Back to the car for the final stretch of the drive to Yorkshire. We were not meeting till five, so I had plenty of time left to explore. It is amazing how elastic time can be. When the days are full of must-do timescales they rush by; we dance to the manic cadence of a necessity that devours our lifespans unnoticed, bracketed between the trilling of the alarm clock and lights out. When we step back and breathe, when we open our eyes and look around in full awareness, the hours seem to open and possibility pours in, expanding time itself.
I, however, was driving through a timeless landscape, passing the ancient stone circle of Arbor Low that has marked a sacred space for my people for over four and a half thousand years. My people… I feel that, somehow. There is a kinship that passes beyond time and which recognises no border. The people who walk this land are my people, no matter where… or when.
On impulse, I turned towards Youlgreave, a village close to Bakewell in the Derbyshire Dales. It had a church yet to be explored. Even from the outside, it seemed of opulent proportions for such a small place. Evidently Youlgreave had been a settlement of some standing in its heyday. It had been listed in the Domesday Book of 1086AD as belonging to Henry de Ferrers, a Norman soldier who had fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Now it is one of those sturdy, comfortable places built of old stone and resilience.
Outside the church, worn stones showed the placement of an ancient cross. I wondered what had happened to this one… their fates have been varied and fragments come to light in strange places. Now the plinth held only an obscure chunk of architecture. Inside the building, however, I was to find treasures carved in alabaster and unlooked-for jewels in glass as I read a history carved in stone. This is one of the reasons I love these old churches… they tell the story of a community and of the lives of its people, great and small.
The church itself dates back to around 1150 AD, though it is thought there was an earlier, Saxon church on the site. The present building was restored with the usual Victorian zeal, but the Norman pillars, Tudor windows and the carved ceiling were preserved. Some of the bosses, hidden deep in the shadows of the ancient wood of trees felled five hundred years ago and more, represent strange beasts and ruff-wearing devils with cloven hooves. Set into the walls are carvings eight hundred years old… and one that looks several centuries older may even have watched the worshippers in that older, Saxon building.
I seldom start at the altar end of a church, so I found the Norman font straight away… a lovely old thing, simply carved from a single block of pink sandstone. It is unusual as it has a stoup for holy water carved from the same block of stone. But it wasn’t until I looked closer that I saw the salamander, a symbol of rebirth and baptism, curling around the base of the font and holding the stoup in its jaws. Eight hundred years ago it had stood in Elton church, now it rests in Youlgreave and still children are baptised with water from the salamander’s teeth.
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