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Recent Additions

A Dawdle in Derbyshire (Six Churches)

Hexham Abbey (Northumberland)

Wakerley (Northants) - revised

Bewcastle    (Cumbria)

Romsey Abbey (Hampshire

Heckington (Lincolnshire)

Devizes (Wiltshire)

Colyton (Devon)

Stoke sub Hamdon (Somerset)

The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Church Sculpture

Castle Frome (Herefordshire)

Ottery St Mary (Devon)

A Cumbrian Miscellany

Cumbria is a surprising county for churches. Being a little off the beaten track - apart, of course, from the tourist-clogged Lake District - and being part of the ancient kingdoms of Northumbria and Rheged, we might have expected a historically fascinating set of churches. The reality, sadly, is otherwise. There are a few priceless Anglo-Saxon fragments to be found and a few churches with Norman antecedents but, on the whole, this is not a fertile area for the mediaeval church enthusiast. Victorian churches or Victorian re-buildings abound. Many of them are very pleasant buildings and a cut above some of the Victorian horrors seen elsewhere but the fact is that the “Cumbria” section of any book about churches would have more to say about curiosities than of architectural virtuosity. Diana and I, however, have owned a holiday lodge in the area since 2013 so we are working our way around some of the churches and we have found quite a few things of note in churches that don’t necessarily warrant a page of their own when I have so many more interesting churches elsewhere that I have not yet had time to write about.

So this page - which I expect to add to over time - is a kind of “bucket shop” for those interesting snippets. It is not to denigrate them as places worth visiting: you might find lots to interest you so don’t rule them out!

Rusland: St Paul’s   -   Arthur Ransome’s Grave

Above: Yours truly posing next to the gravestone. It is a very humble monument to such an extraordinary man. Right Above: Interior view looking towards the east end. Near Right: A kneeler in the church. Far Right: A beautiful arrangement of twigs and pine cones left by the grave by some enthusiast.

Once upon a time - as all the best stories start -  when I was 9 years old and a pupil at Heathlands Primary School in Birmingham I was in the little school library when my beloved form teacher, Miss Venables, pointed to a rather fat green book and said “There’s an Arthur Ransome book there, Lionel”. As one of the class’s precocious readers, I was too proud to say “who’s he?”. To impress her, I borrowed the book - “Great Northern” that I thought was about a railway and turned out to be about a bird - and was hooked on the “Swallows & Amazons” books forever. I had some dark years in my childhood and  reading was my main solace. I read the twelve Ransome books again and again - and then read them all out loud to my children when I was a father. Now my grandson is reading them.

If you are a Ransome fan you don’t need me to extol the virtues of the books. I have a full set and so does my daughter and I am amassing another for our Lake District lodge! They may be dated but their charm is ageless and reminds us of a lost age when children were encouraged to explore and take risks.

Arthur is buried in Rusland Church with his wife Evgenia. He led an extraordinary early life, working as a newspaper correspondence during the Russian Revolution. Many believe now that he was a British spy. He met Lenin and Trotsky and met Evgenia when she was Trotsky’s secretary!

The church itself was built in 1745 - the year of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s disastrous rebellion. In 1868 it was virtually rebuilt. Architecturally it has nothing of note but it is a pleasing, harmonious building that blends perfectly into the landscape. To reach it you are going to have to negotiate some quite narrow roads on the peninsular between Windermere and Coniston Water - and even when you get to Rusland it takes a bit of finding. No Ransome fan should miss it, though.

Bolton: All Saints   -   Carving of Two Knights Jousting

Bolton Church dates from C12 and was rebuilt in 1829. It still retains some Norman fragments. Its treasure, however, is a carving over its north door that dates from the reign of Henry II (1154-1189). It is 26x16” and shows two knights fighting on horseback with lances and kite-shaped shields. The Church Guide says that the right hand knight is “inferior” because his lance carries no pennon. Nevertheless, he has delivered a blow to the face of his “better”. To its right there was another slab - now totally obliterated - with the words “Sir Lawrence de Vere gives to the men of Bolton...” but what he gave and why is unrecorded. That the inscription was allowed to decay was crying shame and I guess we only have the the carving itself because it is slightly recessed. England just doesn’t care about this type of heritage, it seems. If it did then perhaps our hard-pressed churches could get grants towards preserving these treasures. Grrrrr!

