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Day 112, Part 1: We Continue!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I'm still always surprised to wander up to small parish churches virtually any old time and find the door unlocked. Most of them have a discreet sign welcoming visitors and asking to 'Please Close the Door Behind You.' That's not for any kind of security, but to keep straying animals and birds from wandering in. Because so many of these old churches had their floors lowered at some point (changing from pounded earth to stone? or more likely perhaps for the installation of subfloor vents for heating, which was often done during the Victorian era) there's also sometimes a sign posted to 'Mind Your Step,' there being a step or two down immediately upon entering the door. And so it was with St Mary's in Great Budworth.

Last year when we went to Tutbury in search of ancestors' records, Himself blithely walked into the parish church - lovely old stone building, been in use about a thousand years - and promptly tried to lay himself out on the floor, face first. He totally missed the sign, the step, and nearly fell full-length. The verger (the church employee I would've called 'sexton' - which I was at one stage in my checkered career) was already there to meet us (we'd set up an appointment to see the old books) and she managed to break his fall. She looked fairly shaken, though.

Nonetheless, in Budworth, we both heeded the warning, lol.

I had left my bag in the car, which turned out to be a mistake. I was wearing my sunglasses (don't go out without eye protection: just as important as SPF lotions - one of Kasey's Rules) so had left my 'real' glasses in the car. Bummer. Himself offered to go get, but even with his long strides it was just a tad more distance than I was willing to ask of him, and I surely was too lazy (it is to laff) to go get for myself, so the church interior looked (ahem) surprisingly dim. Ha ha.

In truth, though, the few pictures I took of the interior didn't come out all that well. I always try both with and without flash (oh, the genius of digital cameras and virtually unlimited memory chips!) and even so the pictures don't really do it justice. Suffice it to say that inside St Mary's has columns, traditional - in this case, Victorian-in-style - pews, and relatively few (and modern, at that) stained glass windows.

I did get a picture that included the choir loft, which was added I think in the 1600s thanks to a bequest from a wealthy local parishioner.

Below the loft, and just inside the 'real' main doors (it's a side door that tends to be unlocked; they do it the same way at Westminster Abbey and York Minster and so on, for what that's worth) is the baptismal font. You can just about make it out in the previous photo, but here's a better shot.

It dates back to the 14th century. During Cromwell's Reign of Terror (which some still see it as) the old church fittings that had survived Henry VIII's Reformation - and there were few enough of those that did survive - were destroyed by the Puritans, including many medieval works of art. A font such as this one would have been smashed; many were, and thus lost to us. The parishioners of Great Budworth treasured the font in which so many of their ancestors had been baptized, so they hid it from Cromwell's minions, burying it deep beneath the church floor. Of course there was no record of it, and it was more or less forgotten. During the late 19th century, when they were lowering the floor they found the old stone font. It was carefully cleaned and restored to a place of honor - where it is today.

When you go into some of these small, out-of-the way places you often find little things that tell you a lot about the history of the time and the people. St Mary's is no different from some of the grand cathedrals, in that regard. Here, in a small side chapel, they have some of the original pews.

I hope this picture is clear enough to see some of the details. At the front, to the left in the picture, is a low altar rail. Immediately behind it (2nd from the left) is a 'pew' from as early as the 1510s! Notice it's a very stark, bare, narrow bench - no back, though it has 'ends' decorated with heavily carved fleur-de-lis. (The one farthest right in this photo is another such pew / bench, and wood beetles have chewed mightily into this fleur-de-lis.) Between the two benches, 3rd from the left, is a more modern pew. It actually has a rail across the back that you could rest against. I say 'modern' - it's probably from the first half of the 18th century.

