Saturday, 27 September 2014

Avebury, Wiltshire

If I thought the other two fonts today were complicated, they had nothing on the one at Avebury. This one has some order in its geometric arches at the bottom. But the rest is crowded organic foliage, animals and a human figure. There was too much to draw in situ so I took some photos, which I'll have to work further from at a later date.

Images © Rhiannon 2014

Winterbourne Monkton, Wiltshire

The font at Winterbourne Monkton has been on the fringes of my awareness for a long time because of its mysterious figure and proximity to the stone circle at Avebury. It was a lot bigger and chunkier than I was expecting. The carving is very detailed but forthright.

Drawing of the Norman font at Winterbourne Monkton, Wiltshire

A friendly woman who was arranging things for the Sunday service told me the church had been a 'slipper church', meaning that pilgrims took their shoes off there and continued the rest of the way barefoot. I'm not sure where, she said Santiago de Compostela but I think that was probably a bit optimistic. You'd think maybe Glastonbury, as that's a bit nearer (and the 'Monkton' of Winterbourne Monkton does refer to it being owned by Glastonbury Abbey). All the same I hope the pilgrims took their shoes with them (ew). 

Here's the figure. Some people have wanted to imbue it with Sheela-na-gig style symbolism. But there's nothing to really say if it's even male or female.

The head is almost horned at the top, and it's certainly a funny shape. It's hollowed out and there's no trace of those big eyes you get on Norman sculpture. The arm on the left has got a few extra bends in it compared to mine. And that makes me think it could even be serpenty (with devillish connotations) or maybe foliage. Or maybe the carver just got a bit confused, but wanted it to link up with the big zigzaggy chevrons. Who knows. The hand on the right looks curled round at the wrist.

The legs and feet are more delicately done. I think you can even see toes on one. They both fit nicely into the dips formed by the top of the 'trumpets'. Around the rest of the font those dips house a little foliate design. And that's why I'd say whatever's between the legs is probably similar foliage, rather than being anything indicating the figure's gender.

As the churchgoer pointed out, you can see traces of a lot of paint on the font. And you can see that the carvings were rather hacked about when the paint was removed. It must have looked a bit crazy when it was brightly coloured. But I think I prefer the more minimalist look - the lovely geometric carving doesn't need any extra fuss for me. I wonder when the colour was put on though, was it original?

Here's a nicely contrasty picture of the trumpety motifs and the nailhead between them. And a triple chevron band. Mmmm.

One more thing about the location: I drove into the village over a bridge crossing a wide dry ditch. Dry at this time of the year anyway - I realised it must be the path of the eponymous stream, a tributary of the Kennet which only runs in the winter. There is an interesting blog with photos called Canoeing and Kayaking on the River Kennet.

Images © Rhiannon 2014

Yatesbury, Wiltshire

This drawing probably suffers from the curse of the font base, curse of the font foliage band, curse of the font generally. It looks quite simple when you first see it. But it turned out to be a bit of a challenge. I'm not displeased with it though. It's not a design like any others I've seen so far. The shield-like leaves have long stems tucking under the bowl in a very 3-D way. It was also interesting to note the lock on top. Can't have people getting at that holy water.

In English Church Furniture by JC Cox and A Harvey (1908), it says:

Fonts were ordered to have covers and to be kept locked for the double purpose of cleanliness and for checking the use of the water for superstitious purposes. The Bishop of Exeter, in 1287, ordered that each parish church was to be furnished with a baptisterium lapideum bene seratum [a stone baptistry well locked]. Archbishop Winchelsea, in his visitation of 1305, inquired whether there was a fontem cum serura [a font/spring with a lock]. A provincial English synod, held in 1236, provided that the water was to be changed every seven days. The rubric of the first English Prayer-book provided for the change being made once every month; the Scottish book, of 1604, ordered the fortnightly renewal of the water; but by the present rubric there is to be a fresh supply at every baptism.

