I was running out of time, but it was only a small church and it did not look overly promising. The stonework looked too regular…modern… except for the tower which looked as if it didn’t quite match, and the enclosure of the church itself, right at the heart of the village, which looked older still. And if there is one thing we have learned for certain in our years of ‘church tapping’, it is that you really cannot judge a book by its cover or a church by its masonry. Too many have been rebuilt, the lily gilded and the ancient stone ‘restored’ by the Victorians. What lies within may not match the face-lift.
There are early Neolithic remains in the area, showing that it had been settled for millennia. Not just traces either; the impressive Thor’s Cave is right on Wetton’s doorstep and a couple of miles away is the Neolithic and Bronze Age site of Long Low. Two huge cairns of fifty and seventy-five feet in diameter, connected by an earthen bank, within which local antiquarian, Samuel Carrington, had excavated the remains of thirteen people, along with cremations and tools in 1849 . There was every reason to suppose that the church had stood there a long time, in spite of appearances.
The church proved to be exactly what it appeared to be though, built largely in the nineteenth century on simple lines. The tower, however, dates back to the 14th century, and there is a record of a vicar as long ago as 1230. Pevsner, whose cataloguing of architecture remains unparalleled, suggests that the style and size of the tower’s corner stones could date the original construction to Saxon times, if not even earlier. Which means that once again, the exterior does not reflect the antiquity of the site.
Architecturally, though, there was little of interest within the accessible parts of the little church. A pleasant, airy nave, devoid of the magnificent stained glass seen in so many country churches holds only the pews and a very simple altar. There is peace in its simplicity, but, apart from the two plaques on the east wall displaying the Creed and the Commandments, there were only a few memorial plaques to see.
Beneath the All-Seeing Eye, one such plaque caught my gaze and seemed to sum up the battle we must all face between the self-serving of the ego and the finer aspects of our natures. A respected gentleman, curate of the parish, had bequeathed a thousand pounds to the community and his servant…a huge sum of money in those days. The twenty-one pounds a year to his servant, Hannah, would have been a comfortable pension and kept her fed and housed for life. The other bequests were equally substantial… without doubt, a generous and noble gesture. Yet, one phrase stood out… that he was also funding the marble plaque, not to commemorate his life or death, but his bequests.
It was as if he needed to be seen to be doing good, where true generosity acts quietly. There is nothing wrong with being remembered or lauded for such acts of kindness, but as in other areas worthy of praise, that praise and gratitude must come freely from others before it holds value. Had the community raised the plaque for him in thanks, it would be a different matter. As it was, I felt obscurely saddened that, probably because of the times in which he lived, our good and generous curate had somehow missed the mark.
There was, however, something else of interest in the church…something I had never seen before. A display board ran the width of the west end of the nave, covered with pictures of footprints. The ornate designs are to be found high up on the tower roof, etched into the lead.
It is a local tradition and, 291 foot and hand designs have been found up on the roof, dating back as far as 1721. The outline of the appendage would have been scribed into the soft surface of the lead then decorated with designs, initials, names and dates.
There is a plan of where the prints were found and many photographs showing the changing shape of footwear over the years. They also show a range in ages and perhaps even sexes… they are referred to as either ‘plumbers’ or ‘lovers’ marks. One mark, though, is neither hand nor foot, but a figure with what looks like horns and tail…
Even the antiquarian, Samuel Carrington, climbed the tower to leave his footprint. Today, the prints have been removed and samples conserved. It may have been necessary, but it seems a shame. Somehow, the hands and feet of its parishioners gave the little church a heart.