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Recent Additions

Norfolk Round Tower Churches Info

Norfolk Round Tower Churches I

Norfolk Round Tower Churches II

Sherborne Abbey (Dorset)

Steetly (Derbyshire)

Adel (Yorkshire)

Barton Seagrave (Northants)

Northants Fonts and Plato’s Cosmos

Ellerburn (Yorkshire)

A Cumbrian Miscellany

Tebay (Cumbria)

Ninekirks, Brougham (Cumbria)

Dearham (Cumbria)

Bridekirk (Cumbria)

Great English Churches

This site works best in Microsoft Windows Internet Explorer

This is not a commercial plug and I personally prefer Firefox but the intended layout of this site is more accurately reproduced in Internet Explorer. Apologies to all those who see Bill Gates as Satan’s Own (despite his giving billions to charity)!

Whose is this site?

My name is Lionel Wall. At the time of writing I am 60 years old and I live near the beautiful town of Stamford in Lincolnshire - a Georgian town that anyone with a love for English towns should try to visit. John Betjeman, no less, said “I really think it is our finest...” I have been interested in mediaeval churches for many years and this site is my “labour of love”. My partner is Diana who is now firmly hooked on church visiting! She contributed some of the photographs as well as pointing out my many typos. I should point out, to avoid any misunderstanding, that neither of us has any religious belief. As you would expect, however, we have the greatest respect for those that believe and stand in awe of the faith that gave rise to this most wonderful collection of architectural treasures.

What is this site for?

It’s for many things. At the selfish level it is a record of our travels and picks the most important of the dozens of photographs we take in each church. It also keeps me out of mischief in my (early) retirement. More importantly, however, it is a celebration of the incredible diversity, eccentricity and beauty of the English parish church. I am fond of saying that it is our good fortune that the British Museum is not able to chisel out and miniaturise the best of our churches so that they can squirrel them away in some vault under Bloomsbury. For the English parish church is the enduring and timeless mirror of our local history. It is where our people were baptised, married and buried. Our churches have seen famine, pestilence, plague and war. They bear witness to the fashions, intolerances, the benevolence and occasional downright cruelties of the Christian faith. They still stand today as the immovable timeless rocks around which the waves of history crash, waiting for the next turn of the card - or for the next mysterious way in which God will perform his wonders, depending on your point of view. They are, even in these irreverent times, part of the heartbeat of our communities.

We hope that some readers will learn to be able to “read” a church: to see not only its “peacefulness” and “beauty” but to tell the unique from the commonplace, to understand how the architectural fashions changed and, above all, what to look for in an old church. More than anything, though, we humbly hope it will inspire people to visit the churches themselves and to rejoice in their heritage and to understand the hopes, fears, dreams and aspirations of their ancestors that drove them to create these masterpieces.

Contact Me

My email address is brumman47@hotmail.com I’m always happy to correspond.

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Maps

I apologise for not having worked out how to add these. However please link to this site http://www.digiatlas.org/?page_id=39 which does have map information as well as a priceless guide to which churches are kept locked.

What’s here?

To start with, about ninety churches. Some of them are fairly well-known to church enthusiasts, some deliberately less so. It takes a couple of days for me to write each page so I am afraid I have a huge and growing backlog. They are organised into counties and I have deliberately tried to show as many counties as possible in this initial batch. The eastern counties are best represented because that is where we live! Tiny Rutland, England’s smallest county, is rather over-represented for the same reason!

There is also a preponderance of churches that are of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods. There are many reasons for this. The first is very simply that they are, by definition, the oldest! Also, however, they reflect the conflicts our people felt between Christianity with its mysteries and its promise of heaven or hell, and the old pagan ways where the influence of sun, moon, rain could be felt every day on their lives and, indeed, decide their very survival. Jesus vies for attention with the Green Man; the symbolism of saints competes with the imagery of dragons and serpents. It is no coincidence that Christianity itself adopted and legitimised some of this pagan imagery. In our Romanesque churches we can also see the influences of Viking and Celt as well as the Holy Land itself.

But of course, our Gothic architectural heritage is important too and is not ignored here.

I have added a few more general pages such as the Pre-Norman Church which explores the development of our earliest churches. There is also a simple page on What to Look for in a Church and a more specialised one on Anglo-Saxon Architecture. Many more of these to follow in due course.

Please have a look at The Demon Carvers of the East Midlands and the discussion pages which accompany it. In particular please have a look at the incredible Mooning Men!

Finally - and obviously - we are ordinary people who just happen to love churches. We are not rich enough to spend months on end touring churches and, more to the point, we “have a life”! So these pages cannot hope to be comprehensive. Many counties are unrepresented (although there are more to come) and may stay so for some time to come. If you see nothing from (for example) Cumbria I am afraid I can’t apologise for it. Go out and discover them for yourselves! I can only give you a (free) taster.

