Monday, 23 April 2012

Early Christianity in Mercia

No doubt this is a sign of getting old but I find visiting old churches very interesting. You get this narrow glimpse into life from hundreds of years ago, when Christianity played a greater part perhaps than it does now in our daily life, and yet there are these tantalising hints of something pre-Christian too: the green men, the scrolling beasts, the choices about what symbols were Devilish and which were not.

We had a merry breakfast with Mary and Jessica, who is a Downes Syndrome child of great charm and independence. She comes home at weekends and although she did not remember us was chatty and involved us in all her conversations. She was anxious to get to church, part of her routine, where her daddy was playing the organ, and she was also keen to remind us of her siblings. She looks so well and happy, it was a joy to spend this little time with her.

Then we set off to head back home, through yet more of this elastically expanding and vivid countryside. I realise how much I love rookeries. Each time I see the cluster of strong-looking nests I feel cheerful. Sometimes we see a rook actually sitting on top of its nest. They look simultaneously comic and masterful. I admire their sociability, their strength. Presumably this has been their habit for MILLIONS of years. It's stood them in good stead and they are sticking to it.

By squinting at the tiny print on the road-map I spotted a little pair of antiquities just off our route, one of which was called Odda's Chapel. That sounded good so we went to find it, turning off the road too soon at first and finding a delightful stretch of the Avon with a little sailing club, down a twisty marsh road. We then tried again a bit further east, and reached Deerhurst and there was the amazing Odda's Chapel, reminiscent of St Peter's on the Wall at Bradwell in Essex, a stark, empty, tall, beautiful thing with a marvellous chancel arch and the remains of a residential space created from the adjoining (later) farmhouse.

All this was discovered by the local vicar in the 19thC and various other finds included a dedication stone. Outside, marker posts show how high and recurrently the river swells out of its banks, and makes this little foundation into an island. We walked across one field to the river and saw where we had been standing shortly before, on the other bank. It seems this was the boundary of the Roman empire, and the river was fordable in ancient days, so although now it all seems very rural and quiet, it must once have been an important place, not only with trade and access along the river, but with military implications and visits, and this illustrious long-standing Christian chapel since 1050-something.

But I have kept the best to last. About 200 yards from the chapel, and set back a little further from the river and higher up the knoll is the parish church of St Mary's - a minster dating back even earlier - 800AD. It's a really odd place, with a great towering porch on the west side, a pretty farmhouse at right-angles to the main nave (once an arm of the cloister and still with great corbels which once supported the roof of the cloister-garth). Inside, the porch is in two cells, one bearing an amazing abstract Mary over the door. There are some wonderful early animals on either side of the west door into the nave. Lots of triangle-headed openings, some plasterwork torn away to reveal Anglo-Saxon herring-bone work, doorways up high leading to empty space now, in the nave. The font is covered with spirals and was found as a drinking trough in a field. Its base, which matches very well, was found somewhere else and reunited when spotted by the local Lady. There is on the east end the remains of a vanished apse, all gone now except for one panel which has the remains of an angel up high, very mysteriously difficult to see and now facing into a tiny little exterior alcove or nook. It took a while to get my head round it all...

There has been intense historical and archaeological work done here, Victorian, 1920s, and latterly more or less continuously since the 1970s, and numerous lectures published and on sale. Oh, this place is one of the great early treasures of our land, and having now read some of the lectures I can report it was probably once built of wood, then embellished with stone, and is now all of stone which sort-of follows the shape and height which wood could achieve. The detectives have done a marvellous job, comparing the sometimes barely legible carvings with known examples from manuscripts and metalwork around England and Europe. This little place is just four miles south of Tewkesbury and worth an hour or so of anyone's life, if you want to get a little look into what mattered to our ancestors.

 Incidentally, the very abstract Mary in the porch was once (like all the other carvings) brilliantly coloured - the shape no more than a canvas on which fine details would have been laid, rich not only in colour but in meaning and reference. The two animals on the inside door arch may have had jewels inset... Churches must have looked a bit like fairgrounds inside, all glitter and bling.

 We went to Tewkesbury for lunch - chose a cafe, visited the warm and welcoming the Abbey, admired the way they get you to pay willingly for your visit (it costs SO much money just to keep the place open). They have a screen where you pop your card in, take the Gift Aid option, and make your contribution. They suggest £5 per head. It seems painless. We also admired the old roof-bosses with musicians and the Magi now displayed in the aisles, and we liked the fine stone tomb depicting a rotting corpse with worms going in and out, and we liked the fantastic towered sepulchres or tombs made like miniature churches within the apse walk... how theses things survived the Civil War I do not know.  Incidentally this was the only church we visited on this trip which had incense in the air.

A postcard on sale shows what happened to Tewkesbury in the recent floods. The Abbey on its egg-shaped island remained above the waters, as did a few of the nearest houses, but the horrid red waters of the river lapped right round the whole town, cutting it off and gnawed at the outskirts. We think we are so safe in our modern world, but the old physical dangers are all still there, confronting us just as they challenged the medieval people who lived and worked here. Hedging and ditching, building good foundations, using the right building materials, seeing where the danger lies - all still needed today.

 I wish I knew more about birds - we saw one kind in two or three places - what could it have been? Solitary, big wings, able to glide and then flap a bit to move along, tail not so prominent as the wings, quartering the empty fields beneath. Was it a harrier of some kind? It looked hawk-like but bigger than birds I commonly see in Kent. We have come home tired, but calmer, quieter. I have been enraptured by this trip to the west. Living in the urban south-east, it is easy to feel (sometimes) that there is no emptiness left, that all is spoiled and filled-in and damaged. But it is not so. Pasture and husbandry, pub and lane, river and wood, hill and rain, it's all still there. Miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles of it. Everywhere you look. Go and see.

No comments:

Post a Comment