Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Battle Abbey Holy Well

My excursion into Sussex a couple of weeks ago brought another surprise following on from the Ladyspring Grotto at Ashburnham. I took a turn around Battle town, visiting the museum, poking my nose through the door of the Abbey, and failing to get to the bank in time to pay in a cheque. On the way back to the car I called in at the Library in the (vain as it turned out) hope that there might be a stack of ex-stock books for sale. On a whim I looked at the shelf of local interest titles, and another whim made me pick up a volume of tatty old local articles and booklets bound together. One of these was the Duchess of Cleveland's guidebook to the Abbey - undated but about 1885, I think - which contained the following very unexpected notice:

On the north side of the Cloister Garth stood the Holy Well, from which some writers have derived the name of Senlac, given to this place by Ordericus Vitalis. It is mentioned in Queen Elizabeth's time, as a place held sacred by recusants' :—whither many, especially women, resort, like a young pilgrimage, and call it Dr. Graye's well.' This Dr. Grey was a priest, who had been committed to prison by Sir Francis Walsingham, about a year before, and was then chaplain to the Dowager Viscountess Montague, a zealous Roman Catholic, at that time resident at the Abbey. I have heard,' con­tinues the report, that there have been above a score together there at evening prayer time on a Sunday.' It was afterwards known as the Wishing Well, and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of Sir Godfrey Webster's alterations, in 1814. One of the workmen employed described it to me as a square opening five or six feet wide, enclosed by a massive stone wall nearly seven feet high; a flight of steps led up to it on either side, and at each angle was what he called a vase, or receptacle for flowers and votive offerings. The spring was conveyed to the other side of the church wall, and now furnishes the drinking water of the household; it is remarkably sweet and pure, and we appreciated it for its own sake long before we were made aware that it was the charmed water of the old Holy Well.

The Holy Well of Battle Abbey not only proves how much there is still waiting to be discovered in the field of holy wells - I haven't seen it referred to by anyone else - but it is interesting on at least three other counts. First, it must be a holy well without any pagan antecedents, as Battle only exists because of its Abbey established as Duke William's thank-offering for the victory of Senlac Hill. Second, assuming it had some reverence paid to it in the intervening centuries, it shows a group of Roman Catholics using a holy well as an element in an attempt to keep the traditional religion going in the protected environment of a great house under the patronage of an aristocratic family. Third, it shows that sacred status declining into that of a wishing well, in the way we assume often happens but can so rarely demonstrate. How is it that this fascinating and, arguably, important site has so far escaped anyone's attention?

There's also a house in the town called Prior's Well, and I remember passing a cottage named Jacob's Well a few miles away on the main road. Would anyone care to do a proper survey of Sussex's holy wells? 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Ashburnham's Wells

On my week off a little while ago I made the slightly crazy decision to drive for 75 miles to look at a grotto. It was down in Sussex, a county about which I know very little, so I treated it as a fun excursion into terra incognita. The occasion was this: Some time ago, a parishioner gave me a booklet about Ashburnham Place, which was a minor landed estate once upon a time and is now a Christian conference centre after most of the old house was taken down. Around the surviving chunk of the house, outbuildings and church are the remains of the landscaped garden in which Capability Brown had a hand, and these include, on the south side of the lake, the Ladyspring Grotto. I thought this was worthwhile pursuing, so made my way there on a day which promised to be 'showery' but for the earlier part of the afternoon, at least, was pretty uniformly wet as these photographs reveal.

The church still functions as a parish church as well as the chapel of Ashburnham Place itself, and is on the Low Church side of the fence. It still has a railed-in communion-table in the 17th-century fashion, although I'm not sure the woodwork dates to that time.

Anyway, a walk around the perimeter of the lake leads eventually to a winding path up into the hillside to the south. The Grotto is intended to convey the impression of a sort of Graeco-Roman shrine, and the approach is carefully planned - you approach either up a direct path which leads you to the entrance, although the view of the Grotto is shielded until you're only a few yards away, or alternatively follow a different and higher path to the west which leads you around the top of the gully in which the Grotto sits, and then down stone steps past massive blocks of stone to the shrine itself.