I feel a bit sorry that there's never any water in the fonts we've visited, after all it is the reason they were created. But maybe having a reservoir of water isn't important to the Church of England. I don't think they go in for all that Holy Water business. You pop the water in, you baptise a few children, you take the water out again. It's not the water so much as the ritual. Next time you need a little bottle of holy water to fend off a vampire, remind yourself that vampires don't exist either.

Images © Rhiannon 2014

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Chitterne, Wiltshire

The church at Chitterne is chequered in flint like the one at nearby Tilshead. But (as the friendly woman tending to the flowers explained), it's newer and was built to replace two other churches. I suppose that was some interfering Victorian's idea. The Chitterne website reports "the old church had little architectural merit" but I wonder if that's straight from the lips of the perpetrator. Although it's impressive in its size, the new church has got that kind of sterile emptiness that you don't get in the older, smaller buildings that have layers and layers of history. This document by Julianna Grant explains some more.

The font is genuinely old though and was apparently brought from St Mary's. It's quite plain, with a pattern of thick circular discs and small domes or triangles between. It reminded me a little of the one at Ansty.

Images copyright Rhiannon 2014.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Tilshead, Wiltshire

Mmmm, the Tilshead font at St Thomas a Becket church. It was enjoyable to draw and the building had a nice atmosphere. It's one of those churches with a central tower, so there is a square room between the main body of the church and the chancel. This makes the two areas seem remote from each other, and gives it an ancient air. Outside, the walls have the flint chequerboard pattern that seems common in this area.

The font is very pleasing to look at. The carved designs are bold and the overall proportions are really chunky and squat. In fact in retrospect it has something of the air of a massive tyre. That's not supposed to sound denigrating, as it definitely sits in the top league of geometric fonts we've seen.

And it's certainly not as disrespectful as what may have happened to it in the past. On the Tilshead Village website it says that during the renovations of the church in the 1840s, the font acted as a bird bath in the vicar's garden?! This seems very bizarre, as it doesn't seem like a way a christian should treat something used to baptise Tilsheadians in since time immemorial. So who knows, I hope it's not true. And whatever, it's back where it should be.

Mr Pevsner was a busy man and I know he had far too much to cover to spend masses of time on fonts. But sometimes I do think he gives these lovely things short shrift in his guides. Of Tilshead font he says 'Circular, Norman, fluted, with bands with diagonal incisions above and below.' It's descriptive but it misses the directness, the boldness, and the solidity and age that makes me love it. I know the Wiltshire county guide isn't a Book Of Fonts though. Perhaps that's what I should write :)

The Tilshead font isn't really very like them at all, but the chunky proportions and chevronage reminded me of the Folkton Drums which are also very lovely things, but so, so much older. The font is probably 12th century, so maybe 850 years old. But the Folkton Drums are 4000 years+, which is hard to comprehend. The sculptors from the Neolithic, the carvers from the 12th century, and me - perhaps we all share some aesthetic sensibilities. It's a curious thought.

Images copyright Rhiannon 2014.

Coulston, Wiltshire

We couldn't get into the church at Coulston, which was a shame, and there was no information about where to get a key. But perhaps it didn't matter because most of Mr P's promised interestingness was outside.

In the south side of the building is a Norman doorway with a lovely golden round arch. On each side is a capital with little volutes (a bit eroded). But curiously, although there are these capitals, there aren't any columns underneath them. And it doesn't even look as though there were any - that is, there's no mark on the stone to suggest they've been whipped away. But I suppose there must have been once.

The poor arch looks rather neglected since someone's seen fit to pile up a load of plastic chairs underneath it. It looked strangely surreal, so I didn't feel as outraged as I might. But to most people it would surely look a bit rubbish. I don't really understand, because I don't find anything very interesting about all these brash Victorian rebuildings of churches. And so if you've got something left of the interesting past, of the beginnings of your church, why wouldn't you look after it? Maybe the congregation would say that there's more to their church than the building, in fact that the building's probably the least important bit. I dunno. It was a bit disappointing to see, anyway.

Chairs piled up outside the poor neglected Norman arch at Coulston, Wiltshire

But another truly interesting thing outside was the spring coming out of the hillside facing the archway. As we stepped gingerly across the marshy ground towards it, we were watched closely by many eyes. The spring is inside a deer park and a couple of stags and many female deer lined up on the ridge above us. We seemed very interesting to them for some reason.

