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Cowlam (Yorkshire)

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Cowlam

Dedication : St Mary   Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                               Principal Features : Norman Font; “Sykes Church”

Cowlam Church is included on this site for one reason only: along with North Grimston, Langtoft and Kirkburn, it has a Norman font of the East Riding Group.

It has to be said, though, that this is almost the ultimate “farmyard church”: you have to drive into the farmyard to reach it! Farmyard churches tend to have very old fabric, often of Norman origin because not much money got spent on them. Cowlam is the exception. It is one of the so-called “Sykes Churches” that were built or restored by Sir Tatton Sykes (1772-1863) and his son of the same name (1826-1913) both Baronets of Sledmere. Cowlam was rebuilt in 1852 to plans supplied by Mary Sykes, Tatton’s daughter. Pevsner notes tersely that it was “a sensible job”.

Today Cowlan comprises, to quote Wikipaedia, “six farms, the Church, the Rectory, three cottages, four houses, a bungalow and a bus shelter”! The village suffered grievously during the Black Death of 1348-50. The church is horribly difficult to find so do read my footnote!

This church was rebuilt: there is nothing here to interest anyone except as an example of the Gothic Revival. I agree with Pevsner, however. This is a smart little church that should offend nobody’s sensibilities.

We know almost nothing of the original church but the font obviously indicates

that it was Norman and it was mentioned in Domesday Book. In 1713 it consisted only of a chancel and even that was to be reduced in size due to depopulation. Quite what it was that the Sykes family restored nobody seems to know but it was probably tiny and nearly derelict since the parish would have had no funds to maintain it. Nor is it obvious why the Sykes family would have bothered to restore and rebuild it. We should be very grateful for their work, though, because the font that it houses is a treasure and nobody in their right mind would want to see it in a museum setting or, worse, sitting in someone’s garden as a flower pot . And if you don’t believe that could happen then read my footnote below about the Norman font of Old Malton Priory.

The elaborately decorated font itself, like lots of the Norman ones around here, has some unusual subject matter. There is a detailed study of the Temptation of Adam and Eve. There’s nothing unusual about that. But there are also Old Testament scenes of Jacob and Esau and of the Massacre of the Innocents and they are very unusual themes indeed. We also see the Magi and, possibly, St Mary to whom the church is dedicated.

The carving is not of the finest, but nor is it ultra-naive such as one sees at North Grimston. And it’s a lot of fun!

Left: The porch sports two sets of arms of the Sykes family. Right: The view to the west. One is struck by the tall proportions of the church. The font is almost hidden in this picture near the south door to the left.

Left: The font. Right: On this panel Jacob and Esau are embracing after their reconciliation. They have the most extraordinarily shaped heads!

Left: St Mary - possibly. Centre: Part of the Adam and Eve scene. The sculptor had put considerable effort into this composition. Note particularly the splendid serpent with forbidden fruit in his mouth being proffered to Eve who is covering her genitals with her hand. Two little circles depict her breasts. The tree is stylised and actually quite inventive too. The carver, not to put too fine a point on it, was bedevilled by his lousy depictions of the human form! Right: Adam, his ribs clearly visible, is a stolid figure seemingly admiring the tree and, like Eve, using one had to preserve his modesty.

Left: King Herod on a saltire-shaped throne orders the Roman soldier (his gladius already drawn to avoid any doubt!) to his left to set about massacring the babies. Centre: Two of the Magi bearing their gifts. Note the bizarre way in which the head of the left-hand figure seems to have the head hanging from the neck. He wears a crown wille the central figure has a kind of conical hat. For the life of me, I can’t make out who is carrying gold, who is carrying myrrh and who is carrying frankincense, I’m sure Mary could have done without the myrrh! Right: Another of the be-crowned magi hands his gift to the baby Jesus.

Left: The representation of Jesus is a bit of a hoot really. He’s one big baby, already capable of sitting down and supporting his own head and sporting a natty line in crowns! One could be forgiven for thinking this was his fifth birthday party. Mary holds a lily in her hand behind Christ’s back. Centre; A close up of another of the Magi. Right: A bishop, crozier in one hand and his other hand raised in benediction.

Left: The complete Fall scene. Right: A Magus, Jesus and Mary.

The church from the south west. Note the farm buildings to the left.

Footnote 1 - The Sykes Churches

The two Sir Tattons Sykes’s - pere et fils - were the 4th and 5th Baronets of Sledmere. Sledmere is just three miles from Cowlam. Between them they restored or rebuilt eighteen churches in the area between 1856 and 1913. It is estimated that they spent close to £15m in today’s terms. The architects they used were amongst the most famous in their field including G.E.Street, Temple Moore and John Loughborough Pearson. The son was much the more prolific of the two and his aim was to create “Centres of Christian Art and Worship”. This is as much as anyone seems to know of their motivation althohg, of course, philanthropy by the rich was not unusual in the Victorian era. Sledmere House can still be visited and a magnificent place it seems to be too. http://www.sledmerehouse.com/

Today the churches are promoted via leaflets as the “Sykes Churches Trail”.

Footnote 2 - Locating Cowlam Church

Cowlam is a bit of a nightmare to find. It’s not on any of our road maps. From Malton take the B1248. Stop en route and visit the church at North Grimston with its own super Norman font. From there take the B1253, still heading east. About 14 miles out of Malton you will actually see a sign announcing Cowlam and then a crossroads - you will wonder where the more or less non-existent village is and which way to go! Take a right at the crossroads towards Driffield. After a couple of hundred metres you will see in quite quick succession two farm entrances on your left. If you turn into the second of these you will quickly see the church in front of you. It’s a working farm so take things carefully! The church, hardly surprisingly, is kept locked but you will see instructions where to get the key at a house very close by. The people were out when we called but, the farm itself also has a key. So too does Church Farm, the first of the two you meet. on this road. Everyone is very helpful and friendly. You should have no trouble getting a key once you have found the church.