Left: Norman carvings on the south door capitals. Centre: The nave is C12 with a late Norman chancel beyond it. Right: The Norman chancel with very visible signs of rebuilding.

Long Marton: St Margaret & St James - Two Anglo-Saxon Tympana

Far Left: The blocked Norman north door has similar decorations to the south door. The knight carving is above the doorway. To its right is the obliterated sandstone plaque describing what it all meant!

Centre: This female funeral monument is standing by the south wall of the nave. It is believed to be Norman.

Near Right: A mass dial on the south side of the nave.

Long Marton Church was having a really “off day” when I arrived. Rain was in the air, scaffolding was being applied to the tower and for the life of me I could find no lights inside. The light was so bad in fact that I actually couldn’t find the tympanum that was lurking on the tower side of the west tower arch for quite some time. I’m afraid that the photographs suffered accordingly and I have had to use Photoshop heavily to make the design legible.

The early history of the church is a bit of a mystery. When you arrive you could be forgiven for thinking the church pretty ordinary until you notice the distinctly Norman bell openings and corbels on the tower. That much of the nave is Anglo-Saxon in style, however, is indisputable: both the south door and the west door to the tower are distinctly Saxon in style. So we have here an Anglo-Saxon nave and Norman tower. The tower arch would have been the original external west door which is why it has a tympanum carving on the tower side. The Norman part is believed to have dated from around 1100 but we can’t know when the Saxon part was built. It seems at least a possibility that the nave was in fact built by an Anglo-Saxon mason early in the Norman period.

What is exciting about this church is two tympana. One is on the south door and the other on what used to be the original west door.

Left: The rather unprepossessing exterior from the north east. It would be much nicer, I’m sure, in sunny weather and sans scaffolding. Right: The south door tympanum really is quite exciting. It shows (according to the Church Guide) “a dragon, a winged ox in a boat and a winged shield charged with a cross”. Another source suggests: “The tympanum over the porch door illustrates the story of St  Margaret of Antioch in the 3rd century. Margaret's father  was a pagan priest at Antioch. She became a Christian, and  in revenge the pagans had her swallowed by Satan in the form  of a dragon, which she killed when she burst out of its  side. Later she was beheaded.” That’s all rather wonderful, but the figure on the left looks like a diplodocus with wings on its neck. Was someone capable of carving a credible dragon from his imagination unable to carve

 a credible image of an ox? Where are its horns, for pity’s sake? A very big hmm....

The second tympanum lurks on the west side of the tower arch. Unusually, the main designs are on separate stones separated by mortar so I surmise this has had to be reconstructed at some stage in its history. Left: A cross sits in the bottom left hand corner. To its right is what the Church Guide describes as a “merman”. There is a rather indistinct shape above which the Church Guides suggests is a club.  Right: On the right hand side is a dragon with bird-like wings and (not easily visible in this picture, sadly) an intertwined tail.

Left: Another Long Marton curiosity: a carved lintel stone inside one of the chancel windows. It looks like a sword blade, but the Church Guide suggests it is an obelisk pointing towards a double orb and that this represents sun worship and fertility and that it is from the nearby Roman fort at Braboniacum (Kirkby Lonsdale). Right: The west and south doorways with tympana.

Underneath the main motifs are courses of saltire crosses (left) whilst below this the lintel (above) has a design of triangles or (depending on your point of view!) hexagons. Pevsner is of the view that the tympanum is characteristically Anglo-Saxon (and this is assuredly an Anglo-Saxon doorway) but that the geometric designs may be Norman. It’s a bit of a mystery as to why these two similar but distinctly different designs should be adjacent.  Looking at the whole thing it is rather an odd composition and it is pretty clear that reconstruction has taken place once, if not twice. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Barton: St Michael - Norman Core; Impressive Tower

There are not many Norman churches in the heart of the Lakeland holiday area, but Barton within a short distance of Ullswater is one. The hefty square tower planted in the middle of the church is an immediate giveaway of Norman origins. This was a three-celled church originally, dating from 1150 and built by the Lancastre family who were Barons of Kendal. The nave and tower survive from the Norman period but the original chancel has been replaced in 1330 by a real bruiser that is as long and wide as the nave.