A spring next to a watercress bed, next to the church at Coulston, Wiltshire

The water runs into a pool where there was a lot of watercress. Then we could hear it heading under the path past the church. The area had a special and rather strange air. It was hard not to think of elfish pagan things and whether or not the site for the church had been chosen in relation to this water.

(An interesting though morbid little snippet, is that the murdered child in the Victorian 'Rode House' case (recently retold in 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher'), is buried in this churchyard. The family previously lived at Baynton House nearby, and the father's first wife is also buried here).

Images copyright Rhiannon 2014.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Bromyard, Herefordshire

En route elsewhere, B and I stopped in Bromyard to check out the Romanesque carving at St Peter's church. I'd been super-organised beforehand and looked at the church's website - it said encouragingly that it was usually open all day. But it's so rare that we actually bump into anybody that we were a bit taken aback to find the car park full and the sound of jolly Christian singing in the air.

I'd missed the page that said the churchgoers were becoming a Missional Community. Which is lovely for them of course. And (quite seriously) I am very glad that someone's looking after this amazing building. And even (despite my cynicism) probably, that they're using it for its original purpose. I guess. If I sound mean it's only because the mindset of a Missional Community could not be further from my own. It's not that I disagree with the idea of local community, or being charitable, moral, kind, decent and helpful to others, not killing people, refraining from coveting your neighbour's ass or any of those other sensible Christian tenets. It's the other bits about believing in Jesus as the Son of God and a virgin, who died for your sins in a horrible way on a cross, the bits about angels and devils and Noah's ark and the bible being the inspired and direct word of God, oh and the resurrection. No amount of missional communitying is going to get me to go for any of that.

Here's St Peter and his keys. You can see a photo by Matthew Wells on Flickr.

So we wandered around the outside of the building admiring the lovely carvings, which in some way seemed even nicer for their slightly softened eroded look. At the front door another wandering touristy pair walked past us and into the church. We could hear them being offered alcoholic drinks. It struck me as a bit odd. I suppose Jesus liked a drink, after all he did turn water into wine. But it smacked of a bribe. Or maybe 'what do heathens like drinking? I know, booze. That'll lure them in.' Or a way to relax the unwary so they could be talked to persuasively. I dunno, it was just a bit odd.

We sooo wanted to see the font, it looks smashing. You can see the lovely carvings on the CRSBI website (one side is swirly, the other side an alleged tree of life).

But I felt a bit like a vampire unable to cross the threshold. The Pimms-clutching pair emerged from the church almost immediately, looking vaguely bemused. We decided not to go in.

Images copyright Rhiannon 2014.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The phenomenological experiential vibe business (or otherwise)

We've been to so many places now - about 70 so far, which definitely falls into the Obsession category, I admit it. But going to so many, one can't help but start reflecting on different Vibes one picks up at them.

Of course, the whole subject is quite hard to disentangle, if it's possible at all. Are 'vibes' just subjective things entirely? Or are there material things you can point to that would trigger similar sensations in any domesticated primate? Or are any feelings you get from an inanimate building All In The Mind?

I've been educated in the way of the scientific method and rationality is a nice firm ground to be standing on. But science can't explain everything easily (or to be optimistic, just yet). And this isn't a science blog, it's art. You can't really go explaining art with science very easily, nor even the other way round, despite efforts. But a multidisciplinary approach to the world has always appealed to me. Perhaps it's also good to take a Fortean approach and not be too dogmatic. For example, Lavoisier (the 18th century 'Father of Chemistry') said that stones could not fall from the sky, because there were no stones in the sky. But now we've stopped dismissing stories of stones falling from the sky because science officially knows about meteorites. The fortean approach can also be about abstracting yourself from the actual stories and seeing what the telling of them might mean too (what can we say about the types of things R + B report experiencing?)

Which kind of brings me full circle without having concluded anything, really. But the Experience of being at these different places is intrinsic to our visits. Mostly we focus on the drawing. Maybe focusing on the drawing sometimes has the effect of deliberately putting the vibes into the background!