This all works remarkably well in creating a sense of the mysterious and numinous, even though the site is a bit overgrown at the moment and the structure is nothing very special inside - the archway is plastered over, and the water rattles undecorously down a drain contained in a stone trough. As for the name, the story goes that there is an image of a 'lady' - or perhaps three ladies, depending on which notice around the grounds you pay attention to - painted on the plaster on the rear wall, which you can see if you splash it with water. I could see little apart from swirls of mould doubtless partly caused by visitors splashing water on the wall, but the estate guidebook does assure us that the image can be seen with infra-red photography. I wonder whether the name in fact existed long before the Grotto itself. The guidebook ascribes the building to Lancelot Brown himself, which I doubt very much as it would have been pretty unique among his work: the great garden designer dabbled in architecture but wasn't really a folly-builder. This looks far more like the work of a landowner who's read his Horace and knows a bit about pagan religion, and has the strange fancy of replicating something of the sort in his garden.

Not far along the side of the lake are the Ironspring, a somewhat unexciting pond, and the Shell Fountain which channels the overflow of a feeder into the lake, but it's the Ladyspring which is the pick of the bunch here. Well worth the drive and the wet!

Thursday, 24 July 2014


It's been ages since we went to the Haslemere Fringe Festival one Friday evening. I don't know what I was expecting, but somehow it wasn't a remarkably small field with a stage off to one side and a variety of food stalls and, for some reason, massage and aromatherapy tents around its edge. In the middle of the field was a possibly fibreglass statue of a bright green lion which rather reminded me of the old Red Lion at High Wycombe, whose original version graces the collection of Wycombe Museum, but looking in rather better condition. The drizzly rain swept periodically across the field as we regarded with differing degrees of enthusiasm a selection of performers while waiting for the reason we were there, an intriguing band called Moulettes who I'd heard on that breaking-ground for cutting-edge music, Radio 4's Loose Ends. They were well worth the wait, and the damp, occupying the unclaimed ground somewhere between folk, classical and alt-rock, and heavy on strings, like a less unhinged version of Rasputina. Mind you, the live version of 'Lady Vengeance' was as violent and jagged as anything you could hope for. I say strings-heavy, but as well as the cellos and violins there's a girl playing a bassoon, such an eccentric instrument I can't help but warm to any act not being a full concert orchestra that includes it. It turns out that Moulettes have been around for simply ages, and I simply failed to come across them before, which is very remiss of me. Their visual style is very appealing, too, a sort of very tongue-in-cheek neo-18th-century phantasmagoria of swirling planets, skeletons and angels.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A (White) Rose By Any Other Name

I sat in the barber's not long ago waiting my turn in the chair, and leafing through a slightly elderly copy of History Today. An article caught my attention - a revisionist account of the life of Henry V, that great paragon of medieval kingly and chivalric virtue, pointing out that he was, in fact, a bit of a psychopath. Far from the Shakespearean image of the monarch who passes from dissolute youth to heroic kingship, Henry was thoroughly involved in the English policy of war from his early teens, and as a result of his survival of a near-fatal wound at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 when he was 16, developed a sort of morbid piety which, combined with a ruthless approach to warfare, produced some deeply unattractive traits and acts when he acceded to the throne. Henry's low point, from the viewpoint of modern morality - and frankly even from that of the time - was the siege of Rouen in 1418-19 when, after the city authorities had expelled several thousand women, children and poor people expecting that the English would, chivalrously, allow them through the siege lines, the king insisted that they were the city's responsibility and confined them to the town ditch. On Christmas Day he allowed two priests to distribute food to the prisoners, but for the rest of the siege was content to watch them starving to death.

Conversely the rehabilitation of Richard III continues apace in preparation for his reburial in Leicester, whenever that actually happens. Good King Dickon exercises a mysterious hold over many of my Goth friends, and always has, it seems. Years ago when Jennie Grey was compiling her fake history of the Gothic Society it was Richard who she retrospectively roped in as the Society's founder, and I number quite a few partisans of the late Duke of Gloucester among my friends. I suppose it has to do with the sense of his being maligned and marginalised, and the realisation that beneath the vilified villain of children's history books across the decades there lies in fact a complex figure who did a remarkable amount of good during his short time as king (notwithstanding what may or may not have happened to his nephews).

