Although the modern doors inside the twelfth century had worried me, my fears were laid to rest as soon as I stepped beyond them. It was probably just as well that I found myself alone within its walls and some very unorthodox squeals escaped me as I looked around, wondering where on earth to begin…and knowing I would be far more than the ‘few minutes’ I had promised my son.
I would have to try and be quick, though, so it meant curbing my desire to explore and sticking to documenting the church as best as I could in the time available. We have visited so very many churches over the years that we know what to look out for and rarely miss much with the camera, even if we do not register everything we see.
These raids, though, are just that…brief ‘fact-finding’ missions that tell you little about the heart of a place. We have found that you always need to go back…often several times… and be with a church or ancient site before you even begin to get a feel for its character. And in some churches especially, there is simply so much to see that you cannot possibly take it all in at once. This was to be one of those.
The font is usually near the door these days and is a good place to begin. The history of a community can often be gauged by the font within its parish church. Some have not cared for the old font and have replaced it with newer, fancier features. Others have preserved history and, as in Penn, the same bowl has held the baptismal waters for generations of villagers.
Penn’s font is a perfectly plain bowl dating back to the late 1100s when the church was built. Close by is a stone coffin from that period too. The soft stone of the bowl has not only seen over eight hundred years of baptism though, it bears the marks of as many centuries of graffiti.
Easiest to make out are the seventeenth century dates. I had to wonder if the changing fortunes of the Church during the English Reformation had anything to do with people seeing it as acceptable to deface an object so close to the heart of worship at that time.
It also struck me as interesting that, in order to carved graffiti, the perpetrator had to be literate, at a time when only a small percentage of the populace was literate. Men of the higher social classes could all read and write, only around half of the yeoman classes could do so, and just a few of the lower social strata. Women, across all social classes, were far less likely to be literate. So, you would think that those who chose to carve their names in the font would most likely be men who should have known better…
Above the font is the organ, a magnificent affair. On its underside, a gilded and rayed sun serves as a canopy for the baptistry. I would later learn, from a brief encounter with someone who knows the church well, that the organ now has a serious problem and funds are being desperately sought to have it repaired as it is making unholy noises midway through the hymns…
Even without the scratched names and dates on the font, the names of many men of the parish are recorded in the church. There is a list of incumbents, dating back to the earliest days of the church. The sense of continuity…of an unbroken presence that has endured for centuries… is one of the characteristics of these very early churches.
There are the war memorials, and the Roll of Honour that remembers the local soldiers who fought in war upon war. Some of those who lost their lives in battle are commemorated with stained glass windows depicting scenes of battle and the more martial saints and martyrs.
Other memorials…and there are far too many to list in any detail… commemorate the two families so closely associated with Penn… the Curzon and Howe dynasty and the Penn family themselves. I could have been there all day just reading the inscriptions, for some of them were fascinating. But there was so much more to see and so little time…
Click on the thumbnails to enlarge the pictures if you would like to read the text on these memorials… many of them have interesting stories engraved upon them while all give an insight into the families and attitudes of the times.