Entering the church, the visitor is immediately confronted by the unusual sight of double arches to the west and east of the tower. It seems that the monks of the Priory of Watre who commissioned the 1330 rebuilding decided to widen the access from nave through to chancel and simply built new, lower and wider archways. I am always sceptical about claims that towers were intended to double as defensive devices, but Barton’s tower really does look that way. The windows were narrow and deeply splayed - nothing unusual about that - but they are also high and tellingly they have stepped bases on the inside such as one sees provided for archers in castles. The military feel is emphasised by the stone vault that is the floor of the ringing chamber, pierced only by crude holes for the bell ropes to pass through.

Left: The double arch from the nave through to the tower base. Centre: The eastern arch of the tower from the chancel. Right: The chancel of 1330.

Left: The rugged stone roof of the tower with crude holes for bell ropes. Right: Another view of the western tower arch. You can see from this picture that the space below the tower is of little functional use to the church. An altar has been placed under the arch, presumably to promote a more intimate feel to the services held here. There are aisles to north and south. The north aisle in this picture dates from 1280 but has much later rectangular windows; that to the south is a little earlier at 1250.

Left: One of the Norman windows in the tower with its odd castle-like stepped base. Originally this would have been an external window but it now looks through to the eastern chapel beyond. Second Left: The same window from the chapel giving a clear perspective of how narrow this window would have been - like an arrow slit, in fact. Near Right: This piscina is an engaging lash-up of a hollowed-out Norman capital with an ogee-shaped high gothic hood. From its size, the capital must have originally been a door capital. Far Right: The c13 octagonal font has a simple but attractive design.

Left: A lovely C16 stone slab in the south chapel. It was probably a sarcophagus lid. Centre: The grave slab of Christofer de Lancastre who died in 1330. Right: The church from the north side. Note the lack of windows in the north side of the chancel.

Irton: St Paul - Anglo-Saxon Cross

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Cumbria is a county we all get to visit eventually because of its Lake District. Yet still much of it is quite neglected while we all pile into the honeypot areas around Keswick, Bowness, Ambleside and the like. Irton is on the eastern side of Cumbria, about halfway between Ravenglass (of miniature steam railway fame) and Wastwater, the Lake District’s most scenically dramatic lake. Irton Church itself is set in a deeply rural landscape

The church, like so many in Cumbria, is Victorian and, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty unprepossessing externally. The interior, however, belies the dismaying first impressions and is very pleasant. The church is rightly proud of its Burne-Jones glass.

Unless you are a parishioner or a genealogist, though, you won’t be here for the church but for the splendid Anglo-Saxon cross in its churchyard. It is ninth century and decorated in a distinctly Celtic fashion with lots of interlace patterns but no beasts or people. In that sense it is much less sophisticated than the other great Cumbrian crosses at Bewcastle, which is a hundred years older but which has royal provenance or at Gosforth only four miles away and which was erected a hundred years later than at Ireton.

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The cross has no creatures or biblical scenes. It has a wealth of what we are wont to call “Celtic” interlaced work. We don’t know when in the ninth century it was erected but it is a fair assumption that there would have been no Scandinavian influences here and Cumbria was a stronghold of the Celtic brand of Christianity imported from Ireland. Left: The west face. It has a blank area two thirds of the way down. It is believed that this had a runic inscription and a moulding taken in 1863 showed the words “Gebdaeth Forae...” or Pray for....”. A plaster cast of 1883 made for and on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum shows no sign of this so perhaps the intervening years had not been kind. Second Left: The south face showing vine scroll work containing grapes. Bewcastle has a similar course fo vine scrolling but there it is “inhabited” by birds. Second Right and Far Right: Interlace work on the west face.

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Left and Right: Patterns from the east face.

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Left and Centre: Vine scrolling is on both the north and south faces. From these pictures you get some idea of how much the red sandstone is affected by weathering and lichen growth. Right: The cross head on the west side. It has a central roundel and is surrounded by more interlace work. The east side is similar but more heavily weathered.

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Left: The interior looking west. With its lovely open timber roof this is a very attractive church that belies its gruesome exterior. Right: The east end.

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Left: Decorated edge of the cross head. Right: This is the view from the churchyard. There can’t be many better in England.