Wednesday, 28 October 2015


Until yesterday I had (thankfully) had no experience of courts. Somehow, however, I'd managed to agree to accompany Joan, a parishioner with a lot of problems I regularly deal with, and her partner to the magistrates' court to meet her solicitor to discuss her ongoing case, which is not going particularly well. Anyway, it was interesting just from the point of view of experiencing the environment. Her solicitor had been expecting to be called into court for two other cases before seeing Joan, but this wasn't happening. I boggled at the amount of paperwork she carried around with her for this particular, tiny case. I had no idea that when a case begins, the police make a judgement as to whether the defendant is likely to plead guilty or not, and this determines both which court the case will be dealt with and how much effort is put into providing statements and paperwork, for the sake of speed and efficiency in an overworked and under-resourced system. I had no idea how faintly daft barristers' wigs look in reality. When we came into the waiting area in front of the courtrooms, Joan greeted a fellow she knew, a very fidgetty chap of about 30 wearing a silvery grey suit. 'What are you here for?' 'Just a couple of assaults,' he said before adding hurriedly 'I didn't do it', and crossing to the water-fountain where he dropped plastic cups on the floor trying to fill one up.

When I got down to the church for Evensong I found a carer who'd been visiting a lady in the sheltered flats next door but in the course of this had met a very unhappy young man who'd been self-harming and needed a bit of help. Although after about half an hour, some prayers and reassurance he was a lot happier and not so tearful, I don't think I handled it very well and should have probed further about his self-destructive feelings. Dealing with people in this miserable state is not a matter of common sense and you can't wing it, and I've been caught out this way before. You actually have to learn what to do and do it, a sort of 'mirror-signal-manoeuvre' of  pastoral encounters. I will write myself a note.

Later on the carer who'd met this young man and brought him to the church phoned me up in tears, worrying that she hadn't done enough and had upset the lady she looks after in the process. It turned out that she'd got her care-ee to call 'the vicar' and ask him to come down to the church. Whoever that was, it wasn't me: I suspect I know who it would have been, but it took quite a conversation with the carer to work out exactly what she was talking about given the initial mistake.

Finally Mad Trevor called. He dreamt that a big divine boot kicked one of the witches he's convinced are tormenting him into Hell, which cheered him up. However other witches are still about their infernal tricks and he wanted me to 'pray for the whole world of football' because they are trying to 'make things not take their natural course'. He also asked me to call him at 7.50am this morning so he can make a hospital appointment. He was very insistent that I set my alarm, so I don't know when he thinks I get up. 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Well Hunting In East Yorks

My trip to the East Riding was not marked by visits to a great variety of wells. The first I managed to get to was the now-dry Well of Our Lady in Scarborough Castle, glimpsed through the fog on a damp and dull morning; and I spent a while scrambling through various hedges and fields to discover the usual sort of damp holes in the ground and featureless ponds such as Knox Well at Reighton and Keld Spring at Grindale

Rather prettier are the three well-known wells at Lastingham over the boundary in North Yorkshire, St Chad's, St Cedd's, and St Ovin's, shown below in that order:

They are all dry now - an increasingly frequent fact and one which has a peculiar sadness as it applies to wells - and a lot could be said about their history by someone who wanted to devote some thought to the matter. St Ovin's Well seems to have been an ordinary village water supply given the name of a monk of Lastingham who appears in the writings of the Venerable Bede but who had no cult in the Middle Ages. It looks superficially similar to St Chad's Well but in fact has a different form. Similar remarks could be made about the equally well-known well of St John of Beverley at Harpham which I reckon has been extensively 'restored' at least three times to judge by the look of the thing. 

The best well, though, was St Helen's Well at Goodmanham which I called in on during my journey home. A brisk walk down a footpath led to a site which has clearly been very thoroughly adopted by the local authorities who have landscaped the area around the well, erected steps and a handrail, and put up a rather bright and cheerful information board despite the fact that virtually nothing is known about the history of the site at all. As Jeremy Harte points out in English Holy Wells, it wasn't until the 1920s that the well's earlier name of Sentenny Wells was reinterpreted as 'St Helen's' - although it's hard to see what else can have given rise to the name. Many writers mention the elder tree above the well, and it is speculated that Anglo-Saxon ellern has given rise to wells of St Helen elsewhere - but there's no evidence of that happening at Goodmanham, and how ellern might morph into Sentenny is a debatable matter.

