On my last trip north, I took a different route, and that is always an adventure. With never enough time to take side-trips and explore, I can never resist when something just drops in my path, so when, after three hours driving, a village that announced itself as a Saxon settlement offered me a church and a parking spot, the inevitable happened. I pulled over and grabbed the camera.
Even from the road it is an interesting little church. You can see its architectural evolution in the different styles and the shapes and colours of the stonework. It stands in the shadow of a thousand year old yew, it is built on a small mound in the centre of the village and a newborn stream runs around its base…a perfect situation for an ancient place of worship that may even pre-date this church and the present building already goes back nine hundred years.
The human story of the village goes back much further. The surrounding hills are dotted with archaeological sites and, in the nineteenth century, antiquarian Thomas Bateman excavated one of the Stand Low round barrows here, bringing to light a bronze dagger, a stone axe, a pottery urn and an amber ring.
The name of the village is said, by those who should know, to be derived from the Old English for a farm belonging to a woman named Cengifu. I am not always convinced by these attributions as personal names and wonder if linguists do not decide upon them simply because they don’t want to admit they don’t really know the meaning.
The village was already well established and its name had evolved at the time of the Norman Conquest, and when the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, it was listed as Cheniveton. The manor belonged to the Kniveton family until Sir Andrew Kniveton, a staunch Royalist during the Civil War, was obliged to sell the land in the middle of the seventeenth century to pay the heavy fines imposed by Cromwell’s victorious Roundheads. The Kniveton arms can still be seen within the church as a panel of fifteenth century stained glass, along with an even older fragment from the fourteenth century.
The old door of the church is set beneath a plain Norman arch, with a human head as its keystone that is sometimes described as a bear. The supporting corbels are also carved… one is now too worn to identify, but the other is a ‘beaked head’ which looks rather draconine.
It is always exciting to turn the handle on these old doors, wondering whether or not they will open and, if they do, what you might find within. This time, the door swung inwards and I stepped into the happiest church I have ever felt. And that is strange, for churches may be lovely, welcoming or forbidding, serene and peaceful or even cold and stark… but I have never found one that simply felt happy. I wondered why…
My first impressions revealed nothing to explain it. St Michael and All Angels is a simple, single-cell building with a later gallery and thirteenth century tower, contemporary with the font which, though it carries a seventeenth century date, is Early English in style and also dates to the thirteenth century. The carved date commemorates a renovation of the church which had been built originally, some nine hundred years ago, as a chapelry for the Church of St Oswald in nearby Ashbourne. At that time it was dedicated to St John the Baptist and I wondered if it was his head that was carved into the arch of the doorway… and, if so, why it would be mistaken for a bear.
Behind the font a narrow staircase winds up to the gallery, passing the temptation of the bell ropes that have been calling worshippers to prayer for the last four hundred years. From the gallery you can see the whole body of the church and I could pinpoint nothing to explain why the place felt so cheerful.
There is some really beautiful Victorian and Edwardian stained glass, though, with jewel colours glowing in the low sun.
They are mostly commemorative pieces, as are so many stained glass windows, in memory of parishioners and clergy alike, including the east window, a tribute to a mother from her children, which shows Jesus between the Virgin Mary and Joseph carrying a cage of doves.
My favourite was the one that shows Faith, Hope and Charity. A little different in style and rather more simple, it dates from 1908 and is a tribute to a former vicar and his wife.
There was evidence of much love in the windows, but I still couldn’t see any reason why the place should feel so happy. There were embroideries and hanging made by the local children, so it was evidently a church still very much at the heart of its community.
There were flowers everywhere, and that always helps. There were fresh bouquets behind the altar, ancient floral geometries carved as ceiling bosses, and painted, arts and crafts style, on the pulpit. There were also flowers carved into the bench-ends of the ‘new’ pews, installed in 1842.
And not just flowers…
Half the bench-ends were carved with foliate men.Green Men, nature spirits, or in Christian iconography, symbols of resurrection and rebirth. And all of them were smiling… and they were not on their own. I couldn’t help smiling back.
There was another smile too. When the new pews were being installed, a carved stone was found. No record exists of where in the church it was originally placed, and there is no mention of its age. They set the roundel into the south wall of the nave for safekeeping where it could easily be overlooked, and that would be a shame. It is old, seems, at first glance to be crudely carved and ‘primitive’ in style. It is possibly as old as the church itself… and it is possibly the most beautiful crucifix I have seen.
Although depicted on the Cross, He smiles. His arms are outstretched as if to embrace the world in simple joy and acceptance, with neither judgement nor discrimination. It is as if, in this one simple carving, the artist has transcended the dogma and politics of ‘churchianity’ and cut straight to the heart of the message of Love. I find I cannot argue with that.