentally I found one. Down Well Street in Callington is this very humble spring, the Lady’s Well or Pipe Well, once the main water supply for the town and covered in its little well house in 1816, a plaque informs us. The water still flows copiously but Callington’s citizens are now prevented from falling down the steps by a spectacularly ugly set of railings which form a sad contrast to the exuberant mural on the wall next to the well. The church, technically a chapel-of-ease to the old parish church at St Dominic until relatively recently, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary which fits in with the old title of the well. How it has escaped the attention of all the many, many writers on Cornish wells I can’t imagine, though it may be that none of them ever visited so prosaic a place as Callington to look for them.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Making Wells

One of the attractions of Cornwall for deluded souls interested in ancient sites is the abundance of holy wells, and more has been written about Cornish wells, across nearly two centuries, than any other part of Britain. I was able to visit a few on this holiday, and the ones I saw aroused some new thoughts. More than England east of the Tamar, so far as Cornwall is concerned the belief that holy wells are unsullied survivals of a primeval past is easier to credit and given more credence. And yet they aren’t necessarily, any more than wells elsewhere.

I stopped at St Cybi’s Well in Duloe, a site all the more moving for its situation yards from a busy road, and then St Keyne’s Well a mile or two away in a tiny enclosure of its own beside a minor road junction. St Keyne’s is particularly well known, with its legendary power, long recorded, of granting mastery in a marriage to whichever partner first drinks of its water after the wedding ceremony, and I found offerings left in the bushes next to the well – ribbons, corn crosses, a decorated shoe. It’s certainly now as much a modern pagan as a Christian holy well.

But what struck me first and set me thinking was the structure of St Cybi’s Well, something I would not have been able to notice more than twenty years ago when I was first hunting for Cornish wells. The ‘classic’ Cornish well house you can see in the photograph forms a porch complete with a seat, within which is the entrance to the well itself. The two elements are completely different. The outer porch is formed of large, shaped granite blocks; the inner well is much rougher, consisting of unshaped stone piled into a beehive shape which reminds me very much of other wells, St Piran’s at Trethevy and St Carantoc’s at Crantock. The Duloe well was ‘restored’ in the 1930s
by the local branch of the Old Cornwall Society, and it’s very clear that the form which determines our image of it today dates to that time, and bears no relationship to what it looked like before; its appearance then was probably far closer to those older north Cornwall wells, rather than conforming to a ‘classic’ shape.

At St Keyne’s Well the effect of ‘restoration’ by the Old Cornwall Society is even more marked. Here, there definitely was a small arched well house as it was depicted in a mid-Victorian illustration; but as far as I can see, not a single stone of that old well survives in what we see today. Once again, the little well house consists of shaped granite, its glistening modernity obscured by eighty years of moss and lichen, but the whole building is made of the new stone rather than covering an older fabric. The basin which receives the water is suspiciously regular and geometric; I doubt even that is older than the 1930s. Furthermore, the well now sits in a little paved stone enclosure with two entrances marked by upright stones which are clearly supposed to look like ancient megaliths. Nothing like this appears anywhere in the Victorian engraving of the well: it’s an invention, the creation of a group of people intent on making concrete a fantasy of early Christian Cornwall with its pagan roots: a tiny theme park of Dark Age religion. But nobody points this out.

Elsewhere there are new holy wells. On my journey around Rame Head I was keen to find Garry Wells, marked on the OS map and which I’d joked to friends might well turn out not to be a spring but a chap in a beanie hat sat on a bench … However it is indeed a well, pretty easy to find along the footpath which leads west from the main path between the chapel and the coastguard station. The water pours out of the slate cliffside, and is retained within a concrete kerb. Very interestingly, the kerb is decorated with inlaid chips of slate which form the word UBIQUE (Latin for ‘everywhere’) and two sets of initials, FM and WH. What’s going on here I can’t guess, but someone clearly visits the well for some purpose as there were remains of tea lights and a few shells and pebbles left on the ledge next to the spring. You don’t usually carry candles in your pocket just in case you happen across a sacred site.

In St Germans I idly wandered up a side street and came across a cottage by the name of Venton Gwavas. ‘Venton’ is Cornish for ‘spring’, while ‘Gwavas’ means a housestead or farm continually occupied through the year, so perhaps we could render this in English Winterfold Well. Built into the cottage wall are a covered pump and an older-looking stone chute which presumably tap the same source of water, though no water is obvious now. The owner of the cottage has placed typed Biblical verses in frames next to the well, namely John 6 (‘I will give them to drink of the water of life) and Isaiah 12 (‘You will drink with joy from the wells of salvation’).