Lionel

Diana

The Demon Carvers of the East Midlands (follow this link)

In July 2011 I added my first original research to the site. This concerns the man or men who were carving friezes on the churches of Rutland, South Lincs and Eastern Leics in c14 and early c15. Please make a point of looking at it - if only to wonder at the numerous “Mooning Men” that adorn the churches of the area, not to mention the gargoyles with mediaeval women on their backs! You don’t have to be from the East Midlands to enjoy it.

The text and photographs

The prose is my own except where otherwise stated! I rely heavily on church guide books and leaflets for information -  many excellent some pretty basic -  supplemented by information from church books in print. Inevitably there will be times when my words closely match those elsewhere but this will always be either by accident or because there are only so many ways of describing a particular fact! I try not to spend too long describing the architecture in great detail: that is the role of the guide book. I try just to give some historical context and to spell out what is, in my opinion, exceptional. That, of course, is a matter of personal opinion. I make no apology for that - this is a labour of love and I ain’t getting paid!

I take the liberty sometimes of speculating on why something may be so. Other times I leave it open for someone to proffer an explanation. One think that amuses me as I write these pieces is that all the books and leaflets omit the same information or explanations. Of course, most of their articles are derivative too! As an amateur, I am free to parade my ignorance without embarrassment.

The photographs are 100% by myself or Diana. We are not professional photographers and light in churches is notoriously “difficult”. Often it is too dark for flash-less pictures. Flash, however, can easily wash out all the detail from fonts, capitals and so on.  I often take pictures both with and without flash and see which works best - it’s that difficult. Sometimes I am frustrated to find that I’ve missed something or don’t have a single decent shot of it. Again, I can only apologise for any omissions.

The camera used for most of the photographs is a Konica-Minolta Dynax 5D digital SLR. I have recently upgraded to a Sony Alpha 55 which has three times the megapixel count of the Minolta and it will take me years to master the awesome (and possibly useless!) array of facilities

A couple of  “tips”. Churches are “big units”. When you try to photograph the whole church from the outside (and sometimes you will find that quite hard unless you have a very wide angle lens) you will often be taking a picture of a very large structure against a quite wide expanse of sky. The subject and the background will, therefore, have very different lighting characteristics that can “fool” even sophisticated built-in light meters. If your camera has a “bracket” function whereby you can take 3 or more pictures using different aperture settings then my recommendation is that you get used to using it.

 Also get yourself a copy of something like “Photoshop Elements” (often packaged free with cameras) and get familiar with the “quick fix” feature: you will be amazed at how well it can put right the over- and under-exposures you will get in our badly-lit churches,

Sometimes the church will be so badly lit that you won’t be able to see some things properly yourself - especially, for example, late afternoon in November when you can’t find the light switch (churchwardens are fiendishly good at hiding them). If you really can’t see the detail of that Norman font or roof boss then take a flash photograph anyway. You may have to switch to manual focus but I almost guarantee you that the flash photograph will “see” what your eye could not.

Some Technical Issues

This site is constructed using Netobjects Fusion Essentials software. This is very easy to use as web programs go and (remarkably) free to download. I don’t write html, the stock “language” of the internet but I compose all the pages in a user-friendly “what you see is what you get” user interface. When I compose a page it always looks perfectly proportioned and laid out. Sadly, however, when the page is seen by the public some of the pictures and captions are sometimes slightly displaced. You see, what I compose in the user interface is translated by FusionWorks into html and sometimes that translation is slightly inaccurate. This is true of most website software, by the way, but on my site which has a very structured layout it is very apparent. So please don’t think I don’t pay proper attention to layout!

Another glitch relates to the menu bar on the left of the page. When I add a new church this menu bar is automatically updated on the homepage (that is, the page you are reading now) but for reasons I don’t understand it is not automatically updated on every other web page. If you want to see the full list, therefore, it is best to return to this page by clicking on the “Great English Churches” button at the top of that menu.

Designing your own Itinerary and the “Simon Jenkins” effect

I doubt that any such book has made the impact of Simon Jenkins’s “England’s Thousand Best Churches”. The title is pretty challenging and I am sure this is deliberate on Simon’s part. We disagree with many of his entries and with perhaps more of his omissions, but his book is never out of our car when we travel. It is wonderfully written and should be the first purchase for anyone wanting to seriously explore our church heritage.

