For the next 4 Monday evenings at 8pm I am giving online lectures. The titles are as follows:
Monday 6th July
Bedrooms, Banquets and Balls - an off-beat look at the English Country House
Sadly, I have decided to give up arranging my public church day tours. I have been running these for over 30 years. They have been thoroughly enjoyable and I have met many interesting people along the way.
These tours take a huge amount of organisation and since Data Protection came into force it has been almost impossible to obtain contact details for individual churches. In an average year I have to contact in excess of 50 churches (just for day tours) and when you don't receive a response from half of them and spend hours trying to make contact it just takes the fun out of it.
For the past two years I have run the tours at a loss and COVID-19 has made the situation even worse.
Ballidon, Derbyshire, is an undiscovered gem in the care of The Friends of Friendless Churches. In this Blog I outline the main features of the church.
Ballidon is an area of great antiquity. There are remains of Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows in the area and house platforms near the church attest to a sizeable medieval settlement. As industry in the form of quarrying limestone took the place of agriculture the population decreased considerably.
In the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, Ballidon church had seats for 72 people. Most were rented with only 8 being free. A service was only held once a fortnight in the evening and the average attendance was between 20 and 35. The present open benches date from 1882.
This church was a parochial chapel in the parish of Bradborne. Whilst Ballidon is mentioned in Domesday Book (1086) there is no mention of a church, but this is not uncommon and cannot be taken as evidence that there wasn’t a church here. In any case the present building dates from shortly afterwards, say 1100, with the south doorway being a good example of simple Romanesque architecture. There was once a north door as well, but this is now only visible outside. The plan of the church is very simple, of nave, chancel and vestry. It is constructed of local limestone rubble, with gritstone dressings, although the external west wall has been much altered and is now significantly thicker than the rest of the church. Its massive plinth foundation is clearly visible outside at the NW corner.
In 1205 the church at Bradborne, with its parochial chapels including Ballidon, was given to Dunstable Priory in Bedfordshire which is useful to us as Ballidon is mentioned in several of their documents. In 1287 some of the Priory lands here were being illegally farmed by the locals. In 1547 a record of church goods was compiled, showing that the church was well equipped for divine service. However, the most amusing record dates from a hundred years later when William Alsop was dismissed as a clergyman for conducting illegal marriages here!
Monday 9th December promised fine weather, so I had arranged to meet my friend Gary from Lincoln and to go on a churchcrawl to 12 churches. We met at Horncastle, a lovely little town with a stately, though Victorianised, church.
Our first target was LANGTON one of the best examples of an untouched 18th century church in the country. It is built of brick and stands on a hill overlooking the former rectory. Inside it is all box pews but they are arranged longitudinally like a college chapel. The 3-decker pulpit is in the middle of the south side.
The second church was Sutterby now in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches who took it over as a near ruin and have conserved it. A simple rectangular building with few fittings, its atmosphere is electric. I went there to write the guide leaflet which will be published in 2020.
Brinkhill is a totally 19th century church which would look at home in an urban setting. It is obviously much loved and had a good historical display.
South Ormesby was my favourite church of the day. Standing within a parkland setting it contains many memorials to former owners of the great house. The font is unusual as it has a dedicatory inscription around its base naming its donor. The church also contained some Netherlandish glass panels.
This week marks the 316th anniversary of one of the worst storms recorded in England. About a third of our naval ships were lost at sea whilst on land destruction was on a huge scale. In London alone 2000 chimneystacks collapsed with great loss of life. The most famous architectural loss was the first Eddystone lighthouse, although 400 windmills were also destroyed.
At Riddlesworth, Norfolk, a ledgerstone records the death in the storm of Elinor Drury.
This got me thinking about other memorials I've found in churches that relate to storms. The heading photograph for this Blog is at the church at Pevensey, East Sussex and is unusual in being a timber 'headboard' type memorial. At Knowlton in Kent is the more famous monument to two brothers killed in 1707 when HMS Association ran aground on the Isles of Scilly under the command of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who just happened to be their stepfather. It shows the ship on the rocks being tossed by the waves. Interestingly in the 1703 storm the same ship had been blown all the way from the English Channel to Gothenberg.
At Chitterne on the edge of Salisbury Plain, Robert Michells' amazing escape when a whole stack of ten chimneys fell on him whilst he was in bed in 1763 is recorded in great detail.
If you would like to spend more time with John Vigar why not consider a short course at Denman College near Abingdon, Oxfordshire? Courses are open to all and accommodation is in ensuite rooms. Here are courses for 2020.
An armchair guide to English Parish Churches, 20-22 January
An armchair guide to buildings with battlements, 22-24 January
Abbeys and Priories, 24-26 February Visiting Dorchester and Reading
Hampton Court Palace, 26-28 February with a visit
As I write this post the timbers are still smouldering at Wimbotsham church in west Norfolk. This is the most recent of what seems to have been a rash of fires in medieval churches.