Both these last two wells are the subject of modern reverence – in the case of Venton Gwavas, perhaps recognised no further than the person who owns the property. Together with the two older sites they show the difficulties of assuming continuities and identities which aren’t necessarily there, even in Cornwall.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Down In the Woods Today

Well, actually about a week ago, for this folly which is not part of the Rame group but lies further north in Mount Ararat Woods just along from Pentillie Castle. I read about it in a short but very enticing reference in Headley & Meulenkamp: they call it ‘excellently decayed and really creepy’ and describe the ‘delicious thrill of terror’ it provided. Looking at the map and observing a trackway to the site, but no public footpath as such, I wasn’t sure whether it was possible to reach, but decided to investigate anyway. I wedged the car as hard into a bank as I could to keep it off the tiny road that leads to the woods, and strode off in wellies through a gate. The gate bore a little tin sign that disconcertingly read ‘PRIVATE NO ACCESS’, but as the gate was wedged open you couldn’t read this until you investigated, so gingerly I carried on. The gingeriness was only worsened by pheasants exploding out of hedges every few seconds, and eventually I came across an entire enclosure full of pheasants, so decided to turn back. There was a lower path, however, and I took that instead. After a couple of hundred yards this second path turned southwards and the Mount Ararat Mausoleum came into view.

And what a reward: what appeared to be a small castle, embattled and set against the darkness of the trees, appeared, along with a pair of information boards which rather assumed that random members of the public would indeed be stumbling along at some point to find the thing. These described the controversial career of Sir James Tillie, the madman responsible for the fabric you now see, who caused it to be built as a resting place for his mortal remains; but, the story goes, his intention was not to be buried, but to be seated permanently in a specially-made chair to await the Resurrection, dressed and furnished with pen, paper, and with food delivered at regular intervals by the servants. What became of his body when the Parousia failed to occur in short order was not actually recorded, but now there is an exceptionally grim and ill-tempered statue gazing forever from the stone courtyard, rather unreasonably as the view of the Plymouth Sound he enjoys is actually quite pleasant.

The gloomth and decay described by Headley & Meulenkamp has given way to a firm restoration carried out a couple of years ago, so the monument now looks quite spruce. Is this really what a folly-hunter wants, one may wonder; but during the refurbishment the flagstones of the floor were uplifted and human remains found beneath. So Sir James still seems to rest where he intended, if not in the same mad manner as he planned. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Follies of the Rame Peninsula

My holiday trip was to what I now know is called ‘The Forgotten Corner of Cornwall’ – the quarter of the county south and east of Liskeard where hardly anyone now bothers to go. My first full day was spent exploring the Rame Peninsula in more or less dull and drizzly weather, a tiny area yet packed with interesting bits and pieces, from the derelict Tregantle Fort to the little chapel out on Rame Head where, for some unclear reason, people leave bunches of flowers.

The last stop of the day was the Mount Edgecumbe Country Park. This time of the year the House and the formal gardens around it are closed, but you can wander the rest of the landscape and view its follies almost at will. On reading the description of Mount Edgecumbe some years ago I toyed with adding it to my original list of Gothic Gardens, but decided it didn’t quite fit the bill: it is essentially a landscape with follies scattered around it, rather than a topography tweaked and exploited to provide thrilling experiences of the Sublime in which follies may play an organising part. At Edgecumbe the structures frame basically peaceful views out over the Plymouth Sound. The Ruin is a nice, and in fact extremely convincing, mid-18th-century folly; Milton’s Temple provides a note of Classical tranquillity next to a lawn and pool; though I rather like the little viewpoints, Picklecombe and Red Seats, the former apparently cobbled together from Gothic architectural junk, the latter a sort of fake Roman ruin made from slate and stone. But, as I say, not really a Gothic landscape, though it could have become one with the right imagination and will.

Before trudging round Edgecumbe I’d stopped at Penlee Point to investigate a couple of tiny features on the map. At the edge of a wood the Ordnance Survey described a ‘Folly Tower (in ruins)’. All I could find at the site was a circular stump of mortared stonework some three feet across and eighteen inches high, half-swallowed by ferns. That meant I wasn’t expecting much as I toiled down the hill to find what the map insisted was a ‘Grotto’.