Donhead St Mary was one of our recent destinations, and somewhere I felt had a really nice atmosphere. Now why (taking the Rational Approach) might this have been? The village was certainly extraordinarily quaint. It was a reasonably warm day. It felt nice to drive up the ridge and find the church at the top - between trees and housetops we had a good view over the landscape. As we got to the gate we heard a strange apocalyptic roar getting louder and louder, but it turned out to be the good old Red Arrows flying past, a jolly sight. We'd just eaten a bun or some crisps (or some other healthy snack) and our blood sugars were a good level.

Inside, the building was airy and open-feeling, it had a high ceiling and was light. At least, this is the way I recall it to be - this is another issue to consider, memory. It was easy to see pretty much all parts of the interior at once (no dark spooky corners). "As I recall" there weren't loads of over-embellished, grimy looking monuments stuck to the walls (I really don't like them). The font took pride of place in the aisle. And there wasn't (to my recollection) any kind of disgusting smell. While we were sitting drawing, we could hear the ticking of the clock in the tower. It ticked with a very nice, slightly irregular noise, and I found it quite calming. A couple of times we heard rustling at the door but that was some dry leaves outside, and only disconcerted me a little because I can't really be bothered for conversation with strangers (even if it's their church, hoho). I recall the visit fondly.

On the other hand, there are memories of That Place (Britford), which I don't particularly like thinking about and B positively refuses to discuss. I've asked her, do you think we've exaggerated it since the experience? Was it really as bad as I remember it? But she says Yes It Was. I do wonder if it's hard to say - what can I really remember reliably about it? I remember passing a baby's grave with a photo - I thought it was pretty tasteless to have a photo to be honest (though fair enough if that's what the poor parents want to do). Horrible but not spooky at all. So we were still fine when we went in, but it was rather dark, and I think that unsettled me. It seemed to be a big church, the nave was all open and high, but you couldn't see anything of the transepts and the chancel was obscured by a big wooden screen. So I think the lack of visibility was unsettling. But surely we've been in other such buildings? So I remember we went scurrying round looking for the light switches. But we couldn't find them anywhere. I looked behind the curtains over the door - and I remember feeling freaked out looking, like I'd find what? that's a bit daft. And then I went up to the north transept to look, and it was dark and just a bit grotty, it didn't feel used or welcoming. Meanwhile B was getting freaked out by the rows of high pews in the south transept full of pots of some sort (I mean what was all that about).

Miss Steel's photo of Britford church from Geograph. That's quite close enough thank you.

There was a foul smell. And it was really strong because we could smell it for bloody ages after we'd left - or at least we could imagine it in our noses, which amounts to the same thing psychologically. I deliberately went to smell a big flower display that was in front of the chancel, because I wanted to make sure whether the smell was coming from the flowers or not. They didn't smell nice, but they didn't seem to be the source of it. And what sort of smell, can I now remember? I think it had a sort of musty yeasty spicey smell - yes, you will say, just the sort of thing churches smell like. But look, we've been in a lot of them, and we know, they generally do not smell like that. So it's age and decay and incense and furniture polish and dead people. But those things are in every church, surely, and we don't usually get freaked out by them.

And we knew we just couldn't have sat there and drawn the Saxon carvings, it would have been impossible to concentrate. Even the massive intricately-decorated font cover (inexplicably on the floor by the carvings) makes me feel a bit weird in retrospect. What is this, a reaction to over-fiddly decoration?! We stayed long enough to take the photos but I know we were hurrying deliberately. And I know we couldn't have exactly run out the door because I remember looking at the guest book and noting how marvellous everyone else thought it was. So I don't want to turn this account into the Amityville Horror with us running screaming. But it's true that we were in a hurry to get out of there.

It's interesting that smell is central to this story. We live in a very visual culture and do not credit smell with very much. But it's wired into a primitive part of our brains, and it's very much connected with memory and strong reactions. My sister made the very salient point that it's about Instinct, and that when you get obvious signals telling you that Something's Wrong, you should listen to that inner voice and get out of there.