We opened the door of St Mary’s and walked in. It felt rather odd as the altar was at the ‘wrong’ end for the door. Usually, you enter from the south and turn right to the altar, here, the main door is on the northern wall, so the altar is to the left and it is quite disconcerting.
For a split second, the immediate impression was deceptive… the church looked fairly plain and simple. It had obviously been restored at some relatively recent point, but had not been too unsympathetically modernised. Then, we took in the details of what we were seeing. On the far wall, St George and his dragon take pride of place in a memorial window designed by R. O. Bell of Clayton and Bell. And, “Oh, good grief, would you look at this?”
The first thing to catch the eye was the font. Its date is debated, and while some authorities suggest it is mid-twelfth century, others say that may have stood in the original Saxon church, perhaps for centuries before this church was built. Regardless of the date, given our current preoccupation with dragons since our almost accidental visit to Skipton, it seemed strange to find a pair of them staring at us from the font. They are not your usual baptismal symbols for a start. Although we have seen salamander before, dragons on fonts are a bit of a rarity. Especially dragons that are guarding something that look suspiciously like a fleur de lys, the stylised lily symbol that has been making its presence felt of late on our travels.
In the west were a pair of trefoil windows, memorials to members of the same family. I wondered at their story… was this a mother and her daughter? The child was no more than a babe, the woman died two years later. Were the two deaths as closely related as their lives?
The windows were designed by Michael Charles Farrar Bell, husband and father of the two lost loves commemorated by the windows. Bell lived in the village and in 1950 he took over the running of the famous stained glass studio, Clayton and Bell, founded by his ancestor, Alfred Bell, almost a hundred years earlier. The windows are beautiful in their colours, but particularly touching for their tenderness. Bell’s wife was only thirty-one when she died, their daughter, just ten months old. It is in the borders that the details show the love and the grief. On his wife’s window, a little dog and a cat hide amongst the trifoliate leaves. In his daughter’s window there are small animals and toys, the familiar playthings and perhaps the dreams her father was not able to share with her as she grew.
These may be usually personal and poignant windows, but their shape is not so rare. It would have been pushing belief a little to liken them to the fleur de lys, regardless of their three-petalled form. But we were not short of examples of the symbol, not by any stretch of the imagination. The entire nave was full of them, carved as the bench-ends on each of the fifteenth century pews. Not only that, they were laughing at us as, concealed within the carvings, were faces. Strange, not-quite-human faces…
So, okay, when I said it would take ‘more than a few odd symbols to convince us’, something had obviously been paying attention. As we entered the chancel, even the floor we were walking upon had got in on the act. And the altar cloth just happened to be embroidered with the Virgin Mary’s lilies. Perfectly acceptable in a church dedicated to St Mary, but they did rather show up right on cue…
Had we needed any further confirmation, though, the east window, another Bell design and fairly awash with lilies, was probably assurance enough that we needed to be more paying attention ourselves. I, for one, didn’t even notice that the Holy Mother was flanked by angels with scarlet and gold wings, wearing alternate scarlet and gold robes. That realisation would not come until later, looking at saints, angels and dragons and we are still not entirely sure what is going on there.
The chancel was fairly plain, apart from the memorials and stained glass. That was probably just as well as it took a little time to recover from the abundance of lilies with which we had been assaulted. For a while, it was more a case of documenting what we were seeing while the mind wandered off at a tangent.
The piscina, where the unused consecrated water is poured so that it stays within the fabric of the church, is a simple one. I dutifully photographed the seventeenth century memorial plaque with its heraldry and arms…
I photographed the carved chairs beside the altar, one dated 1678, the other a memorial to a local pilot lost in WWII. One thing we have learned…and especially so on that day when we had found St Nicholas’ church gutted… is to try to document everything. You just never know when things might be lost or forgotten… and what does not seem important today may well reveal its secrets when you understand a little more.
We had been caught out too often in the early days, snapping pictures only of those things that seemed relevant, only to have the proverbial light bulb moment at some later date, scrabble for pictures and find we had never taken them. I suppose that is the misplaced confidence or the arrogance of the novice. We have learned since then.
So I photographed the memorial brasses too, showing ecclesiastical figures and wondering if these were men who had been incumbents of the church in medieval times. The lists of vicars are kept in these old churches. The first recorded priest here, back in Norman times, was named Gilbert, a name he shares with one of my grandfathers… which somehow seemed an oddly personal link with the distant past.
There was a final window by Michael Farrah Bell in the chancel, a narrow lancet dated 1988, the Benedicite window. The design has evolved into a more naturalistic style, but the colour is just as pronounced and glowed with the light behind it. Bell himself died five years after making this window and the studios of Clayton and Bell finally closed their doors.
Passing through into the side-chapel, we found another, more ornate piscina, and some treasures in stained glass that are all too rare. Between Henry VIII’s break from Rome and reorganisation of the church in England and Cromwell’s puritanical troops, much of the original iconography of our churches was destroyed, stained glass windows were smashed and much beauty and artistry lost.
In this little chapel were rare fragments of fifteenth century glass, collected and reassembled into cameo mosaics. Odd pieces are recognisable, others are now no more than memories of colour, unidentifiable. But in the small panes above, the apostles survive.
High up in the little chapel, faces smiled down upon us… some are faces that were possibly modelled on local dignitaries, other caricatures or creations of imagination, who would have known these windows before they were destroyed.
We had a lot to process, a lot to mull over as we left. Why had we never been able to get into this church before? Probably because we were not ready…we would not have known enough to appreciate what we were seeing, to have an inkling of the history and the stories behind it. Maybe we were simply not ready for this part of the story. As we left, we looked up at the strange moulding on the ceiling of the nave… oak leaves, acorns and trifoliate leaves…and were the fronds palm branches or feathers? Maybe one day we might find out…when the time is right.