Why don’t we agree with his choices? Well, who would? Few of us agree on anything, much less on 1000 things! We declare our own preference for Romanesque churches. Simon clearly has a real love of church monuments and memorials which we find, with some conspicuous exceptions, somewhat unexciting. It is definitely true, however, that every single entry in his book is for a church worth seeing. Some people, apparently, do a Simon Jenkins “trail” where they visit all of his churches in a given area. That’s great but they will be missing the joy of discovering their own favourites, which is a pity.

If you are designing an itinerary in a particular area, Simon Jenkin’s book should be a starting point. The internet is another important resource, of course. Once you are on your church “trail”, however, you should make a point of picking up the many little leaflets that are produced that show all of the churches of interest within the local area. Many churches have leaflets that describe the half dozen or so in the immediate area. Tourist Information Centres often have these as well as some more expensively-produced (but usually free) leaflets covering a rather wider area. From these you can often uncover the churches that match your own preferences but which do not stir the “professionals”.

Locked Churches

Sadly, all of us occasionally encounter a church that is locked. Insurance companies are often blamed, but it is our understanding (from a vicar!) that in fact insurance companies regard visitors as a deterrent to thieves. Vandalism, however, is a danger to many churches especially in urban locations. Insurance payouts cannot make good such damage so perhaps we should not be over-hasty in our condemnation of those churches that prefer to give limited access to visitors. That said, I think that in too many cases it is simply a case of “it’s our church and we’ll lock it if we want to”. Often the locked churches are in the most respectable of communities amidst prosperous homes. Urban wastelands generally they are not.

Many churches will leave a note of where a key is held, so don’t go away without checking the outside notice boards. Some, I am afraid, don’t even bother with that or, to be fair, perhaps can’t find anyone available to be a keyholder in daylight hours. I understand this, of course, but it would surely be polite and less anger-inducing to put up a note to this effect?

I have come to dread new solid-looking doors with shiny brass locks. Too often they seem to signify “Go away, we don’t want you here”. The churchwardens and parish authorities have an awesomely difficult task to maintain their churches on a shoestring and they want to protect their premises. They should reflect, however, that in denying even controlled access to visitors - and to people needing access for spiritual reasons - they are perhaps the first people to do so in over a thousand years. They have a responsibility, but the churches were built by the people over the centuries for the people.

My advice is to check church websites before you travel. It won’t stop you ever being disappointed but it will help you to plan. In the meantime I have started a “Roll of Dishonour” of those locked churches that do not even bother to list a keyholder.

Ginny Guy from Herefordshire has drawn my attention to a site that actually lists the status of each church (locked, unlocked, key available etc) which is an extraordinarily useful resource, Moreover, it produces league tables of accessibility by county and diocese which lead one to the sad conclusion , that denial of easy access is a matter of policy in some area. Some of the dioceses should be ashamed of themselves. For this indispensable resource visit http://www.digiatlas.org/?page_id=39

Ratings

Simon Jenkins rates all “his” churches from one to five stars. Because people love “ratings” I have taken the liberty of reproducing them on this site. Diana and I discussed doing our own ratings but decided against it. The truth is that is very hard to be consistent over a long period and the last exciting church you saw will generally get too high a rating, thus devaluing all that went before. Also, your ratings will reflect your own preferences and thus be of less use to someone with different tastes.

John Betjeman’s book simply awards a single star to churches he believed were worth going out of your way to see. That seems to me to be of pretty limited use.

So, there are no ratings here. Take it for granted that if a church is shown on this site we think it’s worth a visit unless I make it clear that it’s not. I have little enough time to write about the gems without troubling myself too much with the mundane.

Personal Recommendations

This is dodgy ground given all I have said about “ratings” but everyone has their favourites. So here are mine :

Kilpeck (Herefordshire). Late Norman. One of Britain’s greatest architectural treasures and almost unknown. Combine it with a trip to nearby Garway for its Templar and Hospitaller connections.

Deerhurst (Gloucestershire). Anglo-Saxon. Some of the greatest remaining Anglo-Saxon carvings.

Ludlow and Heath (both Shropshire). Ludlow for its perpendicular magnificence and for its superb misericords; Heath for its contrasting unadorned humbleness. See them on successive days if you can.

Brixworth (Northants) for its sheer age and Anglo-Saxon enormity.

Adderbury and Bloxham (Oxon) for their incomparable c14 frieze carvings. I prefer Adderbury personally. Others (including Simon Jenkins) would disagree but if you visit one you’d be mad not to visit both because they are so close!

Lullington (Somerset) for some delightful Norman carvings and an idyllic village setting.

Stragglethorpe (Lincolnshire) for its humble and serene timelessness. Combine it with the grandeur of Brant Broughton 1.5 miles away to see the extremes of British church architecture

Expect this list to expand as I “write up” more of our visits!

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