History Today reminded me how futile it is to imagine you can control what other people think about you. Medieval monarchs suffer the problem most acutely, because the amount of information about their acts and motivations is remarkably limited, but the same sort of thing happens to us all. If you asked people in Swanvale Halt about my predecessor and what kind of a person she was like, you'd get a variety of highly contrasting answers - as I've experienced. I wonder what people will say about me when the time comes. In the end all one can do is to get on with doing what you think is right and disregard what other people think of it, and you. That's their business.

How close we will manage to get to Richard's funeral, and whether we will indeed be able tearfully to cast white roses on the coffin as it rolls past, I don't know, but I suspect we will be there somewhere.

Friday, 18 July 2014


We went to the Chap Olympiad last Saturday, and I’ll write a bit more about the event itself some other time. Ms Formerly Aldgate had been before, but it was my first venture there.

A friend posted a link on Facebook to this very annoyed blogpost by Ms Redlegsinsoho, justifying the event and the antics of the people who attend it against various critics. I think she gets a little intemperate and, as is the manner of these things, edges into the sort of intolerance she herself has a go at, especially as I couldn’t find much online which is particularly hostile towards the Olympiad or Chappism in general. The one exception is this vile, angry article in Vice, but then you don’t go to Vice for anything well-considered or understanding and its contributors toe a dedicated line in mock-fury.

Nevertheless, Goths, Vintagers and Anglo-Catholics all know what it’s like to be insulted for their interest in certain forms of dress. I will leave aside the last case for the time being, as its context is a self-consciously ideological one which separates it from a mere fashion subculture.

Or does it? Those subcultures do each carry a sort of ideological gloss. For Goths, that ideology can be expressed in very succinct terms as ‘Life’s a drama: let’s dress up’. I haven’t done as much thinking about the ideological implications of the Vintage scene, but they are there: you can’t flick through very far the pages of The Chap without becoming aware that there is a definite agenda in favour of tradition, politeness, decorum and formality. I suppose you might sum it up as ‘The past can teach us stuff: let’s dress up’. Both subcultures share an assumption that the way you look encodes and declares these basic ideas. Both are also complicated by a knowing self-awareness that there are ambiguities in their positions, and both use camp and over-the-top humour to defuse the ambiguity: for Goths, the ambiguity is to do with the dangers of melancholy, romanticism, self-involvement and deathliness, and for Vintagers it’s the negative elements of the past whose positive lessons they want to draw on.

In both subcultures, too, there is a privileging of the idea of beauty and a commitment to beautiful things, even if they find beauty in different places. You could argue (as society once assumed) that meticulous care of one’s appearance rubs off in the form of care for other matters – the feelings and needs of other people, a concern to do work well, respect for one’s surroundings; that’s definitely what Chappism argues, and the idea even finds a place in Goth (read Jillian Venters’s writings on the matter). An old-fashioned sort of Christian thinker might argue that beauty elevates the soul and, paradoxical though it may seem in the case of the Goth world, a concern for beauty is connected to a joyousness about life, provided it remains light-hearted and full of gratitude rather than censoriousness.

Non-subcultural people looking at these ludicrously attired individuals can respond negatively to the implied criticism of themselves that they see embodied before them. If these people are so concerned to distinguish themselves from me and others like me, it must be because they think they’re better than me and want me to know about it. And very often there is some justification for this: I have come across (thankfully indirectly) Goths who contemptuously use the horrible words ‘norms’ and ‘mundanes’ for non-Goths, while arch criticism of non-Chappish dress is what keeps The Chap going. But as always happens, these mutual criticisms chase each other round, using each other as the justification for an escalating cycle of contempt and misunderstanding, based on what each party thinks the other thinks.