In the very back of this small side chapel is a set of the oldest misericords in Cheshire; they may date from the early-to-mid 1200s. Misericord is from the Latin for 'mercy.' These 'mercy seats' were used in abbeys and monastery chapels for monks, particularly for older or infirm ones, during the many long services. Misericords have very tiny (doubt my backside would fit, even now!) narrow 'shelves' that you can half-sit, half-lean on to take a break from standing. Unlike the big, grand cathedrals - Chester is the closest for us, though it's small as cathedrals go, but any of the well-known ones usually still have some misericords in the choirs, or quires - it's unusual to find these in relatively small, obscure churches. Quires were originally for clergy, and obviously small churches might've had a priest or two, whereas abbeys would have a sizable population of monks, priests, perhaps even a bishop and so on. Common people - the congregation of parishioners - always stood.* If you've ever seen the production of Pillars of the Earth, they've got it right: there are no benches, pews, or chairs in the congregation's areas.

*What with the Royal Wedding next Friday (!) if you get a chance check out a clip in the abbey interior: you'll see the guests are sitting in chairs, not pews. The medieval cathedrals I've been in have no fixed or permanent seating, only rows of chairs that can be removed or reconfigured when needed.

Unlike elaborate fonts or stained glass windows, misericords often weren't destroyed even if they were carved or decorated. If they disappeared, it's because they were thrown out during times of 'modernizing.' The St Mary's misericords (dunno if these are the complete set, or if they're just the few that survived) are only here because some bright spark retrieved them from the rubbish heap and used them in a school for a while - perhaps the Tudor school here in the graveyard, now that I think on it.

Short digression there, but perhaps it conveys the idea of how unusual it is to find primitive pews and ancient misericords in a rural, off-the-beaten-track village.

I was raised Methodist but I have an oblique interest in other religions, and the Church of England especially since it ties in so closely to British history and to my fascination with the Tudor dynasty. Long-winded way of saying when I have an opportunity to meander around C of E churches, of any size, I will do. There are often vaults set into the floor, so there are sometimes a lot of engraved stones or even brass-inlaid plaques. Sometimes a medieval stained glass window or two survives. I always go looking for what is, to me, the unusual, the different, the I've-not-seen-THAT-before kind of thing. Well, St Mary's had something I've often read of, but never seen: a dead cart!

Not a dead cart in the Black Death kind of way, exactly. This isn't intended for a pile of uncoffined bodies. To give it its proper name (according to the sign) it's the church 'bier.' When I was a church sexton, the bier we had - and we didn't actually call it that - looked not unlike the collapsible gurneys that fit into the back of an ambulance. It was a metal frame, with small-ish tires. There was a thin pad over metal 'slats,' and no raised edges. We had a few drapes (a couple of light colors and of course white) to go over it, so it looked 'skirted' during funerals, hiding the not-very-attractive metalwork.

St Mary's bier dates from the early-to-mid nineteenth century, so if you think in terms of 1830 - 1840 it's probably close enough. I don't think they'll show up very well, but there are fixed dowels alternating with rollers.

I wish I'd thought to move the chair (!) but I didn't. The cart itself seemed kind of macabre somehow, and I wasn't keen on touching it or even getting all that close, lol. I admit, working at funerals was my least-liked duty when I was a sexton. (Fortunately, unlike the old days, as sexton I didn't have to serve as gravedigger, but I did have to ring the tolling bell occasionally. Yes, the church I attended had one, and it was in a bat-infested bell-tower. Unlike the large bell we rang on Sundays, this one could only be reached by climbing up into the bell-tower itself one level, to get to the rope. Ugh. I surely didn't like that, I'll tell you, but it had more to do with the bats than with dislike of the mournful association.)

While I didn't want to touch the cart, Himself had no such compunction. (Never does.) But I'm glad he didn't mind, because he showed me something I hadn't seen: each 'straight' dowel was hinged, and had a piece attached to it that flipped down. When a coffin is going to be put onto the bier, these hinged pieces are flipped up. They raise the coffin about an inch above the rollers, keeping it stable. After the service, when the pallbearers are ready to take the coffin out, they slide it toward the end and these small flipped pieces fall back down into place, putting the coffin directly onto the rollers, making it easy to slide it off. Pretty clever.

At any rate, a second pic of the dead cart (I can't help it, that's what it is now in my mind, lol) taken from the same website as the autumn school picture yesterday. There's too much 'stuff' in the background (unlike the charm of the plastic chair in my photo) but the lighting is better and it's not as, ah, blurred as mine. Antishake isn't always adequate when I'm behind the lens.