St Helen's Well, having been a bit tumbledown for quite some time, is now very neat and tidy, arguably a bit too much so, but doubtless it will weather down over time. I can't quite work out how much of the original structure - in so far as there was one - has been incorporated in the modern version. Photographs from a mere six years ago seem to show virtually no stonework around the well-head at all, and the stump of the elder tree that lingered above it for some years has finally gone.
However the scale and secluded location of the site make it impressive, and people are clearly responding. The old custom of hanging rags near some wells so that whatever burden, psychological or medical, you bring to the well will slowly fade as the rag rots away, has now melded with the notion of ribbons for remembrance or commemoration and one of the trees at the bottom of St Helen's Well steps has a dazzling polychrome variety of ribbons. These are mainly polyester rather than cloth, and aren't going to go anywhere anytime soon. You can glimpse the odd CD and trinket; and I noticed that one visitor, apparently, has been on the Race For Life several years running and left her medals here, hanging together on one of the branches. 

Thursday, 22 October 2015

St Catherine at Pickering

Two Wednesdays ago I climbed the path in the pleasing Yorkshire town of Pickering to the parish church of SS Peter & Paul. Little did I suspect that the church houses a huge sequence of medieval wall paintings, uncovered and restored in the 1870s and 1880s; and furthermore, amazingly, I had no idea that among the images - St George and the Dragon, St Christopher, St Edmund shot with arrows, the Coronation of the Virgin and the Harrowing of Hell, is a beautiful depiction of the story of St Catherine. My photographs are a bit indistinct, even with some amendment, and you can doubtless find better ones elsewhere, but they are my photographs.

1. The Emperor Maxentius sets up an idol in Alexandria (a very devilish one, too) and announced that everyone must worship it, with sackbuts, trumpets and all kinds of music, as it says in the Prophet Daniel. Catherine, pious, learned, beautiful, and already handily crowned, refuses to join in.
 2. Maxentius sends a gang of pagan philosophers to convince Catherine of the error of her opinions: she converts them to Christianity instead, and so they are all done away with, post-haste.
 3. Catherine is imprisoned.
 4. Catherine is taken out of prison, where angels have been keeping an eye on her ...
 5. ... and is stripped to the waist to be scourged. Seeing the blessed Saint topless is a bit disconcerting, but presumably the medieval parishioners of Pickering were unfazed by such frankness. Her torturers do let her keep her crown on.
 6. Catherine is returned to prison ...
 7. ... where she is visited by the Empress, who she also converts to Christianity.
 8. Maxentius is now beside himself and orders Catherine's execution. Here she is between the razored wheels which are intended to flay her to pieces, but angels helpfully smash them up and the bits massacre the unfortunate pagans at the bottom.
 9. Finally Catherine is beheaded.
Funnily enough I am this very day in receipt of a copy of Katherine Lewis's 2000 book The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England in which she points out that the Pickering murals were 'rather imaginatively repainted' and that the beheading scene in particular was almost completely reinvented (the detail of Catherine's hair being swept forward to expose her neck does look strangely un-medieval). Dr Lewis states mildly that 'the repainted nave as a whole does at least have the advantage of giving one an idea of what a brightly painted late medieval English church looked like'. 

Indeed, one supposes, it does. I found myself almost completely overcome by the unexpected presence of my Friend in Heaven and, had there not been quite a number of other people in the church at the time, might well have fallen to tears. As it was, it must have been peculiar to the other visitors to have me mooning around the nave in front of these particular images.

On my way home I dropped in at Leicester to see an old friend and visit the King. The Cathedral has this Catherine window which I suspect is mid-20th-century:

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Holiday Churches

I didn't get into a huge number of churches while I was in Yorkshire, but here are three of the more interesting. 

Firstly, St Andrew's Boynton, right next to the Hall on whose estate I was staying; a typical little village church from the outside, but within, distinctly unusual. There are those green pews, for a start, virtually unique as far as I know. Even more oddly, until the 1930s they faced inward, so worshippers at Boynton looked at one another across the nave aisle as though they were part of a college or monastery. Then there's the arrangement of pillars around the altar, forming a sort of integral baldacchino though I very much doubt that was the intended effect: Pevsner describes them as 'Gothick' although they have more of an Egyptian feel to me. Finally, the whole area east of the altar is a private memorial chapel to the Hall, and inaccessible from the rest of the church: you can only get in via an external door.