The truth is that ‘Life’s a drama’, ‘The past can teach us stuff’, and ‘Beauty is good’ are pretty unexceptionable ideas which most people can happily subscribe to: it’s just that not everyone chooses to devote their time and resources to expressing those ideas in what they look like and the things they do. The fact that some people do and some don’t doesn’t give either group any reason casually to despise the other when they meet them. Because a person hasn’t dedicated a good portion of their lives to symbolising and ritualising these basic ideas doesn’t mean that they necessarily have a superficial view of existence, disdain everything about the past, or are indifferent to beauty, although they may exhibit all of those traits. Conversely, subcultural participants may equally pay no more than lip-service, or not even that, to the ideals of beauty, creativity or civility their particular fashion embodies, no matter what they look like, as neither a Darkangel dress nor a tweed three-piece proves that its owner is not an idiot. I can vouch for the truth of both these statements.

A subcultural participant meeting someone who isn’t might despise them for not coming up to their standards, or they might assume that they had chosen to devote their limited resources to something else equally life-enhancing; a ‘normal’ person meeting a subcultural participant might choose to resent their pretentiousness and elitism, or appreciate their attention to the task of increasing the general gaiety of the world. Either way, we ought to presume the best of other people and treat them accordingly, and take an interest in them, until they demonstrate that we are wrong. This utterly banal and obvious advice ought not to need stating, but it
clearly does.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

And Relax

I was terribly excited a few days ago. I went to visit a couple who'd enquired about baptising their son - not regular churchgoers but from a family, on one side anyway, with longstanding links to the church. When the child in question is a first one, I always give the couple the option (and the order of service) of the Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child as well as baptism, so that, if they decide they can't in conscience make the dramatic promises which are part of the baptism rite, they have another form of saying thank you to God for the fact that the child is here, and introducing him or her to the world. You may remember this coming up recently in my spiritual director's experiences.

Anyway, to my astonishment this couple told me the Thanksgiving service was what they wanted, and so we talked that through, discussing how we might personalise the service and make it special. Nobody in my experience has ever picked the Thanksgiving service, no matter how hazy their grasp of Christianity or distance from the Church: I was not merely surprised, but delighted that someone should deliberately decide they didn't want to parrot things they didn't believe, and cycled home to put the kettle on in some elation, mentally composing what I would say when we actually held the service.

Then the phone rang. 'We made a mistake,' said Young Mum, 'It's the christening service we want, with proper godparents. I just thought the other one was a shorter version ...'

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Terra Infirma

I'm still catching up with posts here, but I leap ahead of myself a bit to think about yesterday's General Synod vote, very emphatically, to support the proposed legislation allowing women to be consecrated bishops in the Church of England. Because I know too many people on the anti side of the question, I don't regard the decision with any joy as such, but I am thoroughly relieved it's done. Once you ordain women as deacons and priests, to insist they can never occupy the episcopal order is silly, illogical and shameful, and sweeping that distinction away can do the Church nothing but good.

I find the arguments against ordaining women very weak indeed. The arguments from Scripture sound uncompromising, until you dig into all the things in Holy Writ even the soundest of Evangelicals among us do not adhere to, and all the interminable questions over which bits of what you say you regard as God's Word you nevertheless put to one side, and which you enshrine as essential, open up unconvincingly. What you are left with is a series of specious justifications for the distinctions you make, drawn not from Christ but from earthly prejudice. It would be better to say no more than 'We think God wants men to do this and women to do that, but we don't know why.' The answer to that question can only become clear by experience.

I opened the Bible as usual this morning, and at the moment I'm going through the Psalms. 'How pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity', Psalm 133 informed me. One astonishing aspect of yesterday's vote is that of a Church making sincere efforts to accommodate difference in an unprecedented way. You may argue that this is a foolhardy venture, but it is a dramatic and impressive one. Of course, this is what Anglicans have said they've been doing since the vote to ordain women in 1992, but they haven't really meant it; instead that decision was veiled in dishonesty all round, in that its proponents believed the antis would all change their minds, leave, or die, and the antis believed they could deflect the next step in the process, and neither side actually made any of this clear. Even before this particular issue became pressing, the Anglican Church's much-vaunted 'broadness' has always been a bit fake. Except on national bodies and committees, Anglo-Catholics, Liberals and Evangelicals have been able to exist within their own little bubbles, actually having a minimal amount to do with each other and being effectively able to ignore one another's existence, able to pretend that the Church is really them and other congregations like them. We can't pull off that trick any more, and it could be, could be, that we could actually begin learning from those who are different from us rather than merely pretending that that's what we do. But we'll have to be determined to do it. Can we?

