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Peter Divey: The insistent pull of English medieval church architecture

This is an article by Peter Divey.

I am passionate about visiting churches. I grew up in Norfolk, and towers were everywhere. My family were not religious and we never attended church outside of weddings, baptisms or funerals. Even the smallest of hamlets in Norfolk often had a church, usually a tumbledown graveyard too. I would cycle out and explore. When I eventually managed to save enough money to buy my first car, having refused to buy with a loan like all my friends, I went on several magical tours and visited every cathedral in England. I found wonderful churches all about me. Different styles from the Norfolk perpendicular that I knew so well. Since then I have visited many of the major European churches. The setting is usually different to the English. Surrounded by crowded street and urban sprawl, no green haven without. Built in a uniform style, without the accretions and extensions that is the muddled but lovable style of many a grand English church.

Hunkered down under a greying sky, half buried in the slope of the land, cowering under venerable old pine trees twisted by weather and age. Rooks cawing above big nests, swirling about as they settle in for another eerie night. Headstones all askew, silhouetted under the moon.  The small isolated parish church in England is unique. It may only be hundred yards from the quiet road but confidence is not leaking away as the building sits, waiting, defiant, never aloof. You genuinely get the feeling from some churches that they expect the good times to return, they will be busy and essential once more. That is how the spirit in a church feels to me. Most have it, a few do not. There has been no congregation of any number for decades but a few enthusiasts tend to the basic needs of the church. Fetes, raffles, money is raised when it is urgently needed.

Change of use can work in the town, but rarely out in the countryside. The church becomes secular, useful, selling antiques, perhaps a cafe and bookshop. Somehow, that vital spirit always fades, but I am pleased that the building survives. I have always had the fascination without the faith. Nearly all the money gravitates to the famous, the majestic, the few that are tourist traps and can charge for entry. The rest scrabble for the pennies that are left over. Dilapidation is romantic to some. I have never understood that.

Knowing of my interest I am often asked, “What is the best church in England?” Best, I explain, is rather different to favourite, of which I have several. Lincoln has the very best setting, despite a few claims to equality. The view as you approach by road, with the cathedral standing proud above you is beyond compare. Ely has the single most impressive architectural feature. On the right day, with the sunlight flooding in it is magical. Peterborough cathedral is the very best, according to my wife. She will not be swayed. It has merit aplenty. There are thirty or so English churches which are undoubtedly the very best. You can spend hours in Canterbury, such is the history and interest, as you can in all of them. Few of these, though, are amongst my favourites.

I once found myself in Peter Mancroft church, and magnificent it is, overlooking Norwich market. I overheard a couple talking who were clearly from the USA. Boston it turned out. As brilliant as the ‘cathedral’ was they were just a little disappointed. I ended up walking them across to the Anglican cathedral and spent ninety minutes with them. Their son had enrolled at the university and they were visiting. I do not know if they did, but I suggested they visit Boston (in Lincolnshire), to see where some of the founders came from when the ships first sailed in 1630. The church I explained, had a remarkable tower. They promised they would.

A few churches are overrated, many more are underrated. Selby Abbey is very near the top of this second list, definitely one of my favourites. I heard a sad story a few years ago from there. A lorry pulled up, set up scaffolding, and proceeded to remove large amounts of lead from the roof. Only the next day were the roofers found to have been thieves. Tarpaulin was the order of the day, for months, but all is sorted now. When you visit a church there will be a collection box, a safe or a slot set into the wall, perhaps a fancy clear glass box. Unless you have paid for entry, give a pound or two if you enjoyed your visit. Write a comment in the visitor book if there is one.

It is fashionable now to upgrade select churches to the status of a Minster. Hull, Great Yarmouth, for example. Very large churches both. As if the C of E recognises this underrating, and the necessity for such symbolism. Great Yarmouth has a fascinating history. Very badly damaged by World War 2 bombing, massive repairs, in fact a rebuilding, was needed. Trouble is Yarmouth church is nearly always locked and it is difficult to access the vibrant interior. Frustrating. Grantham, with its legendary spire, was a recent, pre-lockdown visit. A prime candidate for a Minster upgrading I would have thought. I also took in Newark that day. Just as impressive as Grantham in a different way, more ornamented and immediately pleasing. I was concerned about the condition of the church though, stonework had fallen, water was nibbling at mortar and stone joints at ground level. The water was winning. Looking round you could easily sink a million pounds into this one church alone. You could spend huge amounts on almost every medieval church in the land. Some will fall. Literally. Hard choices will have to be made.

Oh yes, my favourite church? That would be Salle in Norfolk. Set amidst nothing. A cricket pitch, a lane, a cottage or two. Windows are bricked up, the ravages of time are being held back, but this place has serenity and calm. Spirit. A church set in golden aspic. Use them or lose them can no longer apply. The faithful no longer exist in such numbers. Visit these churches, enjoy them. As a young man I set out to visit every medieval church in Norfolk and decades later I have yet to succeed. Life intervened. I have visited them all online, read about them, watched videos, studied the photos, all 659 of them. You can all visit digitally now, but nothing ever beats a site visit. Start with your local church, no matter how humble. The church will accept you, acknowledge you, no need for worship or mass or sacraments or faith. By stepping inside you will add to the character and history of the building, and incredibly, you may find that the building offers the same to you.

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4 thoughts on “Peter Divey: The insistent pull of English medieval church architecture

  1. I visit churches solely to admire and wonder at the structure itself.
    Every church no matter how lowly is a monument to the men who built it.. It’s sad you seem to have left them out.

  2. Salle is a very fine church – with a splendid acoustic – as is neighbouring Cawston. But neither can compare with Long Melford or Blythburgh in Suffolk.

  3. Since then I have visited many of the major European churches. Built in a uniform style, without the accretions and extensions that is the muddled but lovable style of many a grand English British church

    Agree. I love the quirky, individualistic style of old UK churches. Modern ones are bland white buildings worse than the mass of European bland white churches

    Lund cathedral is nice and a lovely animated clock like Trumpton

    “What is the best church in England?”

    Is in the eye of the beholder

    Bath Abbey crammed into city centre is interesting as later buttresses very obvious when looked at. Bangor Abbey (Founded 558AD) – where I was Christened – and Downpatrick Cathedral have very long histories

  4. I am an atheist. Have been since been ejected from “assembly” at Letchworth Grammar School in 1958.
    That said, try going into Tewkesbury Abbey late on a dark Winter’s afternoon, when the tourists have left and the candles are lit. If the hairs on the back of your neck don’t go up, then you really have no soul!

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