Next, St Mary's, Lastingham. This church is small, but massive, piling up in stages on a hillock to one side of the village. The space for the congregation is quite limited but the building is strangely lofty, albeit combining its spaciousness with the dark majesty of Norman churches. It has a Byzantine feel about it. Beneath the church is one of this country's ancient church crypts, a thousand and more years old. 

Finally, St Patrick's, Patrington. I was on a journey down through Holderness to Spurn Head and not intending to visit this church at all - I merely spotted it from the road and thought it was worth a look, mainly because of the unusual pillared coronet around the steeple. And so it proved: 'the Queen of Holderness', this church is referred to, far too grand for the settlement Patrington now is but most appropriate for a one-time important market town in a rich agricultural and trading area. Its gorgeous Decorated stone vaulting creates a sense of unity you rarely find in English churches, developed as they have over long periods of time. It has never been significantly altered or restored; it houses an Easter Sepulchre and a remarkable number of gargoyles.

As I went up the churchyard path to St Patrick's I looked at that stunning spire and noticed there was a solar halo exactly centred on it from where I stood. It was still there when I came out, slightly reeling from architectural sugar-shock.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Keeping In Touch

Image result for god adam sistine"When I'm retired I shall never go near a bloody church again", my old vicar told me when I met him for lunch on my way to the Dairy Cottage a fortnight ago. This regular statement is one of the ways I know he is basically all right. 

My October holiday is the only time I have any Sundays not leading worship at Swanvale Halt, two in succession. I normally go to an 8am service, as it will be quiet, directed Godward without too many distractions, and nobody is likely to ask me any questions. This year I was at Bridlington Priory for the first Sunday, and our local Cathedral for the second. I'd enquired about the 8am at Bridlington before going and, both when I asked and when I actually turned up for Mass, people kept trying to encourage me to go to the 10.30 service instead 'because our choir is very good': they obviously think it's their main selling point. I couldn't have cared less, to be honest, though I thought honesty was not required at that point.

When off work of course I still pray each day, although I don't say the Office. I still say the Benedictus and sometimes the Magnificat as a kind of reminder of the Office, but don't feel obliged to recite the public prayer of Holy Church as I normally would as I am not being a public Christian at such times. However once decoupled from my usual disciplines and routines even 'ordinary' prayer seems to become a bit harder and less fruitful. I continually find my mind distracted by the plans of the day ahead, even if they're only about gardening.

I also suspect it would be strangely easy to fall into not going to church. I often tell people that I feel my life would start to run out of control if I had a week not attending divine service, but that seems quite an abstract concern; it probably wouldn't be very noticeable at first. I wonder how long it would actually take before any sense of God's presence in my life began to fade and dissipate; it's hard enough to maintain at the best of times. If this is how I feel, it's easy enough to see how good Christians drift into separation and absence. Initially the difference it makes is all too hard to discern.

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Dairy Cottage, Boynton

Now I am back from hols I can begin a series of the usual sorts of posts about wells, museums, and other such pressing matters! Here was my location for the week: the Gothic Dairy Cottage at Boynton Hall in East Yorkshire. This fantastic folly is not a Landmark but is privately owned, the owners being the Marriotts who occupy the Hall and restored the Dairy Cottage from its previous ruinous state in the mid-1980s. I say 'Gothic', though in fact only the central bit of it is pointy, while the sitting room has a nicely Classical feel as you can see in the photograph below.

The interior fittings are not as precisely themed as they might be at a Landmark property, but have a charm of their own, ranging as they do from an 18th or early 19th century painting in a naive style in the dining room to theatrical costume watercolours in the sitting room which have the look of the Ballets Russes. They've sourced a set of Gothic dining chairs, though. The bedroom is above the dining room.

The oddest bit of furnishing is what looks bizarrely like an altar in the dining room ...
... behind which, to increase the religious atmosphere, are a set of Delftware tiles depicting various Biblical scenes. You might be able to recognise the weird episode of the bronze snake from the Book of Numbers:
The Dairy Cottage isn't the only folly on the estate. At the end of the walled garden which guests are welcome to wander around is an 18th-century hothouse with an arched brick entrance, and the Garden House sits within the main Hall garden, a building apparently plain and unremarkable before being Gothicised by a later owner:
The thing I found most trying about my stay was not being able to make my little travel radio work, something of a wrench for a Radio 4 addict.

While the housekeeper was showing me round she pointed towards a barred door and warned in tones which sounded slightly too offhand, 'And this door we never open.' I felt as though I might have strayed into a cheap 1970s horror film. It was somewhat disappointing to work out it only led to the outside.