Monday, 14 July 2014

Relic Overload

A couple of weeks ago a sunny day off took me walking the footpaths north of Guildford and to the church of St Edward, Sutton Green. I came here some years ago to visit the very nice holy well of St Edward in the churchyard (a site whose history is somewhat obscure), but had never managed to get inside the church itself. On this particular day the building was open, and although the church - beautifully situated across the fields as you can see in the photograph - isn't a great success architecturally (it's too much out-of-the-catalogue 19th-century Roman Catholic for that), it contains the most astonishing collection of relics. There are various bits of sanctified bone encased in glittering Gothic reliquaries, a fifteenth-century cupboard which once did service as a tabernacle in the church, and even - not pictured here - Cardinal Heenan's biretta, though why that should be a particularly revered object I don't know.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Sins of Omission

Our curate’s lovely first Mass had an unfortunate postscript: a young homeless gentleman (not the one I’ve mentioned before) who arrived at the end of the service and with whom I had a lengthy conversation, about his problems, what might improve his situation, places where he might find a ‘community’ to be part of – I thought of Pilsdon in Dorset – and his suicidal thoughts. ‘I know how I would do it’, he said. We agreed that we’d meet again forty-five minutes later when I’d had time to go home and fetch a sleeping bag, some food and the details of Pilsdon. I didn’t see him at the appointed time, nor for an hour afterwards, nor any other time since.

It was only when he failed to appear that it occurred to me that his thinking of suicide might have been more immediate than I realised, and had I not been as tired after the service I might have been more alert as to the best thing to do. There hasn’t been a report of a suicide that might have been him in the newspaper, so I hope nothing happened, but that isn’t conclusive, and it could be that I was his last port of call on the journey and the last to let him down.

What I have resolved as a result is that, in similar circumstances, I won’t have this sort of conversation on my own. I tend to think it’s my job to do, which it is, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have another view brought to bear on a situation, which would do the lay leadership of the church good, and mitigate my mistakes.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Fully Charged with Magic Fairy Dust

... has been my somewhat facetious description to our curate of what would happen to her once she was ordained priest, as she was at the end of June. It was a great delight to me (and to everyone else) when she was able to preside at the Eucharist for the first time on the feast of SS Peter & Paul. The picture shows the occasion - I bought a secondhand red dalmatic (which I'll post about separately when time arises) to deacon for her, which we can, under my Grand Plan to up the temperature on the great feast days, use on Pentecost in years to come.

Last Sunday I was able, for the first time in years, to come to the 8am mass in our church without leading it. I could sit in a pew along with everyone else and pray, and look at the beautiful Crucifixion in the east window, while our curate celebrated with such dignity and warmth. I am very fortunate that I have a colleague who is no prima donna but wants earnestly and reverently to serve the mysteries which open the doors to the Kingdom and reveal God in his nature.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Just To Add

As a postscript to the last post, The Wendy House in Leeds closed this month as well. The Wendy House was a 'dark alternative' club which operated from Leeds University Union and had been running for no less than 16 years. Leeds has always had the reputation as being the Gothic capital of the North and there was plenty of enthusiastic clientele. However a combination of personal factors, financial losses and being fiddled about with by the venue brought the organisers (who I don't know) to conclude that it was time to call it a day.

A quick Googling revealed a local blogger with quite a  bit to say about the demise of the Wendy House. It's worth pointing out that 200-300 attenders - which he regards as the dispiriting tail-end of a great tradition - would be very respectable indeed at most other alternative events I've ever been to, but clearly in the context of the Wendy House wasn't enough to keep the place going. The complaints about music styles and room-space are the sort of details people bring up when it's quite clear that any sort of institution is going down the tubes, but the real reasons lie beyond such factors, and are harder to get a handle on - in churches as much as in Goth clubs.

Photo from the Wendy House website.