We were right about the church; St Mary’s, Sledmere, was well worth a look, though not for our usual reasons. We normally visit the older places of worship by choice, seeking within their hallowed walls the stories and symbolism that helps us to understand an area, its people and history and, if we are lucky, the mysteries of the spiritual journey shared by every living soul. It matters little whether or not we share the beliefs and faith of the people who worship there… we share the journey, even if our paths differ.
The path to the church is bordered by yews through which the squirrels run. The trees look ancient, but are unlisted as such and are therefore unlikely to be more than a few hundred years old at the most. They hide the church from view until you are almost upon it and then the impression is rather strange.
At first glance the building seems relatively simple, although the height of the tower makes an immediate impression as you emerge from the shadows beneath the trees. The clean, sharp lines of the stones proclaim it to be a ‘new’ church… and yet, in the best tradition of Gothic church-building, it is covered in grotesques, gargoyles and carvings, giving the lie to any notion of simplicity.
Not only are there any number of people and vaguely recognisable animals, there are flowers, foliate beings, heraldic and symbolic designs scattered amongst creatures that can only be the product of a fevered imagination. I spent a fair while photographing many of them, but it would have taken hours to get them all!
If we had, by some chance, failed to notice these carvings, the porch would have given a clue as to what we might find inside. Ornately carved niches above the door hold statues, with the face of the central depiction of the Virgin looking rather strange and almost childlike in its execution. The small blocks of carving above the statues were far more interesting, each one containing a Christian symbol replete with meaning, though it took me a while to realise that the boar’s head on the right was actually a dove…
The ornately carved door stood open beneath a richly carved ceiling and we entered a building that stands as a testament to the Victorian passion for Gothic architecture.
The original church here was built eight hundred years ago, though only fragments of the tower now remain. In the eighteenth century, the old church was replaced by a new one, built by Richard Sykes, but this was, in its turn, demolished and replaced by the current building in the late nineteenth century.
Sir Tatton Sykes was an inveterate church builder and there are many examples of his passion in this part of Yorkshire. Sledmere, though, is the largest of the churches he built and one of the last. It stands in the grounds of his home at Sledmere House, which perhaps explains its magnificence. After seeing the ‘Eleanor Cross’ in the village, it was no surprise to learn that the church too had been designed by the architect Temple Moore, who had learned his trade with Sir George Gilbert Scott, the man responsible for giving a Gothic Revival facelift to so many English churches.
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