Instead, despite such scepticism, my effort was rewarded by a quite stunning structure built onto the cliff wall, consisting of a tunnel leading to an arched chamber with openings looking out over the waters of the Channel. It has an impressive bleakness: there is about it not the slightest flicker of Rococo finesse, and you wonder not only at the effort that went into its construction but also the thinking behind it. It’s hardly a place for comfortable contemplation as the winds scour its archways and angles. Yet somebody comes here: there was a bunch of yellow tulips quite recently deposited. I gather from the Interweb that the building goes by the name of Queen Adelaide’s Grotto, and may belong to the Edgecumbe family of follies as the whole Rame Peninsula was originally part of the estate, but beyond that I’m in the dark as to its history. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Going Under

Just before I went on holiday last week I attended an ecumenical event. Young Morgan plays the trumpet with our occasional church band, and does so very effectively, but formally he ‘belongs’ to our local King’s Church. I’m keen to build links with them, especially as they are outside our local ecumenical structures at the moment, and along with our curate and a couple of other folk from the Swanvale Halt congregation I went to his, and another young chap’s, baptism. Boldly it was to take place in the river at the back of the library. I gather that the chief cause for concern was not the temperature of the water, which is moderate at this time of year, but the mud and slime underfoot: it’s not a very big river, not very fast and not very clean.

How it worked was like this: A couple of worship songs were sung and the officiating gentleman, clad in a wetsuit, explained what baptism is about. The young fellows were then taken severally into the river with their godparents (one each) and asked whether they believed in Jesus and repented of their sins. The dousing (I was pleased to note, properly done in the name of the Trinity) over, members of the congregation present were invited to contribute ‘words’ according to how the Spirit moved them. That was the only point at which we edged into territory I found problematic. Most of the contributions were fairly bland although one older chap did comment that when Morgan went under he saw a fish in the water, ‘Which I think is God saying you’ll be a fisher of men’. I pondered what meanings I could have drawn from the dragonfly I saw at the same moment, dragons being a longstanding symbol of chaos and threat, or the ill-omened magpie I also spotted.

That apart, the rest of it is all structurally pretty similar to a Catholic baptism. It’s not the real thing, of course: to my thinking and feeling it’s ‘thin’ and bare compared to the richness and depth of a more ritualised service. But then, they would say the same thing about what I do with babies at our stone font. What it does is throw the emphasis on the feelings and intentions of individuals, rather than those of a worshipping community; the two models are essentially the same, but the form they take is controlled by different fears and experiences. Realising that gives proponents of those two approaches something concrete to talk about.

And as I said to our curate because we were there it was definitely Valid. I carried my biretta, but I didn’t wear it. 

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Song of the Iron

Back in the Good Old Days nuns used to do the church linens. At Swanvale Halt we had the next best thing to a nun, a former one whose entire life was devoted to the Church, or to cake making. She was our Sacristan and the church linen chest was a constituent kingdom of her empire; and those who attempted to assist her in the great work never quite came up to scratch. Preparing an eight-foot altarcloth, as she told me, was no joke: it had to be boil-washed, starched, spun (which was easier than wringing it by hand), ironed when wet, ironed again on the other side, left to dry, ironed again, and finally painstakingly rolled onto a cardboard tube to prevent creases. Only then was it good enough to grace the Lord’s Board.

Well, our ex-Sister died last year and for a year before that doing anything with the linens was beyond her. Because I’ve been doing the cloths myself I was very relieved when one of the churchwardens, who runs a guest house, said she could put them through her lovely big industrial linen-press and save me the bother. The results are OK, but I know in my heart of hearts that they’re not quite there. I would look out across the altar on a Sunday morning and see a field of tiny creases heightened by the straking light. I will carry on doing them myself, until I find somebody else who sees the need and has the time.

You might complain, perhaps, that modern generations don’t care enough about what happens in church, about the signs and marks of their salvation. However, it might be just as true to reflect that it isn’t an entirely bad thing that people have something else in their lives. The early Anglo-Catholics had such great appeal at least partly because the colour and drama of Anglo-Catholic religion formed such a stark contrast with the drab dullness, and sometimes horror, of the lives most of their parishioners lived. If church is no longer completely the focus of ordinary people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations; if it is no longer provides the most sublime experience they can imagine; if their senses (and perhaps souls) can no longer thrill quite so much to creaseless linen and perfect folds in a corporal or a lavabo towel; that may not be a development without a positive aspect. 

