“I thought we could maybe have a run out to St Nick’s…”
“That’s odd, I’d been thinking it was about time we had a wander out there…”
There was a time when that little patch of Buckinghamshire was our playground. The breadcrumb trail of clues we were following had taken us to just about every ancient church in the area, as we tried to piece together the strange and alternative history we were being shown that would eventually end up in our books. But, the story has led us ever-further afield, so it has been a while since we revisited our old haunts.
The twelfth century church of St Nicholas at Great Kimble was among the first we had visited together. We knew nothing at all about ecclesiastical architecture or the particular language of symbolism that is found in the stained glass and artworks. We knew even less about the artists and makers, and had no more than a very basic knowledge of the history of these beautiful old buildings. We have learned an awful lot over the past few years, including how and where to look for the most interesting things… and, each time we revisit, we find something new, as well as deepening our understanding of and connection to the spirit of a place.
I was quite excited as we drove to Great Kimble, wondering what we might find and how it would tie in to what we are working on. That there would be something, we were pretty sure… that nudge to revisit was pretty emphatic. But what we found was a wheelbarrow, a sign saying ‘church closed’ and a radio blaring rock music through the open door. The church had been gutted… and so were we. There was only a ghost of its former self haunting the hollow shell of the church.
Even the massive font that once stood at the heart of the church had gone. It is a beauty too, one of the best of the ‘Aylesbury type’ fonts, dating back over eight hundred years. The huge, fluted bowl is decorated with carving that is still sharp and clear. The foot of the font has eight scalloped carvings of different plants and foliage and in places, you can still see traces of the original red paint. This may have been another example of a brightly painted church… or it may be the red ‘ground’ upon which gilding is laid… in which case, the font would have been a rich one indeed. There is a story that Edward Hampden, in the early sixteenth century, wanted to destroy the font as he did not believe in infant baptism, but the villagers objected and buried it to preserve it.
So… we couldn’t get in. I would have liked to see again the St George window, made by Camm and Co in 1913, where the princess…named Clorinda in some tales… waits patiently for her rescuer to slay the dragon.
Nor did we see the panel depicting Sir Godfrey de Bouillon who led the First Crusade to the Holy Land in 1076 and became king of Jerusalem in all but name, refusing the title, as he believed that only Christ could be its true king. Some sources suggest that De Bouillon was accompanied on that First Crusade by Hughes de Payens, who would become the first Grand Master of the Knights Templar, dedicated to protecting the pilgrims who visited the Holy Land.
But we were still foiled of our intent… we could not see the great marble statue of the Virgin and Child, who looks somewhat out of place in a church dedicated to St Nicholas and had to fall back on earlier photographs, taken at a time when neither the knowledge nor the photography were particularly good. Even so, I had been fairly thorough, and none of my old photos seem to show anything about St Nicholas at all… which seems a little odd in a church that is dedicated to him.
While the statue occupies the arch at the end of the north aisle, there is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin in the south aisle too. This one is something special, being designed by Sir Ninian Comper. We were going to come across a lot of his work over the years…and most of it quite significant, though none quite so much as this chapel with its depiction of the ‘vernicle’, the veil of Veronica.
The ‘Veronica’ is a persistent story that has no basis in the canonical Gospels, although it is represented in the Stations of the Cross. The story as we now have it seems to date to the Middle Ages and tells how Veronica…whose name means ‘true image’… wiped the sweat from the face of Jesus as he carried the Cross to Golgotha. The image of His face was imprinted upon the cloth. Several such cloths emerged in the Middle Ages, purporting to be the true Veil of Veronica, including one which is kept in a chapel at the Vatican.
We would have liked to see that side chapel again, with its painted and gilded canopy and intriguing stained glass. behind the little altar, is yet another depiction of the Virgin and Child, this one also designed by Comper. In this depiction she is crowned as Queen of Heaven.
Another Comper window shows Mary with Gabriel at the Annunciation, while a third portrays her meeting with Elizabeth, singing the Magnificat. But of St Nicholas, there is not a sign…
On the other hand, we had been talking about the significance of the Michael and Mary lines that morning. These controversial twin currents, also called ley lines or dragon lines, traverse the country from Lands End to Norfolk…about three hundred and fifty miles dotted at ‘coincidentally’ frequent intervals with ancient sacred sites. Although the church at Great Kimble is no more than a thousand years old at most, it sits in an area fairly littered with sites both ancient and sacred, going right back to prehistory. And, oddly enough, the Mary current runs straight through the church. Which might explain why poor St Nick doesn’t get a look in…
Even the east window above the altar shows only Saints Peter and Paul with a Christ in Majesty in the central panel. The window was designed by Sir Robert Frankland-Russell who once owned the nearby great house at Chequers, now the Prime Minister’s official country residence, but looking back through the old pictures wasn’t enough, so I checked the database and sure enough…there is no St Nicholas window at St Nicholas’ church. I also noticed that I had titled the folder of images ‘revelation’… Maybe the Revelations window in the Lady Chapel was better placed than we thought…