Wimbotsham church is essentially Norman in date with fine Romanesque doorways to north and south and built of the local Carrstone. The walls are characteristically thick. The tower was remodelled in the fifteenth century and contains two medieval bells. The chancel was substantially rebuilt in the 19th century, in keeping with the Romanesque character of the original. It carries a wonderful corbel table.
There were a wonderful set of bench ends in the church. A few were medieval but most were outstanding work by James Ratlee (born 1820) who is best known for his woodwork in Ely Cathedral.
John Vigar`s Church Tours 2020 (all churches subject to availability)
Tuesday 17th March THANET Ramsgate x 2, Margate and St Lawrence
As we travel around England, we occasionally come across fonts made of metal. In own time an amazing stainless-steel font has been placed in Salisbury Cathedral and many churches use a metal bowl at the front of the church. However, metal fonts have been used for centuries and over 30 medieval examples survive in our parish churches, dating from the 11th to the 17th centuries.
There must have been many more, but lead is easily damaged and can be reused for other purposes.
There are a group of 6 identical fonts in Gloucestershire that must have been cast from the same mould.
A characteristic of the early fonts is the arcading around the bowl, which can be plain or contain figures. One at Walton on the Hill in Surrey has both arcading, figures and foliage decoration.
Yesterday I paid a return visit to Brightlingsea church after a gap of about 30 years. I remembered it as being special but had no idea it contained so much of interest.
It is best known for its memorial plaques whch run around the walls of nave and aisles. They remember people who have died at sea, and were the idea of a nineteenth century incumbent. In most cases, as well as the name of the deceased, they also give the name of the boat they were in, and in some instances details of the accident. I`m sure a whole book could be written about these unfortunate people.
The east end of the church contains four wonderful fifteenth century image niches, the back walls of which retain their original colouring. In any other church these would be the highlight of a visit but here the north chapel contains a group of family brasses the envy of Essex (which as a county contains some of the best in England).
These are to the Beriff family, and date between 1496 and 1578. They were a prominent family in this Cinque Port and two of their brasses depict their merchant marks. They were all produced in London, but evidently not at the same workshop as the styles are very different.
Brightlingsea Church is open on summer afternoons and is very well worth the journey.
Yesterday I spent a day with my old friend Simon Knott www.norfolkchurches.co.uk on an exploration of a circle of churches around Norwich. Here`s how we got on:
Trowse Newton - a village church immediately outside the inner ring road. A charming spot where we were given a warm welcome by the keyholder. The architecture is important - the east window being dateable to the 1280s but what struck us was the group of musicians around the pulpit. Almost life size they must have come from a continental church organ.
Earlham was locked with no keyholder notice. One for pre-arrangements another day.
Colney - a round towered church just inside the outer ring road. It contains one of the 30 or so chalice brasses for which Norwich is known and a fine East Anglian Type font which depicts the martyrdom of St Edmund.
Bawburgh is another round towered gem which is now open daily. Famous for its own saint, St Walstan, we were taken by the variety of monumental brasses and by the screen, loft and rood beam. We met the churchwarden who was very proud of her well cared for church.
Simon Bradley, Churches: An Architectural Guide (Pevsner Architectural Guides)
Yale University Press, 2016. Hardcover, 192 pp., 90 col. and 50 b/w ills. ISBN 978 0 30021 553 3, £12.99.
The majority of books about English parish churches take the form of architectural guides and I found it a little difficult to determine who this guide was written for. Those with a specialist interest will already have at least one Pevsner county guide with its much loved Glossary. Those with an embryonic interest in architecture would almost certainly find this guide too dry, trying as it does to set all the terms found in a standard Pevsner Glossary into their historical context. At times it feels like too much has been squeezed in; at others that something one knows really needs a full explanation has been reduced to just two sentences. Not that this is a bad thing. It challenges the reader in the same way it must have challenged the author and Dr Bradley has produced a book that is densely packed with facts and which offers exceptional value for money.
The book takes a comprehensive and chronological look at the architectural development of churches and their furnishings. I loved the fact that parish churches that are rarely illustrated in books pop up throughout the volume – for example Crondall, Hampshire and St George, Stockport, Cheshire. The illustrations throughout are of good quality, though I would have preferred less black and white images, especially where they are juxtaposed with colour. It was also frustrating when Dr Bradley used a particular church in his text and then accompanied it by an illustration from somewhere else. For example he mentions the Romanesque lead font at Brookland, Kent and illustrates the example at Ashover, Derbyshire. Occasionally I found that an illustration didn’t work at all. However important St Matthias Poplar is in art history terms (being built during the Commonwealth) the photograph of it showing modern infilling of the aisles, fitted carpet and potted palms in stainless steel pots seemed surplus to requirement.
As one might expect in such a densely packed volume, stained glass takes up just a few pages, appearing first in a section on medieval imagery, illustrated by 14th-century glass at Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire and a 15th-century detail from Greystoke, Cumbria. Post-medieval glass is covered in six pages of illustrations beginning with 17th-century armorial glass and moving through Pugin, Burne-Jones and Whall to Reyntiens at Marden in Kent, which seems to have been included as an example of mid-20th-century glass without being referenced in the text at all.