Monday, 30 September 2013

What Lies Beneath

This photograph involves the potential unearthing of a mystery. I only quite recently realised that the walls of the sanctuary of the church, around the old high altar which is now only used a couple of times a year, are lined in a spongy material painted white. At first I couldn't work out what this was in aid of. Then I took a closer look at an old postcard of the church interior, dating from about 1910, which had been sent to us from Germany of all places a couple of years ago. This shows that the walls either side of the chancel (presumably the unseen south wall would be identical to the north) were lined with decorative tiles. The east wall, behind the altar, is also decorated with a dark ground and a lighter repeated pattern, although you can't tell from the photograph whether this is tiling, paintwork or possibly fabric. I don't think it can be the last, as the decoration runs right up to the stone rail and there's nothing to hang fabric from. Later on this wall was covered in curtain which hung from a brass rail put there for the purpose.

Then yesterday we had a scout round the chancel and discovered a tiny patch along the floor where the foam board, whatever it is, has come away and the gap painted over with lashings of white emulsion. Some of the paint has flaked revealing dark reddish-brown ceramic. It flakes off quite easily, actually, with a bit of encouragement.

This means the original Victorian tiles are presumably still there behind the foamboard. When and why they were covered up is anyone's guess. Part of me would dearly like to hack all the wretched foam off the walls and uncover the Victorian splendour again - an urge only just restrained by the thought that the tiles might not be quite so splendid in reality as in my imagination. Not only may time and several decades of glued-on foamboard not been kind to them, but perhaps there may have been a perfectly good reason for their obscuration in the first place. It is, however, so very, very tempting. I have a Stanley knife in my toolbox.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Messy Scripture

Messy Church has been going at Swanvale Halt for over four years now and has built up its own clientele, or congregation as we are supposed to think of it. We always tell ourselves that, in theory, for some people who come, children and adults, it's the only faith and worship input they have. Not everyone: plenty of our regulars are pretty embedded members of the worshipping community, while others belong to other churches around the area. Nevertheless, the statement that for some people Messy Church is 'church' does hold true.

We had a Messy Church gathering yesterday. The theme was 'good neighbours' and one of the helpers devised a quiz (or two, one for adults and one for children) asking them to pair up the different sets of 'neighbours' mentioned in the Bible.

After everyone else had gone into the church hall for tea and cake and I was clearing up, I found one young mum sat on her own pondering the lists. 'I recognise some of the names', she said. It turned out she didn't have a Church background at all, but had been reading Bible stories to her daughter, who is 6. 'I ought to know more about them', she went on, 'But there are so many names and you lose track'. I draw no particular conclusions from this, only that here is one person who is obviously interested and thoughtful, and equally obviously doesn't know very much about Christianity, but is there at all because her daughter comes and does crafts, sings a song and eats cake.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Due Grottone

It's been more than a month since I last updated the blog. There seems not to have been the time, and I haven't had the energy despite there having been some things probably as much worth saying as anything else I've posted here. But there it is.

I won't add anything very pious this time. Instead here is a picture of the grotto as completed last week, first victory in my ludicrous campaign to refashion the garden in 18th-century fashion. I should Rococo, I keep saying to myself.

I'm rather pleased with this. It looks pretty much as I envisaged, once I worked out I couldn't construct the whole thing of rubble; instead the main part is brick, with sandstone slabs for the roof and a rubble arch to frame the opening and lend an irregular appearance. Eventually the grass and weeds will re-colonise the soil around (and on top) of the building and it'll look much more natural.
Sadder is the state of the old grotto at Wanstead Park in east London. I was enticed by reports and relatively recent photos of this structure, and we made a journey out East and then traipsed around the remains of the ornamental canals and pools - which takes rather longer than we anticipated. The grotto is just a wreck of its former self, and you can't even get to it. It's fenced off by a high spiked steel fence. Not too long ago it was far more tidy, but now the weeds and brambles fill it.