Back outside, I took another couple of pictures across the graveyard, from the church side door.

We came out the lych gate, at the front of the church. Unlike the lych gates to many churches, this one is quite substantial, with a heavy sandstone base.

According to 'Britain Express' a lych gate is:

...a covered gate, usually at the entrance to a churchyard. The term lych evolved from the Saxon word for corpse, and the lych gate was traditionally a place where corpse bearers carried the body of a deceased person and laid it on a communal bier. The priest would then carry out the first part of a burial ceremony under the shelter of the lych gate roof. Lych gates are usually of wood, and thus subject to decay. For that reason many are fairly modern reconstructions of much older timber covered gateways. They are traditionally roofed with wooden or clay tiles, or thatch.

We learn something new every day, don't we...

I've also read that in the medieval ages, the priest would bless, or actually marry, a couple in the lych gate (just as the description above of 'the first part of a ... ceremony'), then everyone would go into the church proper for a wedding mass. Lymm - the village where I live - has a lych gate into the parish church. It's not as highly carved as the one in GB. Most of them are much simpler, as the next photo shows.

I've seen the occasional thatched lych gate, and quite a few of them have benches - fixed or removable - inside. The St Mary's lych gate has brass plaques - 'tablets' - on the walls on either side with names of those who served or in memoriam in both the World Wars. In WWI, there were four local women who served! Not to sound sexist or anything, but I would guess as nurses, as that was about the only option for women who wanted to enlist.

I think you can just about make out some of the plaques on the wall in the next picture.

My fault, really. When Himself said 'Bring your camera' I said 'Then bring yours too, because you know how that goes - you're always asking to use mine!' Since he had his own camera with him, of course he would take snapshots of the wife, lol. Like handing James Bond a loaded gun.

Immediately to the right of the lych gate, just outside the sacred ground of the churchyard, is the other public necessity. No, not that necessity. This is the punishment area.

We have a set of those in Lymm too. Ours is very similar, made for two people at a time, but the 'rack' can be moved up or down, so I'm guessing it can be used to restrain people either by their hands or by their feet. There seems to be a slot in the posts on this one in GB, but even at the topmost point, someone would have to stoop a lot to have their hands restrained - maybe that was part of the punishment? Nearly all the villages have stocks of some kind as they didn't have jails - jails were the provenance of the counties, so smaller places took care of minor infractions themselves, and sent major felons to their county sheriff, as in Sheriff of Nottingham.

Leaving the lych gate we then turned up the street opposite, which is basically the main road into the village these days. So I'll take you along with me in the next blog. It occurs to me that, although I've mentioned Lymm and some of its features from time to time, mebbe I should do a walking tour of my own 'home village.' I used to do that a couple times a year, just to see what was changing, check out flowers in bloom, run into a few neighbors, and so forth. I haven't really done that recently, what with the PF and the knee, but... one of these days I'll take you on a tour of Lymm.

* * *

Today is Lilibet's 85th birthday. She looks pretty spry for an octogenarian, if you ask me. I think they said Prince Phillip will be turning 90 in June. Geez, and I thought they were old when I was a kid--!
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Another fascinating blog---look forward to the one on Lymme, too.
    3475 days ago
    Wow another interest in common... I do my family tree too. Go in fits and starts but it's a great joy to me.
    3480 days ago
    Great photos! This was so interesting. I, too, loved seeing the photo of you looking wonderful and Himself. :) Keep up the good work!
    3480 days ago
    I gotta second Lynda's comment... Look at YOU! And surrounded by such a rich heritage... I love it!
    3481 days ago
    Wow !--That was interesting--so beautiful--so old!!! And Kasey--You look so good!! You have lost a lot of weight!--Lynda emoticon
    3481 days ago
  • MJK0430
    Fascinating! Thanks for the tour, I love old churches.
    3481 days ago
    I can see that when/if I ever come see you I had better have GOOD Walking shoes!! Your Pictures and History Lessons are awesome, but to actually be able to walk through these places and ask you questions.............. emoticon
    I love seeing pictures of You and Himself!! You both look so good!!
    3481 days ago
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