Monday, 19 August 2013


Down in darkest West Dorset, in what they will one day call PJ Harvey Country hem-hem, is a village with the lyrical name of Whitchurch Canonicorum, the White Church of the Canons. The church of St Candida and the Holy Cross there is a fine one, although calling it 'the Cathedral of the Vale' is I think a trifle hubristic. Not that the Marshwood Vale, all of six miles or so across, offers any other rivals for cathedral status. In one transept stands a white stone box surmounting three oval alcoves. This is the Shrine of St Wite, one of only two pre-Reformation shrines in England which are still intact - the other is that of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey. The idea is that, should you be ill, you should pray at the shrine to blessed St Wite - supposedly a female hermit who lived out on the hills and was martyred by the Danes, though no one really knows - and place your afflicted part in an alcove. Her Holy Well is not far away to the south of Stanton St Gabriel, while there is another arched well just opposite the church itself.

My family first came here years ago. I was looking for the well, so I think I must have been about 15, which would make my sister 8 at the time.

This last week my mum was on holiday round the coast in Seaton with my sister and her family. It was her first holiday (apart from staying with me for a few days) since my dad died. They all went to the village of the White Church of the Canons, and my nieces, G (7) and J (3) put their hands in the shrine and lit candles, exactly the same as we had first done twenty-eight years ago.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Turton Villa

Once in a while you find something so interesting in a familiar place that you boggle at not having spotted it before. On hols in Dorset last month we had a wander about Weymouth and between the car park and the seafront we found a peculiar little tower poking up between the brick guesthouses.

This is Turton Villa, and this is about the only photograph one can get of it that gives even a remote idea what it might look like, as it's hemmed in by the buildings around it. English Heritage is right, notwithstanding the 1771 date above the doorway it looks mid-19th century rather than late 18th-century Gothick. Pevsner doesn't mention it, but then he wouldn't.

As you can see if you follow the link, there is a legend that the house is connected by a secret passage to Gloucester Lodge on the Esplanade so that George III could visit a mistress installed in the house. Unlikely on virtually every count, quite apart from the date.

St Dunstan's Well, Burstock

It doesn't look like much, but this dribble of water running under a log round the side of a modern house in the hamlet of Horsey, Dorset, is (probably) the Well of St Dunstan at Burstock - that very, very rare thing, a holy well for which there is some record in medieval documents whose existence was unsuspected until a short while ago. I mentioned it last year when I found the reference in the final volume of AD Mills's The Place Names of Dorset. I confess I had hoped for some brickwork, but one mustn't be greedy.

Perp Revival i'the North

When I did some research into the history of the Anglo-Catholic movement some years ago I ended up lamenting the fact that so little information existed about the role of the movement in the North of England. There was the story of St Saviour's, Leeds, paid for by Dr Pusey and others; Fr Ommanney and his work at St Matthew's Carver Street in Sheffield; and that was about it. All the talk otherwise was about the great Papalist churches in north and east London; the shrine churches of the West End; and the seaside strongholds in Bournemouth, Brighton, and other such places. But I knew it couldn't be the whole story. My old vicar in High Wycombe came from South Yorkshire and referred to the 'Biretta Belt' of churches there - Temple Newsam, Goldthorpe, Swinton, and others - and I kept coming across other references. There was precious little written about them, though.

Now there is, gradually. This week I was in receipt of a very welcome bundle of books and pamphlets from the Anglo-Catholic History Society, including Stephen Savage's Mission Accomplished: Five Lost Churches of Leeds, published a couple of years ago. This contains the astonishing picture you can see to the right:

This is Fr Nicholas Greenwell, first vicar of St Barnabas Little Holbeck, probably in the mid-1860s. The reason I find it so astonishing is the juxtaposition of vesture and clergyman. Fr Greenwell is wearing the full Eucharistic vestments, including maniple, at a time when doing so was something liable to get a priest into trouble (and, a few years later, in prison in some cases). He is also a very Victorian looking gentleman in his whiskers and slick hair, quite unlike his clean-shaven and Popish contemporaries in the South such as Fr Lowder of Wapping. It's that combination that I find interesting, and surprising. I can't remember seeing anything of the sort elsewhere.

Fr Greenwell had been curate at Leeds Parish Church under the great old-fashioned High Churchman Walter Farquhar Hook, but in churchmanship St Barnabas galloped far ahead of the mother church in the city centre and became an inspiration to other churches in the area. From the same milieu - the church of St James, in fact - came Fr Richard Twigg, who moved to Wednesbury and became known as 'The Apostle of the Black Country'; him I knew about, but I had no idea of his background. Slowly the story gets pieced together, it seems.